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In School Boards We Trust? The Potential for Educational Equity in Public Education

School boards are the epitome of local U.S. politics. With more than 90,000 members governing nearly 13,000 school districts, school boards represent millions of constituents. In many ways, we entrust these policymakers with our children’s education. Yet, the question remains: Should we trust that school board members have the best interest of all children at heart?

Daily stories abound of controversies related to school boards. In Clark County, public debates lasted all night over the boards’ deliberations over revamping sex education. Making national news, students chained themselves to the dais amidst the board’s deliberations to eliminate Mexican American Studies in Tucson while one board member was featured on the Daily Show making inaccurate and discriminatory remarks about the program. In Salt Lake City, the only board member of color showed up to the board meeting dressed as “Frito Bandito” (a cartoon character depicting a stereotype of Mexicans as thieves) in response to presumed racial discrimination. School board meeting attendees in South Carolina started singing “Jesus Loves Me” to silence advocates of transgender bathrooms, which translates to a villanization of transgender students. These are just a few of the existing examples.

Challenges School Boards Experience

These sensitive and often volatile contexts add to the several challenges related to school boards. School board members, especially those serving terms in large and urban school districts, are asked to do a lot for little in return. In addition to the time and money needed to campaign, school board members spend countless hours in meetings, learn complex school and district systems, navigate changing state and federal policies, and make significant budget decisions. Yet these positions are often voluntary in nature, offering little to no financial or administrative support for their time and service[1][2][3].

School boards’ level of power and authority is also limited to the extent that state legislatures grant[4]. In fact, states dismantled several elected school boards deemed ineffective (i.e., Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia), replacing them with mayoral-appointed councils or other forms of governance[5]. In places like Chicago, local pressure exists to return to locally elected school boards, with expressed concerns that mayoral appointments are an act of political patronage that disadvantages historically marginalized communities. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that elected school board members have adequate knowledge and skills to make high-impact decisions. Further, the often low voter turnout for school board elections signals a broader community apathy about school boards.

Potential for Equity via School Boards

For school boards to work, the community literally has to work. This is especially true when it comes to achieving any sense of educational equity. School boards tend to pass promising equity measures when the community provides board members with support, accountability, and pressure.

In my research related to elected school boards, I learned that school boards were not generally equipped to make decisions that could improve the educational opportunities for racially and linguistically minoritized students. They employed perspectives that were colorblind (not acknowledging race and racism) and deficit-oriented (beliefs that students and families of color were lacking in aptitude). They often wanted quick fixes and pushed for equality rather than equity[6]. However, there was usually one or two board members—often (but not always) the lone Black and/or Latinx member—who were culturally responsive and understood how to meet the needs of underserved students. Also, local community advocates applied political pressure to boards to make better decisions[7][8]. Based on my research, I offer two broad recommendations below.

            Creating Pathways

It is critical for state and local governments to create more pathways for board members who are culturally responsive, with an understanding of and commitment to achieving equity. The copious amounts of time and competency needed, coupled with little to no compensation makes being a school board member nearly unattainable. The typical school board member in many urban communities are more affluent and whiter than communities they represent. Yet, as my research and other studies illustrate, Latinx and Black board members often have experiential knowledge around issues of equity and a willingness to push equity efforts forward[9][10][11][12]. However, I also observed that Latinx and Black school board members tend to experience discrimination and often found it challenging to get elected and re-elected[13]. While redistricting and at-ward elections help increase the likelihood of school board members of color, more can be done to attract a diverse range of culturally responsive community leaders to these positions and create better conditions for them to stay. This might include offering more compensation, administrative support, training, and programs that help recruit and groom potential board members.

            Expanding Community Advocacy

Community advocacy is also critical in forging a path toward educational equity. While school board meetings are not always welcoming, these spaces offer a public forum to hold school board members accountable, where community members can advocate, district administrators can educate, and school board members can listen, learn, and take action to improve inequities. When unsatisfied with board members’ responses, community advocates can lobby for newly elected board members, file lawsuits, or make official complaints. While these modes of advocacy are generally useful, more effective measures can be taken. Possible measures include increasing district transparency, community collaborations, and expanding mechanisms for community concerns to be officially addressed[14].

The Power of Local Policymaking and Community Advocacy

Issues of educational inequity are similar throughout the U.S.. Yet, the intricacies of these issues are very much driven by local contexts that require local solutions. Elected school boards provide an opportunity for local communities to help develop these solutions. Indeed, if we trust that school boards can offer adequate solutions, we must figure out how to create more pathways for board members who truly care about equity and find ways to expand equity-oriented advocacy among community members. Together, school boards and the communities they represent have the potential to move the needle toward educational equity.

[1] Howell, W. (Ed.) (2005). Besieged: School boards and the future of education politics. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[2] Alsbury, T. L. (2008). The future of school board governance: Relevancy and revelation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

[3] Hess, F. M., & Meeks, O. (2010). Accountability Era. Boards.

[4] Sampson, C. (2018). “The state pulled a fast one on us”: A critical policy analysis of state-level policies impacting English learners from district-level perspectives. Educational Policy, 33 (1), 3-15.

[5] Wong, K. K. & Shen, F. (2003) Measuring the Effectiveness of City and State Takeover as a School Reform Strategy, Peabody Journal of Education, 78(4), 89-119

[6] Sampson, C. (2019). From a lighthouse to a foghorn: A school board’s navigation toward equity for English learners. American Journal of Education.

[7] Sampson, C. (2019). (Im)Possibilities of Latinx school board members’ educational leadership toward equity. Education Administration Quarterly, 55(2). 296-327.

[8] Sampson, C. & Horsford, S. D. (2017). Putting the public back in public education: Community and education leadership under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Journal of School Leadership27(5), 725-745.

[9] Fraga, L. R., & Elis, R. (2009). Interests and representation: Ethnic advocacy on California school boards. Teachers College Record111, 659-682.

[10] Meier, K., Juenke, E., Wrinkle, R., & Polinard, J. (2005). Structural choices and representational biases: The post-election color of representation. American Journal of Political Science49, 758-768.

[11] Ross, A. D., Rouse, S. M., & Bratton, K. A. (2010). Latino representation and education: Pathways to Latino student performance. State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 10(1), 69-95.

[12] Marschall, M. J. (2005). Minority incorporation and local school boards. In W. Howell (Ed.), Besieged: School boards and the future of education politics (pp. 173-198). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

[13] Sampson, C. (2019). (Im)Possibilities of Latinx school board members’ educational leadership toward equity. Education Administration Quarterly, 55(2). 296-327.

[14] Sampson, C. & Horsford, S. D. (2017). Putting the public back in public education: Community and education leadership under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Journal of School Leadership27(5), 725-745.

Author Biography

Carrie Sampson is an assistant professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University. Her research focuses on educational leadership, policy, and equity from three interrelated perspectives – democracy, community advocacy, and politics. Drawing from a range of critical theories and employing mostly qualitative methods, Dr. Sampson’s published work includes peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and policy reports on school boards, school desegregation, English learners, and community organizing in education.