So, What Does a School Board Do, Anyway?

by Team XQ Published on May 13, 2023 by XQ RETHINK TOGETHER:

Looking for ways to spur high school transformation in your community? Getting involved with your local school board is a great place to start.

At XQ, we see high school as the fulcrum for societal change. How students learn in high school impacts their future prospects, and influences how elementary and primary schools develop students.

As the nation’s leading organization dedicated to rethinking the high school experience, we bring communities together, throughout the country, to help them dream big about what they want to achieve with their high schools. School boards and their members are valuable assets of a community and are therefore essential in catalyzing change.

In this article, we’ll explore the following elements to help you demystify what a school board does. We’ll examine the following:

  • What a school board is
  • Who serves on a school board
  • Their relationship with families
  • Why they’re important for communities
  • And how to participate and engage more with school boards

[ Lead change at your local school board. HERE’S HOW. ]

What Is a School Board?

School boards are responsible for the education of a community’s young people, ensuring all students have access to a high-quality, rigorous education that prepares them for college, career, and life. Boards usually consist of five to nine elected or appointed representatives from the community, who meet regularly to discuss and decide issues related to local schools. They base their decisions on input from the superintendent, families, teachers, students, and the general public.

According to the National School Board Association, school boards “establish the vision and goals for the public schools in their district, and they set standards for the performance of schools and superintendents.”

School boards play a crucial role in shaping the education system in the United States. With nearly 95,000 board members serving in various capacities across the country, they are the backbone of educational governance for many communities.

More than just policymakers and administrators, school board members are elected officials who represent the collective voice and interests of the local community. Their work focuses on materializing the community’s vision when it comes to public education.

While they are just one of many local government bodies that support a community, they are the most important when it comes to implementing, developing, and reviewing policies that specifically impact student learning.

Who Serves On a School Board?

School board members are elected or appointed members of the community who pursue a vision for local schools reflecting the needs of the students, the wishes of the voters, and the consensus of the community.

In many ways, school boards and XQ achieve the same scope of work—bringing together a coalition of voices to improve the educational experiences of students—and in the case of XQ specifically, that of high school students.

Also known as boards of education or school committees, these governing bodies typically consist of three to fifteen elected members who serve in a voluntary capacity. However, in some districts such as New York City, Boston, and Hawaii Public Schools, board members are appointed by state elected officials. Most school boards are elected publicly, however, some are composed of a mix of both elected and appointed members.  

Regardless of their composition, school boards are responsible for a wide range of academic, legal, and financial issues. They are entrusted with approving curriculum, evaluating student achievement, and overseeing the hiring of superintendents, among other important matters. As such, their decisions have far-reaching consequences for students, families, and communities.

Nationwide, school boards control more than $600 billion annually and oversee the education of 50 million students. And yet few people know what school boards do or even who their local school board members are. As elected officials, school board members set the achievement standards for schools within the community. Effective members are accessible to the greater community and are held accountable for the district’s performance.

Some school boards also create space for students to join, serve, and provide valuable input. School boards that create space for students help to achieve one of the six XQ Design Principles for high school transformation—Youth voice and choice.

Incorporating student voices on school boards is crucial for creating an equitable and inclusive education system. It provides a platform for students to voice concerns and ideas, leading to informed decision-making that considers the diverse perspectives of all stakeholders. It also fosters civic engagement, promotes collaboration between students, educators, and administrators, and develops leadership skills. Overall, it empowers students to have a say in their education, promoting a more student-centered approach.

What Do School Boards Do?

In the midst of the Pandemic, many parents and community members began to engage more frequently and consistently with school boards, attending meetings and providing more public feedback input. However, for some individuals, scheduling conflicts might make it difficult to attend. Many school boards now offer streaming options for community residents to at least watch live.

However, writing a letter to the school board is always a valuable way to communicate with a school board. By using a formal method to communicate with the board, you can expect board members will also respond formally.

School boards address a wide array of issues, from the daily logistics of running a district to broader goals for the education of a community’s young people. On a practical, day-to-day level, school boards:

  • Hire and evaluate the superintendent
  • Approve budgets
  • Set spending priorities
  • Approve textbooks and other curriculum materials
  • Adopt the annual school calendar
  • Make decisions regarding opening and closing schools
  • Work closely with school and district leaders on school schedules, supplies, safety, discipline, classroom resources, facilities, and other issues.

Beyond the practical tasks, effective school boards set a vision for a community’s young people, helping them achieve a world-class education that prepares them for life beyond high school. This focus aligns with another one of our six XQ Design Principles—meaningful, engaged learning, which encompasses curriculum, assessment, student agency, and even the structure of the school day. When applied with fidelity, meaningful, engaged learning helps students make connections between disciplines, solve real problems, and grow as learners and people.

Broader tasks include setting high academic standards, supporting teachers and staff, ensuring transparency and accountability, creating a safe and positive school culture, and advancing policies that allow every student to thrive. As controversies arise, school boards pursue consensus, reconcile differences, reach a compromise, and find solutions.

As with any school that develops a strong mission and culture, school boards too can learn from schools how a set of unifying values and principles give a common sense of purpose and provide a foundation for belief in the potential of all students.

School boards are accountable for how schools—and students—perform. School boards accomplish this by creating strong relationships with parents, teachers, students, and community members. It’s critical that school board members listen to and respond to community concerns and explain the district’s priorities to the public. Doing so helps both schools and students reach their full potential.

How does the school board interact with the superintendent, teachers, and families?

The school board, district leadership, and families work together to promote high-quality education for students. But they all play different roles:

  • School boards set the vision, goals, and policy for the district.
  • The superintendent answers to the board, implements policies and directives, makes recommendations, provides leadership, and generally serves as a resource. As the chief executive of the district, the superintendent handles day-to-day operations, oversees staff, and stays current on state and national education issues.
  • Parents—and the public at large—may attend school board meetings, ask questions, volunteer, get involved in their local schools, vote, and hold the board accountable.

Why Are School Boards Important?

At XQ we believe that high schools are the fulcrum for educational transformation. Change high schools, and you change the entire system, from kindergarten through college. We believe that engaged and supportive school boards are essential for making the changes that need to happen in our high schools. School boards help prepare students for the modern world by making changes like ensuring equitable access to rigorous courses, implementing schedules that allow for project-based learning, and making sure teachers have the right professional development and support.

School boards can also take an active role in promoting equity and making sure all students get a high-quality education. They partner with superintendents, teachers, families, students, nonprofits, employers, and local colleges to break down barriers to learning, open up real-world learning opportunities, and create pipelines to college and career.

How to Become a School Board Member

Everyone can get involved in their local school boards, by attending meetings, asking questions, learning more about candidates, or even deciding to run for office themselves. Most school board members have never held prior office—they’re just ordinary people who care about their local schools and the future of the community’s young people. As outlined previously, they are the most important local government body when it comes to student learning.

Below, we’ve outlined several considerations for anyone interested in running for a local school board position, but is unsure what the process might look like:

  • First, identify your local school board
  • Gather data, evidence, and facts about your community and its schools
  • Identify challenges affecting local schools, as well as solutions
  • Identify the reasons why you’re running and explain how you’ll make a positive difference
  • Talk to families, students, teachers, and community leaders to understand their visions and concerns about local schools
  • Inspire people to get involved and exercise their right to vote.

Learn more about school boards, the vital role they play in education, and how to get involved by checking out XQ’s free “That’s a School Board Thing.” This guide offers a comprehensive look at the important work school boards do, how to run for office, and once elected, how to be an effective school board member.