By Cynthia McCabe
Wanted: school board members who understand what it means to work in a school, or who will at least listen to those who do.
With that ideal candidate in mind, educators and union leaders in Washington state in 10 areas, including three of the state’s largest cities — Seattle, Vancouver and Spokane — set out to recruit school board candidates for 2011 and 2012.
The program, initiated by the National Education Association, works in partnership with Wellstone Action and Progressive Majority, groups dedicated to electing progressive candidates. It’s been used previously by the Ohio Education Association and participants with the Washington Education Association are seeing interest from colleagues in other states.
“We have a real opportunity here to engage and support our locals and change the shape of policy at their level,” said Simone Boe, political coordinator for the Washington Education Association.
The need to focus on a local level of political activity became clear to Johnathan Knapp, vice president of the Seattle Education Association. During the last three years, the superintendent there proved to be problematic for educators, and six new board members were elected who were quickly molded in her anti-educator “reform” image, Knapp said.
“We teachers have been sort of hemmed in here and our voice is not even considered to be a legitimate part of the debate anymore,” Knapp said. “How do we push back on that? Getting involved in school board politics is one of the ways to do that.”
The key is getting people in positions to make decisions that are pro-public education and pro-teacher, Knapp said, not just electing those who will steamroll a path toward privatization.
“Increasingly too many educational policy decisions are being made by people who have little or no experience actually teaching,” said Erik Peterson, Director of Education and Labor Programs for Wellstone Action. “If educators don’t step up to the responsibility of making the policies that shape education we will continue to see an erosion of public education and an attack on the teaching profession.”
The Wellstone Action program trains participants to work in recruiting teams. Frank conversations encouraging people to run for office can be difficult, but role playing ahead of time helps them prepare.
Even though the Washington state effort is fairly new — having just started with 36 people being trained in early March — they’ve already got one candidate recruited and another potential recruit for the 2011 school board elections. One is a parent and the other is a former teacher. Eleven candidates will participate in a training next week.
“Finding candidates is like finding a needle in the haystack,” says Boe. “You have to find the right person and one who doesn’t mind being put through the ringer.”
But continuing that search is crucial. Perhaps nowhere are educators more immediately affected than at the level of the school board, which in most cases bargains contracts with the union.
“This is where our members’ absolute total working conditions are impacted,” said Boe. “When our worker conditions are impacted — positively or negatively — it affects the kids.”