In the wake of the November elections, hundreds of new school board members will soon take their seats overseeing Ohio’s 600 plus districts. From, the winners appear to be a mix of school establishment candidates and grassroots contenders running on culture-war issues. While this doesn’t necessarily indicate a widespread mandate for change, there is likely more momentum than usual for challenging the status quo at the local level. Yet beyond addressing touchy issues around critical race theory and masking, what might reform-minded board members tackle? Here are a couple ideas.
Build choice-friendly communities
It’s no secret that most local school boards—and theirand affiliates—have long opposed educational alternatives that are not under district control. They have traditionally viewed public charter and private school options as the enemy, and seem to understand their role to be defenders of districts’ institutional interests.
Unfortunately, that’s a cramped, territorial view of educational leadership in a community. Let us first note that school board members are notto protecting adult jobs or district budgets. Instead, they are elected by the public at large to work in the best interest of students and to represent the broader community. Board members can work towards both of those purposes by supporting school choice. Studies show that expanding choice often improves achievement among students attending both and . Moreover, supporting choice might win over more constituents; choice does , and yes, parents of non-district students vote, too. And a choice-friendly posture could make levies just a little bit easier to pass and even prevent culture war clashes from dominating board meetings, as Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute .
One might counter that there’s little a board member could do to advance choice. It’s true that district boards in Ohio do not oversee the operations of charter and private schools, nor are they responsible for their outcomes. Yet districts can and do impact the choice environment in ways that either encourage or stifle these options. Consider the following ways that board members can help build choice-friendly communities:
- Provide reliable yellow-bus transportation to children attending non-district schools. Despite their , to create transportation headaches for charter and private school students.
- Include charter schools in levy requests, as permitted under . Except for Cleveland, no district in Ohio has chosen to share property tax revenues with charters, leaving them with than their district counterparts.
- Offer unused school buildings for sale at reasonable costs to public charter or STEM schools in adherence to . Unfortunately, a few have evaded this responsibility by nominally operating buildings, demolishing them, or offering them at unaffordable rates.
- Lease unused classroom space to a charter or private school seeking extra square footage. This could be a win-win, as districts receive additional funds while helping to meet the needs of another educational entity.
- Work with charter and private schools to create a . Much like the that allows students to apply to multiple colleges using one form, such a system would make applying for K–12 schools simpler and fairer for parents.
- Participate in interdistrict open enrollment. While most Ohio districts allow open enrollment, dozens of school boards continue to non-resident students, limiting public school opportunities for nearby families.
- Ensure that administrators are properly reviewing parental notifications for homeschooling and not demanding than is required under . As permitted under , district boards could also allow homeschoolers to take one or two courses at their schools—for instance, an AP or science lab course. Last, they could also make sure that the district welcomes homeschooling students for and other extracurricular activities.
Ensure district schools follow the “science of reading”
While choice issues are more akin to foreign policy, board members must also pay attention to domestic matters—and that means improving district performance. There are many ways to work towards this goal, such as overhaulingstructures, encouraging more advanced coursework in middle and high schools, or evaluating superintendents based on objective measures of academic improvement. But one particularly ripe area for board advocacy is early literacy, most notably insisting that district elementary schools follow the . This refers to a finding that children learn foundational reading skills best through as opposed to “ ” or “ ” type approaches.
School boards are legallyfor prescribing the curriculum used by district schools, but how exactly can board members ensure their schools adhere to this science and are helping all children read well? Here are a few ideas:
- Check their elementary schools’ curriculum alignment with ratings from , a non-profit organization that reviews curriculum and textbooks. If materials are poorly rated—e.g., the Fountas & Pinnell and receive low marks—they should transition to ones that adhere more closely to the science of reading. Among the top-rated curricula include the K–2 curricula and McGraw Hill’s .
- Set aside portions of the budget to ensure dollars are available for curriculum and high-quality professional development needed to implement new programs and practices.
- Encourage administrators to hire teachers and principals with strong backgrounds in the science of reading. That might include hiring graduates from elementary school prep programs that are by NCTQ, such as the University of Akron and Marietta College. (Though Ohio requires in phonics and literacy, NCTQ goes further by programs based on whether they dedicate sufficient time to the science of reading and hold students accountable for learning such content.)
- Ensure that struggling readers receive the help needed to read proficiently . To this end, board members could make sure that elementary schools promptly notify parents of reading deficiencies, as required under state law, and partner with them to implement strategies for improvement. They could allocate dollars for summer and afterschool reading programs and engage external partners, such as local libraries or colleges, that add extra capacity for literacy efforts. Such a focus on early literacy, including being willing to who need extra help, is especially critical given the learning losses of the past year.
- Raise awareness in the community about the importance of early literacy and insist that all children will be able to read when properly instructed and given the right supports.
School boards have significant powers to shape K–12 education in local communities. By working towards a more choice-friendly community culture and pushing for effective reading practices, board members can use those powers in ways that support parents, benefit students, and unite communities.