By Ben Velderman

OAKLAND, Calif. – Movie aficionados will remember the scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” in which the adventurer must select the Holy Grail from among dozens of sparkling gold and silver cups.   

But instead of reaching for the shiniest, most expensive-looking one in sight, Indy correctly determines the Holy Grail to be the most ordinary-looking cup of them all. It’s a choice only the most informed scholar would make.

A similar scenario is playing out in the education reform battles. If asked, most Americans would probably say that the presidential election will have the single biggest impact on the future of their child’s education.

While it’s true that the next president will have some influence over the direction of public education, those on the frontlines of the education reform battle understand that it’s the local school board races – the ones tucked away toward the bottom of the ballot – that still have the single greatest influence over how local schools operate.

Teacher unions and education reformers understand this, which explains why both groups are using political action committees (PACs) to compete in four school board races in California’s Oakland Unified School District.

The Oakland Tribune reports that the Oakland Education Association – the local teachers union – has resurrected its old PAC from twenty years ago and has equipped it with $20,000 to help elect union friendly board candidates.

On the other side of the contest is Great Oakland Public Schools, a pro-reform group that has raised $184,000 in support of three candidates.

GO Public Schools’ deep war chest has teacher union leaders beside themselves with worry. OEA officials are desperately trying to convince voters that the reform group is part of a “right wing, national movement to polarize our communities and dominate the political direction of our city, state and national governments.” (More on this in a bit.)

All the money being poured into these local races – races the average voter couldn’t care less about – proves that school board seats remain the Holy Grail of public education.

But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s how GO Public Schools explains its entry into these elections:

“School board members have an extraordinary influence on the performance of our schools and the culture of our city. Our school board oversees the Superintendent, sets instructional and school management policies, votes on school closures, approves and denies charter public schools, and makes critical financial decisions about $600+ million annual budget.”

Did you catch that? Not only does the school board control an annual budget of more than half a billion dollars, but it also holds life or death power over charter schools. If that’s not the definition of raw power, please tell us what is.

The Oakland teachers union understands what’s at stake, which is why it’s trying to convince voters that GO Public Schools is a right-wing front group that wants to privatize public education.

The facts suggest otherwise.

It’s true that GO Public Schools is supportive of charter schools, but only to the extent that the group values all “high-quality schools” regardless of their “governance structure.”  In other words, they only wants schools that actually educate students. Only in lefty-land (a.k.a. Oakland, California) is that a radical idea.

In reality, GO Public Schools seems like a slightly left-of-center reform group. On its website the group offers a defense of teacher unions (“unions are important”) and promotes two state ballot proposals that would raise taxes, supposedly for the benefit of California’s public schools.

The reform group even brags about its working relationship with the SEIU Local 1021, which is a branch of one of the nation’s most radical labor unions.

All in all, it’s difficult to imagine many “right-wingers” sending checks to GO Public Schools.

Still, the reform group is clearly to the right of the Oakland Education Association, which has publicly joined itself at the hip with the radical Occupy Oakland crowd. And watching the teacher union’s behavior makes it obvious that the group is far more concerned about agitating for economic and social justice than in educating children.

But the details of that particular food fight aren’t what make this an important story.

The Oakland kerfuffle illustrates a larger truth: Citizens who care about providing every child with a quality education need to pay attention to what’s happening on their local school board. The presidential campaigns may generate the headlines, but it’s the local school board that does the heavy lifting of setting the local school budget, negotiating collective bargaining contracts with the school employee unions, and in some cases, deciding the fate of charter schools.

If the federal government’s role in public education is allowed to metastasize, those powers might diminish over the next several years. But for now, those little school board races that everyone seems to overlook – well, they still matter quite a bit.

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