Whether you’re talking about raising student achievement, spending local tax dollars wisely, or ensuring that children are educated with a nod to community values, the importance of local school control is all too clear.
But it wouldn’t hurt school board members to speak out more forcefully about this reality.
Those were some of the messages delivered during NSBA’s recent National Affiliate webinar, “We are here to stay! … A discussion about school boards and the importance of local control.”
One of the big advantages of local control—through the local school board—is that it ensures that decisions about educating children are made as close to the community as possible, said co-presenter Anne Byrne, who serves as president of the Nanuet Union Free School District and is a member of NSBA’s Board of Directors.
Local control ensures that the community has a say in how local tax dollars are spent, how much emphasis is put on 21st century skills versus music and drama, and whether graduation requirements will go beyond state minimum requirements, she added.
Local decision-making also means more accountability. Unlike state and federal policymakers who legislate mandates from afar, Byrne said, local school board members “are very accessible … you’re questioned at school events, on the ball field, in your houses of worship, and definitely in the supermarket … Everyone knows your telephone number, and they know where you live. You can’t get more accessible than that.”
It’s also important to remember that local school boards are unique in that their mission is solely devoted to student learning, Byrne added. State legislators, municipal mayors, federal officials, and charter school entrepreneurs can seek a greater stake in education decision-making, but school boards “are unique because education is not just a line item in the budget. It is the only item. We are unique in that we are single-minded and single-focused . . . we are the voice of public education.”
That voice is particularly important when it comes to raising student academic achievement, she said. Using data for decision-making, setting high academic goals and standards, and holding educators accountable are among the many ways that school boards can prove a powerful force in improving a school district’s success in teaching children.
Evidence of that is found in the Iowa Association of School Boards’ Lighthouse Study, which “shows very clearly that not only do school boards matter, but they are integral to student achievement,” Byrne said. “School boards do make a difference.”
For all of that, criticism of local school boards continue, and over the years, state and federal mandates increasingly have eroded the authority of local officials to make decisions on behalf of their schools. To slow that trend, Byrne said, school board members must become more advocacy-minded.
“Advocacy is one of the most powerful tools we have as school board members because we are elected officials—elected by the same people who elected all of our other public officials,” she said. “And we should use that power.”
The problem, of course, is that school boards don’t speak out enough, she said. But there is “strength in numbers,” so local school boards must reach out to their state school boards associations and get more involved. “You must get involved. You must advocate. You must be on the front lines. That is the only way to stop the erosion of local control.”
A school board’s communications effort also must reach down into the local community, suggested webinar co-presenter Steve Lamb, a leadership services specialist with the Oregon School Boards Association. It’s important, he said, that school boards are very clear about what they’re trying to achieve—and about their progress toward that achievement.
School boards also must speak out to their communities about the importance of protecting local control, Byrne added. School boards must “get the message out to the public that it is important to keep things local.” School boards “will be a thing of the past if we don’t get our message out.”
That’s a daunting task, but Byrne said help is available.
“Your state association is the best place to start,” she said. “They are well-versed in just about any topic.” The NSBA annual conference, along with research available at NSBA’s Center for Public Education, also are places to turn for good information.
But use that information, she said. Get out there and tell the world what it needs to hear. “We all know that communications is key to ensuring that the importance of local control is understood by all parties: the local community, state stakeholders, elected federal officials. Communicate, communicate, communicate, and communicate some more.”
An archive of this webinar and related resources are available at: http://www.nsba.org/Services/NationalAffiliates/Webinar-Archive.