One of the reasons many Americans like suburbs is the local government and local control over land, local organizations, and how local taxes are used. National debates are now playing out in one such local form of government: school boards.
Local school boards around the country are increasingly becoming cauldrons of anger and political division, boiling with disputes over such issues as COVID-19 mask rules, the treatment of transgender students and how to teach the history of racism and slavery in America.
Meetings that were once orderly, even boring, have turned ugly. School board elections that were once uncontested have drawn slates of candidates galvanized by one issue or another…
School boards are typically composed of former educators and parents whose job, at least until recently, mostly consisted of ironing out budgets, discussing the lunch menu or hiring superintendents.
But online meetings during the pandemic made it easier for parents to tune in. And the crisis gave new gravity to school board decisions. Parents worried their children were falling behind because of remote learning or clashed over how serious the health risks were.
This preference for local input and control is not just limited to suburbs: from the beginning, Americans have generally liked the idea of decentralized power. In the realm of education, there is input from the federal government, state government, and local bodies and districts. Local citizens retain some ability to provide their opinion on local education and to serve on local governments that control budgets and other aspects of local education.
Because of this system, people can work through different channels to address issues they are concerned about. Perhaps they can pressure the national Department of Education. They might seek to influence state boards. They can run for local boards and show up at meetings to voice their opinions. All could be useful in terms of promoting particular educational paths or policies. At the same time, I would guess there is an immediate satisfaction at showing up at local meetings, seeing real people in your community that shape schools, and advocating for change. These are not distant bureaucrats grinding out policy decisions; these are local elected residents who meet at regular times.
In the current moment, decisions made by local school boards help to differentiate different communities from each other. One district might be open to teaching something where another says no. Money may be allocated one way in a particular community while it is not a budget line in another. Board members may claim to represent one part of a community and not others. Local schools are not just about education; they symbolize local priorities and concerns. They help address or reinforce racial, ethnic, class, and gender boundaries in and across communities. Schools are both a part of the status of a community and contribute to that status.
In this article, it sounds like many of the school board battles are proxy fights over national issues. Whether this serves individual communities and their residents well remains to be seen.