How to Make the State School Board More Friendly [The Hub Debate]

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This is a Hub Debate on the role of boards of education. For more background, read this.  Participate in the comments or submit a response for publication to UtahPoliticoHub@gmail.com. The question is: “Who do you think the board should serve? Parents? Students? Why?


Good policy options generally are not universal solutions for all geographies and situations. For public education, final policy decisions should reflect the informed desire of parents in their area.  That is why I believe in greater power and choices for parents at the school level – whether we are talking about charter schools or district schools. I also think there is a great need for better communication with parents.

Parents represent their kids (unless relieved of that duty by lawful determination). All policy-makers affecting public education ought to make decisions based upon what is good for students as determined by their parents.  That is the meaning of one of the basic overriding legal principles for public education: in loco parentis (acting in the place of parents for the instruction, discipline, and protection of children).

Beyond this and an acknowledgment of the influences stemming from how a board member is selected, I think it best adds to the current coverage of this subject to review what interests tend to be heard and felt by board members. I do this because parents’ interests must compete with others in order to be heard by the Utah State Board of Education. And, Utah parents are not a monolithic body.

A COMMUNICATIONS GAP WITH PARENTS

Like other policy bodies, the State Board members tend to cater most to those people who work hard to directly communicate with each board member.  Also, the decisions of State Board members are very deeply affected by those processes used to bring suggested policies to the board.  In my experience, parents tend to be involved most in direct communications and less with the processes that pre-form policy.  Yet, it is also my experience that the direct communication with board members is often less powerful over time than the constant processes that bring pre-formed policy in front of the board.

As a first example of such a process that affects the policy-making of the whole board, I very recently learned (with quite a bit of surprise) that there is a practice whereby the drafts of State Board administrative rules are reviewed by a committee of a lobbying association of district superintendents. This happens before the suggested changes are ever made available to board members and the public. I’m sure the practice came about with innocent intent, but it does mean that those rules, whilst outside of the public eye, may be customized to the interests of district superintendents.

Another example of a mechanism that determines what feedback the State Board gets is that a lot of recommendations come to the board from special committees and task forces.  Whoever gets themselves on these task forces has the ability to influence public education policy decisions.  Those task forces usually meet during the day and therefore many parents are excluded from involvement because of work or child-care conflicts.

Public policy-making is supposed to ensure that minority voices are heard and that the majority opinion is enacted.  That doesn’t work well when processes favor certain groups over others, but especially when the processes are unfriendly to parents.

A CALL FOR IDEAS

Because an unvoiced point of view does not get heard, I believe the State Board has a great deal of work to do to increase the public’s awareness of our meetings and agendas and to better facilitate feedback.  In various meetings, Boardmember Jefferson Moss and I have requested a review by the board of the administrative rule writing and standards setting processes.

Even before the review, I have ideas for trying to bridge the gap.  One of my ideas is that the State Board should meet at the State Capitol to better accommodate the public (e.g. – ability to stream committee meetings, more and more convenient parking, more seating, etc.).

Do you have ideas for involving more parents in committee and task forces or for communicating upcoming board business? I would be quite interested in hearing other pragmatic suggestions about how the public at large, but especially parents, can understand the work of the State Board and can communicate their desires.

I’m listening.

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