Public schools are run by the public. They are not controlled by any government body. As Bucknell University education professor Abe Feuerstein remarked in 2002, “While democratic processes are numerous and involve multiple opportunities for citizens to voice their preferences and deliberate on the common good, the most obvious evidence of democracy in education is found in school board elections.”
The nation’s nearly 14,000 school boards are responsible for overseeing and managing the educational resources that serve 56.6 million students across the nation. “The decisions made by school boards affect virtually every important aspect of local schools, from boundaries to bus schedules, curriculum to clubs, funding to field trips,” according to the New York State School Boards Association.
Most school boards are put together through elections while a smaller number are appointed. However, whether elected or appointed, these public officials take on one of the most demanding roles in America, namely, the leadership of public schools and the education of the children in their local community.
“Today, school board members need to adopt budgets, enact policy, establish clear and measurable expectations, engage the public, and chart a future course —and then hire capable superintendents to execute those plans,” wrote NSBA CEO and Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel in his December 2019 column in ASBJ.
It is clear, then, that participating in the election of boards of education is of paramount importance, but the data show a very different picture, with very low participation by both candidates and voters.
Lack of candidates
A 2014 Gallup Poll shows that 56 percent of Americans believe that local school boards, rather than state or federal government, should have the greatest influence on what is taught in public schools. However, school board elections often find themselves with uncontested candidates and empty school board seats. According to Ballotpedia, the candidates per seat ratio was 1.89 in 2014, 1.72 in 2015, and 1.90 in 2016 school board elections.
Researchers point out that uncontested candidates and empty school board seats have become an issue in school board elections. For example:
- In New Jersey, there was a total of 805 uncontested school board seats, and for 130 of them, no one was even on the ballot in 2015.
- In Virginia, an entire county had no contested school board seats, and two districts didn’t have a single individual running in 2015.
- In California, in 2015, one county had eight open seats from 25 school boards, but no single candidate signed up to run, and existing boards had to appoint members to fill these openings.
- In a district in Virginia, three candidates ran unopposed for re-election in 2019.
|Seats up for election
|Number of states
|Number of school districts
|Total number of students served in these districts
Source: Ballotpedia (Center for Public Education verified and updated the data.)
Low voter turnout
Voter turnout for political office elections has gone up since 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, in local school board elections, voter turnout has been discouragingly low—often just 5 percent or 10 percent. According to local news:
- Only 8.7 percent of eligible Los Angeles County voters participated in the 2019 local school board election;
- In a school district in Iowa, 498 voters—10.05 percent of registered voters—decided the 2017 race for school board members;
- In South Dakota, in a school district with 2,054 voters at the time of the election, only 245 (12 percent) participated in the local school board election.
The significance of school board elections cannot be overstated. The chart above shows data analyzed by NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE). CPE researchers translated the numbers into estimated percentages, and found that:
- While about 2.2 percent of all board members nationwide were elected in 5 percent of the nation’s school districts in 2014 and 2016, respectively, the newly elected members were to serve approximately 35 percent of K-12 students in the U.S.
- Although about 1.3 percent of all board members were elected in 3 percent of the nation’s school districts in 2015, 2017, and 2018 respectively, the newly elected would make decisions for 20 percent to 25 percent of K-12 students in the U.S.
- In small districts (i.e., student enrollment lower than 1,000), elections in 2019 could bring in about 40 percent of new school board members (2 out of 5 or 3 out of 7 members in a board).
Let your voice be heard
While factors such as the timing of elections, demographic change, and voters’ lack of awareness of candidates can affect school board elections, uncontested candidates and low voter turnout remain serious concerns in terms of selecting board members who can truly represent the local community to make school policies.
Research shows that school board elections with relatively higher voter turnout and a broader range of constituents (e.g., holding school board elections at the same time as state- or national-level elections) are associated with higher academic performance of students, as opposed to elections with lower voter turnout.
Simply put, engaging—being candidates or voting—in school board elections is a powerful way to support students’ success in their learning as well as in life.