Good News for Good Schools: Civic Infrastructure Boosts School System in One Missouri City
Few public school systems have a structure for bringing the community together to discuss difficult issues. For many years Columbia, a city of 100,000 in central Missouri, didn’t really need one: the schools excelled in educating students, and residents toasted the district as their pride and joy.
Then, in the late 1990’s, a firestorm of criticism hit—and the structure became essential.
So Sarah Read formed a local version of Parents for Public Schools®, Inc. (PPS), a nationwide organization that, according to its website, “provides parents—often voiceless—with the tools and confidence they need to ensure that the local schools are excellent.” While Columbia’s schools were already excellent, a series of developments (including demographic shifts, a nascent anti-tax movement, and a superintendent’s difficult tenure) threatened to obscure that fact.
One way to think of civic infrastructure is as “the underlying social structure—activities, meetings, community groups, etc.—that bring people together to address their challenges.” The school system in Columbia, Missouri, didn’t have many challenges, so they didn’t need much civic infrastructure. Until the criticism started pouring in.
“Columbia has a great history of supporting its public schools,” said Read, who made her career in alternative dispute resolution. “We were new to town and people told us bond issues never fail here. Never. Then all this happened, and a bond issue did fail, which shocked everyone.”
The resulting mistrust and low teacher morale set Read in motion. Having learned about PPS, she approached school officials with the idea of founding a chapter in Columbia (Columbia PPS, or CPPS); the officials connected her with active community leaders, who helped her launch the initial meeting.
“At that first meeting, 20-30 people showed up,” she remembered, “and 10 of them agreed to serve on the first board. Within six months we had our charter from the national PPS.”
This was not your stereotypical issue-advocacy group. On all fronts, CPPS emphasized dialogue and collaboration as well as the dissemination of positive school news. CPPS attracted people who are traditionally all over the political spectrum: Chamber of Commerce leaders, senior groups, the teachers’ association, and others who resonated with its respectful approach and dedication to uncovering “the whole story.” The results were telling: five consecutive bond issues passed, support for Columbia schools restored.
Just as important for the long term, Columbia now has a working piece of civic infrastructure that has broadened public participation in local education. As Read put it, “We listen to many different voices, share that, and also help connect leaders with a range of audiences so they have better information as they make decisions for the public good.”
Since its inception, CPPS innovations have led to a more informed, more energized citizenry around school-related issues:
- Several years ago, the district began a search for a new superintendent—but the community had no consistent vehicle for providing input into the decision. In response, CPPS members developed a matrix with criteria that a broad cross-section of community members listed as important to them. The Board of Education not only used the matrix to hire the superintendent, it continues to refer to it for hiring decisions to this day.
- CPPS found a solution to something that plagues many school board elections: a dearth of meaningful information—and the absence of a framework to use in interpreting it. Drawing on a model from the national PPS, members designed a flyer titled “What Should I Look For in a School Board Candidate?” The flyer enabled voters to assess what they know or could discover about the candidates against a rational set of criteria.
- The flyer complemented another CPPS innovation: Parent-Friendly Candidate Night. Scheduled at a neutral place when public transportation is available, parents write down questions for the candidates on index cards; during the presentation, each candidate pulls one question out of a hat, sight unseen, and answers it. At various intervals, candidates form a receiving line to meet every parent. CPPS created a "Forum in a Box" toolkit that can help any community host a candidate forum.
While activity has subsided of late—there is no contentious matter on the agenda—CPPS can be mobilized quickly when needed, an essential ingredient for civic infrastructure.“You need something like this to make sure things continue to run smoothly,” Read observed. “The chapter has built a reputation as a quiet voice that will raise and help solve issues when things are going south. Public processes are working smoothly as they should, because informed dialogue is ongoing.”