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.
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.
Another key challenge is that board elections are typically held during odd-numbered years instead of coinciding with presidential and congressional contests. While this was originally intended to keep education above the political fray, off-cycle elections depress turnout. 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.
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.