Boards of Education

A school district “is a territorial unit within a state that has responsibility for the provision of public education within its borders,” and a board of education “is the governing body of the [school] district, the body that exercises the district's corporate powers and carries out its public responsibilities” ( Briffault 2005, 25 ). School districts exist in forty-nine of the fifty states (Hawaii has one statewide school district). Of the approximately fifteen thousand school districts in the United States, the vast majority are independent of other local governments and governed by elected boards of education ( Briffault 2005 ).

For most of the twentieth century, as William G. Howell ( 2005 ) notes, the central governing institutions of American schools were local boards of education, which largely determined virtually everything important about public education (e.g., taxing and spending, curriculum and textbooks, employment policies and practices). The power of boards of education reflected a tradition of intense localism, one that has valued both the democratic participation thought to be fostered by local control and the existence of market-like choices among a large number of small school districts. ( A thorough account of localism, generally and in American public education in particular, can be found in Briffault 1990, parts I and II .) As a formal legal matter, states generally have plenary (complete) power over school districts; they can determine their existence, size, shape, powers, governance structures, financial authority, and so on. As a matter of practical, state-level politics and cultural preferences, however, typically power has ended up in the hands of boards of education ( Briffault 2005 ).

Over the decades, the number of school districts declined. In 1936 there were 118,892 school districts, with an average of 218 students per district. In 1997 there were 15,178 districts, with an average of 3,005 students per district ( Howell 2005, 4, n. 3 ). At the same time, responsibility for taxing and spending shifted from the local to the state level. In 1920, 83 percent of all expenditures for education came from revenues raised locally. In 1940 that portion was 68 percent, and in 1960 it was 56 percent. Since 1980 local revenues have averaged 44 percent of the total, with states accounting for 50 percent ( Howell 2005, 4; see also Odden and Picus 1992 ).

Beginning in the 1980s, the political power of boards of education declined precipitously. Three major trends in governance and policy making have combined to produce profound questions about the role, functions, and continuing vitality of boards of education. First, in many large cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston, and Detroit, mayors have received state approval to wrest control from elected school boards. Second, the charter school movement has often brought into being autonomous schools either wholly or partially independent of school boards' authority. Finally and most significantly, since the 1980s the push for standards, testing, and accountability—embodied in the federal No Child Left Behind Act ( 2002 ), Common Core Standards created by the states ( beginning in 2009 ), and President Barack Obama's Race to the Top initiative in support of the Common Core—has moved responsibility for what is taught and how it is taught to the state and national levels of government. Elected school boards increasingly carry out policies determined from above ( Howell 2005; for a critical discussion of the standards and accountability movement, see Ravitch 2010 ).

For a fascinating account of how federal education policies are mediated and modified through local education politics, see Reed 2014 .)




School officials, teachers, and parents debate educational issues at a 2013 Chicago Board of Education meeting.





School officials, teachers, and parents debate educational issues at a 2013 Chicago Board of Education meeting.
© AP PHOTO/M. SPENCER GREEN

SEE ALSO Brown v. Board of Education ; Federalism in American History ; School Financing ; School Governance .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Briffault, Richard. “Our Localism: Part I—The Structure of Local Government Law.” Columbia Law Review 90, no. 1 (1990): 1–115.

Briffault, Richard. “Our Localism: Part II—Localism and Legal Theory.” Columbia Law Review 90, no. 2 (1990): 346–454.

Briffault, Richard. “The School District in American Law.” In Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, edited by William G. Howell. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.

Howell, William G. “Introduction.” In Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, edited by William G. Howell. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.

Odden, Allan R., and Lawrence O. Picus. School Finance: A Policy Perspective. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

Ravitch, Diane. The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Reed, Douglas S. Building the Federal Schoolhouse: Localism and the American Education State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Reed, Douglas S. Building the Federal Schoolhouse: Localism and the American Education State. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Michael Paris
The College of Staten Island, CUNY