Column

Black families are the losers in NOLA’s nearly uncontested school board elections

The stakes are high. So why is involvement so low?

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

Democracy is more vibrant when participation is as wide as possible. It’s true on the national stage and it’s true in the New Orleans education arena.

One would think that NOLA’s passion for education — the lawsuits, the big-money elections, the heated meetings and writings —would predict hot contests in the local school board election with thousands eligible in each district.

But that’s not what has happened here in the Crescent City.

Four of the seven district seats were decided before the November elections with little to no opposition. One of those was declared early due to a disqualification – the most tenured board member couldn’t prove she lived in the district.

There’s a lot at stake in local school board elections. In recent years, state and local districts across the country have played a real life game of capture the flag in which pro- and anti-reform factions typify the teams.

It’s to be determined if the new make up of the New Orleans School Board connotes a winner, but one thing is for sure: everyone loses when elections are not contested.

School board elections at the state and local levels have always been incredibly important on setting the direction of schools. This is why Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby‘s Empower Louisiana political action committee has been able to raise more than $2 million in 2015 from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, Laura and John Arnold, Alice and Jim Walton of the Wal-Mart Waltons and Eli Broad. It’s the reason why American Federation of Teachers invested $450,000 into Jefferson Parish School Board election in 2014.

Related: Veteran black principal lifts New Orleans school with strength and love

An aside – let’s end the arguments from both sides of that inordinate amounts of money favors the opposition.

Here’s an example of the high stakes: During the last election cycle, controversial initiatives like Common Core, charter schools, alternate route programs, vouchers and teacher tenure have all been on table for elected boards to consider in Louisiana and other states.

Superintendents’ professional fates, depending on the state or district, often rest with elections results rather than academic performance. In New Orleans, the upcoming board will oversee the unification process – the transfer of approximately 50 independent charter schools under the Recovery School District to the Orleans Parish School Board by 2018.

Larry J. Sabato said, “Every election is determined by the people who show up.” I get Sabato’s point when it comes to voters, but what happens when actual candidates for public office don’t show up?

Numerous empirical studies have concluded there is a positive correlation between civic and social engagement (CSE).

“Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the literature on civic and social engagement may assume that linking education and CSE is an easy task, and can be summarized tidily: education has a universally positive effect on all forms of engagement,” wrote David Campbell. However, Campbell notes that few know why or if there is a positive relationship.

The dearth of candidates relative to passion around the issue could be attributed to a number of things. We should discount the possibility that a shortage of contestants connotes an overall satisfaction with the system.

Political noise by way of lawsuits and/or protests signifies disagreements with the current direction. It also evidences that engagement exists – but obviously not the kind that leads to a crowded field of contestants.

Related: Column How education reform exacerbates sexism

Ostensibly, it could reflect the quality or kind of education the population has received. A great educational system pumps the pipeline of elected officials. A negative educational system stifles it.

Some will say that would-be elected officials are satisfying their civic and social urges by participating on one of the dozens of charter school boards. But these boards are a point of contention for those who oppose charter schools. From a political frame, the paltry contests could be the result of political strategy and power. Aspirant politicos could be discouraged by the prospects of being hurt politically, professionally or financially in a run. Resources can intimidate unorganized or under-resourced candidates.

From this perspective, a short bench of candidates is a kind of waving a white flag. The dearth of politicos could reflect a wanting apparatus to groom people who have the will but not the way. All of these aforementioned reasons can explain the lack of candidates.

I lean on philosopher W.E.B. Dubois whose writings’ on the Freedman’s Bureau offer an interesting explanation to the New Orleans case.

Du Bois warned us in 1901 that overprotective, paternalistic structures endeavored to help the formerly enslaved, black community end up handicapping them. In the Freedmen’s Bureau’s noble efforts to create a system of free labor, free public schools and black businesses, Dubois said, “it failed … to guard its work wholly from paternalistic methods that discouraged self-reliance.”

The parallels to the Recovery School District and the state’s efforts to reform schools are clear. Outside money, national education groups and the overall outlook that New Orleans can be a national model squeezed the political self-efficacy from people. Reforms being done and not by black folk has a negative effect. Sustainable reforms build capacity for local residents to create teacher pipelines, manage schools and run for public office. Having so few candidates isn’t a good sign that the current system is doing that, and it certainly doesn’t bode will for the future.

Black folk are not in the position to accept status quo. Healthy debate helps inspire the policy changes that we need.

Black families deserve the kinds of debates that typically come from elections. While some may see not having challengers as a political victory, it’s a sign that everyone has lost when schools aren’t able to generate a robust slate of choices to run them.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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