The first time I ran for school board in 1976, I don’t think I took the job title seriously. Jimmy Carter included his time on the school board with some significance in his resume for qualifications for the Presidency. Since then, I have spent 24 years on two school boards in Williamson County. Most school board decisions are routine. School systems are run by Directors of Schools and professional educators.
I remember the first time I read the job description of school boards to be “trustees for the scholastic population of the school district.” At the time I did not anticipate the controversy that would arise between privatizing public education, for-profit charter schools, vouchers, textbook censorship, and parental rights. Southern states with Republican majorities have launched an attack on local school boards. In Tennessee, there are several pieces of pending legislation that would shift education decisions from local autonomy.
Several years ago, the sequence of No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top; and Common Core Standards created an adversarial relationship between the federal government and state governments in the field of education. State governments reacted to the heavy- handed intrusion of Presidents Bush and Obama, and they became the heavy hand of intrusion. The national agenda of conservative and liberal in Congress and in state legislatures has given rise to a conflict for the minds of our children. We have added the key words of parental choice and competition.
In the power struggle for control of public education, much of the conflict is built on fear. This goes back to integration of schools and the Supreme Court cases of separation of church and state in 1962 and 1963. The religious right convinced its constituents than we had kicked God out of the classroom. State legislators followed with enabling legislation that created home schooling as an alternative to religious private schools. In order to justify this change, it became necessary to translate the fear from the religious right to convince people that public schools were failing.
When I first heard of “Guns in Parks” legislation, I did not think any parents would want to take a firearm to their child’s baseball game. Then we learned that the governing body of interscholastic sports would prohibit use of county or municipal parks for athletic competition. In response, our school board voted 12 to 0 to ask the County Commission to opt out of Guns in Parks. The County and local municipalities complied and the problem was solved. Now four years later, the State Legislature is voting to override local decisions. We are at risk of losing access to public parks for use by our students.
More recently, in response to a textbook challenge from an ethnic special interest group, one of our legislators has introduced legislation to take the textbook selection process away from education specialists and give that power to parents. That raises the question—which parents? This has the potential of creating an ideological battle over content. This includes conflicts over secular and the sectarian content. It involves revisionist history, the Creationism and Evolution conflict, and interpretation of the Constitution. The same legislator introduced a bill restricting dissemination of information about the Affordable Health Care options.
As local school boards approach the August elections, the ideological conflict between the State Legislature and local jurisdiction has attracted ideological candidates. School boards are at risk of losing the trusteeship of the scholastic population. Public education is at risk of being taken over by State Legislatures and private interests, under a well-intended, but deceptive, principle of smaller government and parental rights.