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From Draft NOtices, October-December 2012

School Governance: Where Electoral Politics Can Really Matter

– Rick Jahnkow

Some of us who do community organizing have strong doubts about the effectiveness of the ballot box as a way to achieve meaningful change. This is especially the case when we’re called upon to help elect politically progressive candidates to national and state offices controlled by two entrenched political parties, in a system that is dominated by big-money campaign contributors.

Simply put, the higher up you go in the electoral food chain, the more difficult it is to push government institutions toward breaking with the status quo. Even the most well-intentioned progressive candidates who manage to get elected to a state or national office find that it is extremely difficult to remain in office without seriously compromising their principles. And even if they do stay in their seats, it is extremely difficult to form the majorities needed to enact truly progressive changes.

The shortcomings of this electoral approach are underscored when you consider the fact it has now been 50 years since the beginning of the political movements of the 1960s, yet we are still struggling over many of the same issues that caused the social upheavals of that period — such as undeclared wars and wars of choice, discrimination, economic inequality and environmental destruction.

Of course, some important changes have occurred since the 1960s, and I would not devalue those achievements. But it is also disheartening that after so many decades, right-wing politics keep coming back with a vengeance, and we still don’t have progressive political majorities in government or the general public that are capable of stopping those regressive cycles.

The dynamics of local electoral politics, on the other hand, are very different from the state and national levels. Local elections offer us not only a viable chance to establish progressive majorities, but also an opportunity to place such majorities in a position where they can have a direct impact on people’s lives, and in the case of school board races, where they can additionally play a critical role in effecting change on a societal scale.

The composition of school boards deserves special attention from social change advocates for a very important reason. The educational experience of the K-12 school system is one of the most significant factors in the development of young people’s values, attitudes and perspectives on the world -- characteristics that will later influence their individual and collective views about important political and social issues. Schools, therefore, play a central role in determining the future cultural and political direction of our country, a simple fact that should be apparent to everyone. It certainly is clear to those on the conservative side of the political spectrum: entities like the military, corporations and extremist religious groups have all given a high priority to insinuating themselves in the school system. Such groups are driven by the knowledge that their intervention in the learning environment can be a successful long-term strategy for shaping future public opinion and guaranteeing dominance for their agendas.

We are not seeing a similar focus on education and the school system by groups on the left, which is puzzling. They are generally marginalized in the electoral arena, yet their typical response to that reality is to continue supporting progressive candidates for state and national office who, if they buck the odds and get elected, have no realistic chance of forming a majority that can produce meaningful, lasting change. Even third parties often emphasize this same strategy, when they might be more successful in the long run by focusing their attention on local elections they can win, and in the process build their grass roots bases to achieve larger victories in the future. Just as conservative groups have discovered, school board elections and involvement in the educational system can be keys to achieving these goals. 

There is another important reason why school board races should be part of the electoral strategy for progressive groups: school trustees are in a position to address social injustice by improving the educational resources available to students in economically deprived communities, students who are very likely to organize for change when empowered with the tool of knowledge. Trustees can, for example, implement policies seeking to reduce the academic achievement gap that exists along the lines of skin color and economic class. They can address the problem of schools failing to provide students with equal access to courses needed to gain admission to college. And they can establish policies that will regulate military recruiting to maintain education as the primary goal of schools, instead of militarization.

For all the above reasons, the governance of the school system needs to be positioned at or near the top of the agenda for those who advocate for progressive social change. Failing to do so will only mean that conservative forces will continue to have the advantage in shaping the future political climate, and those on the left will continue to be marginalized.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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