Survival Of The Fittest: Adapting To Drive The Public Education Agenda

27 Apr
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by Susan Henry

In biological terms, fitness is defined by the ability to survive and reproduce — a condition dependent on how well an organism has adapted to its environment.

As leaders in public education, we are operating in an extremely difficult environment. The political climate is changing rapidly, the landscape is constantly shifting, and we are surrounded on all sides by special interests with competing agendas. The old ways are no longer sufficient. We must adapt to our new habitat if we hope to survive, thrive and achieve our goals on behalf of California’s 6.2 million public school students.

We occupy a momentous time in the history of this organization, one fraught with challenges but also full of opportunity. Adapting to this complicated age requires that we be better informed, better prepared, better organized and more focused on our priorities than ever before. Responding to this reality, CSBA’s Board of Directors established four goals in January 2016. They center on member training, advocacy, funding adequacy and improved governance and professional development for school board members. Specifically, the board prioritized work that:

» Supports local governing boards of education by increasing participation in CSBA board training programs and strengthening governance capacity

» Establishes a robust grassroots system that can mobilize our members, engage communities around the local priorities of school and county boards and maximize our political capital

» Uses a robust advocacy arm to drive the education policy agenda and secure the resources needed to address adequacy and opportunity gaps and provide the opportunity for every student to graduate with a meaningful diploma

As we implement this initiative, CSBA members can look forward to more powerful connections with other members in their region and with CSBA staff, greater influence statewide on the subjects we care about most, more attention to issues of local importance and improved governance training to help boards succeed in their vital functions.

Despite improvements under the Local Control Funding Formula, California’s schools remain dramatically underfunded. The state ranks at or near the bottom nationally in most measures of funding and staffing, as health care, pension contributions and other legacy costs are rising dramatically.

It’s critical that we act now to increase our influence and our ability to achieve policy and legislative objectives. Student need has grown tremendously as our demographics have changed. The bar for what students are expected to learn is higher and mandates are more numerous, yet funding and supports have not kept pace. Despite improvements under the Local Control Funding Formula, California’s schools remain dramatically underfunded. The state ranks at or near the bottom nationally in most measures of funding and staffing, as health care, pension contributions and other legacy costs are rising dramatically. Meanwhile, well-financed groups such as labor unions and the charter movement aggressively pursue their interests in Sacramento and very often have the legislature’s ear. We simply have to level the playing field.

In order to fulfill our mission, we must implement comprehensive member training. We must take our message into local communities so legislators hear their constituents voice support for our priorities. We must build local coalitions that help advance legislative, political and ballot priorities. And we must let lawmakers know there are electoral rewards for supporting an agenda of adequacy and equity and electoral consequences for not prioritizing education.

Above all, we must adapt — not to survive, but to thrive — and to fulfill our responsibility to this generation of California students and those to come.

Susan Henry is president of the California School Boards Association and a board member in the Huntington Beach Union High School District. This column originally appeared in CSBA’s California School News.

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