John Tsarpalas: Today on Commonwealthy, we are going to step aside from the campaign trail and talk about school board issues. Most of the local offices in America are school boards. There are lots and lots of things happening in those boards and in those districts and in those schools.
If those of us that believe in limited government ever hope to win elections and to win the public, we need to start having some effect on what’s happening in these schools. The left, progressives, whatever you want to call them, have in many parts of this country taken over our schools. It’s time for us to get involved, step up, and run in these districts.
So today my guest is Kyle Olson of the Education Action Group. This man has dedicated his life to understanding what’s happening in the schools and fighting back. So today, Commonwealthy #19, School Board Issues with Kyle Olson.
My guest today is Kyle Olson, founder and I don’t know if your title is President or CEO or what of Education Action Group. What is your official title?
Kyle Olson: Founder and CEO.
John Tsarpalas: Cool. I met you back in about 2007 was it?
Kyle Olson: That’s right.
John Tsarpalas: You were just getting started about then?
Kyle Olson: Yeah, it was right about the time I was getting started. So it has been eight years.
John Tsarpalas: And you live in Michigan. And for eight years you have been struggling with this overwhelming fight to improve our educational system.
Kyle Olson: My initial mission was to try to fix the broken system. As I’ve grown over the last eight years, I think that is still important, but I have also shifted my focus. I am focusing on school choice and trying to educate parents about what is going on in their local district, but then also the options that are out there, whether it is homeschooling or a local charter school or a private school or online school. Whatever it is, parents should know all of their options before they make that decision.
John Tsarpalas: Very well said. The focus of this podcast is for people running for local office. In most cases, it is running for school board. What are some of those issues that are consistent throughout the country for school boards and school districts? And the message that someone as a candidate should be thinking about.
Kyle Olson: Sure. I don’t think it can be underscored enough that it is always a challenge to run for the school board if you are concerned about transparency, if you are concerned about the financial situation of the school district, if you are concerned about where the dollars are going, and those sorts of issues.
It’s a difficult thing because what I have seen in observing and scrutinizing school districts and school boards over the last eight years is that generally speaking, especially union-heavy states, the unions run the show. There are a variety of reasons, but they start at the school board.
They know that if they can elect a slate of candidates to the school board who theoretically are looking out for the union interest, when it comes to contract negotiation time, who are they going to be looking out for but the people who just elected them? So that’s why I say it is a really difficult thing.
It takes a person who has thick skin, is relentless, and is determined to make sure that the interests of children and parents and taxpayers is looked out for because so often times it is not.
John Tsarpalas: So let me jump in. The union side is running slates. They are recruiting candidates. What are they doing for these candidates? How do they operate?
Kyle Olson: Well, they will help to collect petition signatures. They will help to distribute yard signs. They will do mailings on their behalf. They’ll do door to door on their behalf. They will distribute flyers in the school. We’ve heard multiple instances of that.
We’ve heard in Illinois and elsewhere around the country where school employees will use the school district email to promote their candidates and do union work. They will do whatever it takes to make sure that their preferred candidates get elected.
People who don’t fall into that mindset, whether they are Tea Party activists or they are –
John Tsarpalas: Concerned citizen.
Kyle Olson: Yeah, exactly. Or a parent who is concerned about how their child with special needs is being treated. Those sorts of people who have a different objective than just looking out for the employees have pretty tough road to hoe because the union comes in and they have a very clear objective.
They want people on the board who are going to look out for their interests. So they will fund them. They will be their volunteers. Those candidates have a natural built-in base of highly motivated people to do their work.
Where there is a mother who is concerned about how her special needs child is being treated, she may not necessarily have that base. And so it is difficult thing. I suppose one of the takeaways here is that, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t run for the board.” That’s not what I am saying.
I don’t think people should be lead to believe that just because they have interests of children first or they are looking at the entire picture versus just the employee sliver that that is going to be appreciated. Over the last eight years, what I have realized and others have observed as well is that often times public school systems are designed and set up to benefit the adults, not designed to improve educational outcomes for children.
John Tsarpalas: Right. One of the things I am hoping with this podcast is that people will realize they can beat the entrenched. They can out work and out do unions. Many times, you can kind of catch them sleeping. They think they’ve got it all sewn up. So it’s not impossible; it just takes diligence, time, effort, and organization by the individual candidate.
Kyle Olson: Right, exactly. And a strong message, which I know is one of the things you want to talk about. What I believe resonates with the general public is 1) they want to make sure children are receiving a high quality education and 2) they also want to make sure their take dollars are being spent wisely.
So what we as an organization have tried to do is actually open the books and show where the tax dollars are going. I think that’s a very healthy for candidates to do. But again, going back to what we just talked about, that makes them a target because they are not falling in line, they are not parroting the message, “Well, schools just need more money, so we need to raise property taxes or sales taxes or a new millage or whatever it is.”
I think a message of fiscal responsibility, transparency, making sure that parents and tax payers know where the dollars are going, but then also when there are issues. If there is a child who is not being served properly, pledging to get to the bottom of that. Not protecting employees or protecting sacred cows in the school district, but getting to the bottom of that and solving that.
But then also doing what is necessary to make sure that kids are receiving a high quality education. You do that by having a highly effective, highly qualified teacher in front of every child in that school district. I think that’s a winning message. In my opinion, that’s what candidates should be focusing on.
John Tsarpalas: Okay. There was an organization here in Illinois two years ago. They ran a hundred and twenty candidates for school boards. They have eighty winners. What they went after was hold the line on property taxes and let’s get more for our money in the schools. That’s what they ran on.
It wasn’t about cutting budgets; no one wants to cut money to children. But let’s hold the line on our property taxes and make sure that we are doing the most with the money to get it to children for education. That was a very successful message. I think that message works all over the country.
Kyle Olson: Right, I agree. And of course, you know the devil is in the details because at the end of day, what does that really mean? Does that mean pension reform? Does that mean shopping for different healthcare plans? What does that actually mean? But that is a winning message because of the perception. And I think it is correct. In fact the data backs it up.
But what we have seen over the last twenty or thirty years is administration ballooning, so more dollars are going towards administration- people who are not in direct contact with children on a daily basis, but they are in some central office some place. The money is being shifted towards that for a variety of reasons- fiefdom building or it is being forced to comply with federal and state regulations and those sorts of things.
But I think when you use that sort of language that we need to get as many dollars into the classroom as close to the children as possible, I think that’s a winning message. Also, as you know, our organization has been harshly critical of unions for very good reasons. When you talk about empowering teachers and giving more autonomy to teachers, that is also a winning message. And supporting teachers.
One example is our organization has been focusing on this white privilege training that has been going on around the country. The basic theory is that we need to treat kids differently based on race because the school system is built on a “white culture.” So what these activists will do, and I should say consultants because some school districts are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on this, is say we need to treat kids differently based on race.
So what we have been hearing from teachers around the country is what this has done is created chaos in our school districts. We can’t punish students. We can’t hold them accountable anymore and it is purely based on race.
So I think that there are opportunities to find in roads with teachers. I think candidates should think strategically about ways to do that. What the union will try to do is if you are critical about a teacher being paid based on how long they have been there and not based on the positive impact they have on children, then according to the union you hate teachers. That’s the rhetoric they try and throw and get to stick to candidates.
So that’s why candidates have got to find ways, not to change their values or their message, but to seek opportunities to win the support of individual teachers. There is a subtle, but very distinct difference between teachers and their union.
John Tsarpalas: Right. Back to this bureaucracy thought, how much is Common Core adding to the bureaucracy? School districts have to hire people to handle all this? There is additional testing. What is that doing to the system?
Kyle Olson: Yeah, it is doing some of that. But what it is doing is it is shifting once again away from the local level and towards the federal government. I think that’s another winning message: keeping power at the local level. When you read into this and what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been saying, they don’t trust parents and they don’t trust a local school board to have enough brains to make proper decisions for their children.
So what you’ve got it are these status progressives in Washington, D.C. wanting to decide how school districts across the country should operate. We have seen across the country that being critical of Common Core is a winning message.
What’s interesting too is it unifies, for very different reasons, Tea Party activists and unionists. Again, for very different reasons, but at the end of the day they are generally speaking on the same side when it comes to that issue. And a lot of teachers, too, voice their frustration because they are now being held accountable based on a test score.
I think in the long run, Common Core is not going to work. But I think it is a great opportunity for candidates to explain we are losing local control because of this program.
John Tsarpalas: So I think the theme of getting everything as close to the kids a possible. We want to make sure there is as much money going directly into children, not bureaucracies. We want to make sure that the curriculum is something that we control locally so that it is about us and our community and our kids.
I think you keep hammering it in, it is about our children, not the nation’s children. You bring back everything local. I think that’s a positive theme.
Kyle Olson: Absolutely. The value set of San Francisco is different than the value set of Waukesha, WI. Those are just very different value sets. They have different tastes in terms of school lunches. They are just very different places, so you can’t just have this one size fits all, Washington, D.C. mandate to dictate how each school is going to be run.
Ultimately I personally believe if San Francisco wants to teach all sorts of crazy things and that’s what the parents want, they should be able to do that. But if a place like a conservative place somewhere in the country wanted to teach something else, they should be able to do that. That’s why I think having that local control argument in a winning one.
John Tsarpalas: Well, all politics is local. It’s about the local school and the kids in the neighborhood and what’s best for them. I think people running for office for school board need to have a loving approach. They need to listen to what other people are saying, what the voters are saying. They need to go around door to door and talk to people, hear what they think.
The winning theme, and I’ll say it again, is it’s about getting as much money in the classroom without raising our taxes, which are already high. Too much money is going to the bureaucracy and other built-in special interests, because we do have special interests that are being funded. There are lobbyists being paid out of here. Union is getting paid. These consultants are getting paid.
Kyle Olson: Testing companies.
John Tsarpalas: Testing companies, textbook companies. I think a lot of Common Core is driven by the greed of, “Oh, we get to print all new books.”
Kyle Olson: Exactly. And the testing companies, too. I think another winning message is about the data collection that’s going on, especially related to the Common Core testing. How is that information that is being collected being protected? Where is that being stored? Who has access to that? Definitely questions that school board members can ask and can raise to deal with those issue.
What we have seen, and I know candidates have seen this too all over the country, is when you are talking about school issues, you are ultimately talking about children and you are talking about our kids and our future. Parents and grandparents take those issues very seriously. So this idea that through a test we are going to be collecting data, which then can be shared either with the federal government or with companies or contractors, makes people squeamish and for very good reasons.
We have seen, and we have written about this on our website, where school districts are not very good at privacy. The Chicago Public School District, for example, accidentally posted social security numbers and medical information for students on their school district website. The only reason they knew about it was because a parent told them.
I think generally speaking parents and everyone needs to look at a public school district as a governmental entity because that is what it is. The government inherently has built into it inefficiencies. They are prone to mistakes frequently. I think that is a reality and that is a fact. That’s how it should be approached.
John Tsarpalas: So if someone is thinking about running for school board or they are just interested in the issue of education, where should they start looking around? Obviously your website, eagnews.org.
Kyle Olson: Sure. Just very briefly about our website, we focus on where the dollars are going, what unions are doing around the country, and who they are supporting for office. We focus on a lot of the cultural issues, what’s being taught in the classroom, and those sorts of things.
What I would do is if there are board members that you know are like-minded, I would first start talking with them. The other idea I would have is, and obviously it depends on the district, if there is an opportunity to run as a slate, whether it is two or three candidates or whatever, I would recommend that so you are not the only one standing out there alone taking all the attacks.
But ask to see the budget. Ask to see where the dollars are going. Ask to see the curriculum. Just start asking questions. Talk with teachers. I don’t think I am unique, but between going to church and playing on a softball team and having a circle of friends, I know a lot of teachers, and not just teachers in my district, but around the community. So just ask what’s going on.
Teachers may not say things publicly, but they will give you an unvarnished opinion privately about how the school is really being run, where the dollars are going, who the ineffective teachers are, and those sorts of things.
I think a great thing to do is just start asking questions. Don’t draw conclusions right away or don’t make declarations about, “This is where we need to go.” But just start asking questions.
John Tsarpalas: Right, I think it is about asking questions and listening. You don’t need to make big, bold statements because quite frankly you might not win an election doing that. You need to run on something solid and stick with that message.
You are going to be changing things as you go along, especially if you’ve never been on the board. Once you get inside and you see more what’s happening, it could be a different story on some of these issues.
Are there any books people should be aware? Other people’s sites? Just sources for information.
Kyle Olson: The Heartland Institute is good. I think the Heritage Foundation is very good. I think Cato is good. The trouble is there aren’t really any national websites that focus specifically on local schools. You’ll see maybe a think tank will focus on state spending or state policy, like Heritage will focus somewhat on federal policy. I think when it comes to your individual school district, the best thing to do is just be in your community, and ask those questions.
John Tsarpalas: Yeah, go to the board meetings. Listen. Don’t be disruptive. Don’t attack; just listen. I would not recommend you get into any Freedom of Information Act requests if you are going to run. If you want to be an activist, that’s a whole other story. We will be putting together a podcast on how to do FOIA, because I think that’s important for activism.
We actually have a podcast coming on how to run a slate, so it’s funny you mentioned that. I am glad you mentioned it because for school board, it does make sense to run a slate.
My partner on a lot of these podcasts is a woman names Kristina Keats. Tina and I have run slates around here in the Chicago area in the past. They can be effective and they can also have a weak link in them. Sometimes you get a candidate who wants to fight everything the rest of the slate wants to do. So we’ll talk about that when we get to slates.
A slate is a good way to go because it marshals your resources. You can spend less money. The mailing can be for the whole group versus for one person. It works out to be more efficient for a group.
Kyle Olson: Sure. And of course if you get on the board and it is a six to one board, they are able to just zero in on that one “problem,” where if you have some allies, then you’ve got some protection.
John Tsarpalas: Have you gotten into any referendums, bonding, funding, or things like happening in school districts? Is that something you can use as a strategy? Do you want to run when that’s happening if you are opposed to it or if you are for it? Or is that just something you haven’t played with?
Kyle Olson: No, I think you definitely could. Frankly, I think it would be good to look at the history of those in your community. I can tell you where I live in western Michigan, my local school board is absolutely relentless at trying to pass tax increases.
One of the examples and reasons why they wanted to pass the tax increases was there was a child who died on one of the playgrounds. This was a couple of years ago. He choked on like a pea gravel, a small pebble. They used his death as the reason for why they should pass the millage so then they could replace the pea gravel.
John Tsarpalas: Let me ask you explain millage because it doesn’t happen in every state. We don’t have mileages here in Illinois. I know there are other states that don’t.
Kyle Olson: Okay. Basically a millage would be you pay your property taxes based on a millage.
John Tsarpalas: It’s an assessment value of the property or something like that?
Kyle Olson: Yeah, right, exactly. So what they would do is they would have a vote, which the school district pays for to get it on the ballot, and then tax payers would in essence vote to raise their taxes.
So anyway, they used this child’s death as the justification for raising taxes so we could get rid of this pea gravel so this tragedy doesn’t happen again. The only trouble is they didn’t do that. They got the tax increase, but they didn’t spend it on what they said they were going to spend it on.
John Tsarpalas: So the pea gravel is still there?
Kyle Olson: It’s still there. So they got their tax increase last November. Then they wanted another one this past May, which was rejected. So all of that to be said, I think it would be good to look at what happened with tax increases, those bonding, or whatever those different votes are. What happened in your local community?
Try to assess where are taxpayers at, because if you can see where those are consistently turned down my guess is then you’ve got a community that is skeptical about where the money is going. They are not buying that argument that the school district needs more.
John Tsarpalas: Right. There’s a great way to go knock doors when you are running and to listen. Have a couple of questions. “What do you think of the property taxes? Where is that at? There’s a possibility of a referendum coming. What are your thoughts on that?”
You are literally taking a little survey and a poll as you are going around, getting feedback from the people. They want to talk a little bit and they’ll have someone to give some input to. You are going to get elected if you are the one who knocked on all the doors.
Kyle Olson: That’s right. How many candidates actually do that? My guess, and I haven’t seen any polling to back this up, is probably ninety-eight percent of Americans cannot name a single one of their school board members.
John Tsarpalas: Correct. And have not met them.
Kyle Olson: And it might actually be higher than that.
John Tsarpalas: Right. Knock on a door and you talk to them and they are going to remember you. Especially when you leave, you follow up with a little card, “It was nice to meet you. Glad we talked.” You are going to get their vote and you are going to get some input on what the community’s thinking.
You are not going to be able to fight the big trends, but you can hold the line on certain things and move certain things along as you build.
Kyle Olson: That’s a good point, too. I think it’s important for school board candidates to have their principles and have their positions on issues, but also know what their responsibility is. So in other words, most states that have Common Core national standards, a local school district can’t do anything about that because the state doesn’t allow them to do that. Now, Wisconsin and New Hampshire are exceptions where the school board can decide to adopt their own standards.
But generally speaking, I think it is important to talk about Common Core, but don’t run on federal issues because at the end of the day, you can’t do anything about that.
John Tsarpalas: Right. So pick your battles and don’t fight on something that you can’t do anything about. It drives me crazy when people want to talk about abortion and they are talking at the state rep level or something. It is Roe vs. Wade; nothing is going to happen.
Kyle Olson: Right. I do think though, especially as we focus on cultural issues, Planned Parenthood for example is the largest sex education provider in schools in America. A lot of parents don’t know that.
John Tsarpalas: I didn’t know that.
Kyle Olson: So there are ways to bring up those issues, just like I just did, to say, “Those are not the values of our community,” if they aren’t the values of your community, “and I’m going to make sure that Planned Parenthood teaching our kids about all of that stuff that they shouldn’t be.” So there are ways to do that.
John Tsarpalas: And again, that could be a part of your survey as you are knocking on doors and talking to people. “Are you aware that Planned Parenthood provides the sex education for our community? Is that something you are comfortable with?” See where that is.
Kyle Olson: Right.
John Tsarpalas: That’s always another way to get a conversation going. I do think it is about talking to people and conversations. How can people reach you?
John Tsarpalas: And any final thoughts for people who are going to run for school board?
Kyle Olson: School boards generally speaking are the unseen layer of government. But when you look at state budgets, education typically is the largest single piece of money in a state budget.
So here you’ve got this unseen layer of government. They are spending billions and billions of dollars every single year. We have a system that is in more focused on what is being put into the system in terms of dollars than what is coming out of the system in terms of graduation rates, student proficiency rates, those sorts of things.
So I give people thinking about running for the school board a lot of credit. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s a thankless job, especially if you talking about financial issues, scrutinizing where the dollars are going, and all of those sorts of things. So I give you a lot of credit.
John Tsarpalas: I think it is key to freedom and the future of America. Education is where it starts. I do believe that the left status, liberals, progressives, whatever you want to call them have taken over our schools. I don’t necessarily think it was a master plan, but it has happened.
I do believe the only way the future of America in terms of having prosperity for all is we are going to have to make sure the education system teaches economics, teaches history, and teaches what has happened. So much of that is getting changed by our school systems. I think that’s our way- I hate to use the phrase “way out.”
The future is in education and the future is by who controls education. If our people don’t step up to these tireless, thankless, smaller positions of getting on school boards, the future is dim.
Kyle Olson: That’s right.
John Tsarpalas: But the future can be bright and you can start with your community. If enough of us become activists and enough of us get involved, we can change America and the world. Where America goes, the world will follow.
Kyle Olson: That’s right. Progressives knew back in the twenties or whenever it was that it was going to be difficult to change America through elections, so they set out on changing culture. They did that through Hollywood, through the media, and through education.
So that’s why we see these examples. We just talked about Planned Parenthood. We’ve seen these videos come out and everything. Do you think that Planned Parenthood is really interested in the welfare of children? Or are they interested in improving their bottom line, capturing a market?
John Tsarpalas: And protecting their government subsidies. I think that’s what it is about for them. It is about government is good and Planned Parenthood is good. Just keep sending those tax dollars are over. I really think that’s what it is about for them.
Kyle Olson: So the culture war, and therefor how our children will view issues and will influence and lead government in the future, is being shaped today in classrooms today.
John Tsarpalas: Correct.
Kyle Olson: So when they get sex ed from Planned Parenthood and they are hearing about global warming and they are hearing about how terrible capitalism is.
John Tsarpalas: And how terrible America was. My daughters had this Howard Zinn history book. This man hates America. It’s terrible.
Kyle Olson: Exactly. And how America is not an exceptional country; we are this imperialist scab on the world. When they are hearing that on a daily basis, that’s where our country is going to go.
That’s why it is so important that people who don’t believe those things, who believe that America is an exceptional country, that capitalism is the best economic system in the world ever, they need to be on a school board. They do have an opportunity to shape those policies, to choose the curriculum, and shape how children learn and what they think.
John Tsarpalas: Right. So if you’ve got some questions about educational issues, please feel free to write to Kyle. And if you need help with your campaign, feel free to write to me, firstname.lastname@example.org. We are here to get you elected.
We need to win elections. If we, the limited government people, don’t win elections, our government leviathan is just going to continue to grow at every level.
Thank you, Kyle. I really appreciate it. Good to see you again.
Kyle Olson: Thank you.
John Tsarpalas: Take care. If you have questions, feel free to write to me, email@example.com. I am happy to answer questions any time. We are here to help. We are here to give you training. And we are also interested in wanting to know what you need to know.
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I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast. We always have show notes and transcripts on the website at commonwealthy.com.
Kyle Olson: That’s a good point, too. I think it’s important for school board candidates to have their principles and have their positions on issues, but also know what their responsibility is. So in other words, most states that have Common Core national standards, a local school district can’t do anything about that because the state doesn’t allow them to do that.
Now, Wisconsin and New Hampshire are exceptions where the school board can decide to adopt their own standards. But generally speaking, I think it is important to talk about Common Core, but don’t run on federal issues because at the end of the day, you can’t do anything about that.