Local accountability fosters common good
The Internet makes it easy to gain access to events that you don’t attend in person. I recently spent several evenings on the CH-UH City School District’s website, viewing recordings of board of education meetings going back to 2012. I recommend it. To view the recordings, go to www.chuh.org and select “Board of Education” from the “About” menu.
The board meetings provided a body of evidence about our district’s history and the role of the school board for a project I have been working on. They were fascinating!
My first observation was that board members spend a lot of time meeting. They regularly meet twice a month. The meetings are long, with three hours being typical. On top of that, there are special meetings designed to gather community input on specific issues, as well as attendance at other people’s meetings. Thank you, board members, for investing the time it takes to prepare, study, discuss and manage issues big and small.
Facilities, finances and staff cuts have dominated recent agendas, as has the unreliability of funding. The board has moved from silence on state policy to an outspoken stance on the detrimental impact of vouchers and charter schools on public education, and the unfair reliance on test scores to judge children and schools.
Whatever the subject—strategic planning, facilities planning, career technical education, academic priorities, grade configurations, contracts or staffing—the board invariably focused on how to engage the community: how to help us understand an issue, clarify our expectations, gain input on how new buildings should look and function, and build consensus around solutions or expenditures.
This is profound.
As the vehicle for public oversight for precious public resources, the board is responsible for ensuring that the interests of the community are served by our public schools. The videos showed what this looks like. The board makes education democratic. It is one of the critical components of making public schools public.
Charter schools and private schools are not public. Don’t let anyone tell you a charter school is public just because it receives public funds. Without oversight by any entity answerable to the public, a charter school misses the boat. We should all be furious that public funds are spent without public accountability.
The lack of oversight is dangerous. School boards are elected to look out for the students. Students attending publicly funded nonpublic schools lack this protection. Their governing boards are more likely concerned with the profitability of their school, rather than the education of its students.
Whether you think public schools need to improve or that charter schools are a good idea, the lack of public control makes charter schools wrong.
As I try with increasing frustration to influence the direction of federal policymakers, I am grateful that public education is first and foremost a local government responsibility. I am especially grateful that our board of education, while not always making decisions that I support, takes seriously its role as a conduit for public engagement. Board members represent the public voice in oversight of public funds, and they know that to do that well they need to listen and discern. Their bottom line is the students.
Former board of education member Donalene Poduska reminded me that big money has infiltrated local school board elections in Colorado, California, Louisiana, Minnesota and New Jersey. This dangerous intrusion into local school decision-making is evidence that the ideological push to privatize public education is a real threat to our most local and accessible form of democratic governance. It has clearly infected federal and state policy to the detriment of the public’s interests. It could happen here.
We can all contribute to making our public schools truly public by making sure we engage with the governing body that we have elected to oversee our interests. We must also be vigilant in assuring that entities that would benefit from destroying a public institution do not succeed. The only real option is to be informed, engaged and fully aware of what makes our public institutions sacred and worthy. We must demand that our elected representatives share this belief.
Public education is best created and improved by people who are close to daily life in schools. That’s why local control of schools is so powerful. It’s easiest to act locally. Tune in and care. We can nurture our children and our educators and make sure decisions benefit the common good.
Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.