Interior of classroom in elementary school

Interior of classroom in elementary school. Row of empty desks are in illuminated room.

Conventional wisdom holds that if you want to cultivate a better crop of elected officials, pay them for their time and effort. Better still, pay them a full-time salary. And if you want the best to stick around for another term, give them a raise. After all, that’s how it works in the private sector, right?

But that’s where conventional wisdom falls short. Elective office is unlike private enterprise; the motives for entering politics are so fundamentally different. There is in fact little if any evidence to suggest that providing a paycheck for Colorado’s many uncompensated elected posts — most notably, on school boards — would offer voters a different cast of candidates on the next ballot. Observers say the public likely would get more of the same, only at a higher cost.

That’s reason enough to oppose legislation at the State Capitol to let local school districts pay their board members. Already approved by the House of Representatives and now scheduled for a hearing next week in the Senate, House Bill 1055 would waste scarce K-12 funding. Although it’s a modest proposal in that it only gives local school boards permission to authorize pay, why open the door to an unattainable goal? Unless, of course, the goal is simply to pay school board members as an end in itself. They’d like it, but would it serve public education?

The bill’s premise is that some of Colorado’s 178 school boards don’t adequately represent the views and interests of lower-income communities of color, particularly in Front Range metro areas. The operating assumption is those boards would better represent those communities’ interests if more board members reflected them racially, ethnically and socio-economically.

It’s a premise that is open to debate in its own right, and it raises key questions. What kinds of education policies address the interests of lower-income communities of color? And what assurance is there that officeholders of any particular race or economic status will advocate for those policies any more effectively than would board members of other backgrounds?

Even if greater racial or economic diversity alone on a school board can be assumed to yield policies that better serve communities of color, it is unlikely HB 1055 will get us there.

An enlightening report in education news service Chalkbeat Colorado underscores that reality. Political scientists interviewed in the report leave the impression pay would have little effect in changing school board composition. One of the academics had researched whether higher salaries opened state legislatures to more members from the working class. He found in some cases that even fewer working-class lawmakers wound up serving in their states’ legislatures.

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Another political scientist, Sarah Reckhow, of Michigan State University, told Chalkbeat, “To increase diversity, you have to address the pipeline, the fundraising aspects, the recruitment of candidates … You have to put in enormous time and energy, and you might or might not win, and you have to raise all this money. You have that upfront investment in running for office, and that’s a big barrier for diverse candidates.”

But let’s say HB 1055, sponsored by state Rep. Steven Woodrow, D-Denver, and state Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, could deliver on its promise to diversify. If all school boards in Colorado mirrored their communities as a result, would the resulting policies better serve children of color?

Where would they stand on long-debated issues like school choice, accountability measures and other education reforms — which we believe are the kinds of policies that could help communities of color the most? Would they support the charter schools that now serve some 125,000 Colorado public school students — nearly 14% of all public schoolers and many of them Black and Hispanic — and that are newly under attack amid shifting political winds in places like Denver?

Black, Hispanic, white and other champions of school choice and other meaningful education reform have served over the years on Colorado’s larger school boards. They’ve been a diverse lot, but all told, there have been too few of them.

Far greater in number have been go-along-get-along school board members who have voted reflexively for the status quo. All too often, that status quo has leaned toward the old, one-size-fits all public education paradigm that has poorly served children of color, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and low-income kids everywhere.

What Colorado school boards need most is greater diversity of ideas. And a paycheck isn’t going to get them there.