In preparation for writing this column on school governance, I thought I would turn to Alexis de Tocqueville’s tome Democracy in America, a book I had to read 100 years ago for a college class. De Tocqueville was a French politician who toured America in the mid-1800s and then wrote an extensive analysis of what he saw and experienced. My memory is terrible, so I checked out some summaries of the work. While de Tocqueville deserves credit for writing one of the most tremendous cultural analyses of all time, he is no match for a former board member from Emporia, Kansas.

At a board meeting during which the future elementary art instruction was to be decided, the board room was filled with a rowdy crowd of enthusiastic art supporters chanting and carrying (beautifully designed) signs. Board President Dr. Paul McNabb, a professor of special education at Emporia State University and a man who epitomized the word wisdom, turned to me and said, “John, democracy is a messy process, attracts people with a lot of time on their hands, and is the best system of governance ever created.”

De Tocqueville said, “No sooner do you set foot on American soil than you find yourself in a sort of tumult, a confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once, each expressing some social requirements.” Dr. McNabb said it better.

Locally elected school boards may be the purest form of representative democracy in existence. Generally speaking, board members receive little or no pay, and the elections are nonpartisan in nature. Even when partisanship enters the board arena, changing bus routes, developing maintenance plans for 100-year-old buildings, approving processes of accountability for student learning, or even settling disputes over who gets to go to junior-senior prom are seldom partisan issues. 

Board members live in the communities they serve, and they have personal connections with their school districts. They are almost always parents with children or grandchildren who attend the schools they serve. They are businesspeople, service professionals, and community supporters. People know who they are and how to get in touch. Whether it is at a high school basketball game, the grocery store, or Sunday services, board members are accessible by their nature. De Tocqueville’s words, “The people reign over the American political world as God rules over the universe,” play out in the aisles of Piggly Wiggly, Kroger, and Publix markets every day in America.

While governance based upon democracy may be messy, it can be made less so with good processes and policies. Your state associations are good sources of information and training on how to incorporate the thoughts and voices of the community into a well-structured, fair, and balanced framework. Parent committees, student governance, teacher and staff councils, and business and industry community advisory groups and listening processes should be in place in every district to provide opportunities for all to be involved and engaged in the education of a community’s children. 

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “Democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others that have been tried.” Few things are as crucial to society as a strong public education system. Some would advocate that the free market would be the best decision-maker for education, while others argue for a system that allows the “experts” to make all the decisions. I stand with the British Bulldog on this one.

John Heim is the executive director and CEO of NSBA.

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