Should schools be focused on providing children with a good education in a safe environment or should they be laboratories of partisan political agitation? The answer, of course, should be obvious. The National School Boards Association states that “education is not a line item in your school board’s budget, it’s the only item.” The principles of “governance and leadership,” such as those articulated by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, make no allowance for focusing on anything other than educating children. Most schools adopt policies protecting students from any attempts by faculty or staff to indoctrinate them toward any partisan or ideological positions.
So when the needs of education and the drum beats of political ideology collide, the former should always prevail. As designed by Pennsylvania (where I’m a sitting school board president for a small rural district in the western part of the state) and many other states, local school governance must surely be close to an ideal concept. Residents are elected by other residents, and are given responsibility for a very narrow range of activity and held accountable not only at the ballot box but also in the grocery store aisles, concert seats, and game bleachers.
In other words, school governance is designed to be a targeted, pragmatic, and highly accountable enterprise. Most of the time, that’s exactly what it is. The vast majority of items taken up by the vast majority of school boards are unaffected by the broader ideological or political considerations that often infect our national policy making.
Of course, that’s not always the case. Local school boards do sometimes navigate ideologically charged national political debates. I and my fellow board directors have been in this position many times, involving such subjects as debt, taxes, church and state, health care, and more. I’ve written previously about our school district’s encounter with anti-fracking activists, who relentlessly maligned board members’ intelligence and integrity. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last.
But with the recent school shooting in Florida and the flurry of high-profile news and activities we’ve seen in its aftermath, we appear to have reached some kind of tipping point in the annals of ideology versus school governance.
Let’s face it, there is high emotion built into the topics of gun control, gun violence, school safety, etc. Mass shootings exacerbate tribal divides and accentuate policy differences. That said, nowadays there appears to be something uniquely intractable about the gun-control debate. National Review writer David French, not someone prone to hyperbole, even argues that of all issues, this could be the one that “breaks America.”
So while there’s always a certain possibility of clashes between ideology and good school governance — especially given the expanding range of topics now heaped under the rubric of “education” — the potential today appears to be reaching unprecedented levels. This is certainly driven at least in part by school shootings and society’s attempt to grapple with them.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen evidence that many school districts are wilting under the pressure to allow ideology to undermine their core missions. An object lesson in this is the “National School Walkout” that took place earlier this month. Advertised and obsequiously covered in much of the media as a grass roots, “student-led” movement, the whole event was orchestrated by Empower, the youth wing of the “Women’s March.” Yes, THAT “Women’s March,” an unapologetically progressive movement with an undeniably far-left platform and a penchant for outrageous and aggressive tactics.
As for the “walkout” itself, consider what schools were being pressured to do: permit students to leave the school building en masse at the same exact time as hundreds of other schools in the country, thus allowing a massive disruption of the school day and (ironically) putting students in potential danger. In addition, schools were effectively expected to facilitate and enable the exploitation of the opportunity to promote aggressive gun control and convey a blanket demonization of the NRA, the GOP, and anyone who doesn’t sufficiently support every radical gun-control idea.
And this brings me back to the basic principles of school governance. When an ideological or partisan political initiative collides with a school’s fundamental mission to maintain an atmosphere conducive to good education in a safe environment, erring to the side of the latter is not a “nice-to-do.” Schools do not have the luxury of spending their time, energy or resources agitating for changes to the U.S. Constitution or federal or state HIPPA regulations, just to name a couple of examples. They must be much more narrowly focused on things they can do to maximize student safety and student educational outcomes.
Needless to say, there was no mass walkout in our district. Students were allowed to gather briefly and quietly in the school gymnasium to pay tribute to the slain Florida students. But school wasn’t disrupted, children weren’t allowed to endanger themselves while under our watch and there was no blatantly partisan posturing by anyone.
It would have been easy enough to follow the crowd. Those who think we should have done just that ought to consider the unwieldy precedent that would have been set by allowing students to create anarchy in the school for any ideological reason they like. And they should remind themselves about the legal and moral requirements of good school governance. All these things considered, there should be ample common ground upon which to gather for the right reasons.
Dr. R.B.A. Di Muccio is a guest commentator for The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A former assistant professor and chair of the international relations program in the Political Science Department at the University of Florida, he is now vice president of research and advisory services for a global business advisory firm. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Southern California.