Let’s get this out of the way. Mark Twain’s famous joke: “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”
Hardy, har, har.
The rejoinder of this weekly column is “how are the children,” and when it comes to education, school boards are critically important. To function as they should requires a steady flow of good citizens to populate them.
I know. You think I’m crazy. What a thankless job—to be the focus of public heat for damn near any decision made. Who needs that stress in their life?
Still, crazy or not, I know some of you are considering it. Often after speeches or community meetings, people approach me with gentle questions about something I’ve said, but the real purpose is to hesitantly ask for advice about a potential school board run.
Honestly, it fills my heart. Pushing smart, able, community members to run is something of a ministry for me. As much as we bemoan a lack of parent involvement as an obstacle to student success, we shouldn’t forget involvement in the governance of schools.
The typical American school board member is a White male with advanced degrees and a six-figure income. Nearly two-thirds of school board members do not have children in schools, and a whopping 40% are retired. One study of Ohio’s school boards notes that members are “more likely to come from wealthier, Whiter and better-educated neighborhoods” that also happen to be Republican.
Public education should be a democratic endeavor, one where we all have an equal investment. Just as we increase efforts to diversify the teaching profession, the governance of our schools should be a place you expect to see representatives of all children, families and communities.
That’s why I encourage folks to run. I often even promise that if you run for your school board, let me know when you announce your campaign and I will be the first one to write you a personal check. It’s not that I’m looking to back just any political candidate, but I think anyone courageous enough to volunteer for one of the most important public service roles in America is of high value to all of us in the child-saving movement.
Thirteen years ago I did it. As a daily newspaper reader, I saw story after story about the chaos in our school district, on its board, and in its superintendent’s office. The result of poor leadership: Kids were suffering academically and economically.
I asked myself what I could do. Should I run for the school board? I had no background in education. I had no qualifying credentials. Who was I to do anything in education?
My short story is I ran, I won, and I served.
Hopefully, you will do the same, and, if you do, take a few pieces of imperfect advice from me.
You need people
My first mistake was to race to the top: I went to the mayor to ask for his endorsement. He was kind, but said, “You need to get some people around you and come back when you have support.” Good advice, but incomplete. You don’t just need to get people around you, you need to get the right people—those who are active in political campaigns—to open doors for you, and to help you network.
The group I found most informative was current or past board members who rapidly brought me up to speed and made introductions to important organizers.
The process of running for the school board is different from place to place. The information about how to do it ranges from useful at best to inaccurate at worst. Look for your state’s school board association or the National School Boards Association for resources.
Also, you have to know what a school board member does, and what qualities make you good for the role.
Earn your opportunity to represent
Find (or make) opportunities to talk to parents and students about their experiences in the schools. Learn from them. Get insight into what matters most to them. And realize that your goal will be to represent them as faithfully as possible.
Define a clear vision for a better world
For the love of all sacred things, have a vision for what good schools could be.
When I ran I narrowed down my mission statement to this: “safe, orderly, and academically rigorous schools for all.” It was my way of being focused and not scattered all over the map responding to every issue that would be raised. Once I won a seat, a wise advisor told me to focus on only a few things. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Focus, focus, focus.
Be the real you
I ran as an evangelical Christian libertarian—in a city where that profile would lose a race for dog catcher. Folks tried to get me to renounce my views. I moderated on some issues but refused on others. Don’t feel the pressure to be something that you’re not. Don’t try to be an expert on all things, but be committed to speaking sincerely about the issues you know matter most. For me, that was parent power and alternative school models.
Finally, please realize that if you share my urgent question of “how are the children,” there is no better place than a school board to have the power to shape the answer.
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