State boards of education craft policies on curriculum, assessment, and other areas that directly affect day-to-day classroom life. But the professionals most affected by those decisions—teachers—often don’t have a seat at the boardroom table.
And when they do have a seat, they don’t always have a vote.
Just nine states specifically set aside a seat for teachers on their appointed state board of education, according to preliminary research conducted by the National Association of State Boards of Education. That includes Missouri and Delaware, where new laws were signed this summer that require a seat be reserved for a teacher. Of those, only four states—Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Wyoming—give teachers voting rights.
Another eight states, most of which have appointed boards, expressly prohibit teachers from serving on state boards of education, NASBE found. The reasoning behind those laws, many say, is that teachers are employed by the schools those state boards govern.
The rest of the states either allow teachers to serve as board members or have no mention of policies prohibiting teachers from serving, according to publicly available documents gathered by NASBE. However, not many current teachers are on state boards. (And four states don’t currently have a board of education.)
Despite the lack of policies granting teachers a place on the board, Kristen Amundson, the president and CEO of NASBE, said she thinks state boards of education are prioritizing teacher voice more than ever. Some states—such as Georgia, which doesn’t allow teachers to serve on the state board—have convened teacher advisory councils to report to state policymakers on certain issues.
“One of the trends that we’re seeing with state boards of education is a desire to reach out and to listen to people who have a deep concern about education issues,” Amundson said.
State boards of education are often tasked with establishing high school graduation requirements, implementing federal education laws, establishing standards for accreditation of school districts and teacher-preparation programs, and setting statewide curriculum standards, along with other education policymaking. State board members are either elected or appointed, and elected boards don’t usually have designated seats to represent specific education stakeholders, such as teachers.
Earlier this month, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, signed into law a bill that adds a teacher to a nonvoting seat on the state’s board of education. The teacher, who will be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, must have at least five years of experience, and will serve for a term of four years.
“We welcome the opportunity to receive the insight of an active classroom teacher,” said a statement provided by the state’s education department. “He or she will offer a valuable perspective of how policy intersects with daily instruction.”
However, that teacher will not have voting rights, because that could be a conflict of interest, state Sen. Gary Romine told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. State boards of education are often in charge of setting employment conditions for teachers, such as the state salary schedule. State boards are also supposed to be an unbiased body for education policymaking.
Arkansas, North Carolina, Oregon, and now Delaware are the other states where teachers are on the state boards in an advisory capacity but may not vote.
In North Carolina and Arkansas, the educators are current teachers of the year. And in Delaware, Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, signed into law this month a bill that adds a former state teacher of the year who is still teaching to the board as a nonvoting member.
When teachers have a vote on the state board of education, that gives weight to their perspective, so they’re not just in a “token” role, said Ryan Fuhrman, a 7th grade science teacher in Sheridan, Wyo., who is a full member of the state’s board of education.
“Even though we’re fighting the same battle for great education, there’s a big difference between being in the foxhole of a classroom and being back at headquarters,” Fuhrman said. “Anytime you expand the voices in the room, education will benefit.”
But as Amundson said in explaining the policies restricting teachers from voting, “It is sometimes difficult for a person to vote on employment practices that are then going to govern their own personal employment.”
Running for a Seat at the Table?
During this past year, there’s been a surge of political engagement among teachers. Thousands of teachers in a half-dozen states walked out of their classrooms this spring to protest low salaries and education funding cuts.
Now, a record number of teachers are running for state legislature this fall—Education Week has recorded over 135 candidates. Many more are running for local school boards, and Amundson said she thinks a growing number of teachers may run for their state boards of education, too. In about a dozen states, board of education members are elected.
“I think teachers are becoming much more aware of how the policy world affects what they do in their classroom,” she said.
Amundson also predicts an increase in state legislation aiming to add teachers to state boards of education. At least three state legislatures, including Missouri, have passed bills this year to give a teacher a seat on the state board.
A measure passed by the Maryland legislature would have added two teachers and one parent of a public school student to the board of education. The teachers would have had a vote, except for when the state board heard appeals from dismissed public school employees. But Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed that bill in May.
Hogan said in a statement that the bill would have “dilute[d] the authority of the board of education by packing it with appointees that represent the interest of lobbyists rather than those of teachers, parents, administrators, or students.” The educators would have been selected by the state teachers’ union.
Eric Ebersole, a Democratic delegate who sponsored the House version of the bill, pushed back against that claim: “It didn’t put special interests in, it put in the stakeholders,” he said in an interview.
Ebersole, a former classroom teacher, said he remembers being frustrated when well-intended state education policies were handed down without an understanding of their real-world implications.
“Someone who understands the point of delivery at the classroom is really critical [on a board of education],” he said.
Next year, Ebersole plans to reintroduce the measure, which passed through the legislature along bipartisan lines.
Seeking Teacher Voice
Indiana is one state that allows teachers to serve on the state board of education, although there are no current teachers on the board now. (State law requires at least six members to have professional experience in education, so there are several former teachers.)
But Megan Bilbo, a high school teacher in Fortville, Ind., said she’s still been able to share her input with the board through open forums. She has provided feedback to board members on proposed policies, and they’ve taken that into account, she said.
In some ways, Bilbo said, those type of open forums and other opportunities for teacher voice can be better than having a sole teacher representative on the board.
“An elementary teacher’s perspective is much different than a high school teacher’s perspective,” she said. “I think having one teacher on the board could be a little limiting,” if the other board members don’t seek additional input as well.
The most important thing, Bilbo said, is that members of state boards of education are actively seeking out and listening to teachers: “Ultimately, they’re the ones who are going to be implementing [the policies]. You’d think [board members would] want them to be part of that process,” she said.
Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teachers Often Left Off State Education Boards