Public school boards are facing a lot of controversy right now. This fall, the families of 50,000 students have pulled their children out of Washington’s public schools, 5 percent of the state’s total enrollment. School board members are hearing a lot of complaints from parents, as politics intrudes on the work of educating children. As a result, there is some confusion about the responsibilities and powers of local school boards.
Let’s review. Many parents have pulled their children out of the public schools, for a number of reasons, including:
1. Children have lost between four to seven months of learning from the COVID school lock-downs; parents are concerned the schools won’t help their children catch up;
2. Parents are angry that racial politics have taken over the schools;
3. Parents are concerned the state has lowered the quality of instruction in reading, math, science and history by injecting critical race theory ideas into every subject;
4. Parents are angry the state has imposed radical sex education encouraging five-year-olds to question their biological sex;
5. Parents are upset about Governor Inslee’s mask and vaccine mandates;
6. Parents are worried about threats from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to withhold district funding unless Governor Inslee’s mandates are followed.
Given all these problems, what should a school board member do?
State law provides some answers. School board members have the power to decide most of these controversies at the local level. Washington is a local control state. The school board hires and fires the school superintendent. The school board controls the district’s budget. The school board controls the curriculum teachers use in the classroom.
These powers are provided in state law:
RCW 28A.320.015 School boards of directors — Powers:
The board of directors of each school district may exercise the following:
1. The broad discretionary power to determine and adopt written policies not in conflict with other law that provide for the development and implementation of programs, activities, services or practices that the board determines will
2. Promote the education and daily physical activity of kindergarten through 12th grade students in the public schools; or
3. Promote the effective, efficient, or safe management and operation of the school district.
b. Such powers as are expressly authorized by the law; and
c. Such powers as are necessarily or fairly implied in the powers expressly authorized by law.
RCW 28A.320.230 says local school boards set policy over instructional materials. The school board then approves the materials selected by the relevant committee. Subsection (1)(f) provides:
“Recommendation of instructional materials shall be by the district’s instructional materials committee in accordance with district policy. Approval or disapproval shall be by the local school district’s board of directors.”
The failure of local school boards to exercise their authority under the law is fueling many of the controversies facing public schools.
Parents have many reasons to leave the public education system, and the ongoing divisions in our politics is inducing even more families to seek alternatives. Under state law, the best way for a school board to retain families and serve children is to return to a focus on core learning, to reject politics and the push for racial segregation, and to promote equal treatment and civil rights for all.
Liv Finne is the director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center.