School boards are increasingly in the media spotlight as another highly contentious political season gets under way. To investigate issues they face today—race and gender, COVID setbacks, declining enrollments and more—the Taubman Center for State and Local Government’s Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard Kennedy School hosted an online seminar series that asked whether the day of the school board had come to an end.  

PEPG has been a part of the HKS since 1996 and focuses on how to govern the education system. This includes examining the best way to organize the political arrangements that determine how children are educated. 

The seven-part series, Should School Boards Run Schools?, engaged board members, parents, scholars, and expert observers to examine current issues and alternative approaches to governance. The seminars addressed union power, parental representation, and of course the controversial culture wars being played out in the political arena. 

School boards are political institutions—90% of all board members are elected. Paul Peterson, a professor of public policy and director PEPG, notes that citizens have discovered that education issues can be a way of building political support in their communities for a broader political agenda. 

HKS spoke to Peterson about education, the seminar series, and the key challenge facing school boards now. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Q: How did the idea for the series come about? 

Through my weekly podcasts I have conversations with people about their research or about what major events are happening in education. We realized you really can communicate effectively through conversations and in fact, people like conversations, they want to hear people’s voices, hear what they think on a subject.  

With that in mind, when COVID came along, PEPG moved our conferences, which had been only available in person on campus, to an online conference model. We found we could reach more people than the physical space allowed and in a more engaging way. We also found hour-long sessions over several weeks fit the busy schedules of most professionals. 

This particular series, outside the controversial title, is designed for people to examine current topics through the academic lens. But the problem with academics is that they don’t want to say too much beyond what their data says. So we have added expert commentators and lay voices to give a new perspective. 

Paul Peterson.

“As long as you have school boards that are elected, they are going to be seen as an arena whereby you can mobilize, raise, develop, and build your broader political agenda.”

Paul Peterson


Q: What do you think is the key challenge facing school boards? 

I think it's academic loss. There's been a major drop in how well students are performing on tests in math and reading and civics. On any topic you can name, the scores are down.  

Now if you look historically, for 50 years, we have seen steady progress in student achievement in reading and math. Not only are schools getting better, but Black students are closing the gap between themselves and white students by one half. And the same is true for Hispanic students and for Asian students. In fact, Asian students have surpassed white students by a substantial margin. So that's the steepest growth, but the others have closed the gap as well. Actually, you might say the real problem that has not been discussed is the fact that the improvement among white students is not as steep as it should have been compared to the progress other groups are making. So that's an interesting topic yet to be researched. 

But then COVID hits, and COVID changes the picture. A lot of the gains that were happening are reversed. And it's not like we've gone all the way back to where we were in 1970, but you might say we've gone about halfway back. So that's a huge drop in a very short period of time. That is the challenge for today, because you're not going to be able to make that up overnight. Expectations are different. With all the technology and tools, students don't feel they need to learn, teachers don't feel they need to teach. School board members are giving up on student testing because they don't want to know the bad facts.  

And going along with the academic performance is the social isolation and emotional distress. When schools closed, we didn't realize how much this was going to cost students socially and emotionally, and we don't have as precise indicators as we have for academics. If you ask parents, they say they see more distress in their children. If you ask the students themselves, they report being unhappy much more frequently than in the past.  

If you ask me, I’d say the schools were closed for much too long. They did need to close for two months, but they could have opened in the fall of 2020. By June of that year, we knew that the risks to children were very small and the risks to adults the age of a typical schoolteacher were also very low. I think that was a serious, serious problem, and the school boards really failed us because they listened to those who wanted to magnify the COVID risk, not the long-term education and social risks. 

I'd say that's the number one issue. Unfortunately, what people talk about are other issues, political hot buttons.


Q: Your recent research paper published in the Journal of School Choice finds a clear distinction between a populist ideology and a conservative/liberal one around education policy. How do these competing viewpoints—political hot buttons—upend the ability of school boards to do what they are charged to do, which is to educate students? 

Political influence is not new. We saw it when the Tea Party gained its strength on school board issues. Common Core was the issue of the time: should we have Common Core testing? Well, in the end, we have discovered that Common Core had little effect one way or another, that's what the best research shows: it didn't help too much, and it didn't hurt too much. But that proved to be a good way to organize groups which could then get active in politics in other ways. And that's going to happen in the future; it's inevitable.  

As long as you have school boards that are elected, school board elections are going to be seen as an arena whereby you can mobilize, raise, develop, and build your broader political agenda. So we have to expect that that's going to continue to happen. 

And there's nothing that raises issues more dramatically than debates over race and gender. Those are the hottest issues in our society, and they have been since 1970, or even earlier. These are things that have a very deep meaning to people. So we academics may sit back and say, "Well, those aren't the really important questions; we need to educate kids." That’s how I feel. But these are the things that are going to come to the forefront; they're just a part of politics. 

A group of people seated around a conference table with Paul Peterson directing the discussion.

Q: Have you identified any alternative approaches to school governance that may be effective? 

Based on the research that we've done, the most likely tool for getting better education is providing more choice for families. So, at one point I thought, 'Oh yes, we need to have more testing. We need more accountability. We need to fix the schools that aren't working.' But I've observed that now for 25 years, and I have seen very little progress made by pursuing that path. I've become quite convinced that the best path is to provide as many choices as possible. 

Almost 25% of the kids in the United States are doing something other than going to their assigned district school. About 7% are going to charter, and about 8% are paying for private education. You have about 6% homeschooling right now, and about 1% getting vouchers.  

Our research shows that you shouldn't become too committed to any particular form of choice. There are many different types of choice. There are choices within the public district schools, there are choices between district schools and charter schools, and choices between district charter and private schools.  I'm looking at all of these as potential sources of improvement in our educational system.  

And we hope to have measurable results of the effectiveness of charter schools soon. In research coming out later this year, we rank all the states on the basis of how well their charter schools are doing. We’re really looking forward to being able to say what's the number one charter school state.


Q: What are the anticipated outcomes from a series such as this? 

At HKS, we are trying to do our best to provide education to as many people as possible. While our primary responsibility is to the students and the campus here, we also feel we have a responsibility to the larger community. So the more people who learn about the challenges and the opportunities that go along with performing as a member of a school board, the better chance we'll have of having high-quality school board members. That's our approach. 

The entire virtual conference Should School Boards Run Schools? can be viewed online. Links to each presentation slideshow are also available. 

Banner image by Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images. Inline image by Bethany Versoy. Portrait by Martha Stewart

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.