In Indiana you can often tell how important something is by how little attention people pay to it. We lavish money and time, for instance, on our high school gyms. But I'll bet that if I went over to Monument Circle and started asking people to name the seven members of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, hardly anyone - myself included - would be able to do it.
Every four years we have the chance to vote for people we know very little about in elections that are treated as afterthoughts.
Yet the people on the school board are responsible for determining the policies that govern our public schools. They vote on all school issues - from finances to personnel. If your kids go to a public school, these people have a lot to do with the quality of your kids' lives - for all the days and years those kids will be enrolled in IPS, and, for that matter, for all the years that come after.
May 4, as you probably know, is a primary election day. There's been a lot of coverage in the press about the horse race taking place in the Republican Party between Mitch Daniels and Eric Miller. But there's no race on the Democratic side, where incumbent Gov. Joe Kernan is unopposed and presidential candidate John Kerry has already managed to put away his party's nomination. If you're not a registered Republican, you might be tempted to skip going to the polls on Tuesday since so little seems to be at stake.
What's easy, too easy, to miss in all this hoo-ha is the fact that for some reason we elect our school board representatives May 4 instead of in November. That's right: Amidst the stampede of elephants and donkeys an election that matters will be happening next Tuesday. Blink your eyes and you'll miss it.
Apart from our obsession over whether or not we should reset our clocks every spring and fall, there is probably nothing people in Indiana worry about more than the sorry state of public education. We hear it from all sides: It's not good enough. In fact, it's not good at all. This, however, doesn't keep us from reelecting, ad nauseam, the state's superintendent of schools, Sue Ellen Reed. And it's done nothing to cause us to reform our out-moded, overwhelmed and unaccountable local school board.
Our school board electoral system provides a field day for anyone seeking to debunk the democratic system or the ideals of local governance. Every four years we have the chance to vote for people we know very little about in elections that are treated as afterthoughts. This is certainly not to say that qualified and dedicated people are not now or have never served on the Indianapolis School Board. And it must be noted that board membership is a draining, stressful form of community service. There are three to four meetings of the full board each month and four board committees, which also meet every month. For this, each member receives an annual salary of $2,000 plus a stipend for each meeting attended. But let's face it, the quality of board candidates is a crap shoot.
The only qualification necessary in order to run for our school board is that you be a resident in our fair city for at least ... one year. Do you need a high school diploma or a GED? No. Do you need to have ever attended a public school? Absolutely not. Interestingly enough, there isn't even an age restriction.
Presumably, therefore, a student could run, which might not be such a bad idea. Indeed, if our school system is to model principles of democracy and active citizenship, a good case can be made that the board should include some form of student representation. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
As things stand today, IPS consists of seven members from five districts. Each one of those districts elects a representative; there are also two at-large representatives. On May 4 you will get to vote for a representative from your particular district - and for the at-large candidates. This year, candidates in Districts 1 and 2, Marianna Zaphirou and Mary Busch, are unopposed, as is at-large candidate Clarke Campbell. This is unfortunate - not because these good people are doing a bad job, but because without opposition a democratic system ceases to be democratic. This should be an alarm bell about the health of the system.
Other cities are experimenting with alternatives to elected school boards. In some places, the mayor or local judges appoint board members - and some people have called for doing away with school boards altogether, replacing them with a cabinet-level superintendent who would answer directly to the mayor. This way, if you don't like how things are going, you vote the mayor out instead of trying to pick and choose which board members are responsible for making such a mess. No one, though, seems to have gotten school governance right and, interesting again, there isn't much research out there indicating best practices. "School board politics are like the weather," says David Campbell at the University of Notre Dame. "Everyone talks about it, but no social scientists study it." Even then it could take a generation to find out if changes really work.
In the meantime, we have May 4 to look forward to. Our kids' lives depend on it.