If the Buck Stops with School Boards, Consider Paying the Members

It could help with diversity and representation

Photo illustrating empty seats in a government building

POSITION AVAILABLE – Duties: diffuse and poorly understood by laymen. Responsibilities: all-encompassing, conducted under relentless public scrutiny. Hours: significant, evenings and weekends mandatory. Compensation and benefits: limited, if at all.

Each year, about 90,000 people meet the demands of this position, and many more consider the role. Who are these gluttons for punishment? School board members, 88% of whom are democratically elected. Collectively, they form a layer in the democratic process that receives little attention until societal fabric begins to fray. Their contributions as policymakers rarely receive commensurate credit.

School districts exist to provide publicly accessible, high-quality educational experiences in pursuit of student achievement, academic and otherwise. The school board bears ultimate responsibility for district outcomes. On these points, there is little disagreement. What has been the subject of much debate, however, is how to fairly measure school board efficacy. In recent issues of Education Next, scholars have debated how to incorporate student outcomes into school board decision making, identified the shortcomings of elected school boards, debated their basis in democratic principles, and called for their outright elimination. Yet, this debate remains incomplete. Framing the question as “Are school boards failing?” narrows the debate to a familiar back-and-forth between market and democratic orientations of education without fully contextualizing local school boards in the American structure of government.

From school desegregation to pandemic response, for decades school boards have been thrust into the spotlight to tackle the unprecedented. Officials at higher levels of government often use school boards as shields to deflect responsibility and absorb attacks over politically fraught issues. School board members must then allocate precious time and resources to address crises that other elected officials have conveniently avoided.

Numerous contemporary debates exemplify this unenviable role. In the summer of 2020, parents, teachers, and unions directed a storm of emotion toward school boards related to the possibility of returning to in-person learning. Federal and state officials often shirked responsibility by proclaiming educational decisions to be best made locally. Surrounded by criticism and clouded by everchanging recommendations, district administrators and school board members drafted plans to reopen schools safely for both students and staff. The boards acted, as a general matter, without substantive, concrete guidance from other government entities.

School shootings are another too-frequent example of this phenomenon as state and federal leaders often shirk legislative action like gun control. Even when the school district and law enforcement do everything right to minimize loss of life, they still must wash away the blood and repair damaged buildings before classroom learning can resume. In these circumstances, school board focus may shift to ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, that facilities are made safe for learning and that students, staff, families, and community members receive suitable mental health services to ameliorate the trauma.

Additionally, as racism-related instruction, critical race theory, and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives—and restrictive reactions to them—fuel the culture wars, school boards must adapt. The debate over these topics unfolds at school board meetings even though such legislation is typically enacted in statehouses.

These examples from public health, safety, and DEI highlight only a few of the crisis-response duties shouldered by school boards. State and national leaders abdicate responsibility in self-proclaimed service to local control while simultaneously overstepping local officials, relegating school boards to a “heads you win, tails we lose” plight.

To comply with state legislative mandates, school board members must interpret a convoluted web of laws that sometimes conflict with districts’ educational missions. School boards operate within the American democratic structure, and actions (or inactions) on policies from gun laws to mask mandates at the federal, state, and local levels shape and influence district policies. Though voters may not predicate their ballots on academic achievement alone, that does not preclude thoughtful election decisions that consider board member performance on a litany of democratic functions.

Often omitted from the debate over school boards are the other possible modes of governance. Many of the nation’s largest school districts are overseen by local mayors or state-appointed boards. Districts including those in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., have mayoral control. Chicago will exchange its mayoral control for an elected board beginning next year. Sometimes, states step in and take over, usually for a limited time.

What evidence supports these interventions? Despite general public support for an increased state role in school turnaround, one recent evaluation of recent state takeovers indicates that in most cases they do little, if anything, to improve student outcomes.

When a state cedes control back to a board, the transitions can be complicated. In general, school boards may experience frequent member turnover due to competing obligations. However, in our hometowns of St. Louis and Philadelphia, both of which exited state takeovers, member resignations led to prolonged vacancies just as both boards sought to fulfil their most critical charge — hiring a new superintendent.

True improvement to school board service and therefore student outcomes, will require different approaches.

For example, one worthwhile goal is for school boards to better represent community diversity, an objective stymied by prevailing compensation practice. The scant-to-nonexistent monetary compensation that democratically elected school board members receive is incongruous with the time they devote to their duties. Sixty-two percent of all school board members are unpaid while only 6 percent earn more than $10,000 per year from their board-related work, a 2010 study found. Nearly two-thirds of members spend at least 15 hours per month on board-related duties, with one-third allocating more than 40 hours per month. In districts exceeding 15,000 students, nearly 40 percent of board members spend more than 40 hours a month while only 8 percent receive a salary exceeding $15,000. Though a 2022 report found that board member compensation has become more prevalent, hours spent on board service may also have increased. For the board members, the value proposition isn’t there; less than 40 percent of current board members said they plan to seek reelection.

Critics of democratically elected school boards or citizens dissatisfied with their performance may consider the adage, “you get what you pay for.”

The necessary desire, time, and financial ability to serve on school boards constrains the pool of talent. For the historically marginalized, for those on a low or fixed income, and for parents of school-age children, it may be especially difficult to volunteer for this significant “part-time job” as it currently exists. While compensation alone is unlikely to solve the representation problem or encourage more people to run for office, it would be a good place to start, particularly as the job description of elected local school board members continues to expand.

Dorothy Rohde-Collins is a Ph.D. student in education policy and equity at Saint Louis University and the former president of the Board of Education for Saint Louis Public Schools in St. Louis, Missouri. J. Cameron Anglum is an assistant professor of education policy and equity at Saint Louis University.

Earlier Education Next coverage of school boards:

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