Corrected: The initial headline for this article incorrectly reported the share of school board members who did not plan to run again. The correct amount is nearly two-thirds.
As school board races become more politicized amid the national movement to curtail lessons on race, racism, and LGBTQ issues, only 38 percent of current board members said, in a new survey, that they plan to run for reelection.
That could be an opportunity for districts to elect more members of color to boards and make them more representative of America’s diversifying student population, according to the report by School Board Partners, a national organization focused on training and recruiting anti-racist board members.
People of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities are historically underrepresented on school boards, and, according to the report, are often the most willing to commit to anti-racism and equity policies within the district.
That’s why board members who bring diverse perspectives are needed in order to change policies related to funding, hiring, and academic achievement, the report continues.
The predicted turnover on school boards also comes at a time when right-wing groups across the country are training potential school board candidates to push their own agenda on the board. Many of these groups, such as Moms for Liberty, have also advocated book bans, supported policies that limit the rights of LGBTQ students, and pushed against equity initiatives in schools.
“There’s going to be a lot of seats opening up. … We would say that the far right has been probably a step ahead with some tool kits, and messaging and training,” said School Board Partners co-founder Carrie Douglass.
“School boards make important decisions, and who is on them matters,” she added.
To keep far-right activists from taking over school boards, training and support of current and potential members is necessary, Douglass and School Board Partners co-founder Ethan Ashley said.
The School Board Partners report surveyed 675 district-level board members from across the country who held office before November 2021. The survey was conducted in January and was limited to board members representing districts where the student body is made up of at least 20 percent students of color. Sixty-four percent of respondents were white, 15 percent Black, 7 percent Latinx, and 2 percent Asian.
School board members don’t represent their communities:
School boards control education policy within a district, approve the budget, and make decisions that directly impact students and families. Racially diverse school boards are more likely to distribute funds equitably and help reduce student suspension and discipline disproportionately targeting students of color, studies have found.
The report says that school boards are nearly 40 percent whiter than the students they serve. Only 6 percent identify as LGBTQ compared with 16 percent of students, and board members are also less likely to have disabilities: 9 percent of board members said they have one or more disabilities compared with 14 percent of the school population.
“Members of colors’ voices, our perspectives, are missing both around equity and addressing systemic racism in closing opportunity gaps,” said Ashley, the group’s co-founder.
White board members are also more likely to be board president as compared with members of color.
“They have a lot of power around agenda-making and managing the superintendent,” Douglass said. “And when we see white board members almost twice as likely to be president as people of color, it just really exacerbates the overall representation gap.”
Members of color are more likely to focus on anti-racism
All school board members have some issues they want to work on in common: mental and physical health and well-being of students and staff, student achievement, and teacher shortages, according to the survey.
But leaders of color were more likely to focus on student achievement for students of color and low-income students, as well as closing the achievement gap. Thirty-three percent of white leaders cited those as priorities, while 56 percent of board members of color said they wanted to focus on student achievement, according to the report.
Equity and anti-racism policymaking was a focus of 41 percent of school board members of color, while only 21 percent of white board members named it as one of their top five issues.
“Most Americans today would consider themselves not racist. However, when you’re talking about dealing with systemic racism, you want to make sure that individual is not just not racist. That’s not enough,” Ashley said. “You want to make sure that individuals are actively working to change systemic and institutional policies and structures and practices.”
The report found that of the board members who believe systemic racism exists and needs to be addressed, 91 percent say school boards should play an active role in addressing it. That’s cited as a motivating factor for joining school boards by 33 percent of board members of color, who said they sought office to provide a voice, experience, and perspective that was missing on the board, in comparison with 19 percent of white members.
School board candidates of color are less likely to be recruited and face barriers to being elected
Board members of color are often younger than their white colleagues, the report found, which means they are often juggling careers whileh volunteering on the school board. They are also less likely to receive training and support from outside organizations focused on supporting their needs.
“There’s so many barriers to being elected or [having] the money that you need to raise to the fact that once you’re elected, you essentially are volunteering your time,” Ashley said.
“Our system right now, by and large, isn’t set up for them to be successful and sustain their livelihoods for their families in the role,” he said.
All school board members, but particularly members of color, want—but often do not have—access to critical training and support to help them execute their responsibilities more effectively, the report found.
They also often don’t have the training and resources necessary to run for election, it further found. School Board Partners said its two-year fellowship program, which offers the training and support needed to elected members of color and diverse leaders, may be one solution to this issue.
“Supporting politics means supporting someone to get elected and then supporting them to govern well and be sustained,” Douglass said.