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I think it is odd that school boards are elected in many if not most school districts in the United States. This makes me wonder what the political and historical reasons for electing school boards.

There are also multiple problems with electing school boards. I'm not going to get into every one of them because it would sound biased against school board elections as a concept. Here's a list of the biggest issues one might have:

  • There is almost zero student vote in school board elections largely because of who is eligible to vote, and therefore there is little electoral incentive to listen to students.
  • These types of elections tend to be lower profile than most or all other elections on the ballot.
  • Lack of ballot partisanship in most school board elections means voters are missing a key piece of information. This causes fewer voters even when it's on the same ballot, and voters are more likely to choose based on various characteristics such as which candidate lands is on the top of the ballot.
  • Other school officials are not subject to public elections.

Why are school boards elected if other positions in school districts aren't subject to this?

Note: someone mentioned that school boards have a "pretty hefty reach regarding curriculum". That is true, but electing them especially in a nonpartisan way decreases the amount of information available to voters as I said above when people choose based on things from who appears at the top to who has an Asian/Hispanic origin surname or skip it altogether. Making a school board appointed by a town mayor and legislature could solve that problem because appointing the board means that they would be chosen by people who are elected in almost certainly higher turnout elections who are also more informed about who would serve because it is their job to pick people.

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    How would any of your supposed problems be different if they where not elected? Just because some are elected and some are not doesn't mean it is a problem.
    – Joe W
    Jan 21 at 13:56
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    I don't know if it warrants a full answer, but US school boards seem to have a fairly hefty reach regarding the curriculum and what books can or can not be taught which are decisions of a highly political nature. A country running a more centralized, including funding, curriculum - whether you think that good or bad - could make do with less powerful, unelected, officials. Jan 21 at 21:21
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    In my town, school committee and select board members are often the only contested townwide positions, and they receive about equal coverage in the town paper. So I'm not sure about your 2nd point.
    – Barmar
    Jan 22 at 14:39
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    Such a proposition would be less democratic and more autocratic. Jan 22 at 17:00
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2 Answers 2

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Simply because people want to have a larger say in their children's education and the school board is a good level to do that at. It doesn't matter how they are chosen someone will have a problem with it. However if they are elected it is much easier for the public to have a say and make changes then if they are hired and almost no one has any say.

But lets break down your objections.

There is almost zero student vote in school board elections largely because of who is eligible to vote, and therefore there is little electoral incentive to listen to students.

Even if they are not elected students would have no say in how non student members are chosen and there would be no reason to listen to them. In the end no system will give students input into the selection of school board members because they are not qualified to do so.

If you think about it most schools ignore students as well from the teachers all the way up to the principle and if they are not elected why would it change for a non elected school board?

These types of elections tend to be lower profile than most or all other elections on the ballot.

Being low key is a result of people not caring about it and if they are appointed or hired by others there would be even less reason for people to care about it. In fact it could make it harder since it is possible the decision making could be hidden from the public

Lack of ballot partisanship in most school board elections means voters are missing a key piece of information. This causes fewer voters even when it's on the same ballot, and voters are more likely to choose based on various characteristics such as which candidate lands is on the top of the ballot.

This isn't a problem with electing them but a problem with people not caring as much. Overall there would be even less of this information if they where appointed/hired by others and there would still be a partisan aspect to the choice. But really should we be making choices based on what party someone is or should be be based on their qualifications and how they will do the job?

Other school officials are not subject to public elections.

This is pretty common in the world where some officials are elected and others are appointed/hired. I am not sure at all why you consider this a problem when this is how it is done for a lot of other offices at the local, state and federal levels.

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    Yes, good point right up front. Looking at it another way, it relieves the politics of the local government from arguments to do with the public schools. Where I live though, the school board election is scheduled on its own day and receives very little publicity, so that might be seen as a benefit -- to "de-politicize it", aka minimize public input. Prior to social media, used to be it got only a few hundred votes in each election (locality had ~30k population at the time).
    – Pete W
    Jan 21 at 14:36
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    @PeteW Something else to remember if you want to increase the turnout it just needs to get advertised more and explain to people why it is important.
    – Joe W
    Jan 21 at 14:41
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    One key point is skipped. School board elections secure support from the taxpayers whose support is necessary to fund school boards.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 21 at 19:10
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    "no system will give students input into the selection of school board members because they are not qualified to do so." Is totally untrue. An election for a student representative who has membership on the board is feasible and happens regularly in some countries. It even happens in the USA, at least when people aren't arrogant enough to think students can't describe their own experiences and motivations.
    – Nij
    Jan 21 at 21:55
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    When you don't qualify a statement as referring only to non-student members, the default assumption is that you're referring to all of them.
    – Nij
    Jan 21 at 22:02
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There are plenty of exceptions, but generalizing broadly for the pattern found in so much of the US:

School boards have their own elections because of their unique importance to property taxes. In a typical suburban residential school district, the budget of the public school system is both the largest component of local property taxes. (example: NYS statewide figures: 62% of property taxes going to schools. Spending on schools is also a key driver of property values (via an indirect but profoundly powerful correlation on long-term earnings expectations of children).

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    Can you elaborate on this answer? Jan 21 at 13:47
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    Due to the peculiar way the US distributes public school funding, the three biggest reasons to choose a place to live are the school system, taxes, and expectation of property values being maintained. The school board election provides a direct means to control the strategy towards all three, for the very small number of people who know about it and bother to vote in it.
    – Pete W
    Jan 21 at 13:49
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    So it's elected because school boards control taxes and funding for school systems. Jan 21 at 13:51
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    In practice they rubber-stamp the budget, because there is rarely disagreement over whether the neighborhood wants to spend a lot to get kids into a good college, or wants to be a low-tax place. But yes, by setting the public school system budget, they effectively control what's often the biggest line item that goes into property taxes.
    – Pete W
    Jan 21 at 13:52
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    I think the noncorrespondence of boundaries is actually very important - who can appoint people to school boards if they don't align with any local government boundaries and cross many? Having the governor appoint hundreds of school board members is contrary to US prioritization of local authority. Jan 21 at 16:28

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