Imagine winning a school board seat in order to make a difference in education, only to find out the system doesn’t appear to want you to.
That’s the position untold numbers of new school board members are in across the nation, especially after waves of motivated conservative candidates were elected post-pandemic.
They are the consummate outsiders – even after being elected.
“We learned that a lot of the people who were elected to school boards in 2021 were really frustrated at not being able to get information they needed, and even being not permitted just to raise issues at school board meetings,” says Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, a Wichita-based nonprofit free-market think tank.
“They really felt that the system was designed to preserve the status quo and discourage questions. And that matches our experience.”
So, KPI has done something about it – creating the Kansas School Board Resource Center (KSBRC), which offers local school board members finance and governance information and training, and helps them analyze data on academic performance in the state.
It’s a sort of private-sector-led school board association. And it’s all free, thanks to donations. Moreover, it’s not funded with tax dollars, as most school board associations are.
KSBRC also has stood up much more quickly than a public-sector program might have: KPI decided to do it last summer, and by December it was up and running with a highly qualified executive director. Its inaugural event was in January, and it has already staged several training sessions around the state since then.
“We’ve moved these training sessions around from one city to another, and then (in March) we also put all the training documents online so that everybody can get them,” Trabert tells The Heartlander.
Through the KSBRC’s website and training sessions, school board members, or just concerned citizens, can take deep dives into student performance data, or just learn how to read a budget, how money can be spent and what state laws require of school board members.
Perhaps the least known and most important role of school board members, Trabert says, is the Kansas statutory requirement for an annual building needs assessment – in which elected board members are expected to visit schools and assess each one’s needs from the classroom out.
As Trabert puts it, the building needs assessment law mandates that board members answer three questions each year:
- What are the barriers to getting kids to proficient?
- What are the budgetary changes needed to address those barriers?
- And once those changes are implemented, how many years will it take to get kids to be proficient?
Says the KSBRC site: “The state’s education crisis won’t be resolved without school board members leading a transformation that puts students’ academic needs ahead of the system’s institutional interests.”
Yet, Trabert alleges such basic and required things as the building needs assessments are generally not getting done.
“Most of this has been on the books for over 20 years,” he says. “And at KPI, we’ve not found any district that has really followed what’s required in state law.
“One of the biggest issues is that school board members – first of all, they weren’t even told about this. And now that they’re aware of it, they’re being told, ‘Oh, you know, we always handle that at the district level. We’ll just give you the summary.’ Well, that’s not what’s required in state law. School board members need to go with (district officials).”
Rather than laud KSBRC for its voluntary role in helping school board members do their jobs, Trabert says the education establishment has stiff-armed the nonprofit organization – and, in some respects, the general public. KPI found it difficult to even announce itself to school board members, since some districts don’t publicize their email addresses. Other districts allow the public to write to board members mainly through website portals that funnel correspondence first to unelected district officials.
“There is a real conscious effort within the education system to prevent the public from having access to their elected officials,” Trabert says.
In addition, Trabert says a notice that the existing Kansas Association of School Boards sent to its members wrongly claimed that KSBRC was started by an organization – KPI – that “advocates for reduced funding for public education.”
“KPI has never advocated to reduce funding,” Trabert tells The Heartlander. “We’ve certainly talked about how schools could operate more efficiently. We’ve talked about how some of their practices, like having cash balances grow year after year after year, indicate that they’re not even spending all the money they get.
“But we haven’t advocated to cut spending. We’ve found ways that they can save money and put savings in classrooms.”
Trabert asked the KASB in an email to correct the record with its members. The organization responded with, “Thanks for sharing your thoughts, enjoy your weekend.”
Meanwhile, Trabert says, “We’ve heard from school board members that they’ve been advised not to pay attention to us.
“We’re not trying to compete with the school board association or KNEA or anyone else. We’re just trying to make sure that school board members and parents have all the information they need to make a fully informed decision.”
Neither KASB, nor the Kansas-National Education Association, has anything to fear from the KSBRC, Trabert says. And, indeed, as for teachers, he says KPI wants a greater share of educational funds funneled to the classrooms where they belong. It’s a goal that’s also expressed in Kansas State Department of Education documents, he notes.
It’s also an official policy of the state to get more money into classrooms. Trabert says the state wants 65% of education spending going into instruction, but that it’s actually gone down in recent years from 54% to 52%.
The Heartlander reached out to KASB seeking evidence of KPI advocating for reductions in school funding, and asking whether it wants members to avoid the KSBRC.
“Based on what we have documented from past experience,” says Trabert, “we don’t believe that parents can count on the public education system to attack this problem. They won’t even admit that there is a student achievement crisis.
“The book we published last year, Giving Kids a Fighting Chance With School Choice, tells one story after another of state and local education officials consciously deceiving parents, consciously deceiving legislators, de-emphasizing academic preparation – and even avoiding state laws designed to close achievement gaps and improve outcomes.”
As it turns out, the Kansas School Board Resource Center is one of a handful of similar organizations popping up around the country, including in Arizona, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia. As they get going, and people in other states are trying to put such organizations together, KSBRC is participating in a national confab in Kansas City next month.
The organizations are coming together to network and talk about such things as what they are doing, the barriers they are facing, and how to share information.
“Those of us involved in this movement right now see this as something critically important that hopefully will be sweeping the nation over the next 10 years,” Trabert says.