Morris: The Flip Side of Civic Involvement
Early in my newspaper career, I learned that our education reporter had tried to engineer a takeover of the school board behind the scenes.
He was also a parent, and he was unhappy with the elementary school his children were assigned to. He wanted some changes made, which would have been unlikely with the board as then constituted.
On a personal level, I could admire his civic engagement in caring about his children’s education, but on a professional level, I was horrified. This was exactly the kind of conflict of interest our journalism professors had warned about. Reporters should not cover things they are involved in. Aloof objectivity and all that.
No one else, it seemed, cared all that much, however. Not our newspaper bosses, most of whom came from an earlier era when professional ethics were a bit more flexible. Not even our readers, who understood that “everybody being in everybody else’s business” was all but inevitable in a small community.
But how things have changed since then.
Ethical dictates, for one. The goal of dispassionate neutrality – “Just the facts, folks, and use them to make up your own minds” – has given way to unabashed advocacy. Too many journalists today seem comfortable not only with pushing their preferred agenda, but even with censoring “wrong” ideas that don’t fit the narrative.
And civic engagement has diminished greatly in our “bowling alone” era of retreating to digital enclaves where political discourse amounts to little more than slogans battling in bumper-sticker partisanship. Boards full of citizens elected and appointed have been able to shape their communities, quietly and in large part without interference. Very much a behind-the-scenes endeavor.
There are signs, though, that civic re-engagement may be occurring, at least when it comes to school boards.
Across the country, parents and community members are storming board meetings in record numbers, making headlines when they protest curricula gone astray. Critical race theory and transgender demands, in particular, have made ordinary citizens question the direction education is taking in this country.
Here in Indiana, it is the fallout from the Covid pandemic filling up school board audiences – mask mandates, vaccination requirements, remote teaching broadcast from empty buildings.
“It is inconsiderate and unfair for individual patrons to disrupt the meeting where we have to adjourn or recess the meeting,” the executive director of the Indiana School Board Association told an Indianapolis TV station recently. This disturbing trend, the newscast noted, “has happened at school board meetings across Indiana.”
Surely this is a good thing.
Not the disruption, of course. Civic engagement should be civil, not excessively confrontational or pointlessly rude, especially if the goal is to change reluctant minds rather than just to get attention.
But if children are our future, then getting their education right should be the top item on our list of priorities. And if public schools are to be a meaningful part of that education future – many people today doubt that – communities must reassert themselves.
I don’t envy school board members’ frustrations as they try to serve many masters – schools of education, politicians from all levels of government, teachers, parents, children, taxpayers. And I don’t doubt the sincerity with which most approach their efforts.
But I can’t help feeling they’ve taken a wrong turn.
The current wisdom seems to be that a school board should be conduit for top-down policy, making sure the latest in expert-approved pedagogy is adopted in every classroom of every school. But its original mission was to be a conduit for bottom-up policy, the forum through which a community preserved its traditions, expressed its values, set its standards and dictated its educational needs.
We still have the right, and the absolute need, to control education locally, to dictate what is taught and how it is taught, how it is judged and graded and to what ends it is pursued.
Some believe, with justification, alas, that we have lost control of the federal government and are losing it at the state level.
But we can still make a difference locally. Pay attention to what is being done. Attend meetings and speak up. Organize. Even run for election or encourage someone you believe in to run. As my reporter colleague on the education beat knew, a school board seat is relatively easy to win.
If we still have a common culture in this country that can be rediscovered, celebrated and passed onto future generations, it won’t filter down from any person or group’s national agenda, but bubble up from communities.
One school board at a time.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.