The Trump-ization of Local Edu-Politics

When Eduflack first ran for local school board six years ago, I remember questioning my own sanity. I spent countless hours knocking on doors, wanting to talk education policy with voters who just weren’t looking for such deep dives. Instead, they just wanted the promise that our schools would stay as strong as they had been, that taxes wouldn’t grow astronomically, and that their kids would continue to have the same opportunities that students before them did. They wanted soundbite politics, like they got in other political campaigns.

As a member of the Falls Church (VA) Public Schools Board, I served as both vice chair and chairman. I spent almost as much time working with the public and the schools as I did in my day job. Much of that time was spent talking with families about their own experiences and challenges. And much of it was informing the community of the limited role of a local school board – to approve an annual budget, to hire a superintendent (if necessary), and to review the performance of said superintendent each year. Many failed to realize that a good school board member was one who let the superintendent, the administrators, the principals, and the teachers do their respective jobs. It was to provide the resources to those entrusted with our kids; it wasn’t to micromanage every action, every decision, and every thought that occurred in the district.

I was reminded of this last week in seeing the horrible actions coming out of Bridgeport, CT, where an exemplary superintendent by just about all measures resigned from a challenging urban district. There, the supe didn’t resign because she received a better job elsewhere, or because she struggled managing the budget, or even because of test scores or student behavior issues. No, she resigned because of the school board. One particular board member, actually. There, a member of the board of education dramatically overstepped her role, and  allegedly made it her mission to regularly harass and malign a superintendent who was doing a strong job. Playing the role of the bully, the school board member has now dealt a painful blow to every child and every teacher in that district.

I’d like to chalk it up to a once-in-a-blue-moon experience, but I hear too many stories of school board members who fail to understand their roles, seeing the board as an opportunity to stick it to a supe they disagree with or dislike, or general seeing board service as a stepping stone to world domination. In many of these instances, we see local school board races now taking on the tone, tenor, and vitriol of a Donald Trump presidential campaign, with those seeking a school board seat hurling insults, falsehoods, and blame, all in the hope of securing a job that pays nothing and demands long, thankless hours.

In fact, I’m seeing such a Trump-istation of local edu-politics in my own local school district in New Jersey. Earlier this year, Eduflack wrote about the growing discord in my community on the future of our highly rated public schools. That community infighting has now spilled into next month’s school board election, with some candidates doing their very best to “make WW-P schools great again.”

Most communities would celebrate being a high-ranking school district, particularly in a competitive state like New Jersey. According to the most recent high school ratings in NJ Monthly, our community’s two high schools are ranked number 2 and number 9 in the state. Yet we have two candidates, running as a ticket for school board, condemning the current district leadership for “lowered educational standards and learning.” As an “example” of such mismanagement, they note that “High School South was always ranked in the top 10 high schools in NJ. Now South is ranked 35.”

It’s a terrific soundbite for two candidates seeking to run as change agents and against the system. It’s also a soundbite that warrants four Pinocchios by any political fact checker. That 35th-ranked high school is actually the ninth best high school in the state. But we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way, should we?

This Trumpian duo is also quick to attack “teacher resignations,” noting that educators leaving the job are a reflection that “teachers are unhappy, and leaving in droves.” Of course, these highly educated individuals don’t note how many of those teacher resignations are actually retirements, earned by teachers after decades of service. And they certainly don’t note that many teachers postponed retirement after the collapse of markets (and retirement plans) in 2008, and that we just happen to see the markets now back up to pre-2008 levels. Such distinctions just muddy a good “damn the establishment” talking point.

Sadly, the campaign has also taken on the tenor of a Trump rally, as the two look to scapegoat and blame others for perceived wrongs. The superintendent is to blame for focusing on social-emotional learning and the whole child, and is regularly attacked because he — <shudder> — actually hires administrators to help manage a complex district. The state is to blame for taking away “final exams,” (yes, they are actually campaigning to “restore final exams.”) Technology is blamed for many of our ills, with the added wrinkle of the candidates wanting to “focus on children as individual learners,” but failing to note the very reason technology is used as part of a strong personalized learning program in a district like ours.

The most egregious of the attacks and scapegoating is directed at supposed bleeding heart parents who are concerned about the mental health and general well being of their kids and of students throughout the district. These candidates and those who stand up for him actually have attacked the notion AP classes should be available to all those who wish to do the work. Instead, they say it should just be for the elite of the elite.  The candidates accuse misguided parents for watering down the AP program and costing kids like theirs a chance to get into Harvard or Princeton. The candidates allege that our community has so destroyed the value of AP classes that’s 80 percent of the district’s students are in honors language arts classes, when the actual number is half that (just 40 percent). I guess it is just far easier to attack “those kids” who are devaluing honors classes and denying “our kids” what is rightfully theirs.

Typically, Eduflack chooses to stay out of such local education politics, wanting to keep my views to myself. It’s a tough job serving on a local school board. Those who choose to pursue such public service have to do it eyes wide open, for the right reasons. They have to do so seeking to speak for the community and do whatever is necessary to support a superintendent and all of those who work for the school district. And they have to do so fully not understanding what is — and what is not — the appropriate role for a school board member.

So it is unfortunate when one sees the negativity, blame, and vitriol playing out on the national presidential campaign stage seep into the local edu-politics in a community that would be the envy of most cities and towns across the United States. It is sad to see candidates put forward incomplete stories, whispered innuendo, and downright falsehoods to try to justify a narrative of a school system in crisis. And it is disheartening to see individuals try to heighten an “us versus them” thinking in a community where all should be focused on our kids, what we do well, and how we can do it even better TOGETHER.

Hopefully, such political shenanigans are an anomaly. Hopefully, we see that positivity trumps negativity and that a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy beats out “they are out to deny us what is ours” approach. Hopefully, we put the interests of kids above the personal grievances and petty politics of the adults in the room. Hopefully.

But the recent actions in Bridgeport tell us that “hopefully” isn’t a synonym for likely. Sadly, we may soon see many more Donald Trumps in waiting using local school boards to practice the politics of blame, negativity, hatred, and lies to forward their own personal agendas. And it will be great superintendents, exemplary educators, and our own kids who will ultimately pay the price.

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