Local school boards can now find themselves on the partisan frontlines of the nation’s political battles. They have contended with aggressive, sometimes violent confrontation. They are the targets of organizing efforts by far-right extremists and of controversial new legislation, such as the newly passed Florida measure widely being called the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its opponents.
One thing local school boards can’t claim is that they reflect the diversity of our student bodies. Despite Black and brown students now comprising north of 50 percent of public school enrollment, just 14 percent of school board members identify as people of color. That’s not merely a demographic mismatch, that’s disenfranchisement.
The demographics of school leadership and of our teaching force are rightfully front and center in national conversations about diversity in public education. But the demographics of local school boards often fly under the radar. It does so to our collective detriment.
Deeply and truly understanding the experiences of those who fill the school hallways is essential to building education systems that promote equity, inclusion, and, indeed, liberation. That’s why Leaders of Color, the organization that I lead, is trying to get more Black and Latino leaders the skills and resources they need to run for and win local elected positions, including on school boards. Let me explain. We identify, train, and support Black and Latino people to become political and civic change agents in their communities.
School boards, whether appointed or elected, hold profound power over the direction of schools and districts across the country. While states and the federal government provide guardrails, incentives, and general policy direction, day-to-day decisionmaking, staffing, organization, and policy implementation are overseen by local school boards.
It’s an oft-repeated quip that the United States doesn’t have a public education system, it has nearly 14,000 of them in the form of local school districts. With this diffusion of control and the unique characteristics of those nearly 14,000 communities, the management of each district is a first-order question for educational improvement and equity. It also means that the who of local school board members is as central an issue as the how of each board’s governance. Because representation matters.
But who is elected or nominated to fill the ranks of our local school boards isn’t just about ensuring adequate representation, as important as that is. It’s about creating a governance ecosystem that actually yields policy that supports educational equity.
Local school boards with Black members create more equitable policies.
Research from as far back as the 1980s shows that local school boards with Black members create more equitable policies, better supporting Black students. And a more recent study from researchers at Florida State University found that the effects of diversity are especially beneficial with respect to student discipline. The Florida State team found that districts with more Black and Latino leaders reduced disciplinary suspension rates for all students. The study further found that with diverse school boards, the disparity between suspension rates for students of color (frequently much higher) and white students (frequently much lower) was significantly reduced.
The benefits of diverse school system governance extend well beyond discipline, however. Leadership flows through systems in ways that either support or thwart diversity, equity, and inclusion. The scarcity of Black and brown superintendents, especially in majority white districts, is a negative side effect of the scarcity of Black and brown school board members. Hiring Black superintendents can help in widening the pipeline for Black school leaders and teachers. And increasing Black school staff so that more Black students have Black teachers seems, in turn, to have significant and far-reaching effects: Students having a Black teacher benefit from higher graduation rates and college-completion rates and a host of positive social-emotional outcomes as well. Research also shows that all students benefit from greater teacher diversity. This web of effects paints a clear and powerful picture: Our schools and students only stand to gain from greater diversity in school governance.
Today, we are seeing what insufficient diversity on local school boards can do to the school environment and the academic experiences of students. From banning books to firing educators who teach honestly about this country’s history with race relations, the lack of Black and brown school board members is only empowering fringe voices to the detriment of our children and communities. Having more Black and brown voices at the leadership table can help ensure that important school conversations about contemporary issues won’t be stifled.
At the same time, district leaders, principals, and classroom teachers can play a role in improving the quality of our existing school governance by bringing their boards closer to the classroom in thoughtful and constructive ways. A good place to start is to invite board members to see for themselves what quality teaching and learning really look like. Doing so can equip those charged with governing our public school districts with the first-hand experience they need to better grasp the real needs of our schools, teachers, and students.
We see the power of having board members deeply connected to the challenges and needs of our schools in the work of Leaders of Color alum and current Shelby County, Tenn., school board member Sheleah Harris. A former teacher herself, Harris is active in her schools, making frequent and regular visits, speaking with educators and students about what they need to succeed, and meeting regularly with parents to understand and support the aspirations they have for their children. Every vote she casts, every budget decision she makes, is filtered through the prism of that first-hand knowledge—and not the politics of the latest cable-news-driven outrage.
But our schools and students need so many more board members like Sheleah Harris, which is why Leaders of Color’s goal is to train 400 leaders across the country by 2023. We’re well on our way, but given the scale of the historical and current shortfall in Black and brown leaders, we have a long road ahead of us.
With that said, just a few school board positions can make a difference in the lives and fortunes of hundreds, thousands, even millions of students. Those are stakes we can no longer afford to ignore.