DeVos has turned attention to public education —  it’s up to school board members to keep it there

23 May
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by Vernon Billy

Earlier this year, the confirmation hearings of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education was covered more exhaustively than any other education secretary in recent memory

The curiosity surrounding the new education secretary demonstrated the deep interest and concern that Americans have about the policies and issues that can shape our education system.

The American public recognizes the need to protect public schools and defend every American student’s fundamental right to a free, high-quality public education. Here in California, it is incumbent on board members to keep the defense of public schools at the center of our political discourse, especially in the face of numerous political threats that would seek to undermine the very role of those who are elected to safeguard this fundamental right — governing board members.

Rising to meet this challenge is the only way to ensure that board members can adequately carry out their responsibilities to set the direction for our schools, establish sound policies and govern effectively for the benefit of all students.

Without this high level of engagement, we are likely to continue to see policy issues that subvert local governance emerge from those with greater political capital.

The lifeblood of public education isn’t just a political issue du jour, nor can it be defined in a 140-character tweet. Public education is a right that we have bestowed upon all who live in the United States, and we back up that right with the force of our courts and the law. As declared by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and reinforced in the 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision affirming the rights of undocumented students to attend public schools, “education is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

As outlined in CSBA’s Professional Governance Standards, one of the jobs of an effective school or county board is to “provide community leadership on educational issues and advocate on behalf of students and public education at the local, state and federal levels.” It is your duty as school governance leaders to sustain and mobilize these advocacy efforts on behalf of schools.

The political and policy lines in Sacramento continue to swerve like the hair-pin turns of Lombard Street in San Francisco. Whether it’s the Governor’s proposed $1.7 billion manipulation of Proposition 98 in the initial 2017- 18 budget or the swelling costs to CalSTRS (the result of a political deal made a few years ago) and CalPERS, local education agencies are being subjected to the policy and political whims of others, versus being in a position of strength to truly drive the political and policy landscape.

All one has to do, for example, is look at the political clout of labor unions and the growing influence of the charter school establishment on education policy in the Legislature. In the November election, we saw the charter school supporters flex its muscle in a way we Hadn’t seen before, with California Charter School Association-backed candidates claiming victory in seven legislative races against California Teachers Association-endorsed opponents.

If school and county board members are going to make noise in Sacramento that can actually be heard over this kind of electoral firepower, it is going to take some heavy lifting at the local level and engagement in CSBA’s advocacy and grassroots activities.

As 2017 progresses, CSBA will be implementing strategic initiatives that transform the Association’s approach to local grassroots engagement and investing heavily to ensure that board members and their communities are deeply engaged in public education issues at the local and statewide level.

Without this high level of engagement, we are likely to continue to see policy issues that subvert local governance emerge from those with greater political capital.

If you, as board members, are not engaged and committed to this effort, then decisions about K-12 education in Sacramento will happen to you, and not because of you.

Vernon M. Billy serves as the Chief Executive Officer & Executive Director for the California School Boards Association. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of California Schools magazine, a publication of CSBA.

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