Communities, School Boards and Education Policy
Albert Cortez, Ph.D.
At a recent session with a group of community-based advocacy organizations and while noting the behind-the-scenes operations that characterize education policy development, I saw the intense interest of community members in the intricacies of the often inaccessible education decision-making process. At the local level, school administrators work with school board members and with a sub-set of supportive community leaders. At the state level, organizations with their army of paid lobbyists tend to dominate the process, often excluding community-based groups whose voices should be heard.
With this significant disconnect between educational professionals and their communities, it is little wonder that alternatives, such as charter schools, home schooling and even cyber-schools, have managed to gain a foothold in delivering educational services in many communities.
Public education has long been dependent on support from local communities. And for the most part, that support has been forthcoming. It is reflected in growing public concern about Texas policymakers’ recent cuts to public education. It is also seen in community support for local initiatives to increase local taxes to support day-to-day operations or to build new schools.
Though still a visible ally for public education, IDRA’s interactions with local community-based organizations suggest that such strong community interest in supporting and improving public schools is a highly underutilized resource at both the local and state levels. Taking steps to connect with this tremendous community force effectively may be an essential new strategy if public schools are to survive what has seemed to be an ongoing public policy onslaught ranging from untried and untested alternative education delivery models, to dwindling local and state policy leadership and related weakened financial support for public schools for all students in all communities.
Why do we have this disconnect between school leaders and communities, and more importantly what is needed to re-establish and strengthen their connections? A recent article raises a key issue when it poses in its title : “How do we make inclusive education happen when exclusion is a political pre-disposition?” (Slee, 2012). While referring to the issue of including special needs students in regular education programs, the concept also implies that exclusion of such communities’ advocates is inherent in the existing education policymaking process.
A review of the literature on engaging communities in education reveals many examples where the focus has been on bringing community members in to concentrate on a particular predetermined strategy, such as to improve student instruction, reduce dropout rates or deal with some other challenge. These often involve some effort where the parent is brought in by the school to supplement or implement someone else’s ideas. Seldom in the literature are studies cited where the community is an equal partner in defining the issues at hand and provides substantive input into addressing key issues (Weiss, et al., 2010).
The marginalization of families and communities in the policy decision-making arena is not new, but as minority and non-traditional families have come to represent increasing percentages of the school population, the gulf between schools and communities – particularly communities of color – seems to be increasing. This has led to continuation and expansion of top-down policies emphasizing standards and accountability, most with little or no community input into the decision-making process. No doubt the mismatch between the economic and racial groundings of school leaders (policymakers at state and national levels, superintendents, school boards, etc.) and local community leaders has exacerbated such challenges. Tensions between schools and communities in turn require skill sets that may involve what one author describes as negotiating skills that take into account the “dynamics of minority community engagement” (Jasmin, 2001). These challenges are further compounded by what are perceived (and executed) as unequal power relationships – with policymakers and educators at the top levels of the pyramid and communities at the bottom.
In visualizing a future ideal “prosperous community,” Robert D. Putnam posits the notion that society must begin to move away from the concept that benefits must be disproportionally allocated among competing communities to an approach where “in tackling the ills of American cities, investments in physical capital, financial capital, human capital and social capital are complementary, not competing alternatives.” He continues, “Investments in jobs and education… will be more effective if they are coupled with reinvigorating community action.” (1993)
Reinvigorating community action in turn requires that school leaders, including local school board members, revisit their approaches to community engagement. In minority and low-income communities this means moving away from the traditional PTA model to exploring the PTA Comunitario innovation that is emerging in communities in deep south Texas, where the community initiates the conversations and meets with school leaders as equal partners in setting local school policy priorities (Montemayor, 2012). It may mean revisiting conventional meeting formats replete with official protocols and providing opportunities for informal community-based conversations between school staff, local policymakers and community members about the community’s priorities and concerns. Among state policymakers, it may mean complementing local and state capitol hearings with local community pláticas – or conversations about educational issues as seen from the people whose children are impacted on a daily basis. It may also involve unlocking the school doors that are so often closed from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. to offer community members access to the array of community-based resources that sit unused for hours each day – offering meeting space, access to technology and expanding opportunities for adult learning experiences.
Long ago, schools were the center of community life, a place of and for the community as a whole. Many of those same feelings hold today. Witness the uproar and deep feelings of community ownership that accompanies any proposed school closure. Channeling this ownership requires re-evaluating existing relationships and operational paradigms. Absent substantial changes in approaches, we can expect community members and parents who feel excluded and unwanted in the conventional school contexts to look elsewhere for options that make them and their children feel valued – despite lack of evidence of success.
Jasmin, Z. “Negotiating Equity: The Dynamics of Minority Community Engagement in Constructing Inclusive Educational Policy,” Cambridge Journal of Education (June 2001) Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 239-69.
Montemayor, A.M. “Hosting Superintendents, Quizzing Candidates and Marking Maps – A Fully Engaged PTA Comunitario,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2012).
Putnam, R.D. “The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life,” The American Prospect (Spring, 1993) No. 13.
Slee, R. “How do we make inclusive education happen when exclusion is a political pre-disposition?” International
of Inclusive Education (February 9, 2012).
Weiss, H.B., & M.E. Lopez, H. Rosenberg. Beyond Random Acts: Family, School, and Community Engagement as an Integral Part of Education Reform (The National Policy Forum for Family, School & Community Engagement, December 2010).
Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of Policy at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at
[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June-July 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]