From viral moments to headlines, American school board meetings remain in the crossfire of sharp debates around gender-inclusion, library books, race and more. But as political hopefuls up and down the ballot plan to duke it out in November, what does the future of school district governance really look like?
Big politics (and big money) started intruding in local education policy several years ago, but the practice ballooned into a phenomenon in 2021 when conservative political action committees began pouring millions into local races. TC’s Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education, offered critical insight on the changing landscape based on his 45-plus years of scholarship, while Jonathan Collins, who joined the College in January 2024 as Associate Professor of Politics and Education, also emerged as a key voice at a moment when politics has rarely been more palpable in schools.
We sat down with Henig and Collins, who also serves as the associate director of the Center for Education Equity at Teachers College, for a wide-ranging conversation on the variables contributing to today’s political strife in school districts, research-driven solutions, and what we can expect for 2024. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
[Get involved during New York Civic Learning Week this March with free workshops from the Center for Educational Equity.]
Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education, and Jonathan Collins, Associate Professor of Politics and Education. (Photos: TC Archives)
The debates unfolding across schools today and over the past few years feel distinct to some of us. Is the public just paying more attention or is this really a unique time?
Henig: There have always been episodes of controversy and intense attention to school boards, but historically they’ve often been limited to certain local arenas. One of the things that stands out now is how quickly these episodes and the way they’re discussed gets spread from place to place. The second thing I’d point to is how the ed reform movement and ed reforms circles have recently shifted a substantial degree from measured performance — which was characterized most dramatically by No Child Left Behind, and really dominated education talk for almost two decades — to now much more attention on culture war politics. So the momentum around some of this has shifted away from measured test scores and more towards pressuring schools to adopt curricula and teaching that’s more rooted in religious themes and resistance to what’s seen as the dominant secular culture.
Collins: What also seems to be different here is when we’ve seen reform movements happen in the past, they’ve tended to be centered around some sort of judicial action, right? So we see Brown v. Board, the ruling happens in 1954, and this changes the political landscape. So this judicial action, again, leads to some sort of political mobilization and then the politicization of an issue. That’s been the precedent. That’s not what’s happening now. There has been no major judicial action around, for instance, the teaching of critical race theory in schools. This is not something that the Supreme Court has taken up in any kind of way. This is the politics without the judicial activity happening underneath. And that is one of the things, too, that I think is making this relatively unprecedented. It underscores how uniquely political this moment is.
So a lot of these debates at the heart of these issues could be characterized as a tension between parental interests in directing their own child’s education and the public’s interest in designing schooling and supporting collective goals. But is it even possible to balance those two things?
Henig: If by ‘balance’ you mean ironing out all disagreements then no, I don’t think there’s a possibility of balancing in that way. What the system ideally is designed to do is not to erase that tension, but to have it played out in the open and with ongoing opportunities to rethink where we put the weight of our priorities and allow for shifts in priorities based on changing conditions and changing information and changing minds. That said, it’s possible to do a better job at dealing with this tension than we [currently] do. One problem currently is that school board elections are low turnout affairs with very little discussion of real issues. So the collective part of democracy isn’t stepping up to the plate the way we’d like to see it.
A participant in a July 2023 school board meeting in Chino Valley, Calif. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
Collins: Jeff’s 100% right here. We have assumptions about the strength of the tension because of how much attention it’s getting from media coverage. But media outlets have an incentive to cover drama and I think that influences the way in which school boards are covered. But if you plow through the modal school board, you’ll find boards making very mundane humdrum decisions. Let’s think of this way: If you wanted to think about the tension between parent rights and the normal administration of school districts, then your natural comparison from a political standpoint would be Congress, right? We consider Congress to be relatively unstable because they fail to reach an agreement on, for example, the debt ceiling. There is all kinds of controversy around the passing of the congressional budget and whether or not it’s going to be signed by the president. In contrast, you rarely hear these kinds of things happening at the school district level with school boards. So while school funding in and of itself is not a well-oiled machine, the normal day-to-day operation and administration of education is much more stable when we compare it to these other institutions that have consistently been unstable. So again, the question is: what do we mean when we say tension? How profuse is that tension? And how consistently is that tension affecting the full agenda of a school board? That part to me — the longevity, the persistence — that is much more in question.
One problem currently is that school board elections are low turnout affairs with very little discussion of real issues. So the collective part of democracy isn’t stepping up to the plate the way we’d like to see it.
Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education
Are school boards alone sufficient in helping communities come to consensus around these issues?
Collins: The issue is school boards were never designed, especially in the modern sense, to solve problems at such a large scale. You know, school boards started as hyper, hyper localized, as Jeff informed us, right? At the very micro-community level, yeah, it’s a great institution for solving problems. What is the New York City Panel for Education Policy supposed to do with, what, a million kids enrolled? That’s not what it was designed to do. It was designed to solve these hyper localized problems. And then we have thrust these responsibilities onto school boards that I think are quite unfair. So can they build consensus? Only if we redesign them to be able to meet these particular goals.
In my work, I’ve been very much fixated on this idea of applying democratic innovation to the way in which school boards operate. And if you go to a traditional meeting, it’s very bureaucratic and hyper-professionalized. So one of the things that I’ve been pushing for is to restructure meetings to make them more inviting, more accessible, more inclusive, more engaging. I’ve done experiments around what happens when we create opportunities for the public and for school boards to respond to public comment. I’ve been trying to get field experiments off the ground too to test what happens when we can rearrange these structures. How do people feel about the idea of going into a school board meeting that feels more like a workshop, where they get to engage in conversations with other people, with other parents, with peers, and then school boards play more of a facilitator role? There are a lot of things that we can do to make school boards more amenable to this idea of building consensus, having people collaborate with the board on using policy as an opportunity to solve educational problems. But again, I think the big part is reimagination and restructure, and being bold and being brave.
Nobody wants to show up to the meeting and give their opinion and then not see that opinion have any sort of influence over what ultimately happens. So, designing those decentralized institutions to have enough power and legitimacy where participation matters.
Jonathan Collins, Associate Professor of Politics and Education
That’s so fascinating. Because what’s been striking to so many of us about the coverage of school board issues in the press is that it kind of speaks to a larger desire to be involved and to have a greater amount of civic participation in the process. So, what else stands out to you about making that transition to a more democratic, accessible way of participating in school policy?
Collins: Well, there are three barriers. One is: old habits die hard, right? School boards operate the way that school boards operate because that’s how they’ve operated. And as long as the muscle memory is built in that we have to function in this way, then we’re going to continue in this way. Second, from a legal standpoint, we’ve seen quite a long history of groups of parents or even other governments filing lawsuits against school boards. So school board members do have to be very careful about how they engage with the public, and to make sure that they inoculate themselves from any kind of legal trip-ups. Then number three is going back to the scope and the scale. We have to figure out ways to better allocate power at the hyper-local, neighborhood level in a way that makes participation important. Nobody wants to show up to the meeting and give their opinion and then not see that opinion have any sort of influence over what ultimately happens. So, the real challenge is designing those decentralized institutions to have enough power and legitimacy where participation matters. “If you want me to show up at six o ‘clock on a Wednesday, I need this to turn into something, right?” Don’t waste my time.” That’s how a lot of parents feel when it comes to school boards.
Henig: There’s also the challenge of doing this in a way that doesn’t succumb to hyperlocalism in some of its manifestations. One of the problems is local communities can better tap into and excite local sentiments, but those local sentiments are only sometimes supportive of democracy and individual rights, and sometimes they’re anti-immigrant or anti-minority. We have a history in the U.S. in which we need and want higher levels of government to sometimes step in and put bumpers around localism, and people dream of the ideal division of responsibility between the national government, the states and the local communities, but the truth of the matter — as we were talking about before with tensions just between individual and collective rights — is these challenges are ongoing and will be ongoing. So we have to anticipate that there will be disappointments and frustrations and swings back and forth depending on the latest scandal or problem that’s emerged.
A member of Moms for Liberty pictured with books the group seeks to remove from school library shelves at a 2022 school board campaign event in Vero Beach, Florida. (Photo: GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
Turning to elections specifically, the GOP broadly shifted discourse towards critique of inclusive education practices across race, gender, sexuality, etc. and the prominent “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty reported $2 million in revenue last year. Despite those efforts to influence school board elections, in November, candidates only won in 40% of those races. Did we learn anything from the November 2023 elections that we can keep in mind as we approach the 2024 elections?
Collins: The biggest thing that we learned is that your typical parent does not care about culture war related issues as the primary driver of why they’re showing up to vote in school board elections. There is still this strong appetite for education policy agendas that are centered around school improvement and how to make schools work better for kids and making sure that kids are developing as they should in the classroom. To me, the biggest irony of the Moms for Liberty movement, the culture war and everything surround it is this happens on the heels of not just COVID-19 but the impact of COVID-19, which was arguably one of the deepest episodes of concentrated learning loss that we’ve seen in the history of this country. We have very clear and consistent evidence that kids have fallen behind. We also know that kids of color and kids of marginalized backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by this. This is such a tragic moment for us. So, if anything, the election cycle that we just saw, to me, suggests that there is hope for moving forward and moving past these [culture war issues] and finally helping make sure that kids are where they’re supposed to be.
Henig: This is just one example of the many ways in which school politics and issues are driven by national partisan politics and issues. In the U.S., Glenn Youngkin’s  victory in Virginia for governor was taken at the time as evidence of how an appeal to parents’ rights can bring a Republican to victory in a state that could have gone either way. And as a result, some people, including some people who put money into electoral politics, saw this as a strategy that conservative and Republican groups could exploit around the country and they really began to push that approach. What we’ve seen since, and what we maybe can learn from, is partly the backlash phenomenon. Jonathan alluded to that in terms of activity that ultimately many parents found to not be addressing the concerns that they have. It also manifested in overreach by some of these actors. It was one thing to push anger at masking policies or school closings. It was another thing to carry these into direct efforts to change the way we teach about complicated events in American history, to change the way we handle sensitive family issues like gender identity, and, at the extreme, purging libraries of certain books that are deemed by some to be threatening to core local values. What we’ve learned is that a lot of Americans still value, not just attending to education concerns, like Jonathan mentioned, but also to teaching American history in its complexity, to handling these social changes around gender identity in ways that are more nuanced and respectful of both the concerns of kids and parents and as well as the broader community.
Are there any other key questions people should be keeping in mind?
Collins: Well, what’s been happening recently has distracted us from some of the more classical questions that we should continue to be asking. For instance, a lot of Jeff’s work has been about the importance of coalition building to make urban school reform work. We know that this still is an important question to be asking, as well as what coalition building should look like. We have to ask questions around how these new actors that fit into urban spaces, city spaces, city politics, the city civic spaces fit into what an urban coalition looks like now. These questions have been so important to our understanding of the politics of education to this point. I think we need to revisit those and continue to ask them.
A Florida family in fall 2021. (Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
Henig: That’s a great summary of where we stand. I’d only say that one consequence of the growing willingness of national institutions — whether that’s Congress, the White House, or Supreme Court — to step into the middle of what historically had been seen as state and local concerns is that an awful lot of what happens is going to depend on who controls Congress, who controls the White House, and who makes the next series of appointments at the Supreme Court.
Well, and to your point, so many people often say the best thing that could happen would be to take politics out of education decision making altogether. But what are your thoughts about why a deeper understanding of politics might be important for meeting the challenges of improving where we are right now?
Collins: We have the answers to the test, we just don’t have a pencil. We know so much about how education works. So why don’t we have a better system? It’s because when you start to do these things that we know work at scale, we run into all these problems. And those problems usually revolve around things that are highly political. That’s why you study the politics, to essentially give us the collective pencil to be able to answer the questions to our societal test of how to educate kids equitably and at a large scale.
Henig: Jonathan’s right that there’s a large degree of consensus among practicing educators and researchers who study the available evidence about what works in the classroom. But there’s lots of folks who operate based on their own self or organizational interests or their own family notions about what they want kids to act like. And this isn’t limited to education, but there’s a broad populist mistrust of expertise or claimed expertise today. So a willingness to defer to teachers, to treat this as just a question of not conflicting values, but of just picking the best method, that’s not cutting it nowadays. And so the political battles, and here I strongly agree with Jonathan, political battles are here to stay. So educators, I think, need to understand them and at least selectively get involved in that politics because if they stick their head in the sand and sort of say, ‘Oh, we know what to do, just leave us alone. Give us the authority,’ they’re gonna get run over.
Well, and what you both are reminding me is related to a classic debate that infiltrates so many areas of scholarship, which is whether we fix what we already have or build something new from the ground up. Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you both think is important for people to know or understand about your work?
Collins: What makes the politics of education such a special area of study is that you need to have an openness and a sense of creativity. There is almost an artistry to studying the politics of education because you need to see the beauty in kids, the beauty of reimagining what a thriving public education system looks like and be very creative and thoughtful about what can get us there, given a lot of the self-interest, group interests, corporate greed and muddy things that can get in the way. Having a sense of optimism and creativity is extremely important, but then also just an openness to go where the study of the politics of education takes you. That’s one of the things that I’ve always loved about Jeff’s work: that it always reads as a scholar who is driven by a genuine curiosity for a better understanding of, ‘what is the question? And where will the pursuit of said question take us?’ It’s an exploration.
Henig: I have more I could say, but I’d rather end on that note.
— Morgan Gilbard
Published Thursday, Feb 8, 2024