School Boards:Tainted By Liberal, Union Bias?

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

( - Eighty percent of school board members in a recent survey describe themselves as either moderate or conservative, with only 15.9 percent owning up to a liberal philosophy. Yet many conservatives believe school boards have lost sight of their mission -- to serve the interests of kids, parents and the public.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA), which conducted the nationwide survey, and many of the nation's school boards individually, have fought school choice reforms like charter schools and vouchers.

The association has opposed federal voucher dollars for students who have been victims of crime or attend low performing or dangerous schools. The group has even opposed research projects to measure how much existing school choice programs help disadvantaged students and the overall quality of public education.

"There is a human tendency to forget that they are there to ensure that the schools serve the parents and children and they begin to serve the schools themselves," said Lori Yaklin, executive director of the Michigan School Board Leaders Association.

A major cause of the problem, said Yaklin, is the influence of unions on school board membership.

"School employees and [their] families carry a lot of weight in the community, so there's a tendency to want to make the school happy and the union that represents them ... because of community pressure," said Yaklin.

According to the NSBA survey, employee unions were the third largest contributors to school board elections, with personal wealth and family and friends topping the list of contribution sources.

Another cause of the anti-choice bias, according to Mike Antonucci, director of the California-based Education Intelligence Agency, is the vested interest of a group responsible for public schools.

"No matter what the political views of school boards are, which way they slant, there is a symbiotic relationship between the board and the union especially when it comes to money and control over the delivery of public education," said Antonucci.

"The union and the school board could be at loggerheads 360 days out of the year, but when it comes to bringing more money into the school district from the state level, they work hand in hand," he said.

"Then the arguing at the local level is over how much of the pie each side gets," said Antonucci. "But they're both in it to get more; we have to keep that in mind.

Part of the solution is to change the way school boards are elected, according to Yaklin.

In Michigan, said Yaklin, "the school districts like to be in charge of [their own elections], and they like to hold them during obscure times to keep the turnout low so that they can better influence the outcome of the election.

"We're not getting a good representation of the taxpayers, because sometimes the taxpayers don't know where the election is because it's in a different location," said Yaklin. "And they put them on weird days; they're not on Tuesdays, they're on Mondays."

Instead, Yaklin wants more alternative school board associations, like her own, so board members can be offered different viewpoints "so that they can become more knowledgeable about staying on track [with] their correct roles and the options that are open to them in areas such as privatization and collective bargaining."

And, she believes, school board elections should be held along with mayoral or state legislative elections in order to boost voter turnout.

Antonucci wants more transparency and more critical examination of school board candidates.

"The cliche is that sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Antonucci. "It helps ... when there are campaigns for school boards that we go beyond the platitudes of every candidate that's involved, saying that 'I'm for kids' ... and start asking candidates where is your financial support coming from. Going beyond them saying 'I'm supported by the teachers.' Well, that's code language for the union.

"I don't think there's any problem with being supported by the union, per se," Antonucci added. "But you need then to ask candidates questions about what are your views on contract negotiations and so forth, so you don't [end up with] a union puppet when you think this is just somebody who's interested in the broader notion of public education."

However, Tom Bennett, chairman of the school board in Coos County, Ore. and self-described political moderate, said union influence is not disproportionately great in his district of 3,800 students.

The teachers union is only "one of several voices" with interests before the board, said Bennett, who personally declines union contributions "for the obvious reason [that] on the one hand it's unnecessary and secondly it creates a perception.

"I've been happy for the endorsement" from the union but have twice declined financial assistance, he said. "I think that contributes to my effectiveness when I lead our bargaining team."

Unions, he said, have lost some of their influence "because there have been some negative results from trying to play the hardball game." Unions "have discovered that if they hang on tightly enough to the union precepts, that they can find themselves without an employer," said Bennett, pointing to examples of mill closures and other business cutbacks.

On the other hand, Bennett does fit the profile of being opposed to vouchers.

"We are proud of our public education system and want only to strengthen that," Bennett explained. "We see, to a person on our board, that vouchers are counter-productive to excellence in public education, which serves all kids."

Charter schools are a different matter, Bennett said. His district has one.

"Charters are a way to, conceivably, make improvements without dismantling or destroying the public school process."

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

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