What Is It?
What kind of textbooks does your child read? How do students learn about American history? When is your middle school getting a new science lab? Why doesn’t the school bus stop at your house? Do kids these days learn any critical thinking skills? Good questions. A+.
Nearly nine out of ten American children attend public schools, and local school boards are making decisions that affect them every day.
For example, local school boards:
- Select a curriculum plan for local schools and decide what students should know in each grade.
- Set academic standards.
- Create a budget for the district and make sure education dollars are well spent.
- Determine everything from staffing to graduation requirements to who can use which bathrooms.
- Hire and oversee the superintendent.
- In places where teachers are unionized, work with the legal professionals who negotiate collective bargaining agreements.
Usually, community residents elect people to serve on their local school board, though in some places, board members are appointed, maybe by a mayor or city council.
Keep this in mind: school boards aren’t the only ones making decisions about education in your community. Your state also has a board of education with its own superintendent, a legislature, and a governor – not to mention the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. They create all kinds of laws and policies that your school board has to follow.
Why It Matters to You
Local school boards make decisions that affect you, whether or not you have kids in the local schools. If you care about:
Local school boards select the instructional materials students follow for math, language, science, and more. They determine what subject matter students need to master in order to move on to the next grade, which Advanced Placement (AP) courses schools offer, and whether kids have arts education.
Remember that a board of education at the state level probably has its own standards and requirements that local school boards need to meet. And your state legislature can always get involved, too.
Public schools are funded by a mix of local, state, and federal tax dollars. It typically falls to school boards to tally up all that funding and create a budget for the district. If you care how the government spends your tax dollars – Smaller class sizes? Raises for teachers? More spending on charter schools? Less spending altogether? – then you should care about local school boards.
Funding for mental health services can come from a variety of sources – like the state or federal government – but your local school may be the one to decide how to actually use those funds. For example, your school board could decide to make sure every student has access to counseling at school or to hire additional social workers.
The federal government provides meals for free or at reduced prices to low-income students across the country. Schools with high need can also use federal dollars to provide free breakfast to all students, regardless of ability to pay. And who makes that decision? You guessed it! The local school board.
Masks mandatory or optional, schools open or closed – local school boards across the country had to make those decisions and more when Covid-19 hit. Knock on wood that we won’t face questions like that again soon, but if we do, you’ll want to know what your school board is thinking.
It’s also often up to local school boards to decide, say, whether transgender students are allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, or which sports teams they can play on. Your school board might also have opinions about books that have LGBT or non-binary characters and themes.
Jobs & the Economy
Are students ready for college when they graduate high school? How strong are the vocational and technical education offerings in your school district? Do kids learn the soft skills they need to succeed in a modern workplace? Your local school board can decide how much money and attention those goals get.
Learning Disabilities & Differences
Under federal law, schools must provide special education services to children who qualify for them – and for identifying those children in the first place. States are responsible for making sure that local school districts follow the law. If you think students with learning disabilities and differences aren’t getting what they need, your local school board is a good place to start the conversation.
How to Make an Impact
Your local school board is anything but boring (haha good one). Here’s how to make your voice count.
For every hundred parents you see at Little League or the 8th grade musical, it’s possible that only five or ten of them will vote for school board. That’s right: voter turnout in school board elections is often just five or ten percent. That means that your vote can absolutely make a difference. Organize your apartment building or homeowner’s association and you might just be able to swing an election.
I’ll Meet You There
School boards have regular public meetings – and as luck would have it, you’re the public! Attend a meeting in person or online to learn what school board members are working on and hear how they’re thinking about the issues. These meetings are the perfect place to listen carefully, speak your mind, and meet other people in the community who you want to stay in touch with. We’ve got some tips here.
One thing (and we’re sorry to nag): school board members get a lot of flack these days. They don’t just get screamed at during meetings; they get followed to their cars and harassed at home and online. Even if you think your school board is out of its mind, keeping your cool makes for a better discussion – and it’s the right thing to do.
Your voice matters, but you know what matters more? Ten voices saying the same thing. If you want the school board to take action on something you care about, do the legwork to get a group of people in your community on the same page – then get them to a school board meeting. If you can all bring different facts and experiences to the public comment portion of a meeting, you’ll be hard to ignore.
I’d Like to Speak to the Manager
Local school boards have a lot of authority, but they still have to follow laws and rules set by the state. If you don’t think your local school board is acting in the best interests of the community, take it up with your state legislators or governor. Here’s how to get a meeting on the books or make a persuasive phone call.
Run for Office
One of the great things about local school boards is that the members often look a lot like the community in terms of race and gender – especially in large districts. Depending on the size of your district, the school board could be a paid gig with a heavy workload or a volunteer position that only requires a few hours a week. Whether you’re the parent or grandparent of a local student, a business owner who hopes to hire local grads, or just a caring citizen who loves a good budget spreadsheet, the school board might be for you.
On The Ground
A handful of local school boards in New Jersey expressed concerns about – or opposed entirely – an updated State Board of Education sex ed curriculum. Tempers flared at school board meetings, online, and even in a public park.
A local school board in California voted to ban the teaching of critical race theory at school. Members of the public turned out to public meetings both to support and oppose the curriculum change. Some people worried that some AP courses wouldn’t officially count if teachers couldn’t cover certain topics, so the board ultimately tweaked the proposal to leave AP courses alone.
The local school board in Seattle approved a three-year contract with educators, following a five-day strike. The agreement increases pay for educators and bulks up staffing for special education. To pay for it, the district may have to dip into its rainy day fund after the first year.
In 2021, the school board in Williamson County, Tennessee expanded its mask mandate for middle and high schools. The state’s governor, however, had issued an executive order allowing students to opt out of school masking requirements, and roughly a third of students did.
A school board in North Carolina backed a new equity policy, aiming to include more diversity in instructional materials, hire more diverse staff, and scrutinize the system for other inequities. Some members of the community had complained that the board spent too much time thinking about equity, while others said the new policy didn’t go far enough.