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.
The first piece of that finding—the potential benefit of an on-cycle election—is an easy fix policymakers could make right away, said Michael Hartney, one of the authors of the report.
“It’s a revenue neutral reform,” Hartney told me. “If anything it’s going to save school districts money because they can piggyback on existing elections. How can you really justify holding elections at an odd time of the year when your voter turnout will lower, and it will cost the district more?”
He acknowledged that the issue of “at-large” candidates vs. dividing the district up into geographic wards will be more difficult for policymakers to act on.
“We know with ward elections that minorities are more likely to be elected, and the board’s makeup is likely to be more representative of the community,” Hartney said. “We need to tread a little more lightly there. But an open election is going to get more people concerned about high achievement across the board.”