SAN ANTONIO — After 83 years, could the National School Boards Association be on the cusp of shifting its focus? That topic was among several weighed during a Friday afternoon discussion between NSBA Executive Director and CEO John Heim and AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech at the School Superintendents Association’s National Conference on Education.
The “informal” session between the two association chiefs marked Domenech’s final before his retirement at the end of February and Heim’s second since accepting his role shortly after controversy erupted in September 2021 over an NSBA letter to President Joe Biden.
The letter, co-signed by former NSBA Interim Executive Director and CEO Chip Slaven and former President Viola Garcia, described aggressive parent protests over COVID-19 safety measures and curriculum controversies as “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” In the letter's aftermath, 23 state school boards associations split off from NSBA to form the Consortium of State School Boards Associations.
That split created a competing organization committed to being the group to represent state school board associations going forward, potentially diluting the overall representation and advocacy power of both NSBA and COSSBA in the bigger picture. In a callback to a point Domenech made last year, it makes it more difficult for AASA to go “hand-in-hand” with one association to Congress to advocate for both superintendents and state school board associations.
As a result, Heim said NSBA is rethinking its mission. One option: The group might shift focus to representing individual school boards rather than state school boards associations, similar to how AASA represents individual superintendents and not state superintendents associations.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with Dan about the model that AASA uses, which I think makes a lot of sense,” Heim said. “He doesn’t represent state associations of superintendents, he represents superintendents. And although [AASA has] great relationships with the state associations of superintendents … it’s clear who AASA represents.”
Though it would be a different approach from serving school boards, the shift wouldn’t be that far-fetched: NSBA already has local-level memberships for school board leaders and senior district staff in 47 states via its National Connection program, he said.
Don’t ‘take the bait’ on culture wars
An American Federation of Teachers poll released in January found 65% of voters and 74% of parents say schools typically stick to "appropriate academic content and skills education," and 66% of voters said culture war disputes are a distraction from schools’ core mission. Parents, Heim said, are ultimately more concerned with whether their kids can read, do math, are mentally healthy and have opportunities to grow than with, say, what books are in the library or critical race theory.
Heim suggested the nation may not be as divided as is generally thought. If you look at presidential election maps and mark off states with a 60% or less majority for either party, Heim said, only a handful of states are left as clearly red or blue. The ones marked off are actually purple and not necessarily as divided as they may seem on many issues, he said.
“I think — I hope — if we are careful about how we handle this and don’t try to weigh in on one side versus the other and we don’t take the bait, I think parents will coalesce behind us, and I think we’ll see a change,” Heim said.
Education, however, has become a “wedge issue” to sow division at the local level — particularly when it comes to “parents’ rights” legislation, Heim said.
“I don’t think anyone ever in the past thought that parents didn’t have rights and parents shouldn’t be involved,” Domenech said. “But now it’s being made a political issue, and it’s being used to elect board members.”
This is a critical issue to not take the bait on, Heim said, because most of the proposals in the bills — the idea that parents have a right to know what curriculum is, that standards should be listed on a website, that parents should be able to opt their kids out of reading a particular book — aren’t unreasonable. But there are also things that don’t make sense logistically, he said, like requiring lesson plans to be posted weekly.
“You know, if you’re a good teacher, if you post your lesson plan on Monday and it hasn’t changed by Tuesday, you’re probably not doing something right,” Heim said,” because your kids probably did something on Monday that caused you to monitor and adjust, and now it looks different on Tuesday.”
SCOTUS cases could complicate school diversity
How the U.S. Supreme Court rules in cases against Harvard and University of North Carolina that would restrict the use of race in college admissions decisions could have implications not just for higher education, but for how school districts work to diversify buildings.
“That could really take us backwards if we’re not careful,” Heim said.
Domenech said the cases present an opportunity for superintendents and school boards to work together and come up with creative solutions for diversity. While superintendent of Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, for instance, Domenech said the school board was able to work around a dispute in admissions for top-ranked Thomas Jefferson High School by using geography instead of race to diversify the student body.
Heim added that poverty could serve as an alternative factor not based on race to weigh in school admissions and student assignments within districts. He noted that during his time as a superintendent in a district with a 60% Latino population, he set a goal to ensure that demographics in all school programs mirrored those of the overall student population.
“If we lose that, it becomes easy to make excuses” like saying certain student groups are underrepresented in extracurricular activities because their parents work two jobs and can’t get them to meetings or practice sessions, he said. “We need to have opportunities to fix that. That’s not their problem, that’s our problem.”