Why are Local School Boards Suddenly in the National Spotlight?
Updated: Jul 30
It’s 2021. An odd year (in both number and feel!) and what most people would consider an off-year election cycle. Voter turnout during off-years is typically pretty low with mostly local races on the ballot. But we’ve had 18 months of “anything but normal” and I expect our voter turnout this year will reflect that as well.
Local school board races have become one of the hottest topics in 2021 gaining national spotlight on issues like mask and vaccine mandates, gender-neutral bathrooms, removing police from schools, and curriculum about critical race theory and sex ed.
Supporters of school board candidates are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into expensive campaigns to help elect or perhaps re-elect their favorite candidates.
Before the pandemic, school board meetings were often described as uneventful, even boring, with few community members in attendance. But covid changed that. When local school board meetings went virtual, every parent, teacher, student and community member suddenly had a front row seat to their local school board meeting.
Many parents now recognize the significant role their local school board plays in setting policy for day to day school operations. And in many communities around the country, parents have stepped up to make their voices heard.
It’s been an intense week of campaigning and raw emotions as we approach the final few days of this election cycle. So we’re doing a bit of a School Board 101 this week.
What is the purpose of a local school board?
There are over 90,000 school board members in the U.S. serving more than 50 million public school children, and most members are elected by people in their community.
A local school board is responsible for ensuring the students in their public schools receive the best education for the tax dollars spent. Some of their primary duties include establishing the vision and goals of their district, setting performance standards and accountability metrics, hiring and evaluating the superintendent, determining what new schools are opened and how to support struggling schools, developing and adopting policies and curriculum, overseeing facility issues, and ensuring adequate financial resources.
According to the National School Board Association (NSBA) website, there are six reasons why we have local governance over our public schools:
Education is not a line item in a school board’s budget - it is the only item.
The school board represents the community’s voice in public education, providing citizen governance and knowledge of the community’s resources and needs, and board members are the policy-makers closest to the student.
The school board sets the standard for achievement in the school district, incorporating the community’s view of what students should know and be able to accomplish at each grade level.
The school board is accessible to everyone in the community and is accountable for the performance of the schools in the district.
It is the community member’s right as a voter to select new board members who will work diligently to provide an opportunity for students to receive a high-quality education, which will enable them to succeed in their career, college, and life.
The school board is the community’s education watchdog, ensuring that taxpayers get the most for their tax dollars.
Why are parents suddenly showing up at school board meetings?
The local school board has the most influence on policies in our public schools. Their policies guide the day to day operations of our schools, led by the Superintendent who is responsible for putting those policies into action.
If you are satisfied with how your school has responded to the uncertainties of the pandemic, you likely have showered your teachers and school principal with supportive messages (I certainly have!). And in the hierarchy of a local school district, this also means the Superintendent, their staff and the local board of education deserves some credit as well because they have made sure their schools have the resources, tools and services they need to support the students in their community through these challenging times.
However, in many communities across our country videos of frustrated parents storming local board meetings are taking center stage. The pandemic has forced parents to be more active in their child’s education (whether they wanted it or not), and it’s been an eye-opening experience for many families as they learn about the policies that guide the decisions in their local schools.
I’m sure you’ve seen at least a few of these headlines recently:
Covid and critical race theory: Sleepy school board races are waking up - NBC News - October 17, 2021
A look at the groups supporting school board protesters nationwide - NPR - October 26, 2021
Ohio School Boards Association cuts ties with national board; cites letter to Biden requesting federal assistance - 10WBNS Ohio - October 26, 2021
If you live in a community with a highly contested school board race (and we do here in Douglas County, Colorado), you’re likely observing a pretty intense battle between the candidates! And you can’t escape the yard signs, social media promos, door knockers and honk-and-waves as supporters give it everything they’ve got in the final stretch.
What is your role in the school board elections?
With a majority of school board members elected by their local constituents, your vote is important.
Get Out and Vote
Whether you have school-age children at home, or are an empty nester your vote matters. Consider the education principles most important to your family. Look at the graduation requirements that guide our future generation of workers. Which candidates best support your views?
Do Your Homework
There’s an abundance of information available to you. However, I’d suggest you skip the editorials and go straight to the source. Every candidate should have a website or social media page. Why are they running? What are their key principles? What organizations do they support? Does this align with what you believe is in the best interest of your family and the families in your community?
Engage Your Kids
Depending on the age of your kids, it is highly likely they have already seen the memes and TikToks of some of the more dramatic school board meetings. And I’m sure they hear the emotion in your voice as you talk about the candidates and issues. So bring them into the conversation. Share with them what you feel is important and why you are voting for the individuals you support.
Not sure where to begin? Talk to a friend. Reach out to a trusted source who shares your values and get their perspective.
Join the Discussion
Family engagement is at an all time high in our communities. As parents advocate for the needs of their children it is creating a fierce battleground in this year’s local school board races. Win or lose, one of the biggest challenges our local school board members will face is finding ways to build back the partnerships between our schools and families.
We’re always looking for good news! Share a story about how your school has supported families during these challenging times.
About the Author
Jennifer Larson is an entrepreneur, charter school founder and mother to four children. Connect with her @startupjen.