School Boards & Committees Research Paper Starter

School Boards & Committees

(Research Starters)

America's public schools operate under the governance of nearly 15,000 school boards. While often garnering limited public attention and interest, school boards perform a vital function in the administration and oversight of local public schools, though the specific agenda of a board can vary with individual districts' needs. In most cases, board members are elected; however, voter turnout tends to be low when elections do not coincide with federal, state, or municipal elections. Setting up effective committees is a key part of running a successful school board.

Keywords Committeemen; Consolidated Elections; Public Education; School Board; School Districts; Selectmen; Special Elections; Standing Committee


The United States' system of public schooling is rooted in a long tradition of local control and directional independence. Rather than operate under the direct control of the central federal government, the nation's nearly 15,000 school systems and districts each maintain a certain degree of autonomy and independence in their administration and function. Hess (2002) notes that this methodology of "[l]ay governance of public education is a uniquely American institution, with roots in the locally controlled schools of the New England colonies and in the common school movement of the mid-19th Century" (Hess, 2002, p. 3).

As autonomy breeds variety, precisely due to the local, lay nature of school governance, arriving at general conclusions regarding the makeup, nature, and function of school boards is often difficult. Further complicating the issue are the numerous committees and subcommittees which populate the organizational chart of America's school boards. If understanding of school boards as a whole is lacking, understanding of school board committees is even more so. Yet, an examination of research that has been conducted into these bodies that direct the education of America's youth will reveal certain trends and truths that will greatly enhance one's understanding and appreciation of the more than 95,000 men and women who govern America's school boards.

How is the average school board defined? Assigning quantitative values to factors such as median size, demographic distribution, or gender makeup may provide an outline of school board bodies, but it hardly fills in the lines to paint a full picture. Frederick Hess (2002) endeavors to dig deeper than the surface characteristics of boards and board members to uncover the true essence of America's school boards. In doing so, Hess poses several questions which guide his exploration of the nature of school boards. Among these are the following (Hess, 2002, p. 6):

• How are board members selected for office?

• How competitive are board elections?

• What kinds of people serve on school boards?

• How demanding is school board service?

To these questions, it will be helpful also to add the following:

• What is the basic function of a school board?

• How are boards organizationally structured?

• What are the various types of committee assignments within boards?

According to Allen and Plank (2005), the purpose of school boards is to "set the policy agenda for public schools" (p. 511). In "The Purpose of School Boards" (1982), the National School Boards Association (NSBA) expands upon this broad definition by exploring the history and development of school boards.


Colonial Schools

As early as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, the philosophy of local and lay control of education is strongly visible. In colonial America, an expectation that government would assume the responsibility of educating children was virtually unheard of. If a community were intent upon offering localized public education, it remained for average citizens and local leaders to take up the reins and establish a local school. As history indicates, this is precisely how early American education unfolded.

In colonial New England, Dame schools for boys and girls, grammar schools for boys, and Latin schools all developed under the oversight and administration of local leaders. As the new nation would model over a century later, elected representation formed the backbone for school administration. The NSBA notes that, in the earliest days of public schooling, town officials, also known as selectmen, held the responsibility of administering public schools. As time progressed, however, education administration became a delegated task, falling to committees the members of which were named by the town officials.

In colonial days, school committeemen were responsible for finding a location to hold classes and locating a qualified adult - namely, one who could read and write - to become schoolmaster. In addition, once a schoolmaster and location were selected, committeemen were charged with providing food and shelter for the former and maintaining the upkeep of the latter. Aside from the logistical concerns of administering a public school, colonial committeemen also maintained oversight of students' academic progress. This was done in part through visitations to the school. According to the NSBA, committeemen would visit the school during session several times per year to observe classroom activity.

After the advent of textbooks in the mid-1700s, committeemen also oversaw textbook selection and even petitioned the town to fund their purchase. From the 1600s through to the beginning of larger-scale organization of public schools in the 1800s, school boards constituted the governing bodies that directed and oversaw nearly every organizational aspect of local public schools. In brief, school boards performed the tasks of "administration, supervision, testing, personnel, evaluation, textbook adoption, plant maintenance, and community relations - all in embryo stages; and all without administrative help" ("The Purpose of School Boards," 1982, p. 2).

20th Century School Boards

As the U.S. population both increased in number and migrated in direction, school boards proliferated. According to the National School Boards Association, however, such expansion eventually took a toll on function as school boards soon became numerous enough to hinder their own effectiveness. For example, as smaller towns and villages grew into larger cities, the addition of new schools resulted in the addition of new school boards, and at one point, the cities of Chicago, Buffalo, and Detroit each had twelve or more school boards operating within their respective districts ("The Purpose of School Boards," 1982, p. 2).

Rather than advancing public education, such duplication of organizational responsibility soon clarified the need to combine boards in order better to serve the learning population. The consolidation of school boards that followed laid the foundation for the structure of public school boards as they exist today. In this structure, each town or city generally maintains one school board, and all schools within the locality operate under the jurisdiction of one superintendent, who is subject to the authority of the school board.

Further Insights

Within this broad framework, then, what is the profile of the average school board? In an effort to create an accurate picture of today's school board, Hess (2002) undertook a comprehensive survey of school board members in 2,000 school districts.

Rural v. Small School Boards

Regarding school boards in general, a distinct difference exists between larger, urban school boards and their smaller, more rural counterparts. In school districts serving student populations of 25,000 or greater, for...

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