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School Boards Matter

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

By Michael R. Ford
December 18, 2021

The single largest expenditure in most state budgets is K-12 education. Yet, our field often views public education as outside the scope of traditional public administration (PA). As a peer-reviewer once told me, school boards simply do not count as a special district. For better or worse, the recent wave of school board controversies over the appropriate response to COVID-19, and the teaching (or most often not teaching) of Critical Race Theory in schools has brought increased attention to school boards. There is no time like the present for the PA community to better understand school boards.

Why do we even have school boards? The concept of community control of public education can be traced back to early American history, and is consistent with the founding ideals of the United States. Unique communities have unique needs, and local control of education allows the community to translate those needs into the operations of schools. Local elected school boards also provide a mechanism for democratic accountability, and serve as a legitimizing agent for school district policies. If you do not like the direction of the school board, you can vote the incumbents out, or better yet run yourself.

What do school boards actually do? The most important role, which should be familiar to a PA audience schooled in the attributes of professional management, is hire and evaluate the school district administrator. Much like in professionally managed cities, the board governs through policy, and ultimately impacts operations through the direction given to the administrator. Though the aforementioned debates over COVID-19 policies and Critical Race Theory garnered much attention this year, the budget, the tax levy and personnel policies take up most of school board members’ time.

What are the key issues in the academic and professional literatures on school boards? One major issue facing school boards is the threat of board capture. Traditionally, the two dominant interest groups thought to be involved in school board politics are teachers unions, and local business interests. A captured board is one in which the elected members serve the interest group first, and all other stakeholders second, thus undermining the democratic premise of a school board. My own works shows that unions and business interests are active in school board politics, but that highly localized interests like parent groups, are often more influential.

Regardless of who the most active interest groups are, their presence spurs an ongoing debate over whether democratically elected school boards should even exist. In fact, several large cities have eliminated democratically elected school boards in favor of appointed boards accountable to a mayor. The idea behind such reforms is to eliminate politics from the day-to-day issues of school district governance. In practice, mayoral-controlled school districts are the outlier, and have (at best) a mixed record of success. Though the debate over the worth of democratically elected school boards continues, they remain, and almost certainly will remain, the dominant overseer of public education in the United States.

A related issue facing school boards is the extent to which their elections are actually competitive. My own work shows that about 40% of school board candidates nationally did not face an opponent in their previous election. The reality of non-competitive elections could, arguably, undermine the premise of democratic accountability. Conversely, it could signal widespread satisfaction with incumbent school board members. It will be interesting to see if the school board debates of 2021 translate into increased electoral competition.

Last, but certainly not least, is the question of whether school boards impact overall school district performance. Historically school board performance was measured via fiscal indicators, but the era of standardized testing has spurred study of if, and how, school board governance translates into measurable test score gains. The logic of a connection between school board governance and student performance is based on the linkages between school board policy, district administrator leadership, school leadership and classroom instruction. When policy is clearly communicated, accepted and aligned across all levels of an organization, it follows that performance should improve. When school boards do not agree on core concepts, and do not communicate directives clearly, there is no alignment and hence no logical connection between governance and performance. To put it another way, school boards can impact student performance, but only when they are high-functioning teams.

I could go on as there is a growing body of school board literature coming from several disciplines. But, the bottom line is that school boards exist within the family of local government, and deserve attention from the PA field. There is much to be learned from school boards, and even more insights from traditional PA that can be applied to the school board context. Simply, we should be paying attention to these things.

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 the president of the Midwest Public Affairs Conference, and as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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One Response to School Boards Matter

  1. Joe Jarret Reply

    December 29, 2021 at 9:29 am

    A timely,necessary, and excellent analysis Dr. Ford! Prior to entering full-time academia, I was a public sector lawyer and manager, as well as chief legal counsel for a county board of education. Quite often, board members would lament that they were treated like the county’s “step- children” and not accorded the same respect as other locally elected leaders. Thanks for penning this! My students will benefit from it. Joe Jarret, J.D., Ph.D., University of Tennessee

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