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Executive summary: School boards and the power of the public

Community engagement matters to schools and engagement in the schools matters to communities, so say Michael A. Resnick and Anne L. Bryant in an essay called “School Boards and the Power of the Public.” The essay is part of a new book, Education and the Making of a Democratic People, available from Paradigm Publishers. It places special emphasis on how school boards can engage the public, how they serve as an example of democracy in action, and why it’s the schools’ responsibility to teach students about democracy in ways that are tangible and meaningful. Resnick and Bryant also make the case for elected school boards and the representative role they play.

Highlights of the essay include:

Schools and civic engagement

  • Schools are the most significant public institution: They provide a social environment where kids spend six hours per day 180 days per year.
  • Schools provide adults with their first major opportunity to be involved.
  • Schools serve community life and participatory democracy.
  • Schools and communities working together can create the schools they want, to match the life envisioned for their children.

School boards

  • School boards are a key mechanism between education and democracy.
  • School boards invite community members to become more involved in the decision-making process.
  • School boards provide a venue for community members to have a say in what their children are taught, because local and national focuses may be different.
  • Convening the community around school issues gives people an opportunity to develop a broader view.

Why school engagement matters to communities

  • If citizen involvement weakens, so too will the commitment to public institutions, including public schools.
  • Public schools are good vehicles for fostering public engagement that is focused on the community’s common good.

Engaging the public

  • As representatives of the community, school board members are held accountable to the public who elected them.
  • School board members engage community members in many informal ways. They talk with parents, the media, local organizations, and bring citizen groups together on a variety of issues.
  • School board members also engage the public in more formal ways to identify and solve a wide range of issues. Some proven practices used for community engagement include:
    • Study circles
    • Focus groups
    • Town meetings
    • Polling

Virtual dialogues

School boards as a living democracy

  • Running for school board election gives citizens the opportunity to take part in the democratic process.
  • School board elections themselves, are an opportunity for the community to focus on schools and to choose those best qualified to represent them.
  • School board membership can serve as a springboard for other kinds of public office.
  • "Effective school boards govern on a public scale" meaning that they serve the greater good of the community while at the same time “sustaining the individual’s commitment to participation in civic activities” (Resnick and Bryant).

Teaching students about democracy

  • Schools can prepare students to live in a civil society.
  • Through classroom activities students learn values, behaviors, and expectations of life in their community.
  • Certain vehicles for teaching democracy are inherent in public schools: Their commitment to fair play, justice, equality, civic engagement, and public good.
  • Because public schools admit all students they offer the opportunity to experience democracy through a diverse student body.

Public schools are only as good as the public that supports them. Civic intelligence and a commitment to civic life are crucial to how they function. Teaching students to be civic minded, democratic citizens helps them to become productive members of their communities and value the larger public interest.

Abridged from “School Boards and the Power of the Public” by Michael A. Resnick, associate executive director, and Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association. The essay is part of the new book, Education and the Making of a Democratic People, available from Paradigm Publishers.

To read “School Boards and the Power of the Public” in its entirety, click here. For more information or to purchase Education and the Making of a Democratic People, contact Paradigm Publishers at www.paradigmpublishers.com.

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