“Pick up any city newspaper and you will read it. Listen to any major talk radio station and you will hear it. Attend any school board meeting and you will live it: the telltale signs of a national tug-of-war over the selection of curriculum and the delivery of instruction. The key players are public school parents and educators. The key issues are who will control what is taught and how it is taught.”
While this quote no doubt resonates with your experience with the public schools circa 2023, you might be surprised to learn that this frustrating portrayal is from an article I wrote for the American School Board Journal in 2000. “What Do Parents Want?” goes on to frame the seminal challenge still facing our public schools today: “Can public schools and teachers retain an appropriate level of professional autonomy in a confrontational, in-your-face-world?”
My answer – 23 years after framing the question in “What Do Parents Want?” – is a resounding maybe!
Liberty, Bonds, and Battlefields
While “What Do Parents Want? lamented significant threats impacting public schools more than two decades ago, there is no doubt these same forces represent the landmines of today’s divisive school politics. Fueled by the power of social media, these barriers to success are more impactful and explosive than what I experienced as a public school superintendent in 2000. These challenges are also charged by the hot button power of a new vocabulary omnipresent in the media and on the Internet: CRT, perceived woke issues, and LGBTQIA+ to name three. While these issues are increasingly spurred to a gallop through their nexus with partisan politics at the national level, the battlefields have shifted to local school boardrooms.
This reality is represented in the references to liberty and bonds in the title of this article, foreshadowing two contemporary approaches public school critics have harnessed to galvanize their advocacy at the local level.
“Bonds for the Win” (bondsforthewin.com) represents one such organization that aligns with partisan politics at the national level but focuses its advocacy locally. Bonds for the Win targets the surety bonds of their local public officials, required in some states for school board members or superintendents. The organization claims school officials have violated the law or their oaths of office and seek to hold the surety bond holders financially liable for their actions.
The impetus for Bonds for the Win was largely driven by families who opposed mask mandates during the pandemic, which the organization claimed was outside the power of school boards and therefore a violation of their oath of office. A quote from their website states, “It’s a daunting and overwhelming task to take on public officials in an attempt to open their eyes. But the fact is, they are BREAKING THE LAW with their actions and it is impacting YOUR CHILDREN!” The Bonds for the Win website also provides step-by-step guidance and tutorials on how to file a legal claim. One of the unfortunate realities for school officials is that when a surety bond action is filed properly – even when the veracity of the claim is likely without merit – meeting legal requirements to respond appropriately still requires an investment of time and money by the school district and its public officials.
A more recent example of public school critics organizing to challenge school board members and superintendents is manifested in the “Moms for Liberty” (momsforliberty.org) movement. A July 2, 2023, Associated Press headline, frames up one front of this battle: “Moms for Liberty’s focus on school races nationwide sets up political clash with teachers unions.” According to its website, “Moms for Liberty is dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Similar to Bonds for the Win, opposition to mask mandates is highlighted on their website, although curriculum-based challenges (e.g., CRT, gender issues and perceived woke issues) are currently more central to their advocacy. Similar to Bonds for the Win, Moms for Liberty is fueled by partisan politics at the national level but channels the organization’s resources into local politics. The website states, “We activate liberty-minded leaders to serve in elected positions.”
Bonds for the Win and Moms for Liberty are just two examples of how parents and other stakeholders are organizing, raising money, and challenging local school boards, administrators, and staff. What they have in common is close alignment with partisan political agendas at the national level, but strategies and advocacy aimed at local governance – in this context school board elections. Both also gain significant momentum through effective use of the Internet and social media.
One consequence of these broad and entrenched controversies is increasingly contentious school board elections. According to Ballotpedia, the number of contested school board elections has increased nearly 24% from 2018 – 2022. There is also an increase in slates of school board members – linked by common politics or desired reforms – running in school board elections as a bloc hoping to gain immediate quorums to control school board policy decisions. A related consequence is heightened stress for school leaders and school boards. A 2023 RAND Corporation (rand.org) survey found that “…the intrusion of political issues and opinions” as the number one job stressor for superintendents.
What to Do?
It is critical that school leaders find a pathway through this turbulence that balances the legitimate perspectives of families and community members with the need to effectively govern and respect the professional autonomy of those charged with delivering public education. Given the unprecedented and divisive challenges facing public schools today – and the likelihood that conditions will get worse before they get better – I offer two fundamental strategies designed to build that pathway in these turbulent times. Both strategies – a relentless and intense focus on core academic skills and a robust commitment to improved decision-making – are largely within the control of public schools.
In the opening paragraph, the “What Do Parents Want?” article referenced a core finding in a report published by Public Agenda (publicagenda.org) stressing that public schools must put first things first. In this context, the report asserts that the first things families want are safety, order, and mastery of basic skills. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) amplified this core challenge in 2023 stating, “U.S. students are struggling across the board. Educators, policymakers, and families need to work together urgently and decisively to address this generation’s learning needs.” Note the compelling language in NAEP’s charge: urgently and decisively. This crisis is reinforced in a July 2023 report by NWEA (www.nwea.org) stating, “…most students would now need, on average, an additional 4.5 months of mathematics instruction and 4.1 months of reading instruction to recover in these two subjects. Both reports go on to suggest that significant academic decline – most concerning in reading and mathematics – was exasperated, but not born by the pandemic. Andrew Ho, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, summed up these sobering data saying, “It’s a generation’s worth of progress lost.”
Faced with ongoing culture wars and challenges to professional autonomy, committing to putting first things first has important implications for school board policies, how money is spent, school board agendas, purpose and focus of advisory committees, content of school district websites and newsletters, collaboration with teachers, and what school leaders talk about in public meetings. Consistent with the Public Agenda, NAEP, and NWEA call to arms, it must be abundantly clear to everyone – including your harshest critics – that achieving high levels of academic achievement in basic skills (i.e., reading and mathematics) is Job 1…for every student…every day…in every classroom. And the actions of the school board and staff in this steadfast focus must align with their words. (Note: This commitment is not intended to imply that other academic subjects are unimportant.)
A second fundamental strategy focuses on doing a better job – no matter how well the school district believes it has done historically – to improve stakeholder engagement and ultimately the quality of the decisions made. This commitment to better decision-making – both in terms of process and outcome – complements the laser focus on reading and mathematics achievement, effectively adding another bulwark to a public school’s foundation for a better future. In order to effectively harness this strategy, school leaders need to think about decision-making as a research-based process rather than a series of unrelated actions.
One excellent model can be found in the book, Homerun Leadership, by Dr. Dave Webb. (homerunleadership.com) His research-based framework outlines what Webb characterizes as the IROD (information, reactions, options, decision) process. “As a leader, moving your team from point A to point B can feel overwhelming,” Webb states. The path of good leadership, sound decision-making, and real change is predicable – and attainable.” IROD prepares one to act on what research says about how people naturally make decisions. In Webb’s words, “You will implement the wisdom of all the major change-management systems.” While there are many models designed to improve decision-making, it is important to commit to an approach that is research-based and produces excellent results, and then use it consistently. Your internal audit in this context can be framed with a question: What decision-making model do you consistently use when engaging stakeholders and making important decisions affecting students, parents, staff and other stakeholders?
First Things First
Public schools are experiencing unprecedented challenges. Divisive issues fueled by the convergence of partisan politics and ongoing challenges at the local school board level, challenge school leaders, school boards, teachers, families, and the broader community. Efforts to weather the storm and build a stronger foundation for the future can be enhanced with consistent focus on two strategies. First, understand what families fundamentally want: safety, order, and mastery of basic skills. Understanding this charge should take the form of an unwavering commitment to a system-wide focus to improve achievement in core academics – particularly reading and mathematics. Second, harness the power and consistently use a research-based decision-making model designed to improve the quality of engagement and decision-making over time. While these two strategies will not eliminate the deep-rooted contentiousness and resulting stress in our current political environment, they will enhance support from parents and other stakeholders and narrow the district’s exposure to attack. In combination, they will provide a firmer pathway to pursue its core mission of teaching and learning.
DON LIFTO, a superintendent for 25 years, is a former director with Baker Tilly Virchow and currently consults as School Election Strategies and in collaboration with the Morris and Leatherman Company, Minneapolis, MN, providing school districts with referendum planning and survey research. E-mail: email@example.com. Twitter: @LiftoDon