Reducing the Education Debt Starts with Reforming School Board Elections – Next100
Commentary   Education + Early Years

Reducing the Education Debt Starts with Reforming School Board Elections

Reducing the education debt and achieving equitable outcomes for students of color starts with the election of more diverse, representative, and qualified school board members. To do that, we need to change an inequitable and biased election system.

Here are the basic facts: if you’re a low-income student of color attending a public school district in a state like Ohio, California, Oklahoma, or Illinois, where kids who look like you are the majority, it’s likely that your school board is mostly white and also much wealthier than your family. The people electing these school board members? They’re disproportionately white too, and also much wealthier than the average Black or Brown family. Many of these voters don’t live in your school attendance zone, and, astoundingly, most of them don’t even have children. And when the test scores for Black and Brown students like yourself go down and those of white students improve, these white voters fail to hold these disproportionately wealthy, white school board members accountable on behalf of students of color.

And we wonder why the education debt—the disparities in student outcomes between white students and students of color—continues to increase, as public schools across the country continue to fail these students of color. The evidence is right there. It’s in part because they don’t have decisionmakers on their school boards who are representing and looking out for their best interests. 

Every day, instead of using their power to eliminate the education debt, school board members across the country make decisions that radically affect the educational experiences of tens of millions of American students in ways that perpetuate the inequitable opportunities offered to students of color. Sometimes this is done knowingly, sometimes ignorantly. 

This cannot continue. Even as children of color become the majority of students attending public schools, more and more white school board candidates are getting elected. Many of these board members have never set foot in a classroom since they themselves were students, received the necessary training to shape district policy, or share the lived experience or identities of the students they serve.

Figure 1

As the headlines are captivated by the debates over critical race theory and Don’t Say Gay, arguments that have made school board meetings the newest battlefields for the culture wars, we should take advantage of that national spotlight shining on school boards, use it to take a closer look at the dais, and ask: who are the individuals deciding these issues? How did they get elected? What experiences and knowledge do they bring—and what do they lack? Why are they choosing to serve?

And if we don’t like the answers to those questions, what do we do?

Affluent, White, and Non-Pedagogical Origins Inhibit the Efficacy of School Board Members

The current school board system as we know it took shape at the turn of the twentieth century. School reformers—who were disproportionately affluent, native-born, and interested in perpetuating Anglo-Saxon Protestant values—set out to institute an administrative and “apolitical” approach to school governance that has continued to this day in most school districts in the country: an elected board oversees and directs a superintendent who fosters a centralized and supposedly “apolitical” system. Thanks to George Counts’ prescient work in 1927, we can see how this new system quickly benefited urban elites over working-class and ward leaders of color. Between 1897 and the early 1920s, the average proportion of business “professionals” that were elected to school boards in metropolitan areas had increased from 4 percent to 58 percent. The number of “big businessmen” elected to these positions doubled, from 9 percent to 25 percent. On the flip side, the number of “wage earners” who were elected plummeted from 28 percent to zero.

Today, the majority of school board members in the country are still white and affluent. Eighty-six percent of respondents in an EdWeek Research Center Survey of school board members reported they did not have a Latinx colleague on their board, and 81 percent reported not having a Black colleague on their board. This is despite the fact that as of 2020, 54 percent of public school students in the United States are students of color. To put these numbers into perspective, we can look at some concrete examples from very different areas of the country: at the state level, Ohio, and at the district elevel, North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system (CMS).

One study found that across Ohio, the average school board member lived in the wealthiest neighborhoods in their district, earned $5,000–$9,000 more per year than their neighbors, and enjoyed $15,000 more in home value. These school board members have the tendency to allocate funds and resources to the schools in their neighborhood, where property values are higher, and in the process often perpetuate issues of inequity and access for lower-income schools.

Looking at the last two CMS school board campaigns, we see how these wealth gaps—which correlate with white identity—contribute to candidate victory. In the 2019 at-large race, the top two vote earners—both white—spent $37,615 and $34,224 respectively. Each spent nearly $30,000 more than the third-place candidate, a Black woman. In the 2016 district races, the two elected candidates of color spent roughly $5,000 between their campaigns, while the seven white elected candidates spent roughly $80,000. Overall, in CMS, just one-third of the nine board members have experience as full-time, public-school teachers, and two-thirds of them are white. On the other hand, the CMS student population is 73 percent Black and Brown.

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And how are CMS students doing? 2022 performance metrics revealed that the percent of third-grade students of color in CMS schools who were on track for academic success in reading had fallen for the second year in a row—from 16 percent to 10 percent. In Ohio, only 15 percent of Black students scored proficient on the 2017 NAEP fourth grade reading assessment, in contrast with 44 percent of white students. Worse, in 2018, the Brookings Institution identified Ohio as one of the states where these performance gaps have been increasing across all NAEP ages and categories since 2011.

And herein lies the issue: school boards weren’t created to ensure all students—let alone students of color—received equitable and effective educations as determined by education professionals. Their members are not selected or vetted based on their ability to do so. So why should we expect better outcomes for these students?

Why should we expect the typical school board member to be able to determine the best educational interventions, if they don’t have a background relevant to education practice or policy? Why should we expect them to reform school discipline strategies if they never were on the receiving end of discriminatory school discipline strategies that target students of color? Why should we expect them to pick the best literacy intervention if they’ve never been trained to interpret intervention data? 

Of course, there are those with different areas of expertise that can add value to a board without needing to be former educators or educational experts. All boards would benefit from having members who possess analytical, financial, public policy, management, and cross-sector expertise, especially if they receive adequate training on the local educational context. But they still must represent and reflect the community, and on that front, the scales have fallen too far to one side. 

And thus, the ultimate question: why should affluent, white actors, generally elected by small minorities in under the radar races, wield the power to make decisions for Black and Brown students and families at a time when those students and families are the majority stakeholders in public education?

Why should affluent, white actors, generally elected by small minorities in under the radar races, wield the power to make decisions for Black and Brown students and families at a time when those students and families are the majority stakeholders in public education?

Reform Hinges on Increasing and Diversifying Voter Turnout

Studies find that diverse school board members determine policies that are better for students of color; they allocate more funds to Black and Brown schools; they hire more superintendents of color; and their retention for teachers of color is better—all of which inevitably raises the achievement levels in diverse school districts. It’s clear that qualified and representative school board members matter, because when given a chance, they can make a difference. The most critical way to allow such candidates to succeed within the current system is to expand voter participation. Voter participation is essential for two reasons. Driving voter turnout is essential for a thriving democracy, and politicians and parents on both sides of the aisle have been clamoring to hold school boards more accountable in recent years—but they still aren’t showing up to the polls. Second, and more troubling, the very small electorate that does turn out to vote in these elections have long been inhibiting more qualified candidates from being able to serve communities they’re representative of.

In a preliminary study by Ohio State professor Vladimir Kogan, “The Democratic Deficit in U.S. Education,” he found voters in school board elections in at least four states are typically whiter and wealthier than the average family or student in their district. Of these voters, between 45 percent and 60 percent do not have children in the K–12 system. Lastly, and most disturbing, Kogan found that in districts where the performance discrepancies between students of color and white students (the educational debt) is trending higher, white, affluent voters without students in the system turn out to reelect incumbents who are affluent and white.

Recommendations for Increasing School Board Representation and Effectiveness

Transition to On-Cycle Elections

Turnout for school board elections hovers between 9 percent and 15 percent. Moving school board elections to even years—so that four-year school board terms are on-cycle and two-year terms align with midterms and every other presidential election—could increase turnout anywhere between 18.5 percent and 60 percent.

In California, after lawmakers enacted SB 415, which mandated all elections, including school board elections, be moved to the same cycle, not only was there a 22.5-percent increase in turnout from 2016 to 2020, but turnout for voters of color increased by 5 percent more than did that of white voters. Clearly on-cycle elections promote higher turnout, including among voters of color. This recommendation could have support across the political spectrum, with organizations such as the conservative American Enterprise Institute also agreeing on the value for voter participation.

Lower the Voting Age to 16

Want to increase voter turnout amongst a population that both represents and has a clear and present interest in the system? Give students, the system’s primary stakeholders, the right to vote in school board elections. In the communities that have lowered the voting age to 16, all of them have seen significant investment from young people, who relish the opportunity to participate in elections that affect their day to day lives.

In 2013, policymakers adjusted Takoma Park, Maryland’s city charter to lower the voting age, thereby allowing 16-year-olds to vote in the municipal election. A followup study found 16- and 17-year-olds turned out at a 34-percent higher rate than 18-and-up voters that same year.

Improve Information to the Public by Releasing Accessible School Report Cards to the Public

Constituents look for and deserve ways to hold elected officials accountable, regardless of their party; and when it comes to school board members, the data presented in state school report cards provides relevant information that can inform communities’ evaluations of their performance. To make these report cards a more effective means of accountability for school board members, as well as of other system leaders, state educational agencies and school districts should ensure school report cards are released in a timely manner, and in a way that is broadly accessible to the voting public—not hidden on websites that nobody visits.

Releasing information on student performance and school system outcomes in a clear, accessible way will help galvanize voters who don’t traditionally turn out, better inform families on who they should vote for, and provide enough information and evidence for the 30 percent of voters who don’t complete a full ballot to feel issue-fluent enough to cast votes in races by which they traditionally don’t feel affected (like young, single, and childless adults).

Additional Ideas to Explore

While reforms that work to increase and diversify voter turnout, and improve information to voters, are essential, they are not the only solutions worth exploring. Some other ideas that have been suggested and are worthy of evaluation include the following:

  1. Develop and use candidate quality ratings, similar to the way in which the American Bar Association rates judicial nominees, that provide additional accessible information about a candidate’s qualifications.
  2. Make school board elections partisan, to promote voter participation.
  3. Eliminate at-large school board positions, to ensure candidates from underrepresented districts don’t have to battle out-of-district candidates.
  4. Cap campaign spending to level the playing field between candidates, and limit spending by outside entities, as is done with policies in other sectors.
  5. Improve the data collection, and data transparency, of the demographics of school board members, so constituents can better understand how well candidate backgrounds and experiences reflect the communities they seek to serve, and the relevant needs of the district.

About the Author

Jordan Pineda Education + Early Years

Jordan Pineda advocates for progressive policy reforms that reduce the education debt. He's a FGCS, a former teacher, and the youngest candidate and first Latino to run for school board in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He lives in Brooklyn and works to scale equity-centric policies that affect young people of color across state and local governments.

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