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Commentary: How to help school boards resist pressure groups

Commentary: How to help school boards resist pressure groups

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School boards are in the news again as culture-war battlegrounds and forums for public-school bashing. That’s good reason to make them stronger, not weaker or more fearful.

Boards are ground zero for conflicts over mask and vaccine mandates and curricular battles over U.S. racial history.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis withheld salaries from districts that voted to defy his ban on mask mandates, even as he encouraged parents to use new school-voucher laws to flee public schools for private and religious institutions. In Tennessee, health-care workers who advocated for mask mandates were threatened by a mob at a school board meeting. In Nashua, New Hampshire, the far-right Proud Boys crashed local school board meetings to protest teaching intended to combat racism. Already this year, there have been 64 recall efforts against school board members — far more than the previous two years combined.

Stronger boards could deal more effectively with the challenges facing public schools. Beyond that, they should become better equipped for their role as the institutions where many citizens first become civically engaged and run for local office.

Nearly half of American school boards are nonpartisan at a time of political tribalism. The boards — with 44% women and 28% Black or Latino members — are far more diverse than Congress. Yet even that representative arithmetic lags the school population, with over half of school children today members of minority groups. Some of the backlash against teaching lessons on race have occurred in districts with sizeable minority populations but all-white school boards.

A major challenge is to make boards more resilient against the agendas of myriad ideological groups by improving the know-how of school board members and by passing laws that increase voter participation and attract diverse local candidates.

Long before the Proud Boys invaded school board meetings, outside interests channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into national organizations that sought to control school boards. This effort was anything but local. Some of the money went to oust board members who lacked enthusiasm for charter schools. It also supported state and mayoral takeovers aimed at reforming underperforming districts. Takeovers “had the most negative effects on black communities,” wrote Domingo Morel, a Rutgers University political scientist in his 2018 book, “Takeover.” Among takeover districts, states abolished elected school boards in 33% of majority-Black districts versus just 4% of majority-White districts.

Another key challenge is that board elections are typically held during odd-numbered years instead of coinciding with presidential and congressional contests. Originally intended to keep education above the political fray, off-cycle elections depress turnout, and shift power to those “best organized and well resourced,” said Morel — including philanthropists and unions. In Michigan, for example, turnout for off-cycle school-board elections in 2000, was under 8% of registered voters, compared to a typical turnout of about 65% during presidential elections. As recently as 2019, only 10 states aligned municipal races with presidential and congressional-midterm elections.

Lawmakers should follow the lead of Nevada and Phoenix, which recently shifted to an on-cycle election calendar for school boards, and California and Arizona, which are requiring cities with low turnout to do the same.

Shifting election calendars would have the added benefit of increasing minority representation and addressing the achievement gap between Black and white students, which tends to be larger in districts with sizeable minority populations but mostly-white boards. One reason may be that these school board members, many of whom do not have children, face less political pressure in the districts where the gaps are largest.

In addition, localities should lower the voting age, following the example of California and Maryland. In Takoma Park, Maryland, the first U.S. city to give 16-year-olds the vote, nearly half of registered voters between 16 and 18 turned out in 2013, when the law went into effect, compared to just one in 10 adults. Nationwide, at least 15 states now allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries where the general election will be held by the time they reach 18.

High school seniors also should be allowed to represent their classmates on school boards, a practice now permitted in dozens of districts from Virginia to California. Especially in poor cities, where up-to-date textbooks are scarce and private fundraising pays for supplies, students have a special stake — and valuable perspective — on resource-allocation and education decisions. In Oakland, for example, student representatives helped focus the board’s attention on improving programs that help students who have fallen behind complete the classes they need to graduate.

Expanding the electorate and school-board participation represents a chance to deepen democratic participation among ordinary citizens and to “develop the intellectual muscles to be effective community members,” as Jack Schneider, an education-leadership professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, put it.

School board members also need better training. Massachusetts provides a model, with instruction on budgeting, data analysis and communication strategy, as well as how to avoid micromanaging. Paying board members would help, too, by bringing in younger and economically diverse candidates.

-- Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform." This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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