Few voters consider 2023 an election year. Yet on obscure dates like April 18th, October 3rd, and in my city, May 9th, more than 9,000 school districts in 35 states will hold school board elections. How can parents make their votes count?
Reflecting those intentionally erratic election days, incumbents face limited competition. Ballotpedia estimates that each year between 24 and 40% of school board candidates run unopposed.
As political scientist Vladimir Kogan reported in “Locally Elected School Boards Are Failing,” low voter turnout magnifies the power of school staff (and their unions) and minimizes parent influence. Since few voters have recent experience inside public schools and those who do are unrepresentative, school board elections do little to improve academic quality.
A Brookings Institution study finds that few board contracts with superintendents even mention academic goals.
The disconnect between learning and accountability reflects intellectual malpractice by early 20th century progressives. The administrative progressives who a century ago created the programs that still train school leaders dismissed the intrinsic value of book learning and believed that few white students and still fewer minorities can succeed academically. Accordingly, they reshaped schooling to teach life skills and preparation for factory work. In the National Education Association’s influential 1918 Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, administrative progressives declared war on academic rigor, a war they fight to this day.
A second bad idea proved equally influential, and self-serving. Administrative progressives argued that nonexperts cannot understand schooling, so “good” school board members always defer to those with educational leadership credentials. In my state, orientation of new school board members is run in partnership with the school administrators’ association, even though the interests of the two groups often conflict.
My school board orientation stressed teamwork, unity, and discounting “biased” sources like teachers and parents—we should instead rely on the professional, the superintendent, for data to evaluate said superintendent. This is like telling voters evaluating President Biden to only trust White House briefings. Trainers also said good school board members should “not have an agenda,” leading one of my peers to retort, “then why did I run for office?”
In short, school board “professionalism” represents the business best practices of 1918, touting deference to bureaucratic experts and calling disagreement illegitimate. This differs sharply from how modern, pluralistic political scientists envision tradeoffs between democracy and bureaucracy.
Research indicates that Americans can improve educational achievement and equity by publicly funding private schools, including religious schools, to foster choice and competition, as Belgium and the Netherlands have for over a century. States like Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas are adopting such policies.
But most students will remain in public schools, so we cannot give up on those schools. Instead, we should use existing tools like free speech and free elections to expose problems, building support to either reform public schools or replace them.
With that purpose, here are six questions this former board member suggests voters may consider asking school board candidates:
When hiring teachers, some administrators consistently prioritize athletic coaching over teaching ability. How would you react if our school superintendent did that?
Relative to other schools, do our public schools have trouble hiring and retaining good teachers?
An improvement plan means a teacher must get better or get out. Many districts have zero teachers on improvement plans. If that happened here, what would you tell the superintendent?
How many parents choose options other than our public schools, and how can we win them back?
Do other schools do better than our schools on student achievement, or on closing achievement gaps? If so, what should we do about it?
Some Critical Race Theory supporters consider teaching high-level mathematics to be racist—do you agree?
Asking questions like these is a sign of a savvy voter. If a school board candidate claims only the superintendent is responsible for academics, vote for someone else or run yourself.
Serving on school board isn’t rocket science. Doing it well, with an independent spirit and a priority on academic excellence, can make a difference.
Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Between 2015 and 2020, he served on the Fayetteville school board.
Selected earlier Education Next coverage of school boards:
- “Locally Elected School Boards Are Failing,” Vladimir Kogan, Summer 2022.
- “Are Locally Elected School Boards Really Failing?” Rachel S. White, Sarah Stitzlein, Kathleen Knight Abowitz, Derek Gottlieb, Jack Schneider, Winter 2023.
- “The Choice in Education Governance Debates: Complacency or Reform?” Vladimir Kogan, Winter 2023.
- “It’s Time To Eliminate School Boards,” Henry Smith, October 2022
- “If the Buck Stops With School Boards, Consider Paying the Members,” Dorothy Rhode-Collins and J. Cameron Anglum, April 2023