Since its founding in 1940, NSBA has been an influential advocate for public education and the nation's 90,000 school board members. In the decades that followed, NSBA transformed itself internally and strengthened its partnership with state school boards associations; and in doing so, greatly advanced its capabilities to shape federal education policy, building itself into a champion of public education whose voice carries weight with the nation's policymakers.

When NSBA was founded, originally as the National Council of State School Boards Associations, there was no U.S. Department of Education, no Title I funding, and relatively few federal regulations to direct the decision-making of local school boards. Through the 1940s and 1950s however, it was clear to everyone that federal involvement in education would expand.

Passage of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)--and the subsequent wave of new federal funds and accompanying regulations--prompted NSBA to retool its capabilities to influence federal policymaking. In 1967, NSBA, based in Illinois, confirmed its commitment to change by opening a legislative branch office in Washington, D.C. [In 1976, NSBA moved its offices to Washington, D.C. and in 1984, moved into its current permanent headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.]

Issues of federal funding often dominated the advocacy work of NSBA, which found itself "in the trenches" during the Reagan administration, and later during the Clinton years, when federal policymakers proposed to make significant cuts in education spending. Defending education funding became a perennial part of NSBA's advocacy effort.

One of the great strengths of NSBA is its powerful grassroots advocacy--the willingness of locally elected school board members to reach out to their members of Congress and advocate on behalf of public education and issues of federal education policy. The power of grassroots advocacy was well-recognized by the time NSBA established the Federal Relations Network (FRN) in 1973--just as it is recognized today.

While some important court battles surrounding education were decided in NSBA's early years, it wasn't until the mid-1970s that the growing activism of the federal courts, along with the arrival of greater resources, persuaded NSBA to establish a permanent legal advocacy team and take an active role in the legal battles underway. Over time, NSBA would increasingly intervene in cases in federal appellate courts, state supreme courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today, NSBA files anywhere from six to 18 amicus briefs each year, more than all other major education organizations combined. And with the U.S. Supreme Court reviewing fewer cases than in decades past, NSBA also is expanding its presence in the appellate courts.

When NSBA established the Council of School Attorneys (COSA) in 1967, school boards were responding to growing activism in the federal courts. All manner of issues-from desegregation to employee due process to student free speech rights-were coming before the courts, and how these legal cases were resolved would set precedents that would have an immense impact on the discretion of school boards to set local policy.

What was needed was a cadre of outside legal experts who could partner with NSBA to file friend-of-the-court (amicus) briefs in key legal battle, and COSA has served this role well in addition to helping school attorneys develop their skills--and working in collaboration to challenge state voucher laws in court or battle the regulatory excesses of the federal executive branch.

Over the decades, NSBA has spoken aggressively on the issues of the day and embraced a broader and long-term strategy to win public support for public education. In 2013, NSBA launched its national awareness campaign, “Stand Up 4 Public Schools,” and continues to greatly expand its traditional and social media presence.

American School Board Journal was first published in 1891, making NSBA’s flagship publication for school board leaders one of the oldest continuously publishing magazines in the nation.

Once printed in newsprint, with a typical 19th-century layout, the privately-owned publication was purchased by NSBA in 1967 and quickly redesigned to the more standard magazine form that is familiar to today's readers. In its over 120 years, ASBJ has covered the major issues of the day while expanding to today’s online access and bimonthly newsletter ASBJ Brief.

In 2006, NSBA launched the Center for Public Education (CPE) as an information clearinghouse, to help school board members, state and national policymakers, and anyone else find reliable and unbiased information on public education issues. CPE, today referred to as NSBA’s research arm, produces several relevant and timely studies each year, providing up-to-date research, data, and analysis on current education issues and ways to improve student achievement and engage public support for public schools.

NSBA also has a long history of reaching out, in partnership with state associations, to individual school boards as the need arises. As the challenges of urban education took the national stage in the 1960s, NSBA established the Council of Big City Boards of Education-now the Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE)-in 1967. In the early 1970s, in response to concerns about the need for more black representation on school boards, the National Caucus of Black School Board Members was founded. In the years that followed, NSBA also organized the National Hispanic Council of School Board Members and what is now known as the National Council of American Indian/Alaska Native School Board Members.

School board members have always cared about student achievement, and, over the decades, NSBA has produced a variety of publications, videos, and conference programming to help school boards govern with student achievement in mind. Yet, perhaps the most important initiative in this effort has been the "Key Work of School Boards," a framework of key practices to help focus and guide school boards in their efforts to improve student achievement. An updated edition of the Key Work was launched in 2015.