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Rethinking School Board Interest Groups

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
May 8, 2023

The academic and public discourse surrounding interest group influence over school boards has been pretty consistently focused over the last few decades. The general thinking was that teachers’ unions and private business groups fight for influence on behalf of teachers and taxpayers respectfully. The calls for eliminating democratically elected school boards follow a predictable line of argument. First, that unions capture school boards by exerting outsized influence in low-turnout elections, and second, that captured school boards govern on behalf of the narrow interests of teachers to the detriment of student achievement.

Almost a decade ago I began to question the narrative around school board interest groups. So much of the literature and public discourse focused on a handful of large urban districts. It seemed illogical to assume the experiences of a few large districts would generalize to almost 14,000 school boards in the United States, especially when the majority of school boards do not govern urban districts. In my state of Wisconsin things became even more complicated with the near elimination of collective bargaining in 2011. By 2017, about half of Wisconsin school districts no longer had a local certified union. No doubt these structural changes would impact the power dynamics in education politics.

The greatest evidence that power dynamics in school board politics had changed is the increased attention focused on school boards over the last few years. A cursory search of headlines related to school boards tells quite a story: “The next battleground in U.S. politics? School boards,” “The outside groups inside school board politics,” “Dark money and education parent grass roots groups,” etc. No doubt the COVID-19 disruption played a big part in increasing focus on school boards. Public education, something we are all familiar with as a parent, student or taxpayer, quite literally came home for many of us when schools went virtual during the height of the pandemic. Some outside groups seized this opportunity to gain partisan political advantage, but I think the story is more complex.

To better understand I revisited data from surveys and interviews of Wisconsin superintendents I conducted prior to the COVID disruption. I asked superintendents to define interest groups, and found their operational understanding did not align with the literature. They basically told me they view any effort to influence district policy as interest group activity. When I pushed them to tell me who the most influential interest group was in their district the answers were all over the place. About 1/4th said teachers, but it was often not the teachers’ union to which they were referring, but rather long serving teachers who had influence in the community and district. Only 7.8 percent mentioned business interests. By far the most powerful interest group, cited by 37.5 percent of Wisconsin superintendents, was parents.

I pushed further to understand what superintendents meant by parents. Once again, the answers were nuanced. Some mentioned formal Parent Teacher Organizations, some named specific names, others referenced loosely organized groups of wrestling, theatre or football parents. While the media narrative that COVID policies fueled a parental revolt has some truth, it is also true that superintendents on the ground felt and prioritized the influence of parent groups prior to the pandemic. In other words, school district leaders saw this moment coming.

So why didn’t those of us studying school boards see this moment coming? I am not entirely sure. Certainly the lack of attention paid to school boards generally, and the tendency of our field to ignore education administration specifically, contributed. The ever-present disconnect between research and practice also played a role. The reality faced by those leading school districts does not fit neatly into the longstanding theoretical boxes guiding our research. I think this is likely true for many strands of Public Administration research.

I am hopeful that our current political and administrative moment can spur a renewed commitment to descriptive research with a clear connection to practice. As a practical applied field, it is our responsibility to understand the governing context as it exists, and to generate research that aids those on the front line of governing.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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