Ethan Ashley and Carrie Douglass are co-founders and co-CEOs of School Board Partners, a national nonprofit that connects, inspires and supports diverse school board members to lead with courage, competence and impact. Ashley has served two terms as board president of the Orleans Parish School Board in New Orleans. Douglass has been elected twice to the Bend-La Pine School Board in Oregon.
Your local school board may have made more headlines than usual this past year. Their members’ decisions directly impact some of the biggest issues in public education today: How should schools reopen? Should students wear masks? Should vaccines be mandated?
The reality is that our nation’s school boards are in crisis. Between a flurry of nationalized partisan fights and a systemic lack of professionalization for school board members, boards across the country are poorly equipped to handle today’s challenges.
The good news is that better school board governance is possible. But will we — as elected leaders — do anything about it? Or will we let local school boards become as dysfunctional as national politics and watch our kids suffer because of it?
School Board Partners wants to change the status quo. We’re a national network of 53 diverse school board members from 41 cities representing over 3.9 million students. Change is possible, and we know how to achieve it.
School boards are overloaded and under-resourced
As school board members, we arguably have a more significant impact on the daily lives of students and their families than any other elected official, and yet we are the least professionalized. School boards select and manage the superintendent while determining the district’s goals and priorities. We approve curriculum, allocate resources, and approve budgets — quite literally deciding which neighborhoods, students and programs get funding.
Now, on top of that, we’re fighting a culture war and making frontline health and safety decisions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite playing such an outsized role in people’s lives, school boards operate with fewer resources than any other elected position, on average. Compared to city council members, county commissioners, and state and federal representatives, school board members are paid the least (often nothing), have the smallest number of staff (usually zero), and receive almost no training or support once elected (besides how to maintain the status quo and not be sued).
As a result, school boards don’t reflect the students they serve, often ending up substantially whiter, older, wealthier and more male than their constituents. Now, we are being co-opted to fight cultural and political wars that are distracting us from our primary job: ensuring every student under our care receives a free, equal and high-quality education.
Addressing the systemic issues with school boards
So what can we, as elected leaders, do and advocate for? There are four critical next steps.
First, state legislatures must mandate that districts pay school board members a living wage, with a need-based sliding scale. Wealthy, retired school board members might be able to volunteer, but a single parent working a low-wage job needs to be able to make a living wage as a school board member if we want school boards to reflect the communities they serve.
Second, state laws need to require substantial training for school board members on everything from board governance and communications to finance and policy writing — all with a focus on equity. We are stewarding our public schools on behalf of a community and must build knowledge and power through training and support.
Without those, school boards cannot effectively hold superintendents accountable. And without training on good governance, boards risk using their power inappropriately to micromanage superintendents and politicize their role.
Third, we must professionalize school boards. That means changing the norm for staffing and resources. Every school board member in a large district should have at least one staff person to help them with the myriad tasks that effective school board members perform, including community forums, communications, budget analysis, policy writing, data analysis and superintendent evaluation.
All of this would cost a fraction of funding currently spent on public education while dramatically improving the governance of nearly a trillion dollars of taxpayer money.
Finally, we must de-politicize school boards, and only individual community members can do that. Use your voice to demand your school board focus on issues that directly affect students and your community, such as budget and data transparency, autonomy and accountability for individual schools, research-based curriculum for students, mental health services, and access to arts and extracurriculars. Turning school boards into partisan battlegrounds serves no one, least of all our students.
At the end of the day, parents want their children to receive an excellent education. Let’s equip our school board members to focus on that, so that one day our country can fulfill the promise of the American dream for all.