Contrary to widespread public belief, school boards have little or nothing to do directly with education. They are responsible for policy, budgets, and management. But they are not directly responsible for curriculum or personnel other than their only employee, the Superintendent. Since they cannot directly address these two essential components of education, they tend to lose sight of education altogether. However, policy, budgets, and management are powerful tools which can be used indirectly to address these matters.
School board candidates who responded to my previous blog said that they shared many of my concerns or agreed with me about the deplorable state of public education in Las Cruces. However, I doubt that any of the candidates will address its persistent mediocrity, but I understand why, if they want to be elected, they will not. Trying to win votes by criticizing this school system, which reflects the culture of its community, is like trying teach a pig to fly; the effort can succeed only in annoying the pig.
A contrast. The motto of the school district in which I was educated is “A Community Is Known by the Schools that It Keeps.” Residents, whatever their relationship to the district, support the public school system for many reasons, first and foremost because it provides a high-quality education. With a majority of Afro-American students, it sends about 90 percent of its graduates to college, a fourth of them to Ivy League colleges or their equivalents. Its reputation for that education supports real estate values, attracts businesses, and contributes to community spirit.
The reasons for not criticizing the Las Cruces Public Schools in a campaign for the School Board are clear. First, the general public in Las Cruces is politically apathetic. Voter participation, though it has ticked up a bit, has been relatively modest. And the apathy is asymmetric; whites vote disproportionately more than Hispanics. Second, voter participation in separate education elections has been pathetically low. In those elections, even for bond issues paid for by all taxpayers, few in the general public vote; parents with school-age children and teachers constitute most of their single-digit turnouts—not a representative sample of the electorate. In this context, it will be very interesting to see, if, in a joint general and school election, the public supports the bond issue. Probably, a reflexive tendency to vote for education will prevail. Third, the few candidates with whom I have communicated are enthusiastic and well-intentioned but no more informed about educational issues than anyone else and no more prepared to focus on or analyze those which matter more than the current fads and fashions.
So candidates cannot campaign with any expertise or confidence about problems in the LCPS or about possible solutions, they address a populace equally lacking in knowledge broader than personal experience, so they will talk about what is familiar to everyone, whether or not it bears on matters which can lead to improvement in students’ education. No surprise: during the Rounds regime, the School Board, with Maria Flores on it, revoked provisions for citizen advisory boards, whether permanent or ad hoc, and has not restored them. Board members thereby have prevented interested citizens from participating in public education and learning enough to become future leaders. The revocation was intended to protect the Board members in office and the Superintendent and his staff from transparency and accountability.
An additional deterrence to criticizing the LCPS District is the regressive political influence of the local teachers’ union. Any candidate who asks why the teachers cannot get better results than they do will get not only no support from the unions, but also a rasher of abuse and a torrent of excuses blaming all others—administrators, parents, students—and everything else, probably including climate change. No surprise: the significant growth of the national teachers’ unions began in the 60s and exploded in the 70s, just when the women’s movement enabled the best and the brightest previously restricted in their career options to exit or not enter teaching, and left it to mediocrities, who require job protection. Indeed, teachers’ unions are organizations of professionals but not professional organizations, with standards of performance and conduct required of its members. Although originally intended to address the usual concerns of unions—compensation and conditions—the union now influences decisions on curriculum and instruction in order to conceal or protect the ignorant and incompetent. (So the benefits of early childhood education will be squandered by such elementary school teachers.)
There are four remedies within the scope of the School Board’s authority to address educationally relevant considerations of curriculum and quality of teachers. One, within the framework of the current state curriculum, the Board can develop a policy directing the Superintendent to develop “supplemental” curriculums which are comprehensive, coherent, and properly structured and sequenced. For example, whereas the English curriculum calls for teaching reflexive pronouns in the second grade and intensive pronouns in the sixth grade—the pronouns are the same words!—the Las Cruces curriculum should call for teaching pronouns in a single unit; likewise, the other parts of speech; and so forth, from words, to phrases, to clauses, to sentences. English is a system with structure, but it can be taught only if elementary teachers know grammar—which they absolutely do not know and protest the need for them or their students to know for false, flimsy, or self-serving reasons. (I have taught grammar, and I know that students who master it lose the insecurity from having to guess, and gain confidence in writing.)
Two, the Board can develop a policy stating hiring criteria requiring all applicants to take and pass an independent test of subject-matter knowledge and skills of any courses they apply to teach. Three, it can develop a policy making student performance on 4th-and 8th-grade proficiency tests of reading and mathematics a measure of Superintendent and District performance. Since teachers cannot teach to those tests except by actually teaching their students to achieve proficiency, the teachers will have to be subject-matter competent. Four, it can develop a policy directing the Superintendent to use the record of teachers of students passing or failing those proficiency tests as a basis for evaluating teacher performance. Students passing the tests are more likely to have better teachers than students not passing them.
If I were a candidate, this blog would be a major part of my platform and rationale for it. But I am not, though some candidates asked me why not. For this election, I cannot run; I live outside the districts involved. In other elections, I have not run though several people have asked me since I arrived in Las Cruces 12 years ago why not. My reasons in no particular order: I am an outsider (worse, from back East). I am an old white man (nearly 80). I think that the School Board should reflect the community, mostly Hispanic, which it serves (I want more Hispanics to play a more active and much larger role as leaders and participants in the schools and the city government).
In my previous blog, I recommended not voting in these races; in this blog, I offer the alternative of a wasted vote for a write-in for someone ineligible and unwilling.