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School Boards Launch Many California Politicians' Careers

New America Media, News feature, Annette Fuentes Posted: Dec 03, 2008

Editor's note: School board politics in California can be hotly contested as many politicians have started their careers by trying to get elected as board members, reports NAM education editor Annette Fuentes.

SAN FRANCISCO - When the San Francisco Unified School District held school board elections on Nov. 4, 13 candidates ran for four seats on the seven-member board. Many waged vigorous campaigns, and the top vote-getter, incumbent Norman Yee, garnered more than 88,000 votes, an impressive tally for an election in which most of the attention was on the national presidential race and several controversial ballot initiatives.

The hotly contested nature of those elections was an indication of just how seriously San Franciscans take the role of school boards in shaping education policy. It also reveals another aspect of school boards: they are the most grassroots elected body in cities and towns, large and small, the place where politics is truly local and democratic participation in a key institution is, theoretically, within anyone's reach. And as such, school boards can be the place where ambitions are forged and ambitious political careers are launched.

In the San Francisco-Bay Area and other urban centers, that has certainly been the case. The list of politicians who began their careers as school board members is impressive. It includes State Sen. Leland Yee, who parlayed eight years on the San Francisco school board into a seat on the Board of Supervisors, the state Assembly and now the state Senate; Tom Ammiano, an openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was just elected to the state Assembly; March Fong Eu who became California's first woman Secretary of State and first Asian-American in statewide office, and was also the first Asian American and the first woman to serve on the Alameda County Board of Education; San Jose City Councilmember Madison Nguyen, one of the first Vietnamese Americans elected to a school board; and Eric Mar, now a San Francisco school board member, who just won election to the Board of Supervisors.

School boards also reflect the dynamics of the communities they serve, even if they don't always reflect their racial and ethnic diversity. So in San Francisco, where Asian, Latino and African Americans are politically active at many levels of city life, the school board has had representation from all groups with one African American, one Latino, four Asians and one white on the current board. The same isn't true, however, in other, more rural or suburban areas of California, where school boards don't necessarily reflect the composition of the public school student populations they serve.

There are many reasons for that, including the demands of board participation as well as varied attitudes about school engagement among different ethnic and immigrant groups. For some, diversity on local school boards is a matter of equity and essential to the bigger project of public education reform. "School boards in California don't look like the communities being served, and therefore they don't have knowledge of the needs of our communities," said Phillip Tabera, president of the California Latino School Board Member Association. "When the boards begin to look like their communities, then we'll start to see something happen."

California has 992 school districts, each with its own elected board of either five or seven members, and a statewide total of 6,000 school board members, according to the California School Boards Association. A 2005 survey of association members statewide found that 78 percent were white, 7 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 2 percent African American and 1 percent American Indian; 5 percent indicated multiracial or other, and 4 percent didn't indicate their race or ethnicity.

That profile is similar to the nationwide picture of school boards. According to a report by Frederick M. Hess for the National School Boards Association, school boards are not as racially diverse as the country's population. White members are 85.5 percent, African Americans 7.8 percent and Hispanics 3.8 percent (Asians and other groups were not included in the findings). The report found greater racial diversity on boards representing large and urban school districts, like San Francisco.

There are complicated factors behind the lack of ethnic and racial diversity on school boards, says Jo Ann Yee, a senior director at the California School Boards Association. Yee noted that whites represent such a great majority of California's total school board membership because of geography and demographics: two-thirds of districts are in small, rural or exurban areas with few students and mostly white populations. "The boards are mostly white, so it skews the numbers," Yee says. Urban areas with greater racial and ethnic diversity will more likely have school boards that mirror those demographics, but there are fewer of those districts and as a consequence, fewer Latino, African-American and Asian school board members in the state. "It's easy to see with African Americans," Yee says. "Most are in the Bay Area--San Francisco, Oakland and Emeryvilleand on the coast of southern California, in LA, San Diego and Orange County. They are concentrated, and that is where the black school board members are."

Then there's voter participation, Yee says. "Very often people say a school board ought to look like the population it serves. If the student population is almost 50 percent Latino, then the school board should look like that," she says. "If you say school boards should reflect the adult population, then that number gets lower because there are fewer who are eligible to vote." Yee notes that Latinos are concentrated in "the salad bowl area, the inland empire, LA and San Diego," but many are immigrants who are not eligible to vote.

Cultural attitudes about education and civic participation also shape the composition of school boards, says L. Ling-chi Wang, a former professor of Asian and ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. Asian Americans make education a priority for their children, but that doesn't always translate into active involvement at school or in school boards, except for Chinese Americans. "They are the exception," Wang notes. "They tend to pay a lot more attention to school affairs, so you will find that the Chinese Americans will have a higher degree of participation for school boards and community college."

Four of seven members of the incumbent San Francisco board are Asian Americans: Hydra Mendoza, who is also an education adviser to Mayor Gavin Newsom, Eric Mar, Norman Yee and Jane Kim. Yet Asians' election to the school board has not, with a handful of exceptions, led to higher elected office as it had for other groups. "In a city with one third population of Asians, why is it every time an Asian American runs for school board, he comes in as the higher vote getterand yet if they run for supervisor, they don't win?" Wang asks. "I have been scratching my head about this."

Of the 11 current city supervisors, just oneCarmen Chu is Asian, and she was appointed to fill the vacancy created when Ed Jew was forced to resign after conviction for corruption. David Chiu, who was elected supervisor in November, adds another Asian member, and Eric Mar's election as supervisor paves a new path from school board to Board of Supervisors for Asians. Wang believes that Asians have lower voter participation in the general election and that non-Asians are less likely to vote for Asians running for supervisor because of lingering anti-Asian prejudice.

Latino representation on school boards is low nationally, in California, and in San Francisco. Mark Sanchez, president of the current city board, resigned his seat to run for supervisor and lost. Barbara Lopez narrowly won and will replace Sanchez as the sole Latino on the board. Sanchez thinks that people vote for school board candidates solely on their merits, but believes Latinos need someone at the table. "My experience being on the board and seeing who interacts with the district, who comes to meetings, is that Latinos are absent from those discussions," Sanchez says. "Culturally, they show a lot of deference to authority. But also because of their immigrant status, Latinos are afraid to speak out. Until recently, they haven't had clout at ballot box."

There are many barriers to participation in school boards and their election. A 2007 National School Board Association survey found that 34 states require that board members be residents of the district; 30 have a minimum age requirement, which varied from 18 to 21; and three required a high school diploma. Some states have additional eligibility criteria, including disqualifying convicted felons and employees of the school district, which includes teachers, and requiring that candidates be registered to vote. Most districts also restrict non-citizens from voting in board elections. "We had a ballot initiative to allow non-citizens to vote in school board elections four years ago, but it failed," Sanchez says. The one undercurrent in the opposition to granting the vote to non-citizens, he says, was the belief that Latinos are more conservative and increasing their votes would mean more conservative board members.

Phillip Tabera of the Latino school board group believes that increasing Latino participation and leadership in school governance is a key to reversing the low achievement among Latino youth. "A lot of Latinos don't have the tools. They don't know what is the process to complain about teachers. They don't know there is a complaint process," says Tabera, who is a board member in the Salinas Union High School District, in Monterey County. "A lot of times people don't come to school board meetings because they don't speak English. Maybe they speak an indigenous language. Here in Monterey County, we have people who are indios."

Identifying and lowering the barriers to school board participation should be the strategy, not simply calling for diversity, says Jo Ann Yee of the California School Boards Association. "Part of problem is we need to get more people registered to vote," says Yee. "And fewer people are interested in running today because fewer people have the time. It's a thankless job. It is time intensive. That limits who can run for office. If you're a single mom, why are you going to run for office? Especially on a board in an urban area."

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