Building an Effective School Board

A new report finds school board members with a background in public education are not better informed than their colleagues.
Eric Gay/AP Photo

When it comes to the decisions that most directly affect the business of public education and what happens in classrooms, few people are as influential—and often as unacknowledged—as local school board members.

Indeed, a new report from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests the makeup of local school boards can have a measurable effect on student achievement.

The report is part of a joint project between Fordham and the left-leaning Center for American Progress looking at how school governance influences education reform. The findings are based on a 2009 survey of more than 900 school board members in districts across the country. Board members were asked about their level of experience and backgrounds, their awareness of their district’s fiscal picture and top challenges, and their personal political leanings.

Before I jump into the findings, my usual caveat: Surveys are subjective, and the questions that are asked are as important as the answers. At the same time, surveys offer a snapshot in time, rather than a complete or definitive portrait. 

According to Fordham, school board members “generally possess accurate knowledge about their districts regarding school finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size but appear less knowledgeable about academic standards.” Districts where board members put a high priority on student learning had stronger academic outcomes, the report concluded. 

There were some provocative findings, particularly about whether school board members with professional background in public education are better informed about the finances and other particulars of their district than their “civilian” colleagues: The report concludes they are not. That finding goes against conventional wisdom in many communities, where former teachers and administrators often have a leg up on their competition in school board races simply by virtue of their firsthand experience as an “insider.”

And then there’s the question of political ideology. From the Fordham report:

“…Political moderates appear to have more accurate knowledge than their liberal or conservative counterparts. This is troubling not because ideology or experience shapes board member opinions—that is unavoidable—but because voters in today’s polarized climate might favor strong conservatives or liberals over moderates (‘at least they have an opinion!’) and former educators over system outsiders (‘they know what it’s really like’). Voters need to be more aware of these tendencies and respond accordingly. (So far—in what we take to be a good sign—school board members as a group are more ‘moderate’ than the U.S. population as a whole.)”

The National School Boards Association, the source of the survey data, praised the report overall as a valuable contribution to the conversation on district achievement efforts, but also pointed to its limitations.

“For example, in determining the accuracy of school board members’ knowledge of district funding, the authors conflate relative per pupil dollars with school board members’ perceptions about how sufficient those dollars are—two entirely different things,” NSBA said in a statement.

The researchers also examined the impact of the election process itself. Districts were more likely to have “beaten the odds,” i.e. had stronger student outcomes than might have been predicted based on the demographics and funding levels of the district, when the school board elections were held “on cycle” with general elections, and members were elected “at large” rather than within a smaller ward.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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