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Partisan school boards aren't what the Founding Fathers wanted, an FAU professor says

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, is shown placing the document before John Hancock, president of the Congress, in this painting by John Trumbull.
The Architect of the Capitol
Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, is shown placing the document before John Hancock, president of the Congress, in this painting by John Trumbull.

More school board candidates are seeking office for political reasons than in decades past, and voters need to be savvy at the polls, says Florida Atlantic University associate professor Meredith Mountford.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this week lent his support to a push underway in the Florida legislature to make school board races officially partisan, with a pair of House and Senate bills that if passed, could lead to a statewide referendum.

Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 requiring that school board races be nonpartisan, so another voter-approved amendment would be necessary to make school board elections partisan.

Even as politics increasingly play a role today, school boards have long been considered non-partisan for reasons of preserving democracy, a notion goes back to the Founding Fathers, according to Meredith Mountford, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University.

Mountford is a former superintendent herself, and the author of Reclaiming Local Control through Superintendents, School Boards, and Community Activism. She spoke about the historical perspective of school leadership with WUSF's Kerry Sheridan.

Tell me about the history of school boards and what our Founding Fathers thought they should be doing.

Actually this was one of the longest debates that the Founding Fathers did have. This occurred with 39 Founding Fathers over seven years, as to what is the purpose of schools in this country. Obviously before we had school boards, we needed schools. And it was Thomas Jefferson, who forwarded first the ideology — that eventually got accepted and put into the mainstream belief system — that we, America, needed to create participant, self-governing, democratic citizens in this burgeoning country, in order to perpetuate democracy generations into the future.

A headshot of assoc professor at Florida Atlantic University Meredith Mountford in a white suit and blue shirt
Meredith Mountford

Thomas Jefferson said that if we change school boards' representation every time there was a changing administration, say, you know, we went from Democratic to a Republican or Republican [to Democrat], that with that our curriculum would change, would shift. And that could be potentially every four years, and that would create instability into the curriculum of what students learn in this country. And they thought that would create far too much instability.

That's a key reason that school boards are nonpartisan bodies. They have never been political. They've always been considered apolitical. And as we see this move toward partisan boardsmanship, I'm growing extremely concerned.

Tell me more about what Thomas Jefferson foresaw and why he thought if a political party were to change or gain control, how that would change education?

Through curricula, what becomes important, whether books are banned. Some books are banned, some books are not. I think what we're experiencing right now, at least in Florida, is very indicative of what happens when you have extreme opposite ideologies, between Republicans and Democrats. And what is acceptable curriculum, or in this case, library books, in our schools. And this is why this should be left to the local school board.

Why them and not the state and not the feds? Because Thomas Jefferson also believed that those people within that community have the most interest in the outcome of those children who go through those schools, because they're most likely to become citizens within that community in the future.

And I guess that's the key word — that these locally controlled boards would be non-political, because when they are allowed to become political, it really can sway one way or the other.

It absolutely does and has. We've seen it, we see it now. You know, I've been looking at this for 20 years plus, and I have never seen this level of push on board school boards. It's almost funny. Not funny haha, but it's funny ironic. Because school boards used to be called the forgotten player of school of governance. That's actually the little soundbite that piqued my interest. I used to be a school superintendent. Now, they don't feel too forgotten to me.

How politicians tell a story can curtail to their agenda, whereas education is supposed to be very different, isn't it?

Very much, it's not an agenda. We have a mission to educate all children. We're different from every other country, because of the way we do it. America has a very unique, and might I add, most sought after form of public education in the world. Even when I worked with some researchers from Finland, they were literally jealous of our setup, and I'm like, 'Finland, you're the ones with the high scores!' Well, no, it's just, a lot of people felt like the reports of children coming out on different surveys being very proud and happy and independent. And that their students don't necessarily match that sort of, I don't know what is the word, cavalier? Braggadocious kind of, but lots of self esteem, and meritocratic behaviors that I think all Americans want to see in our citizens, in order to push forward our society and become number one in everything that we do. Schools will help us get there.

As state and federal [powers] encroach into educational decisions — all the administrators and our teachers, they lose. And the students and their parents lose voice into what sort of experience those children are going to have in that society, in that community. And we can't lose voice. We cannot. This is too important.

So what would you suggest people do in communities where their school boards have become extremely politicized and the people who speak at the meetings are extremely politicized. What's the way back?

I think there needs to be better training, for one. I think that's always been a weakness in school boards. No offense to NSBA (National School Board Association). It's not an easy job to train boards, because of the abstract nature in which they work. It's not a 'Here's what you do every day,' because we don't know what every day is going to bring for a board member.

Also, looking carefully at a motive. One of the things I looked at were the motivations of school board members, why they run. Very few run, nationally, only 3%, at least as of 2000, run for political reasons. And now we see that happening more and more, at least in this state. About 50% run for reasons that are purely altruistic, really, if you want to call it 'the right reason,' or reasons that are good for kids, good for schools, and then the other 50%, not so much.

So we need to find out ways of vetting board members. And I think we need to be careful. If the motive is to get Democratic board members off and replace them with Republicans or vice versa, then that doesn't speak to the mission of their job. So to me as a voter, I'm not interested in that person.

Children need stability, they need routine. They need stability to learn. Every time we start screwing around with the governance, the people involved, or the practices in schools without real conscious thought and effort toward why we're doing that, I mean, that's just jackpot management. 'Let's just change this and that and see what happens, but never evaluate whether it made a difference or not.' And then just keep changing things. And we know that that doesn't produce higher levels of productivity or better attitudes.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.