School board politics: It’s not about party

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

There are no Rs or Ds on local school board ballots. Board members are elected on a non-partisan basis, and despite some past saber rattling from the Red-to-the-Roots crowd, it doesn’t appear that Republicans are preparing to change that status. This probably makes Knox County school board chair Patti Bounds happy.

For Bounds, a conservative who was raised Republican, it’s educational philosophy, not party lines that divide the board, the majority of whom oppose much of the reform agenda favored at the state and national levels.

“I could probably tell you where people come down, if you had to put them in a box, as far as Republicans and Democrats, but that’s not what affects how they vote,” Bounds says. “We have some very diverse opinions. But here’s the thing that makes me feel like I’m out there and don’t know who I am sometimes: it’s the Democrats (in Nashville) who are fighting for (public) education and see the dangers in the reform movement (excessive high stakes testing, charter schools, vouchers and privatization, linkage of teacher evaluations to sometimes-flawed test results).”

Bounds is worried about Betsy DeVos, the ultra-conservative Amway billionaire who is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to head the Department of Education. It’s DeVos’ identification with school privatization, not her overall politics, that bothers Bounds, who is also not comfortable with some of the positions of state legislators who represent her district, even though they are fellow Republicans.

“The more I get to know them and the more I study the issues, the more I just want to scream when Bill Dunn talks about vouchers. And the more time I’m spending in Nashville, the more I’m seeing the pressures to conform and fit in.”

But the group she finds most worrisome is the state school board, whose nine voting members (one per congressional district) are appointed by the governor to serve five-year terms. This board strongly supports charters and vouchers and high-stakes testing.

“Some of them have zero knowledge of education, and they’re the ones making the major decisions. They’re not accountable to anyone,” Bounds says.

“The only one Mike Edwards (who represents the Second Congressional District) is answerable to is Bill Haslam, and citizens have no vote in the matter. I think they’re good people and have done good things for the state. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, as an average person, if I was in favor of vouchers, I’d say, ‘What’s a voucher?’ And you’d say every child deserves a good school, and I’d agree. It’s the far-right people saying that’s what they are trying to do. You have to ask why are they doing this.”

Bounds worries that the Legislature might try to abolish local school boards and let the state board run everything from Nashville.

Edwards takes issue with most of what Bounds said. He said he’s studying a stack of documents seven inches thick for the next board meeting, and considers himself answerable to Tennessee’s schoolchildren – not to the governor.

He said he doesn’t see teachers as adversaries and that nobody is looking to shut down local school boards.

“Our biggest push is not against teachers. It is against the U.S. Department of Education. We’re not answerable to the governor. And we’re not trying to please the governor. Nor or we trying to please the Department of Education.

“None of us are ideological and none of us are on there with an agenda.”

Leave a Reply