Since last year’s racial justice uprisings catalyzed another worldwide wave of discussions about institutional racism, public school boards across the United States are being forced to take responsibility for their involvement in creating and fostering a divisive, inequitable education system. Now, many of those boards are trying to take aggressive steps to correct those inequities. 

School boards have a powerful role in shaping the lives and education of tens of millions of students across the country. School boards consist of up to nine elected members who are accountable for the success and performance of the students and teachers in their district. They have the ability to adopt new curricula, hire or fire the superintendent, set school calendars, expand or close schools, approve teacher contracts, establish policies, set budgets, form committees, and much more. 

Since last year’s racial reckoning, an increasing number of school boards have implemented or are considering adopting more inclusive curricula, such as Asian American and LGBTQ+ history. Some school boards have recently moved forward with eliminating school resource officers, and others are considering establishing sanctuary schools to protect immigrant students and their families. More school boards have also sounded the alarm on the lack of teacher diversity, the need for more equitable learning opportunities for special needs students, and teacher shortages in already-underserved areas. But there’s still a long way to go.

Beyond statements of solidarity

In response to last spring’s racial justice uprisings, many school boards either published or updated statements emphasizing their commitment to racial equity and dismantling policies that support racial disparities. However, some school boards have become increasingly aware that statements and pronouncements aren’t enough. To address institutional racism in the public education system, they must take aggressive action to evaluate past missteps and move forward with a succinct equity plan. 

In New England, the Concord School Board in New Hampshire has been actively working to address racial disparities in their district. In January, the board published its first anti-racism statement since June 2020. The statement came in response to recent events from a neighboring school district, where a school board member posted Nazi imagery online. Jonathan Weinberg, one of four new members elected to the Concord School Board in November 2020, proposed the anti-racism statement as one of his first actions as a board member.

“I wanted to be sure the Concord School Board was being proactive and made our stance clear and known,” Weinberg said in a statement to Prism. “It is crucial that there is no ambiguity about how racism, bigotry, and ignorance will be treated. With [new board members] comes the opportunity to rebrand the identity of the board and set the tone for our tenure. The statement was also important so that individuals hold us, the board, accountable if we do not follow through with what we asserted.” 

During his time on the board, Weinberg said he hopes to lead a “comprehensive overhaul” of the district’s curriculum in order to accurately reflect history. The Concord School Board has also established a committee of school administrators, teachers, students, community members, and parents to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the school district. The committee, which meets monthly, has created a racial equity action draft plan that addresses the overuse of school resource officers, aims to implement more inclusive curricula, and seeks to find new, equitable ways to discipline students that put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Verjeana Jacobs, chief transformation officer for the National School Boards Association, said discussions about ending the school-to-prison pipeline have been ramping up in school board meetings over the past year. Jacobs has been in regular contact with school boards across the nation about addressing racial inequities in their districts, and said many have started the process by reassessing their student code of conduct.

“What I’m finding is that those conversations are extremely difficult for some school board leaders across the country, but there’s also a desire and a hunger to know more,” Jacobs said. “I’ve been in sessions where school board members will say, ‘This is divisive, I don’t want to talk about this.’ The question we then pose is, ‘Why is there such a visceral reaction when we talk about the disparity that exists among groups of students in this country?’ [Then, we remind them] of the fact that school board members have the enormous, incredible power to change it.” 

Jacobs said she has had to remind school boards that dismantling institutional racism is beneficial to all students—not just students of color. Jacobs is “hopeful, but realistic” about school boards implementing the changes that have been proposed over the past year, but hasn’t yet seen any measurable outcomes from policies aimed at advancing racial equity.

“When I think about improvement, I think about very specific policies and outcomes and accountability measures that we could point to and say, ‘We did this, and this is the outcome,’” Jacobs said. “So I think it’s great that [school boards] are having these conversations, but we haven’t come nearly far enough.”

Diversity problems on school boards

Even with the level of power and influence that school boards hold, most school boards across the country don’t reflect the students they serve. The demographic mismatch has been proven to negatively impact Black and brown students. A 2018 survey by the National School Boards Association found that roughly 78% of school board members in the U.S. are white, 10% are Black, 3% are Latinx, 1% are Native American; and less than 1% are Asian American or Pacific Islanders. Even increasing the number of school board members of color by a small amount can significantly help BIPOC students. Researchers at the University of Virginia found that adding even one Latinx school board member can dramatically increase spending in schools with a high population of students of color. When Black and brown schools receive additional funding, it has been proven to lead to a lower turnover rate for teachers of color and an increase in math scores. 

In districts where schools are becoming more diverse, the racial makeup of the school board is still slow to change. Incumbent school board members are in a powerful position during election time, so for school boards to diversify more quickly, more people of color must run for office, and white board members have to be willing to step down.

(Illustration by Derrick Dent)

School board accountability

School board members typically serve two-year or four-year terms. Some school boards have a cap on term limits, but if people aren’t happy with members of their school board for any reason before their term is up, they can petition for a recall. Most recall efforts with major support move to the ballot, but in some states like Virginia, school board recalls are decided by the circuit court. Between 2006 and 2020, there were an average of 22 school board recall efforts against roughly 51 school board members every year in the U.S. This year, there was an increase: From January through March, there were 19 school board recall efforts against 52 school board members. 

School board members can be recalled for a variety of reasons, but many of this year’s school board recall efforts are over decisions that prevent students from returning to in-class instruction. In Maine, for instance, there is a current effort to recall four of the nine school board members in Maine School Board District 51 over the board’s decision to give parents the option to do full-time remote learning or operate on a hybrid model with part-time in-class instruction and part-time remote learning. An increasing number of school board members are also being called out by current and former students and parents for past racist behavior online. Some have even been forced to resign in the past year over previous comments made on the internet.

In some school districts in the U.S., efforts are underway to eliminate school boards entirely. The South Carolina Board of Education has been involved in a years-long effort to dissolve school boards in underperforming districts, which are typically high-poverty areas with a large Black and brown student population. They recently introduced legislation that would give the state superintendent indefinite control of underperforming school districts, which has broad support in both the state House and Senate. Critics say the move would just be a power grab from the state, which has been ignoring long-standing inequities for decades.

Community influence 

Influence plays a significant role in policymaking for any elected official, and school boards are no different. School boards are supposed to be nonpartisan, but any policy considered controversial by the public can cause some political backlash and add an additional layer of pressure. 

“It doesn’t happen everywhere, but in some communities, [school boards] are also being pressured by the senator, the delegate, or whoever,” Jacobs said. “Everybody runs on education, economic development, and safety.”

(Illustration by Derrick Dent)

Community involvement can have a considerable impact on school board decisions. In 2019, the school board in Warwick, Rhode Island, faced major backlash for making the controversial attempt to eliminate all school sports and after-school activities due to an $8 million deficit in the city’s budget. The decision led to massive protests by students and parents, who stormed city hall. The Warwick School Committee eventually reversed the decision. The board is facing another big dilemma this year as they consider terminating up to 34 teachers in order to balance the budget. The community backlash in 2019 has been mentioned in recent school board budget meetings as a precaution.

Efforts by school boards to advance racial equity can also be helped or hindered by the parents in their district. Over the past year, videos have surfaced showing parents in heated debates with school board members about mask policies, distance learning, and new guidelines around inclusivity. Parents in the Litchfield Elementary School District in Arizona spoke out in March to oppose the board’s decision to implement anti-racist curriculum and consider race, religion, and gender in hiring requirments. Parents accused the school board of pushing “radical” and “leftist rhetoric” that would harm both students and teachers. Now, at least two school board members are facing recall efforts for trying to advance the new agenda.

School boards are now being pushed to champion racial equity on a new level, and opposition to any progress will always be in full force. In order to successfully advance racial equity in public education, community involvement is crucial. Even if people don’t have children in the public education system, as taxpayers whose money goes toward public education, they can and should still advocate for progress by speaking up at school board meetings or running for office themselves.

“Citizens can do a better job of supporting school boards when they have to make these tough decisions,” Jacobs said. “Don’t sit quietly.”

This article is part one in a series about the racial reckoning in the public education system in the past year. Check back the rest of this week for more coverage on this topic.

Carolyn Copeland

Carolyn Copeland is the News Editor at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.