School board elections are supposed to be quintessential America contests. Moms and Main Street small-business owners and retired teachers campaign by knocking on doors, writing letters to the editor and debating at elementary schools. Then friends and neighbors troop to the polls and make their choices.
But what happens when all the pathologies of national politics—over-the-top spending by wealthy elites and corporate interests, partisan consultants jetting in to shape big-lie messaging, media outlets that cover spin rather than substance—are visited on a local school board contest?
Emily Sirota is finding out.
The mom of 10-month-old Isaac, Sirota’s a social worker and community organizer with a degree from the University of Denver and a history of working in the community. She’s running for a seat representing southeast Denver on the city’s school board in one of three school board contests that the city’s voters will decide November 1.
If Sirota wins, her election would in all likelihood shift control of the nonpartisan board, which is currently split 4–3 in favor of so-called “reformers,” who critics describe as “the forces trying to charter-ize, voucher-ize and privatize public schools.”
Sirota makes no secret of her desire to turn the board that runs one of the nation’s largest urban schools systems toward a more clearly defined position in favor of funding local schools, paying teachers and school staff a fair wage and working to close achievement gaps that have developed along racial and economic lines.
In simplest terms, she’s a pro–public education candidate—like school board candidates in Denver and communities across the country generally tended to be before big money and a broken media system began warping our politics not just in Washington but right down to the grassroots.
“I believe high quality public education is the cornerstone of strong and healthy communities,” says Sirota. “I want our schools to challenge and nourish all of our children, providing them with the most optimal educational conditions to grow and become life-long learners.”
Not exactly a radical position.
But Sirota, who crafted education policy as an aide to Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, raises smart questions about so-called “school choice” and “charter school” initiatives that can—when they are designed by special-interest groups—divert funding and attention from neighborhood schools. And she is blunt in her opposition to using public money to pay for voucher programs.
“I believe we need to invest more in our public school system, not less—and, as a candidate for Denver Public School Board in the upcoming 2011 elections, I believe we need new Denver School Board members who are crystal clear in their opposition to vouchers,” says Sirota. “Make no mistake about it: my longtime opposition to vouchers has always been driven by the cold hard data. In other words, it comes in response to what we know vouchers will do to our community, and what they have already done to other communities.”