Balancing responsible educational stewardship, local politics and the particular agendas of interest groups and influential community members presents significant challenges for superintendents and principals. In her article “Superintendent Survival Guide,” Elizabeth F. Farrell states that “being a superintendent means balancing intense and often competing pressures. There are political minefields to navigate and harsh financial realities to contend with. In the current educational climate, chief administrators are expected to implement vast curriculum changes to adhere to Common Core standards and revamp controversial teacher evaluation systems. Meanwhile, they have less control at the local level and fewer funds than ever before.” This characterization encapsulates the complex juggling act performed by administrators as they strive to best serve the needs of students and the community.
While many educators are suspicious of political encroachment on education, effective leaders must practice artful diplomacy to guide the school towards its academic goals. Managing district politics requires mastery of a diverse skill set. Administrators must cultivate productive working relationships with Boards of Education, responsibly manage district finances, develop a sensitive awareness of issues facing families in the community, facilitate transparent shared decision making processes, respond to the needs of district employees, represent the school in the media and deftly balance potentially conflicting interests of different constituents. This must be achieved in the context of increasing student performance standards, comprehensive reporting mandates and rigorous evaluation protocols.
I encountered the conflicts that arise at the confluence of schooling and local politics during my career as an educator. I held the part-time elected office of Town Supervisor in my community while simultaneously teaching Social Studies in the local high school. While my position within the school undoubtedly granted me a degree of name recognition that served as an electoral asset, the overlap between my two roles in the community was not without pitfalls. A prominent, influential member of the opposing party complained to the district superintendent that I was using my Social Studies class as a platform to promote my political beliefs. The superintendent was forced to confront a personal, political issue that was completely unrelated to educational practice. Fortunately, he knew my reputation as an instructor and respected my judgment. He understood that this was merely a case of a particular individual trying to gain a political advantage and ensured that it did not undermine my ability to educate students.
Ideological and political incursions into education are certainly not limited to small town school districts. Dale Russakoff describes this phenomenon on a massive scale in his book entitled “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” Russakoff’s work details the struggle of interest groups, wealthy individuals and corporations to obtain the “prize” – the City of Newark’s $1 Billion school budget and its accompanying contracts and patronage. Charter school organizations saw this as an opportunity to gain a foothold in an underperforming district and leverage it toward expanding their model to a national scale. Elected leaders and corporate executives employed Newark City School’s billion dollar budget as a funding source for advancing their political agendas and business interests. Governor Chris Christie, Mayor Cory Booker and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg utilized a $110 million dollar donation from Zuckerburg and matching contributions from private funding sources and charter school companies to bring “top down” reforms to Newark schools. Despite massive investment, student outcomes did not improve. These efforts were ineffective because leaders ignored very basic rules of school district politics. Culture change does not occur if teachers, administrators, parents and the community are not involved in the decision making process and sustainable improvement cannot be achieved overnight. Attempting sweeping, top down changes within a firmly established two year timeline ultimately doomed the project to failure. Placing political and corporate interests before the needs of students and local stakeholders proved perilous for Zuckerburg and should prove instructive as he attempts to influence change in San Francisco schools through different tactics and more realistic timelines.
Political activism, when properly organized and articulated can effect meaningful change in education policy. The Common Core Opt-Out movement is a recent manifestation of this type of engagement. The Board of Regents and Education commissioner largely ignored the input of teachers, administrators and the public during the planning and early implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and their accompanying testing regimens. Parents organized, mobilized and insisted that their voices be heard. Their advocacy led directly to the creation of an opt-out provision allowing parents to choose whether or not their children will participate in annual state tests. Approximately one in five students opted out of New York State assessments in 2015. Margaret Mead’s famous caution to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” captures the essence of these efforts.
The intersection of politics, education and policy is often a knotty and contested affair. Political parties, interest groups and corporations sometimes attempt to steer education toward their specific ideological agenda. Other groups advocate for change that seeks to expand learning opportunities for all students. It is incumbent not only upon district leaders, but all educators and parents to engage in the issues and ensure that the political process works toward policy changes that place the needs of students first.