While well-known officials such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may get a lot of national press, smaller, sometimes overlooked groups also have a huge impact on American education.
Local school boards critically shape the quality of district-wide public education, according to the "School Board Case Studies" report released yesterday by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its two nonprofit affiliates, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce and the National Chamber Foundation.
"Local school boards hire district leadership, oversee school budgets, negotiate collective bargaining agreements or memoranda of understanding with teachers unions, and set policies on a wide range of issues," the report states.
The Chamber of Commerce report includes case studies on school boards in 13 cities across the country, which, collectively, are meant to reflect an accurate vision of American school districts as a whole. District circumstances range from population growth in Bismarck, N.D., to economic decay in Dayton, Ohio; from school board success in Long Beach, Calif., to dysfunction that led to a new, mayor-appointed organization and CEO to replace the Detroit school board in 1999.
[Check out the U.S. News rankings of Best High Schools.]
Through the individual case studies, the report shows the challenges local school boards face—starting with the method by which they're formed. School boards range from 5 to 11 members that are usually elected every one to two years by the community.
Although a democratic process, elections can cause problems such as frequent member turnover, as is the case in the Seattle Public Schools. With a constantly revolving team of members, committing to specific reforms and strategies is often difficult, the report states.
Also, the report notes, "Voters often do not know their elected school board member's name or responsibilities, and turnout in local school board elections—particularly those that occur 'off-cycle,' separate from elections for state and national offices—is very low."
In Austin, for instance, only 2.5 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls for the last school board election, one case study shows. This low voter turnout reportedly worsens Austin Independent School District's performance gap between white and minority students.
"[T]here is a sharp geographic divide in Austin between communities that are well served by the public school system and those that are not," the report notes. Members are elected from geographic constituencies in Austin, and voters in the low-income and immigrant communities are "less civically-engaged."
The Austin families most in need of educational attention are less likely to push for policy changes on the board, the report shows, and board members whose constituencies include high-performing schools do not feel much urgency for educational reform.
According to the case studies, this lack of urgency is not uncommon among school boards. Bismarck's school board, which by most accounts is running smoothly, is sometimes slow to accept innovation to address its own achievement gap, the report claims.
And bickering among members was reportedly a familiar issue among Atlanta Board of Education members throughout the 1990s, the report notes. More recently, that board and district has been facing the aftermath of a very public cheating scandal.
[Read about the testing anomalies found in many states.]
The Chamber of Commerce report notes that clearly defined roles, stable leadership, and additional board member training can help school boards operate more effectively. The thousands of American school boards are not typically perfect, but the report shows that they're usually very important.
"The success of high-profile state and federal education initiatives, such as improving teacher evaluation systems, turning around low-performing schools, or implementing the new Common Core State Standards ultimately depends on the decisions and actions of the more than 13,000 local government entities."