Tomorrow is school election day, which prompts the question: Is a non-political approach to education possible–or even desirable?

A recent article in the Star-Tribune carries the headline “School board races become more political.” The lead paragraph says, “polarizing politics seen nationwide are filtering down to the most local level.”

What’s the evidence? “Community campaigns have endorsed strings of like-minded candidates, a blog with political accusations forced one candidate to drop out and local political parties have stepped up to support candidates.” So, in order we have

1. ideologically compatible slates

2. candidates attacking each other, and

3. political parties endorsing candidates for office.

Yep. Sounds like politics to me.

But then again, should we be surprised? Let me offer a few more reasons why school board elections are inherently political.

4. School boards spend a lot of money.

Despite the “it’s for the children” theme that we love to wrap schools in, public schools are units of government run by political bodies known as school boards. Most obviously, they have the power of law to take money from every single person living in Minnesota. They take money in the form of property taxes: directly from homeowners, and indirectly from renters whose landlords include property taxes when they calculate rent. They take money from everyone who pays sales tax–the State of Minnesota funds the majority of school spending.

5. School boards take that money and make values-based decisions that may offend significant portions of the population.

So have I convinced you let that “politics” and “public schools” are intertwined? If not, consider the dictum of David Easton, who was one of the pillars of the field of political science. Easton said that politics is about the “authoritative allocation of values.” Curriculum questions–what do we teach in American history?; should there be sex-ed classes in public schools?, etc.;–invariably involved question about values. Questions on pedagogy–is the teacher someone who dispenses knowledge to students, or someone who helps them discover/create it for themselves–touch on values as well. In short, there are many parts of running a school that touch on questions on values, and by its nature, a school sometimes has to “take a position” on those questions. The fact that any given school district has a claim on taxpayer funds, and is the default educational provider of each child who lives within its boundaries further accentuates the political nature of the public school.

6. School boards are the minor leagues of state and national politics.

School boards serve as the farm team for political parties. Among members of the Minnesota House, 15 percent list “educator” or “teacher” as their occupation. Add in those people who first got into elected office through serving on a school board, and the “farm team” argument becomes even stronger.

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Now let’s go back to one of those quotations I lifted from the Star-Tribune. I gave you an incomplete citation. Here’s the full citation:

“In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s elections, community campaigns have endorsed strings of like-minded candidates, a blog with political accusations forced one candidate to drop out and local political parties have stepped up to support candidates, something normally done just by teachers unions.”

See the difference?

There have always been organized efforts to support candidates for local school boards–run by the insiders (teachers) who want taxpayers and the Legislature to give them more money. There’s nothing surprising about a union wanting more money for its members. That’s what unions do.

Now, however, they’re getting some competition for influence.

Is that a bad thing?

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Actually, here’s the solution: Universal school choice. When we have universal school choice, we won’t care much about who sits on the board of what school. Look at the level of higher education. You can get a government grant or loan for attending the University of Minnesota; Carlton College; Normandale Community College; Notre Dame (Catholic); Liberty University (conservative Evangelical); St. John’s College (Great Books); and many other institutions that vary by curriculum, pedagogy, campus environment, mission, and so forth–and nobody cares who serves on the board!