Public schooling falls at the complex intersection of conflicting public, partisan political, private, and personal interests, with everyone wearing multiple hats and sometimes holding inconsistent positions.
Balancing these opposing interests is difficult. There is a natural human tendency for short-term thinking to dominate. And the power and influence wielded by different groups is unequal; typically politicians, corporations, developers, religious leaders, unions have more sway over decisions than individual citizens, taxpayers, students, and parents. Too often these power imbalances drive policy decisions that are harmful to the long-term interests of students and society.
The benefits of a good education, and the damage caused by a poor one, take 20 years or longer to see. In order to take this long-view and consider the various conflicting interests at play, each jurisdiction sets up formal structures to try to offset power imbalances and our tendency to give more weight to next year than to next decade. Understanding the structures that affect the schools in your area is boring, but necessary to influence policies or to bring about change. Ignoring the boundaries between the roles within these structures weakens them, and reduces the ability to make good decisions for the long-term well-being of students and society.
Citizens want excellent schools that help every child grow into adults with the knowledge, skills, and personality to sustain a prosperous democratic society that provides opportunity for everyone who works hard to achieve success in life.
Taxpayers, particularly those who have no direct involvement with public schools, want low taxes and assurance that schools are spending public funds responsibly and efficiently.
Politicians often use voter interest in public schools to promote evidence-free dramatic policies that helps them win election, frequently with little regard for the likely effect of their actions on the life-success of students, the long-term economy, and the future strength of democracy.
Members of school district governance bodies (Trustees), whether elected or appointed, answer to a variety of constituencies and work under constraints set by governments.
Corporations see a massive flow of cash that would be available to them if public schools would purchase more of their products or services, or if public funding would be directed to schools run by them.
Developers who see the massive land holdings of public schools in dense cities as potential building sites, encourage school boards to close schools and sell the property that the schools sit on.
Some religious and communal leaders would like public schools to reinforce the ties that their members have to their organizations.
Activists with strongly-held positions, some of which are narrowly ideological, pressure public schools to take action in line with their beliefs.
School staff want good working conditions, job stability, an attractive salary, and the ability to help students thrive.
Union leaders look to demonstrate to their members that they are tough negotiators capable of extracting collective agreement concessions and that they will go to the wall to protect any member accused of not being up to the job. Their clear duty under law is to advance the benefit of their members; unions have no obligation act to improve the learning environments or well-being of students.
Students want to enjoy their time at school, to be rewarded for their efforts, to be respected by school staff and their peers, and to gain the skills and experiences that will open opportunities for them later in life.
Parents want their children to receive all the supports they need and advantages that they can get, and sometimes for the school to actively reinforce family traditions and beliefs, often without caring about the effect that this might have on the lives of other students and on the long-term effects of society as a whole.