The connection between school boards and student academic growth has long been a black box. It’s difficult for researchers to tease out the impact of a board policy to a particular outcome, considering all the factors that interact to affect a student’s experience in school.
But a new working paper offers a peek inside the box. It examines one element of school boards—their ethnic makeup—and how that affects spending decisions and potentially student achievement.
Brett Fischer, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Virginia, examined school boards in California and their patterns of spending on a particular pot of money that is easy to trace: the state’s School Facility Program, which helps districts pay for new facilities and modernization of existing buildings.
When school boards added one Hispanic member, Fischer found, facilities spending on high-Hispanic, high-poverty schools in that district increased by 66 percent, while spending on low-Hispanic, low-poverty schools saw only insignificant changes.
Also, new hiring at high-Hispanic schools decreased by 16 percent, suggesting the greater investment overall in those schools may have led to a decrease in teacher churn. The study also found measurable increases in math scores for students at high-Hispanic schools when Hispanic members joined their school boards.
An early version of the paper, “No Spending Without Representation: School Boards and the Racial Gap in Education Finance,” was published on SSRN, formerly known as the Social Science Research Network, in April. The research is currently under review at the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.
“I think the takeaway here is that one member seems to make a difference,” Fischer said. “Diversity of viewpoints on the board matters, and listening to the board matters. The role of the school board’s individual members is not trivial.”
This paper is among the first to track the connection between a school board’s ethnic makeup and its local spending decisions. Fischer was able to do this work with Hispanic school board members because they are relatively easy to identify by surname, though the research acknowledges that some school board members could have been missed.
The research also takes advantage of the ability to track school facility spending; other local spending decisions are more difficult to find.
The paper doesn’t have a precise answer on which mechanisms that are driving these differences. But it does show how important local decisionmakers are to reducing inequities in spending and investment. Fischer suggested that Hispanic school board members may come in with a greater knowledge of and understanding of the needs of schools that serve a high-Hispanic population.
“That all informs what they’re bringing to the table as elected school board members,” he said.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.