Speaking truth to power

Melanie Kurdys

This is the third post in a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?

Melanie Kurdys, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a BS in math and worked in Systems Development for IBM, AT&T, and Owens Corning Fiberglas, is a fulltime mom of three children, and has, for the last twenty years, lived and volunteered in schools in Michigan, Louisiana, Georgia, and California. She served on the Portage, Michigan, School Board from 2007-2011 and on the Portage Curriculum Committee from 2004-2006.

I was on my local school board, but lost my last election because I was part of a six to one majority that voted to pay off our superintendent to get her to leave before her contract expired.

A compulsory monopoly cannot be led, directed, bribed, or coerced into better performance.

When I started on the board, in 2007, I was in the minority, five to two. I am a fiscal conservative, strongly believe in using data to make decisions, and was relentless in my effort to show that the student achievement in our district was unacceptable—for hundreds of children every year and getting worse. The community has taken pride in being the top district in the region. It did not want to admit publicly, even privately, that our student achievement was declining. But you can’t fix what you don’t admit is a problem. The data was undeniable.

My intent was not to make our community look bad, which many believed. My goal was to persuade district leadership that sincere, significant reforms were needed if we were to even approach the goal of all children achieving.

With much turmoil, two board presidents and one trustee quitting at different points in time, the board finally admitted our student achievement was not acceptable and we had to make systemic changes. But the Superintendent, and administration in general, was defiantly resistant. To quote the superintendent, "I am not going to do that.”

Both the board president and I, the VP, were up for reelection and lost to two people who insisted everything with the school was fine and the trouble was us. After our resounding defeat, the new board decided our community does not want to know the truth and they have backed off any significant reforms. One of the new board members called to apologize to me once he recognized the reality, but the board majority is now back to a state of denial.

I have realized that a compulsory monopoly cannot be led, directed, bribed, or coerced into better performance. They must not be a monopoly, must face the reality of lost customers and lost revenue, must feel the real possibility of no longer being in business, to generate the will to change.

Broad parental choice is the only mechanism to drive change.

I do see Common Core standards and assessments as a barrier to true effectiveness of choice and oppose national standards in general. More on that another time.

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