It may sit at the bottom of the ballot, but this role has the power to change local education systems.
October 26, 2020
With a big election coming up, the presidential race is understandably taking up most of the headlines, along with voters’ mental space. But as in any election, voters also will be casting ballots for myriad local races that will shape their communities in important ways. That includes races for district school boards.
School board members have a significant influence on setting the vision and direction of our local school systems. To help us better understand how, we spoke with Jasmine Bowles (Miami-Dade ’10), vice president of strategy and operations at School Board Partners and member of the Clayton County Public School board in Atlanta, Georgia, and Elisa Hoffman (Greater Delta ’96), founder and executive director of School Board School and a former Cincinnati Public School board member.
What does a school board do?
Bowles: Your local school board member essentially has three jobs. They pass an annual budget, which is actually a constitutional requirement in most states. School boards are also responsible for policies. That includes writing policy, researching policy, and at the end of the day, voting on policies. Lastly, it’s the school board’s job to hire, manage, and evaluate the superintendent. The superintendent has the power and authority to implement the will of the board in whatever way they deem is best for our scholars and community. Our superintendents are critical players in our work towards more equitable school districts.
Hoffman: I think the simplest way to think about it is that the board governs your school district, and then your district administration manages the district. So the board determines the “what,” the big picture, and your administration determines the “how” or the day-to-day operations. For example, the board might create a policy on attendance, but then it's on the administration to then take that policy and implement it. And then of course your job as a board member is to monitor student achievement and ensure that the policies and budget you're creating are equitable and are leading to the results you want for your district, where every child can reach their potential.
What are some common misconceptions that people have about school boards?
Hoffman: One of the most common misperceptions that I saw when I was on the school board was that it is within a school board member's role to step in and resolve problems at the school-site level. For example, individual issues with a teacher or a principal or if a bus isn't picking up a child on time, these are all the district administration's job to address. It's really important that board members stay in their lane so that administrators can effectively do their jobs. I will also clarify and say that if the board starts hearing from like a dozen parents about the same principal or gets like a bunch of complaints about buses being late, that might rise to a board issue.
Bowles: School board members should not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the district or school. The ways that we fight for children are through the policy, through accurate resourcing of that budget, making sure it gets to those babies who need it most. And through making sure our superintendent knows that we’re an anti-racist district doing anti-racist things.
What impact can a school board have on how a school system addresses the needs of students and families during the pandemic?
Hoffman: At the broadest level, school boards are working with their superintendents to make decisions about how their students are going to go back to school. Is it going to be virtual, in-person, some hybrid combination of both? So in this case, the superintendent should be using their expertise to advise the board. But then the board should also be providing the superintendent and the district administration with input based on what they are hearing from families.
Boards are also working with their treasurers to figure out how they are going to fund the needs of students during a pandemic. So here in Ohio, the governor is cutting tens of millions of dollars from public school budgets at a time when districts actually need more money. And so that's making it really hard for the school board because they have to approve the changes in budgets which will ultimately impact staffing. The board is working with their administration to make these huge decisions, everything from, how are we going to go back, to what are the budget implications and staffing implications?
Bowles: The pandemic has revealed what we already know, there's an access gap that is shameful. And now it has just been widened and illuminated. So on the school board, we're talking about technology, we're talking about food distribution, we're talking about reopening, and we're also talking about authorizing schools and ultimately students matriculating from one grade to the next based on norms that none of us have created yet.
In the absence of national leadership, we are leaning heavily on our local government. That includes smart city councils, commissioners, and state reps. At the same time, it also really comes down to your local school board. What are the tools we can use to gauge when it’s safe to reopen schools? These decisions don't just impact the scholars who walk into our classroom. These decisions have multigenerational community-wide impacts. And I don't have all the answers. These are still some of the questions that live in your local school board room.
“The personal and political will of the board needs to be such that most of your board is ready to make the hard decision to stand up against racism.”
In what ways can a school board influence how a school system addresses racial equity issues?
Hoffman: I believe this is a huge area of influence for school boards. We know that we can't always wait for hearts and minds to change—we often have to lead with policy. As a board member, you should audit all of your policies through an equity lens. How do racism and inequity show up in all of those policies? That includes your district enrollment policies, attendance policies, discipline policies, and dress codes. The board is the body that writes and revises all of these policies. So that is a major lever for impact.
And then many boards are also responsible for approving things like curriculum and hiring decisions. So for example, they can have a clear articulation that teaching staff should better reflect the diversity of the student body. And then the administration will determine the how—how are they going to do that with a set way of reporting back to the board and to their community on their progress.
Bowles: A school board plays a critical role in ensuring that anti-racist and equitable policies are passed. So the personal and political will of the board needs to be such that most of your board is ready to make the hard decision to stand up against racism. And that can happen in many ways. For example, we’ve had some really brave and courageous school board members in School Board Partners who have passed anti-racist resolutions in their districts.
I’ll admit, one of the pain points that I have as a Black woman in a Black community, on a board that is mostly Black is, what does it mean to talk about equity and diversity when everybody's already Black and brown? And so you also have to recognize when your community thinks they are experts because we have this lived experience. When in actuality, we all have work to do to combat racism and to ensure that equity happens. And if you are mostly Black and brown, maybe you need to be talking about other forms of inequity, such as classism, homophobia, and ageism.
Those are some of the ways that your board can leverage its power. We have the superintendent, budget, and policy. That means you need to pick a great superintendent. You need a robust and equitable budget process. And your policy review needs to be inclusive with students and parents at the table.
“If we want our school systems to produce different outcomes, we need people leading them that have the knowledge and the insight and the network to actually build different systems.”
What should a voter pay attention to when evaluating school board candidates on their ballot?
Hoffman: I think there are really three big things and they all intersect with each other. Do they understand the role? Can they clearly articulate their goals? And do they share your values?
I see so often that school board candidates are running on platforms that I might agree with, but they don't actually understand the role because that's not something they'll be able to control. And then what we see once they're in that role is that they either have to overstep their bounds and kind of get in the lane of administration, which makes it so hard for administration to get their job done. Or they have to admit to the public that they didn't actually know what this job was when they were running.
Often candidates want to make schools better or they believe in equity for all kids, and those are all great. But what are the three to five things they’re going to prioritize that you really think could make a substantial difference in your school district? Can they get more specific than just the big platitudes?
You're never going to find someone with whom you agree on everything. But if your values are aligned enough, then you’ll know that you're still all moving towards the same vision for what you believe about kids and your district.
Bowles: I hope that we read candidate bios with excitement and welcome every life experience and think about how that person’s identities will add additional perspective to their leadership. Where this person comes from, every angle about them is valuable, whether they’re a parent, a teacher, a banker, a lawyer, a doctor. I don't want to put people in pigeonholes and say only put educators on the school board. We need every perspective and experience.
Then I would ultimately encourage every voter to say, how will this person govern? Do they know that they are actually not supposed to be walking in the classrooms unannounced? Do you see evidence that they are able to compromise, or ask tough questions? Those are some of the skills and characteristics I would hope to have alongside me on the school board.
Why is it important for voters to make informed decisions about choosing their local school board members (and to not skip this item on the ballot)?
Bowles: It is super important that every voter always votes from the top of the ballot to the bottom of the ballot, every time. So please vote for the president. Vote for Congress, your state representative, and city council. And vote for your school board. The reason this is so important is that I fundamentally believe those who are most proximate to the problem have the solution.
If there ever was a village, it is your local school board. Your local school board deserves your attention and it's important not to skip it because those are some of the people making the most critical decisions about how and when schools should reopen. . These are the people who may actually save the lives of the students, teachers, and parents in your neighborhood. And they will do it based on their values, their vision, and how they choose to include your voice in those decisions.
Hoffman: Number one, if a board is dysfunctional or even just not very effective, it's incredibly difficult for the superintendent and their team to get their work done and for a district to operate effectively. On the other hand, when a board does understand their role and how to do it well, the entire district can actually focus on the work of ensuring every student has what they need to succeed in school and in life. That is why you need the right people who understand this role and how to do it well on the board.
I think the second thing, probably most importantly though, is that we know our public education system is not serving all kids. And every year we invest billions of philanthropic and tax dollars in trying to improve educational outcomes. And that money is put towards everything from new technology to better buildings, to teacher training. And all of that investment is really important, but we still see these massive inequities in outcomes because those investments don't address the root of the problem. I believe the problem is the system itself. So if we're going to solve that problem, we have to invest in the leaders who can change the system. And if we want our school systems to produce different outcomes, we need people leading them that have the knowledge and the insight and the network to actually build different systems.
Resources for Voters
Bowles and Hoffman share their top recommendations for researching school board candidates and preparing to vote.
- Vote.org - Check your registration status to make sure you are registered in your state.
- VOTE411 - Get a personalized ballot and explore local candidates (availability varies by state).
- BallotReady - Every candidate and referendum, explained.
- BallotTrax - Track the progress of your mail-in ballot.
- XQ Super School - Learn more about how school boards transform communities.
- League of Women Voters - Offers a nonpartisan voters guide with pertinent questions.
- Schoolboardpartners.org - View anti-racist resolutions passed by bold elected school board members, learn more about the fellowship for anti-racist elected board members, and the Collective Power Summit.
- Attend candidate forums to candidates answer questions, including those from constituents. Most of those forums are listed on the candidates’ Facebook pages. The Urban League and other similar organizations often hold forums as well.
- Go to multiple places to get your information. Try to get your information from somewhere that is nonpartisan, where the candidates themselves are providing their perspective.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Teach For America is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and does not endorse any campaigns or candidates for public office. Recipients of AmeriCorps funding, including most TFA corps members, are prohibited from engaging in political, voter registration, and census activities while charging time to their AmeriCorps grant.
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