Updated: Mar 1, 2022
By Jerome A. Steele, Assistant Director of Research and Professional Development
School boards are curious institutions. They exist between political forces, and what Davis and Fullan term in their book The Governance Core, “a shared moral imperative” to provide governance and oversight of a public school system meant to educate and support all children in its care (Davis & Fullan, 2019). The National Association of School Boards Association Mission Statement says “Working with and through our State Associations and the U.S. territory of the Virgin Islands, NSBA advocates for equity and excellence in public education through school board governance.” NSBA’s mission identifies board governance as the mechanism through which “excellence and equity in public education” is to be achieved. This directly connects school board leadership to the work of achieving educational equity. School boards, however, function to ensure local control of educational policy - and often local political realities determine the degree to which boards embrace efforts to advance educational equity.
This is particularly relevant as many district boards throughout the state explore and adopt Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies amidst coordinated resistance from reactionaries attacking the presence of Critical Race Theory in schools. While the politics around DEI efforts may seem particularly polarized, we must recognize that the history of school integration is simultaneously a history of white resistance. This understanding allows us to call upon an abundance of historical evidence to inform school board leadership as members strive to enact policies that best meet the needs of all students.
Diem, Cleary and Frankenburg’s 2015 piece “Factors That Influence School Board Policy
Making: The Political Context of Student Diversity in Urban-Suburban Districts” details how school boards in Louisville, KY and Raleigh, NC navigated a shifting legal, political and cultural landscape around their student school assignment policies. In their literature review, the authors explore the foundations of school boards in America, stating “early school board members were typically elected by neighborhoods; by the late 19th century, school boards had become enmeshed in local politics. When this began to lead to patronage, corruption, and a failure to account for the needs of increasingly diverse student populations, education reformers made an attempt to expunge politics from schooling” (Diem et al., 2015, p. 715). After establishing these decidedly political origins they acknowledge a particularly salient point - both for the case studies in their article and current DEI efforts:
School board members are disproportionately White when compared to the
racial composition of public schools (Hess, 2010; Maeroff, 2011). Some
argue that Progressive Era reforms—particularly the move to at-large elections—
have hindered the ability of working-class citizens and people of color to win office and may result in school boards that are not representative of the district population (Berkman & Plutzer, 2005; Hochschild, 2005).
This observation supports the argument that ostensibly “progressive” efforts to “expunge politics” from schools created conditions in which affluent, white citizens with the means to fund a campaign would hold disproportionate power in the governance of schools. It also raises important questions about the need for efforts to ensure that board members are both more representative of the communities they serve and are advocating for the interests of students and families who have been historically excluded from power and influence in the policy making process.
In their case studies of the Wake County, NC and Jefferson County, KY public school systems, Diem, Cleary, and Frankenburg identified four main themes that influenced each boards negotiation of their student assignment policy: “school board commitment to diversity, politicization of the school boards, superintendent-school board relationships, and efforts to build community support for the diversity policy” (p.722). Each of these themes offers insight for leadership in the present moment. For the sake of brevity, this post will explore how these themes manifested in Wake County.
Wake County Background
Wake County achieved unitary status after operating under a mandatory integration plan which merged Raleigh City and Wake County schools in 1976 following a ruling that found Raleigh City Schools was in violation of the Civil Rights Act. The newly formed district adopted a race-conscious student assignment system that “called for schools to have a minority composition of between 15% and 45%, which reflected a 15% variance from the 30% minority population average at the time throughout the district” p. 723). This plan operated effectively for more than twenty years until a case that preceded Parents Involved v. Seattle reached the 4th Circuit and “limited race conscious policies by districts” (p. 724). Interestingly, rather than abandon the plan, district leaders and board members attempted to continue the diversity plan by substituting a race-neutral plan which “uses indicators other than race to achieve diversity.”
This plan “remained relatively intact for 10 years,” until a highly contentious board election in 2009 when “four new members who ran on an anti-diversity platform were elected” (p. 724). This election was decided by approximately 5% of the county’s eligible voters (p. 727). Despite that fact, the new majority moved quickly to eliminate the diversity plan in the first school year after their election. This caused the community to mobilize and elect a new board at the next opportunity that would reinstate a diversity plan supported by the majority of the community.
Lessons from Wake County
The anti-diversity sentiments that characterized the 2009 election were viewed by both board and community members as a new phenomenon. Throughout the approximately 30 years in which the diversity plan operated “board members consistently supported diversity efforts,” while a former board member stated that “the entire board was strongly in support of diversity in concept” (p. 724). This was true despite the fact that “the board was made up of a variety of political persuasions.” The interviewee continued “when it came to issues that we believed had to do with really creating a sound, equitable infrastructure for learning and schools, everybody had come to the center on diversity” (p. 725).
Despite political differences, board members were able to develop and maintain consensus on a diversity plan that placed students outside of neighborhood schools in a city school system that had been forced by court order to abandon the vestiges of Jim Crow segregation. This fact is remarkable in light of current debates about DEI efforts that do not explicitly call for the reallocation of resources or busing initiatives. The authors identified shared professional experiences on diversity as one catalyst for this relative stability:
Educating new board members about school diversity has helped change more than one board member’s stance toward the assignment policy and has passed the responsibility for a system of “healthy: “schools down from one Wake County school board to the next (Flinsbach and Banks, 2005, p. 276).
These experiences likely helped define shared understandings of what was referred to above as “diversity in concept.” The stability and popularity of the plans built on this shared understanding was evidenced when a district-wide survey “of more than 40,000 parents found that almost 95% were satisfied with their child’s school assignment” (p. 725). The plan’s widespread acceptance was further underscored by a community member who described the aftermath of the 2009 election:
the community came out in protest [against removing the diversity plan]. . . . It was really a community protest, saying that this is not what we want for our kids. And we knew those who were suffering most were in the urban communities. . . . It wasn’t just people in southeast Raleigh, or the NAACP that really wanted this. No. It was across the board (p. 726).
Despite its popularity, the nature of school board elections decided by small portions of the electorate allowed candidates whose anti-diversity platform clearly did not reflect the will of the majority of parents, teachers and community members. This anti-democratic institutional capture underscores the need for boards to actually be representative of the communities they serve and speaks to the need for constant, meaningful community engagement.
The authors state “it is going to take much more than just the board supporting diversity policy efforts to establish integrated schools” (p. 726). They quote a community member who elaborated:
Forcing these things on the Board of Education is going to result in the same behaviors over and over and over again . . .because we’re asking the board to solve what is inherently a community problem. . . . Can the community come to some consensus on what diversity is, why they’re doing it, how they want to do it, before people begin to perceive that they don’t know where we’re going?
Applications for DEI Current Efforts
Wake County offers several valuable lessons for board members and district leaders looking to navigate potentially toxic political resistance to DEI initiatives.
First, a common language and understanding around what diversity, equity and inclusion actually mean, what it looks like in practice and the benefits it provides all students - even in districts without racial diversity. Building consensus around providing equitable opportunities for students in poverty, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth can help build a big tent around support for equity efforts in districts that lack racial diversity. It is also helpful to note that students graduating from racially homogenous schools will enter a world that is far more diverse than their hometowns. This shared conceptual language can be developed through shared professional development experiences for board members and district leaders.
Clear communication and open collaboration between superintendents, district leadership and boards is also essential. This is true for all kinds of initiatives in schools, but is especially important when districts must navigate potentially contentious issues. Davis and Fullan define these transparent, honest working relationships as “systemic coherence” aligning policy development and implementation efforts in a harmonious, mutually supportive manner (Davis & Fullan, 2019).
Perhaps most importantly, the community must be educated, engaged and mobilized in support of efforts that support all children. When anti-diversity candidates captured the board in Wake County through “a distortion of facts” and “partisan politics” (p. 725), only a coalition of community organizations, businesses, parents and families could win back enough board seats to reinstate the overwhelmingly popular policy. The board’s “historic commitment to reaching out to the community and working together” laid the foundation for a successful integration policy in the Deep South (p. 730). The authors emphasized this point: “engaging the community is seen as crucial to the district, according to a former superintendent, as it is the community who will ultimately decide if ‘it wants to do something to help its schools’” (p. 730).
Researchers Terrance Green and Ann Ishimaru both offer tremendous insight on how districts can work equitably with parents, families and communities to develop and implement policies that meet each district’s unique needs. Leaders can draw upon this body of work and guidance from the state to help build support for DEI initiatives.
Ultimately, board members must reflect on and honor their “moral imperative” to advocate for policies that serve the students in their care. As non-white students become the majority of those enrolled in America’s public schools (Fergus, 2017), this means having the courage to advocate for educational equity, even in the face of hostile political resistance.