The Next Board of Education
"Why in the world did you decide to run for a seat on the Board of Education? And why now?"
As I have been out and about talking with voters, I have fielded some version of this question several times. It is a very good question.
Who am I and what do I have to offer to the work of the Board of Education? Why would I choose to seek this form of public service now?
I want to share some of my own thinking about why I decided to dedicate my time and energy to serving Knox County Schools. I also want to take the opportunity to highlight *how* I would approach the sorts of questions which routinely come before the Board and why I think policy oversight requires careful, independent, and non-partisan work habits.
So...here we go!
I believe that Knox County Schools (and public education generally) is in a season of transition and potential transformation. While the pandemic and the endless politicized debates in our community which it engendered are hopefully receding, we have a lot of work to do together to rebuild trust and a sense of pursuing common goals in our public schools.
I am hopeful that we can and will do that work together!
In order to begin the work, we have to identify those issues and challenges that need to be addressed. What are the challenges we face? Let's start with a big one.
Responding to the interrupted learning of the past two years.
The next Board of Education will be tasked with overseeing a number of initiatives intended to increase student learning and directly address the educational challenges imposed by the pandemic.
How do we accomplish this work in a way that is sustainable for teachers and support staff?
How do we help students take ownership of their own learning?
How do we utilize metrics in responsible ways to support student learning?
How do we integrate the good things we learned during the pandemic into the on-going educational programs of Knox County Schools?
How do we look beyond the 'learning loss' of the past two years towards new models of student engagement and success?
How do we address the forms of educational inequity that existed prior to March 2020 and have often deepened as a result of the past two years?
It will be important for the Board of Education to keep both the local and national conversations in mind as they seek to address these challenges.
Issues and Challenges Facing the next Board of Education, Part 2
In the post above, I highlighted the importance of long-term and sustainable policy responses to the interrupted learning of the past two years. There are no quick fixes and easy answers. Partisan answers to complex issues will not serve students, families, teachers, and support staff well.
Another challenge facing Knox County Schools is related to funding. There are a number of issues which will require careful study over the coming years.
1. There is a new funding structure, the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act (or TISA), from the state. Many of the conversations around this new model have been highly partisan. There are, in my opinion, legitimate questions and concerns about *how* the new legislation was crafted and the speed with which it was passed.
It will, however, serve as the basis for state allocation of funding for the foreseeable future and the next Board of Education will need to monitor this new funding structure to ensure that Knox County Schools receives and utilizes every single state dollar to which it is entitled.
2. Mobilizing limited-time federal funding to address the interrupted learning over the past two years will also be important. Knox County Schools has received approximately $114 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER funds). The next Board of Education will continue to oversee the implementation of these funds. While we are working to improve student outcomes and move beyond the effects of the pandemic, we must also begin conversations about the fiscal sustainability of these programs. The effects of the pandemic may well be with us long after ESSER funds are gone.
3. Debates over vouchers and charter schools will be with us for some time to come. It should go without saying, of course, that I don’t believe anyone should seek to serve on the Board of Education if they are not absolutely committed to the mission of fully-funded public education.
My goal as a future member of the Board of Education is to pursue those policies which will guarantee that Knox County Schools provides excellent educational opportunities and career preparation for *all* students.
I am confident that our teachers and support staff can deliver educational programs which will surpass what any private school competitors might try to offer.
Issues and Challenges Facing the next Board of Education, Part Three.
I am absolutely convinced that teacher and support staff recruitment and retention is the single most important challenge the next Board of Education will face.
The article linked here should alarm everyone who is concerned about the future of public education. It indicates that 44% of those in the K-12 teaching profession express a sense of burn out at work.
(From the article: “These results are based on the Gallup Panel Workforce Study, conducted Feb. 3-14, 2022, with 12,319 U.S. full-time employees, including 1,263 K-12 workers.")
Burn out amongst educators is nothing new. The stresses and strains of the pandemic, however, took a heavy toll on those in the teaching profession.
How do we begin to address the challenges?
I think it is important to recognize that a number of issues contribute to a sense of professional burn out. It is never simply *one* thing. We need to be able to name some of the contributing issues and commit to addressing each of them.
1. While both the state and Knox County have made improvements in compensation for teachers and support staff, we know that there is still much work to be done. The next Board of Education will need to remain in on-going conversations with local and state leaders and advocate tirelessly for better pay and benefits. In the current labor market, we must recognize we are in competition with other employers for the skilled workforce which makes up Knox County Schools.
2. Burn out is also connected to work-place culture. Do teachers and support staff feel supported by administration? Are they empowered to be part of decision making processes? What mechanisms are currently in place to allow teachers and support staff to communicate with administration and others in positions of leadership?
The next Board of Education must be willing to ask real questions about work-place culture and Knox County Schools. It must seek out solutions to the issues contributing to low morale.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to any of the above questions. But we must be willing to be in conversation. We should also study carefully 'success' stories across the county to see how supportive work-place cultures are built and maintained.
3. It is important to keep the partisan arguments of adults out of the classrooms of our teachers and support staff.
That doesn’t mean asking educators to avoid certain topics, nor does it mean asking them to shape their curriculum in ways to guarantee there will never be any conflict.
If students are going to be 'ready graduates' they need to learn the skills necessary to navigate the reality of deeply held disagreements about things that matter.
At the same time, the next Board of Education has to be absolutely clear that it will protect the professional training of teachers and support staff and resist listening only to the loudest and most partisan voices. We all know that families need to be involved in the education of their students. But we must never allow one group to claim they speak for all parents and to insist that the educational professionals must listen only to them.
I am encouraged to see that the new superintendent, Dr. Jon Rysewyk, has created an Assistant Superintendent position to focus on Business and Talent. There is also an Executive Director of Human Resources Talent Acquisition.
It will take everyone working together to address these challenges. I am convinced, however, that Knox County Schools has everything necessary to meet the challenges.