School Board Demographics Don’t Match Student Demographics  — And That’s a Problem

This post is part of a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness.

Today’s average public school board member is a white male with a family income of over $100K a year. 

The majority of today’s public schools students, on the other hand, are female, students of color, and very likely to be from low-income families. Many are first-generation Americans navigating their own lives while also serving as de facto interpreters for their parents. 

If school board members don’t look like the students they represent, how can boards understand and value the needs of our most underserved students — and make decisions through an equity lens?

Bellwether recently completed research on Rhode Island’s governance practices, including how  school boards operate. Similar to the findings of a 2018 National School Boards Association report, we found that more than 60% of board members in Rhode Island are white and have advanced degrees, while fewer than 6% grew up in poverty or received special education or English language learning support. In contrast, 49% of Rhode Island’s public schools’ students are people of color: 31% are Hispanic/Latinx and close to 10% are Black/African American. 40% of these students are from low-income families, almost 20% are identified as having a disability, and almost 10% are English language learners.

Rhode Island is not alone. A recent study of Ohio’s school boards illustrates how lack of representation and understanding hurts underserved students. In the case of Ohio, citizens from more affluent areas run for school board and are elected, and then amplify the voices of families from their neighborhoods. As a result, affluent students and their schools receive greater resources.

For more equitable school board decision making, here are three suggestions for state departments of education, school boards, and leaders:

Support the candidacy of diverse school board candidates.

Districts can target recruitment from underserved areas as well as reduce barriers to candidacy. States could eliminate filing fees, the need to collect signatures, and the requirement that all candidates be U.S. citizens who are registered to vote. Further, grassroots efforts could identify and build financial resources to support underrepresented candidates. More counties need firsts like the one my colleague Brandon Lewis recently wrote about.

Train existing school board members to uncover their own biases.

Targeted recruitment is important, but the fruits of these efforts will not be immediate. Many school boards do not have term limits, meaning once on the board, members can stay for a long time. The state of Minnesota has addressed this challenge by implementing “Equity Lens” training for all school board members to learn about systemic racism and classism, as well as the historical and structural explanations for gaps in student outcomes. Cultural competency trainings encourage members to seek out and listen to members from all parts of their communities, develop and implement equity policies, and monitor and measure change through an equity scorecard.

Focus on the equality of outputs rather than the equality of inputs.

School boards in Minnesota have had success by focusing on providing additional and differentiated resources to low-income students and students of color. For example, Roseville Area Schools’ strategic plan outlines the use of integrated environments, targeted intervention, culturally relevant curriculum, and the recruitment and retention of racially and ethnically diverse staff.

A focus on equity is much more likely when school boards are culturally competent and representative of the communities they serve. Only then will systemic racism and classism give way to a system that meets the needs of all of the students its serves.