Expert Commentary

School board elections in the US: What research shows

To help journalists contextualize coverage of school board elections, we spotlight research on who votes in these elections, the role of teachers unions and how new board members can influence school segregation, funding and test scores.

school board elections research studies student achievement segregation
(Joe Brusky/ Flickr) People pack a Milwaukee school board meeting in January 2014.

School board elections have grown increasingly politicized in recent years as conservative politicians and advocacy organizations push to restrict how public schools address issues related to race, gender and sexuality.

But the job of school board members, many of whom are unpaid volunteers, isn’t just setting education policy. In fact, they oversee and make decisions about a range of programs and projects, including the school district’s annual budget, which, in the largest cities, can total tens of billions of dollars.

Their primary responsibility: Being a watchdog for their communities to ensure public money is well spent, schools and buses are safe, and students receive a high-quality education.

Nationwide, more than 82,000 people served on school boards in more than 13,000 public school districts during the 2022-23 academic year, according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan online political encyclopedia. Texas alone has 1,022 school districts.

The vast majority of board members are elected to office. And this fall, counties, cities and towns in many states will hold school board elections.

These races tend to be decided by a small number of people, however. A “discouragingly low” number of voters participate in school board elections — often 5% to 10%, according to the National School Boards Association. Even when voters show up at the polls, many skip school board races because they tend to appear at the bottom or on the back of their ballots.

Nonprofit groups such as Campaign for Our Shared Future and the XQ Institute are trying to change that by calling attention to the importance of school board elections.

Meanwhile, Moms for Liberty, a conservative political organization, and Run for Something, a progressive political organization, are vying to get their candidates seated on local school boards.

Moms for Liberty, founded in 2021 by two former school board members in Florida, has grown to 130,000 members and 300 chapters in 48 states, according to its X account. Of the 166 school board candidates it publicly endorsed in 2023, 54 won their elections, according to a recent analysis from the nonprofit think tank the Brookings Institution.

Last year, Run for Something endorsed 416 candidates running for various local offices across the U.S. and 226 won, according to the group’s 2024 Strategic Plan. Late last year, Run for Something announced its 50 State School Board Strategy to “fight back and recruit and train young, diverse progressive candidates for school board.”

Guidance for journalists

To help journalists cover school board elections, we’ve gathered and summarized six academic studies that look at how school board members are chosen and the impact they can have on school funding and student achievement.

Journalists need to keep in mind that while school boards make decisions on such things as book bans and which bathrooms transgender children use, their overarching goal is ensuring nearly 50 million students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade develop the skills necessary to get jobs, go to college or otherwise become responsible adults.

The most recent research suggests:

  • Most people who vote in school board elections in California, Illinois, Ohio and Oklahoma are white and likely don’t have children in local public schools. Estimates further suggest that in at least two-thirds of school districts where the majority of students are racial and ethnic minorities, the majority of voters are white.
  • Teacher unions maintain a strong influence over school board elections in Florida and California, where most candidates endorsed by teacher unions prevail.
  • In North Carolina, public schools become less racially segregated when Democrats join school boards than when someone affiliated with another political party or someone with no party affiliation joins.
  • Student test scores rise and schools serving large percentages of Hispanic students receive more funding in California when a white school board member is replaced by someone who is not white.

Although much of the most recent research on U.S. school board elections focuses on a small group of states, these studies provide insights on issues affecting school boards nationwide.

We elaborate on these studies below. But first, we’d like to spotlight three important pieces of context journalists should consider including in news stories about school board elections.

  • Voter turnout in school board races is notoriously low in some parts of the U.S. In Newark, New Jersey, for example, about 3% to 4% of voters typically participate in school board elections, according to Chalkbeat Newark. Only a few hundred people voted in the school board election held in April in Oklahoma City, home to more than 700,000 people, the Oklahoma State Election Board reports.
  • In many communities, most school board members are white men. Ballotpedia examined the demographics of more than 82,000 people who served on school schools during the 2022-2023 academic year and found that 52% were male and 43% were female. In Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, more than 60% were men. Meanwhile, 78% of school board members who participated in a survey the National School Boards Association conducted in 2017 and 2018 identified as white.
  • School board elections are generally nonpartisan, but that may be changing. In nonpartisan races, candidates’ political party affiliation, if they have one, is not listed on the ballot. In November, Florida voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to allow school board elections there to be partisan. In recent months, legislators in Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky and New Hampshire have introduced bills to make school board elections partisan in those states. In North Carolina, where counties can decide whether their school board races are partisan, a growing number of boards have made the change.

No organization tracks school board elections in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. However, Ballotpedia provides information on elections in 475 of the largest school districts, including the 100 most populous cities.

Research roundup

The Democratic Deficit in U.S. Education Governance
Vladimir Kogan, Stéphane Lavertu and Zachary Peskowitz. American Political Science Review, March 2021.

The study: Researchers looked at how the demographics of people who vote in school board elections in the U.S. differ from the demographics of students attending local public schools. They examined a variety of data on voters who participated in school board elections between 2008 and 2016 and students who attended public schools during that period. The researchers focused on four states — California, Illinois, Ohio and Oklahoma — because they are large states with numerous school districts and higher percentages of students who are racial and ethnic minorities.

Because votes are confidential, the researchers predicted the race or ethnicity of each voter by combining census surname distributions with demographic information from the Census block where each voter lived. This is a common procedure for this type of research and has a 90% accuracy rate, the researchers note.

The findings: The study documents a “demographic disconnect.” Most people who voted in school board elections in these four states during this period likely didn’t have children enrolled in local public schools. The authors also note that voters and students differed in terms of race and ethnicity. In at least two-thirds of school districts where the majority of students were racial and ethnic minorities, the majority of voters were white, according to the researchers’ analysis.

The researchers also discovered that the gaps in student achievement separating white students and non-white students tended to be “larger in districts where the electorate looks most dissimilar from the student population.”

In the authors’ words: “If elected officials are motivated to respond to voter preferences, our results suggest that school board members face the least political pressure to address persistent racial achievement gaps in precisely the districts where these gaps are largest because minority populations are most politically underrepresented in these jurisdictions.”

School Boards and Student Segregation
Hugh Macartney and John D. Singleton. Journal of Public Economics, August 2018.

The study: To better understand the role school boards play in student segregation, the researchers matched data on school board members in 105 North Carolina school districts with data on student enrollment patterns in those districts from 2008 to 2012. The researchers looked at whether student enrollment at local elementary schools became more racially diverse after a Democrat joined the school board.

Intentionally segregating students by race is illegal in the U.S. In many parts of the country, public schools are racially segregated as the result of residential sorting, school attendance boundaries and other factors.

The researchers measured changes in race-based segregation in North Carolina by calculating what they call the “black dissimilarity index.” During the study period, 26% of students in North Carolina school district were Black, on average. Meanwhile, 63% of students were deemed “economically disadvantaged.”

The findings: When a Democrat was elected to a school board in North Carolina, racial segregation in local public schools fell. The Black dissimilarity index dropped about 8 percentage points across schools within the district, the researchers write, adding that a main way school boards reduce segregation is by adjusting public schools’ attendance boundaries. 

The researchers note this change typically occurs two years after an election, but is likely temporary. “In the long run, much of it may be undone by household re-sorting,” they write. The researchers found that some white students left their public schools when attendance boundaries shifted and moved to private schools or charter schools.

In the authors’ words: “Taken together, our findings underscore the central role that school boards play in allocating students to schools, with likely implications for the production of learning and social inequality more generally. Understanding how school boards may influence human capital accumulation is of key policy interest and an important direction for future work.”

Are School Boards and Educational Quality Related? Results of an International Literature Review
Marlies Honingha, Merel Ruiterband and Sandra van Thiel. Educational Review, 2020.

The study: Researchers reviewed 16 academic studies published between 1996 and 2016 to better understand the relationship between school boards and educational quality in different countries. The 16 studies look at how various aspects of school boards, including their composition and the behavior of school board members, affect student test scores in the public schools they govern. Twelve studies focus on U.S. school boards, two focus on school boards in the United Kingdom and two examine them in the Netherlands.

The findings: Differences in how school boards and school districts operate in different countries and regions make it difficult to draw any conclusions that would apply to school boards globally, the researchers write. Because several studies examine a single school district or rely heavily on anecdotal evidence, their results cannot be broadly applied. The researchers write that, based on the literature they reviewed, it’s unclear whether school board members have an impact on student achievement in their school districts.Whatever affect they do have is indirect, the researchers add.

The researchers stress the need for larger and more rigorous studies on this issue as well as the need to investigate school board impacts beyond student test scores.

In the authors’ words: “This article draws on a systematic literature review to show that there is a lack of solid empirical evidence on the relation between boards and educational quality. This means that we know less than is reflected in policy assumptions about school boards. The ambitions for school boards and the expectations upon them are not evidence-based.”

How Does Minority Political Representation Affect School District Administration and Student Outcomes?
Vladimir Kogan, Stéphane Lavertu and Zachary Peskowitz. American Journal of Political Science, July 2021.

The study: The researchers investigate whether student achievement changes after racial and ethnic minorities are elected to local school boards. The researchers reconstructed the composition of local school boards between 2000 and 2014 using election data obtained from the California Election Data Archive. They collected data on public school districts and student test scores during that period from the California Department of Education.

The findings: After a racial or ethnic minority was elected to a school board in California, test scores rose among students who were racial or ethnic minorities. While the increase did not materialize until several years after the election and then gradually declined in magnitude, it was substantial.

“The largest estimated effect occurs five years after the election, when the estimated effect of a pivotal minority candidate victory is approximately 0.15 standard deviations,” the researchers write, adding that the change is roughly equivalent to an additional 46 days of learning.

The researchers could not determine the effect on white students’ scores. However, they found “no evidence that the improvements in non-white student performance come at the expense of white students.” They suggest gains in minority students’ test scores may have been driven in part by increased operational spending and changes in school administration that happened after the election of the minority school board member.

In the authors’ words: “We find little evidence that minority representation on school boards affects the total number of employees or the racial and ethnic composition of rank-and-file workers. Nor does school board composition appear to have a consistent effect on school-level segregation. We do, however, find evidence that the share of school district principals who are non-white increases when minorities win more school board seats, providing another potential policy lever through which changes in board composition may affect student learning.”

No Spending without Representation: School Boards and the Racial Gap in Education Finance
Brett Fischer. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, May 2023.

The study: This paper, which also focuses on California school boards, looks at whether replacing a non-Hispanic school board member with a Hispanic board member results in greater spending on Hispanic students. The researcher examined capital spending specifically — how local school boards used grant money that they received from the state’s School Facility Program to fund projects such as campus renovations between 1999 and 2016.

The findings: After a non-Hispanic school board member was replaced with a Hispanic board member, California school boards invested more money in schools where the majority of students were Hispanic. The researcher’s analysis “indicates that a 20 percentage point increase in Hispanic board representation raises [School Facility Program] modernization spending by $93 per student (81 percent) among high-Hispanic schools within the district.” Schools with relatively low Hispanic enrollment received an increase, too, although a smaller one. However, that increase was determined not to be statistically significant.

The analysis also suggests that after a Hispanic person joined a school board, that school district directed more construction funding to schools with a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. There’s also evidence that having a Hispanic school board member is linked to improvements in teacher retention at “high-Hispanic” schools.

In the author’s words: “My analysis confirms that school boards play an integral role in education finance. Using spending data from the [School Facility Program], I find that an additional minority (Hispanic) school board member increases spending on school renovations using state transfer grants. In particular, SFP spending on high-Hispanic and high-poverty schools within the district increases by up to 69 percent, which juxtaposes smaller, insignificant changes among low-Hispanic and relatively affluent schools.”

Teachers’ Unions and School Board Elections: A Reassessment
Michael T. Hartney. Chapter in Groups in U.S. Local Politics, September 2023.

The study: The researcher examines the impact that teacher-union endorsements have on school board elections in California and Florida. The researcher chose to study California because it’s a large, racially diverse state where unions representing government employees are especially powerful, he writes. He chose Florida, another large, racially diverse state, because labor law there has historically been less favorable to teacher unions.

He analyzed union endorsements given to 3,336 school board candidates across 468 school districts in California between 1995 and 2020. He also analyzed endorsements of 361 school board candidates running for office in 36 Florida school districts between 2010 and 2020.

The findings: In both states, school board candidates backed by local teacher unions did “exceptionally well” in most elections. In California, about 90% of union-backed incumbents were reelected and two-thirds of union-backed candidates running against an incumbent won their races. Meanwhile in Florida, about 80% of incumbents endorsed by teacher unions won reelection and more than half of candidates who challenged an incumbent and had union endorsements prevailed.

In the author’s words: “I have shown, quite simply, that union power in school board elections remains both robust and resilient. Irrespective of the very real setbacks that unions have faced in state and national politics, in the local trenches of school board electioneering, the data tell an unambiguous story: teacher-union interest groups remain an important player, they are still the ones to beat.”

Additional resources

The image above was obtained from the Flickr account of Joe Brusky and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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