Electing educators to local school boards often results in a pay bump for teachers, but does not correlate with higher student achievement or high school graduation rates.
That’s the finding from new research published earlier this year in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy. While electing more professional educators—classroom teachers, principals, superintendents, or other administrators—to school boards leads to an average teacher pay increase of approximately 2 percent for each educator elected, there’s little evidence that having more board members with education backgrounds leads to better student performance in core subjects like reading and math, the researchers behind the study found.
As another campaign season dominated by its share of contentious, but also under-the-radar, school board races concludes, the research adds to a growing body of research breaking down how the composition of school boards influences student outcomes—or doesn’t—and how school districts operate.
Researchers John Singleton, an associate economics professor at the University of Rochester, and Ying Shi, an assistant professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University, conducted their study in California, using a combination of candidate information from election filings and publicly available data about school district spending and students’ standardized test scores between 1996 and 2015 to determine what happened when more educators were elected to school boards. Eighteen percent of school board members in their analysis were educators.
The data showed that average state assessment scores were significantly lower in school districts overseen by school boards with a greater share of educators. But the study didn’t assert that the presence of educators on local school boards was the causal factor. These districts also tended to be larger and have more minority students, who could have academic challenges not captured by the analysis, Singleton and Shi wrote.
It’s possible that student performance and educator representation are inversely related, if, for example, voters respond to lower test scores by disproportionately electing candidates with education experience to the school board, the report says.
“Do our results say, for instance, ‘Don’t elect teachers to the school board?’” Singleton said. “Certainly, our results show that a teacher is associated with increases in teacher salaries, and, if anything, decreases in student test scores. But I wouldn’t go so far as to draw that conclusion. I think it’s more generally suggesting that who’s on the school board and that person’s priorities can certainly matter for students.”
The report divided school boards into four different groups and analyzed findings for each: boards with no educators, boards with at least one educator but whose membership was no more than a third educators, boards made up of one-third to one-half of educators, and majority-educator school boards.
Because local school districts in California are primarily responsible for charter school authorization and oversight, the researchers also included data about charter schools.
They found that having more professional educators on the school board correlated with smaller charter school enrollment and fewer charter schools overall. Compared to a district without an educator on the school board, the number of district-authorized charter schools decreased by an average of about one school during an educator’s four-year term, according to the research.
“Our findings on increased teacher salaries and curbed charter growth are both consistent with predictions for greater union influence,” the report said.
The researchers confirmed this observation by assessing local data to determine that educators are 40 percent more likely to report being endorsed by teachers’ unions than members from other professional backgrounds. Teachers’ unions often make concerted efforts to encourage their members to run for school board seats.
The findings about teachers’ union endorsements “support our conclusion that school boards are potentially an important causal channel through which teachers’ unions exert influence,” according to the report.
A separate study released in September found school board candidates of any profession who win the support of their local teachers’ union win their elections nearly three-quarters of the time. The union endorsement is more influential than other endorsement, as well as a candidate’s promise to focus on student achievement or an incumbent’s track record boosting it, according to that study.
More generally, Singleton and Shi concluded that their findings build upon a growing body of evidence showing that school boards and the elections that determine their composition matter.
“The stakes are higher than you’d be led to believe just by looking at voter turnout in school board elections, which has historically been low,” Singleton said. “I think this paper is going to contribute to what is a growing body of work that’s thinking about governance issues and trends and how that impacts students.”
Other key findings in the report include:
- The average district in California pays its superintendent about $172,000. Majority-educator school boards pay their superintendents about 10 percent more, on average. That compares with the national average superintendent salary of about $156,468, according to a survey conducted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, in March.
- In districts with more educators on the school board that had increased teacher salaries, there were corresponding decreases in district spending on investments including capital projects.
- Educators are 26 percent more likely to win their races when they are assigned the top spot on the ballot. (California uses a randomized order for each election, rather than listing candidates in alphabetical order.)
- After an educator is elected to a school board, the number of elected educators decreases by an average of about 9 percent in the next election. Educators are no less likely to run in the subsequent elections, they are just less likely to win, the report says.