Frequently Asked Questions About School Boards


What do school boards do?

Local school boards (also known as boards of education, school committees, school directors, or trustees) are elected—or occasionally appointed—to be leaders and champions for public education in their states and communities.  The most important responsibility of school boards is to work with their communities to improve student achievement in their local public schools.

School boards derive their power and authority from the state.   In compliance with state  and federal laws,  school boards establish policies and regulations by which their local schools are governed.

Although your school board doesn’t directly implement policies or programs, it is responsible for:

  • employing the superintendent and setting policy for hiring other personnel;
  • overseeing the development of and adopting policies;
  • setting a direction for and adopting the curriculum;
  • establishing budget priorities, adopting the budget and overseeing facilities issues; and
  • providing direction for and adopting collective bargaining agreements.

Read more about the work of school boards on the Key Work of School Boards website and on the website of the Center for Public Education.

What do we know about school board members?

School boards mirror the diverse democracies they serve. School board members, especially those in large districts, are more representative of the communities they serve than state legislatures and members of Congress. Boards include women (44 percent are female) at more than twice the rate of the U.S. House of Representatives (about 17 percent) and the U.S. Senate (about 20 percent). In large districts, 21.8 percent of school boards members surveyed were African-American and six percent were Latino.

School board members tend to be well educated—nearly 75 percent of board members surveyed hold at least a bachelor’s degree—and most describe their political views as ideologically moderate. Only 17.6 percent have ever been affiliated with a teachers union.

Two-thirds of school board members nationwide see an urgent need to improve student achievement, and nine out of 10 are concerned about an overly narrow focus on achievement. School board members and superintendents have similar goals for preparing their students for college, the workplace, and, above all, “a satisfying and productive life.”

School board members tend to be dedicated volunteers, with three-fourths receiving no salary in most small districts. In large districts, where nearly 40 percent of board members report working more than 40 hours per month on board-related duties, board members typically receive a modest salary.

These facts and many more can be found in School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era, the first comprehensive national survey of school boards in nearly a decade. It provides national data on who serves on school boards, what board members think about a number of school reform initiatives, how they do their work, how school board elections are carried out, and the nature of the relationship between school boards and superintendents.

Read School Boards Circa 2010; Governance in the Accountability Era.

How do effective school boards improve their schools and raise student achievement?

Recent research shows that school boards have a significant impact on student achievement in their districts. What makes an effective school board--one that positively impacts student achievement? The research makes it clear: boards in high-achieving districts exhibit habits and characteristics that are markedly different from boards in low-achieving districts. So what do these boards do? Read about the eight characteristics of effective school boards.

Read about the Lighthouse Project, a study of how school boards make a difference that has been carried out in several phases since 1998. Currently the program is studying best practices of school board/superintendent teams for improving student learning in several states.

How can I communicate with my school board?

School board members engage community members in many informal ways: they talk with parents, the media, and local organizations, they post information on school websites, and bring citizen groups together on a variety of issues.

School board members also engage the public in more formal ways to identify and address a wide range of issues. Some proven practices used for community engagement include study circles, focus groups, town meetings, and polling.

School boards encourage community members to attend open school board meetings, and they establish procedures for people who wish to speak or ask questions during the public comment period.

How do I go about running for my school board?

Your state establishes the basic qualifications and procedures for becoming a candidate and running for your school board. Many state school boards associations have developed guidance for people who might want to become school board members, and some hold in-person sessions for potential candidates. Consult the state school boards association in your state for assistance. Click your state on the map to find your state school boards association’s contact information.

What is the history of school boards in the United States?

Local democratic control of public education was a strongly rooted tradition in our country long before it became an independent nation. In 1647 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law requiring towns to establish and maintain schools. These early schools were administered by the citizens through their town meetings, but as school matters became more complex, control was given to the citizens’ elected representatives, the selectmen, and later to committees of townspeople who hired the schoolmaster, provided schoolhouses, and attended to other school-related matters.

By the early 1800’s these school committees--as school boards are still called in Massachusetts--had developed into continuing bodies which were separate from the rest of the town’s government . In 1826 Massachusetts formally established the system of school committees by requiring each town to elect a separate school committee to have “the general charge and superintendence” of all the public schools of the town. Over time this model spread to the rest of the nation, insuring that local citizens would have a direct voice in the development and governance of their public schools.



Where can I get basic information and statistics on public education in the U.S.?

The National Center on Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education produces a vast amount of detailed information and statistics on American education.

You can search for information on specific schools and school districts here:

These state profiles provide education performance data for all 50 states and DC:

The website of each state’s official department of education also has information on schools and school districts in that state. You can find the state websites here:

The Condition of Education is a congressionally mandated annual report that summarizes important developments and trends in education using the latest available statistics. The report presents important developments in the status and trends of education from early childhood through graduate-level education. Read it here:

The Digest of Education Statistics provides a compilation of statistical information covering the broad range of American education. It includes a huge selection of data, including the number of schools and colleges, school districts, teachers, enrollments, student demographic breakdowns, graduates, educational attainment, finances, libraries, and international education. Read it here:

How are public schools funded in the U.S.?

School funding comes from state, local, and federal sources. However, the proportions and sources of funding can vary greatly from state to state and even from district to district within the same state.

The largest proportion (around 48 percent) of public school funding comes from the state and is supported by taxes of varying kinds, sometimes supplemented by alternative sources such as lotteries. Typically, the funding a local district receives from the state is based on a formula that takes into account the costs per student in the local schools. The next largest proportion (more than 43 percent) is locally derived funding, mostly coming from property and other types of taxes.

Only around 9 percent or less of traditional public education funding comes from the federal government. The two programs that are the largest sources of federal funding to school districts (and also operate as mandates) are:

  • Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which targets economically disadvantaged students, and
  • IDEA grants, which provide special education funding under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Recently special competitive grants, such as the Race to the Top program, have provided additional federal money for public school improvements on a temporary basis.

Read “Money Matters,” a series of articles by the Center for Public Education explaining the complex aspects of public school funding.

What are charter schools and how do they operate?

Charter schools account for five percent of the nation’s public schools with a small but growing enrollment. There are about 5,600 charter schools nationwide enrolling approximately 2 million students. As of 2012, 41 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws.

Simply put, a charter school is a non-religious public school operating under a contract, or “charter,” that governs its operation. All details of a charter school’s operation—its name, organization, management and curriculum—are set by its charter, which also outlines how the school will measure student performance. Since charter schools are publicly funded, they must have open enrollment policies, may not charge tuition, and must still participate in state testing and federal accountability programs.

One of the key differences between charter schools and traditional public schools is the regulatory freedom and autonomy from state and local rules (in terms of staffing, curriculum choices, and budget management) they receive in exchange for having their charter reviewed and renewed (or revoked) by the authorizing agency every few years. This freedom and experimentation makes charter schools extraordinarily difficult to describe or evaluate at a national level. However, a recent study found that while some charter schools do better than traditional public schools, the majority do the same or worse. Almost one-fifth of charters (17 percent) performed significantly better (at the 95 percent confidence level) than the traditional public school.

However, an even larger group of charters (37 percent) performed significantly worse in terms of reading and math. The remainder (46 percent) did not do significantly better or worse.

Read about this study and more about charter schools in this report from the Center for Public Education at NSBA and the new NSBA Charter School Resource Center.



What is NSBA and who are its members?

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) was founded in 1940 as a not-for-profit organization to assist state school boards associations in their efforts to support public education and local school board governance.

NSBA and its member state school boards associations represent more than 90,000 local school board members who are committed to leadership for student achievement. You can learn more about your state school boards association here:

What does NSBA do to support and improve public education?

"Working with and through our State Associations, NSBA Advocates for Equity and Excellence in Public Education through School Board Leadership" is NSBA’s official mission. Its vision is "National leadership that encourages outstanding school board governance to achieve student success."

These are some of NSBA’s major functions designed to carry out that mission and vision:

  • NSBA supports and brings together state school boards associations to enhance their services to local school boards.
  • NSBA represents the interests of school board members and public education before Congress, Executive Branch agencies, the Supreme Court, and national media.
  • NSBA holds informative national conferences, webinars, and other events to help school board members and other educational leaders perform their jobs effectively and improve public education in their communities.
  • NSBA produces reliable and accessible research and information on current issues in public education as well as successful practices in public schools.
  • NSBA publishes an award-winning magazine, The American School Board Journal, and numerous online publications and newsletters.
  • NSBA promotes the Key Work of School Boards, a framework of eight interrelated action areas to focus and guide school boards in their work.
What is the difference between NSBA and NASBE, the National Association of State Boards of Education?

NSBA is comprised of the state school boards associations in each state; local school boards in turn belong to their state associations. Many local boards also take advantage of a variety of NSBA products, services, and conferences by virtue of their membership in their state association. Local school boards have responsibility for goal setting, policymaking, community involvement and oversight of administrative aspects for their individual school districts.

NASBE’s members are the state boards of education, which are the governing and policymaking bodies for each state wide system of public education.

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