Who serves on American school boards, and what do they care about? Evidence from a national sample

It is Wisconsin School Board Appreciation week! Given this, it seems like a good time to take a closer look at the American school board. Political Scientist Thomas Eliot opined in 1959 that the role of the school board is “to hire and support a competent professional as superintendent, defend the schools against public criticism, and persuade the people to open their pocketbooks,” (Eliot, 1959, p. 1033). For much of the institution’s history Eliot’s description was probably apt. But in the past two decades the school board as an institution is increasingly being questioned. Are school boards needed? What do they do? How do they do it? More importantly, does what they do affect student outcomes? If so, how can they do what they do better?

With these questions in mind Douglas Ihrke and I decided, in 2014, to survey American school board members in 49 states (we excluded Hawaii because it has only one statewide board). We mined e-mail addresses from school district websites, and eventually heard back from 5,002 school boards. The survey itself featured 89 questions informed by previous surveys of school board members, surveys of municipal and nonprofit officials, and our discussion with school board stakeholders here in Wisconsin.

Who Serves?

Over half of surveyed school members, 54.5%, were male. Eighty-nine and half percent identified themselves as white, however board members serving in city districts had higher levels of racial diversity. The average age of respondents was 53.6, and 52.1% of respondents report having served in their position for five or more years. Ideologically, 51% of respondents identified as non-partisan or moderate, 31.9% as conservative, and 19% as liberal.

Critics of the lacking of competitiveness in school board members may find fodder in our finding that 39.6% of respondents report not having an electoral opponent in their previous election. A simple means comparison test reveals that board members serving larger school districts are more likely to report having an opponent in their previous election. Board members are a well educated group, with 76.7% indicating they hold a at least a bachelor’s degree. Three-fourths of board member report having a job outside the school board, and the dominant represented professions are business (23.3%), education (19.6%), and professional series i.e. law, medicine, etc. (18.3%).

What do Board Members Care About?

We asked school board member to rank their top 10 priorities. Below are the rankings along with the mean response. As you can see, strategic planning, setting of academic standards, and monitoring fiscal performance are seen as the top three priorities. Interacting the public, board development, and collaborating with interest groups are the three lowest priorities. Somewhat surprisingly, hiring the superintendent was ranked fourth, with a mean response of 4.41.

  1. Strategic Planning: 3.29
  2. Setting Academic Standards: 3.52
  3. Monitoring Fiscal Performance: 3.97
  4. Hiring the Superintendent: 4.41
  5. Making Assessment Policies: 5.54
  6. Holding School Staff Accountable for District Performance: 5.58
  7. Making Student Behavior Policies: 6.45
  8. Interacting with the Public: 6.52
  9. Board Development: 7.58
  10. Collaborating with Interest Groups: 8.14

Do School Boards Impact Student Achievement? 

Our data suggests, that under the right circumstances, they do. We found that board members reporting adherence to the set of best practices known as the Key Work of School Boards are obtaining comparatively better results. We found that board member agreement on the meaning of accountability in their district is connected to higher performance outcomes. Finally, we showed a relationship between board member conflict and high school graduation rates. More work needs to be done to move our findings closer to the realm of causation, but a picture is emerging: The popular narrative of the school board as an obsolete governance institution is incorrect. School boards can and do matter. Scholars and policymakers alike are wise to spend more time studying and empowering the American school board.

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