California School News — November 2017
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All School Politics Are Local
CSBA President Susan Henry

When I sat down to read the fall issue of California Schools magazine, I was particularly struck by an article titled “Deep Pockets: Spending on School Board Races Goes National.” The piece detailed the staggering investment in school board elections from contributors outside of the district as school board elections become high-stakes political races for those who wish to set the education agenda.

As Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, described it, “School board races are no longer just kitchen table campaigns.” The escalation of school board races from community based expressions of democracy to proxy fights for charter supporters, labor unions and other interests reflects the ongoing transformation of public schools. More than ever, policy and politics are intertwined. This reality requires that we adjust our perspective as school board members and adopt a strategy that plays at the kitchen table and at the board room table.

The challenge we face as school board members is this: on one front, we work to represent the best interests of local communities through our policy decisions; on the other, we contend with state and national forces who want to dictate the future of public schools.

Our mission states that “We define and drive the public education policy agenda through advocacy, training and member services. Strong local boards of education are essential to ensure a high-quality education for every student in every community.” Nothing less than the very mission of the organization, our raison d’être, is at stake. Preserving the essential role of democratically elected school boards is a top priority for CSBA. Especially in a state as large, sprawling and diverse as California, the leaders closest to their constituents are best positioned to meet the needs of their local communities.

What is authentically local, however, is becoming more difficult to define. In her study of the increasing role of money in school board races, Jacobsen coins the term “new localism” to refer to the external investment of money in traditionally community-run races. She further explains that “National reformers recognized that local boards are important to the policy implementation process — local does matter.” While the new reality can be unsettling, we can take heart from the knowledge that local does matter. If our work weren’t so critically important to students, to communities and to our collective future, there wouldn’t be such a concerted effort to undermine our authority.

In 2017, CSBA not only pushed back against efforts to erode local control, we achieved key victories in this area. The passage of SB 751 — the reserve cap bill — restored districts’ ability to prepare for a rainy day, our legislative efforts prevented the passage of a bill mandating school start times at the state level, and our legal and advocacy work saved districts billions of dollars by protecting Proposition 98 payments and thwarting bills carrying costly mandates.

Much more work remains to preserve local control and give schools the resources needed to provide a high-quality education to every one of California’s 6.2 million public school students. We’ve laid the foundation for this campaign by taking a leadership role on efforts to resolve the pension crisis and the underlying issue of full and fair school funding. Bigger and better developments on this front are just around the corner. As 2017 and my presidency draw to a close, I want to thank you for the indispensable part you’ve played in this work. In 2018 and beyond, I will continue to fight beside you to ensure that all of our public school students graduate prepared for success in college, career and civic life.