School board members were elected all over the country last week. Richmond, Va., Mayor Dwight Jones saw his son Derik elected to his city's board. Voters in Santa Clara County ousted nine of 26 board members.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post created a small flurry of conversation when it ran a story a few days before the election noting that only two of the eight school board members in Prince George's County, Maryland have college degrees. Does that matter? Tough to say. Personal commitment to a school system may matter more than a college diploma. But if you're in the business of educating kids, it probably doesn't hurt to have a solid education yourself.
It's difficult to consider these questions without understanding the role of school boards. According to a study conducted by American Enterprise Institute Education Policy Studies Director Rick Hess, a contributor to this blog, the amount of time board members spend on school business varies widely between large and small districts. Some board members work less than 15 hours a month, while others work more than 40 hours per month. In small districts, most board members receive no salary or a small stipend. In large districts, about half of board members are paid for their work but less than 8 percent earn more than $15,000 a year.
Some education experts are not fans of school boards. Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn, another contributor to this blog, has called them "an anachronism and an outrage." National Journal's sister publication, The Atlantic, published a feature in 2008 with the provocative title, "First, Kill All the School Boards." Others, including the National School Boards Association, say school boards are a critical connection between the community and the public school system and an essential component of democracy.
Do school boards matter? If so, how? What are examples of good school board activities? What education topics should school boards avoid? Do board members need basic qualifications like college degrees or other certificates? Should they be elected or appointed? How do the answers to these questions vary based on region or school district size?