Most school boards don’t look like the students they serve, but new research suggests that must change.
Education Week | by Christina A. Samuels | November 17, 2020
The racial and ethnic makeup of school boards rarely matches that of the students in the schools they are responsible for. Yet a growing body of research suggests having more diverse school boards can make concrete differences in how schools operate.
Some studies suggest, in fact, that having just one minority member on a board increases a school district’s financial investment in high-minority schools, and even some measures of student achievement and student climate.
But at a time when the student population is growing more diverse, most school boards across the country don’t meet even that low bar, according to a new survey by the EdWeek Research Center. And most school board members, when asked in the survey, said that the lack of minority representatives on their own boards was no more than a minor problem.
Creating a Pipeline
Both superintendents and board members have a role to play in elevating different voices, say school board members. District leaders can’t pick candidates, but they can create “leadership academies” to teach interested community members about the workings of their school systems. They can also create committees and other advisory boards that allow parents an entry point into getting more involved in their school district, if they choose.
Armando Rodriguez, a member of the Canutillo, Texas, school board, said a “good solid leadership program” run by the district for parents, educators, and students could also drive accountability and transparency about how the system operates. And the effort must go beyond simple ethnic matching, he said.
Canutillo ISD, a district of about 6,000 students in El Paso County, is more than 90 percent Hispanic and is served by a predominantly Hispanic board. But school board members have tended to come from the developed neighborhoods in the community, leaving more rural areas unrepresented, he said. Moving to single-member districts, instead of the at-large representation Canutillo has now, could help, Rodriguez said.
“The excuse that there’s not enough people to represent [all] areas is a sad excuse,” said Rodriguez, the chairman of the National Hispanic Council of School Board Members, an advisory group to the National School Boards Association. But “you’ve got to push some people to do it. A lot of people don’t run for the board until something triggers them,” he said.
Canutillo ISD, with its large population of Hispanic students, is at the forefront of a national trend. Six years ago, America’s public schools hit a milestone: For the first time, more than 50 percent of students enrolled were Hispanic, Black or Asian. The shift was driven both by an increase in the number of Latino students and a decline in the numbers of non-Hispanic white students. The Asian student population is also rising; the Black student population has remained relatively steady over the past 20 years.
While the student population has seen major changes over the past few decades, school boards have remained overwhelmingly white. The EdWeek Research Center’s survey of school board members found that 86 percent of respondents said they had no Latino colleagues on their board and 81 percent said they had no Black colleagues. Of the respondents who indicated that their board makeup doesn’t fully reflect student demographics, only 15 percent of respondents considered it a “major problem;” the rest considered the issue a minor problem, or no problem at all.
But recent controversies suggest that even if most board members don’t see a problem, some communities feel resentful of the lack of representation.
Earlier this year, a community dispute flared when the board of the Central York, Pa., district voted to table proposed changes to its social studies curriculum, rather than add additional resources that drew from the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project from the New York Times. The project aims to trace the impact of slavery on the country’s founding through the present day and has drawn sharp criticism from conservatives and some historians.
Two board members objected to what they said was a focus on white privilege and racism. The school board’s members are all white. The 5,000-student district’s population is about 66 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, 9 percent black and 4 percent Asian. The board’s decision drew heated public comments and a rally in protest of the board’s decision to table any curriculum changes.
Ben Hodge, a Central high school theater teacher who helped organize the rally, told the York Dispatch that while the community loves the district, “we feel we have the right and the duty to criticize and question our leadership on the issues of diversity.”
Another example: Thornton Fractional School District, a high school district of around 3,400 students in suburban Chicago, is more than 90 percent Black and Hispanic; the school board is nearly all white. This year, a community coalition fought for a ballot measure that would require board members be elected from each of the communities served by the district, rather than being elected at large under current policy. The board said the idea needed more study and didn’t place it on the November ballot.
Fewer Suspensions, Funding Shifts
The value of developing school boards that look like the rapidly diversifying communities they represent goes beyond public relations, however. A 2017 study that examined middle and high schools in Florida found that districts with diverse school boards have lower rates of school suspensions for all students, and that disparities in suspension rates between minority and white students are reduced overall. The study was led by Cresean Hughes, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware.
An examination of North Carolina districts in 2018 found that adding Democrats to a school board reduces Black racial segregation across schools by shifting attendance zones. The study focused on the partisanship of school board members, not their race. However, co-author Hugh Macartney, an assistant professor of economics at Duke University, said the data also offered suggestive evidence that a Democratic win increases the share of black members on a school board.
This year, two other research papers examined the impact of adding ethnic diversity to school boards in California. While the researchers used different methodologies, their conclusions were similar: School districts with at least one Hispanic member were more likely to make greater financial investments in district schools, and minority students saw academic gains in the years following such a change. The studies also found some changes in staffing; one noted that adding a minority school board member resulted in more principals who are minorities; the other study noted a decrease in teacher churn in high-minority schools.
“I think the takeaway here is that one member seems to make a difference,” said Brett Fischer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia and the author of one of the California studies. “Diversity of viewpoints on the board matters and listening to the board matters. The role of the school board’s individual members is not trivial.”
But what stands in the way of getting that representation? Vladimir Kogan, an associate professor of political science at Ohio State University, was a co-author of one of the California studies. But he has also conducted research into just who elects school board members.
Looking across four states—California, Illinois, Ohio, and Oklahoma—Kogan and his co-authors used a database frequently used by political campaigns that want to target their outreach. The database uses different sources to predict a voter’s likely race, income, and parenting status. Based on that information, the researchers found that the majority of the people who elect school board members are likely to be white and affluent, even when the students themselves are predominantly minority. The researchers also found that a majority of voters in local elections are unlikely to have a child living at home.
And the school board voters research also found that the gap in academic performance between white and minority students tends to be largest in districts where the electorate looks most unlike the student population.
“School board members are constrained by what the voters want them to do,” Kogan said. “Who’s voting for them is going to be key. It defines, in some ways, the pipelines of candidates.”
One way to get a larger and more diverse electorate for school board races is to move school board elections so that they coincide with higher turnout national elections, Kogan said.
Strategies From District Leaders
Devin Del Palacio, the vice president of the nearly 12,000-student Tolleson Union High School Board in suburban Phoenix, said he has found that his priorities are sometimes in conflict with an electorate whose children may be long past school age.
“When I speak of things like equity and funding and teaching pay, that’s not a priority for them,” said Del Palacio, the chairman of the National Black Council of School Board Members, an advisory group to the National School Boards Association. However, they do respond to the idea that good schools mean higher property values and safe neighborhoods.
What can be done to encourage a board that more closely matches its community?
“I’m actively trying to recruit people,” Del Palacio said. But it can be a challenging sales job—the hours are long, pay is likely low, and members who also work full time need extremely flexible jobs to accommodate the time needed to campaign and to be out in the community, he said.
Ethan Ashley, a member of the board that oversees the 45,000-student New Orleans district, also said that pay is a barrier to getting more diverse and younger members on a school board.
“When you don’t pay someone, you end with older, retired leaders who aren’t necessarily fully reflective of the population they serve,” said Ashley, who is Black. He is the co-founder of School Board Partners, a national organization of school board members who are focused on antiracist leadership. “It’s a very important role in our community, but it’s probably the least-paid role as an elected official. And it comes with an oversized impact on everything.”
Atlanta, where 70 percent of the 52,000 students are Black, has a predominantly Black board. But that alone is not enough to ensure that all students are achieving to their highest potential, said Erika Mitchell, a Black board member and a fellow with School Board Partners’ leadership development program.
“You have the representation, but the achievement gap for Black students is still huge,” Mitchell said. “In this city I’ve seen people who look like me who are not for my kids. And that is hard to accept.”
During her time on the board, Mitchell said she’s successfully pushed for the district to implement a domestic sex trafficking protocol to increase awareness among staff and support for affected students. She’s also worked to introduce trauma-informed and restorative justice practices in the schools, in hopes of reducing the numbers of Black children referred to the juvenile justice system. Those were not necessarily priorities of all her fellow board members, but that’s where she saw needs, Mitchell said.
Howard Carlson, a retired superintendent and co-author of the 2008 book So Now You’re the Superintendent, said district leaders can work to build more-representative school boards by creating programs that teach interested community members about the inner workings of the school board. Superintendents and school boards can also create advisory committees and other groups that allow interested parties to get their feet wet, before deciding to take the plunge into board service.
And diversity must also be taken a step beyond race and ethnicity. For example, school districts are grappling with growing shares of students living in concentrated poverty. Board members may not have personal experience with that struggle.
Building a pipeline takes time, Carlson said. “You have to be intentional about it, and you have to have this set of opportunities that can take people from where they are to ultimately board service.”
Steve Carona, a Latino member of the Fort Wayne, Ind., school board since 1981, echoed the theme that change takes time. When he joined the board, the district leadership was battling desegregation orders. Now, the system of nearly 30,000 students has an extensive array of choice programs to promote desegregation.
“Progress is slow, and it tests the patience of many people. I admire those people who are on the cutting edge, holding positions maybe sharper than mine—you need that,” Carona said. “And you need more-moderate people to keep moving forward and to allow a certain amount of people to get behind you.”
Education Week librarian and data specialist Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research for this story.