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OPINION: CMS Must Reimagine Its Board of Education

Decentering wealth and whiteness in favor of representation and experience

CMS Board of Education
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education recently came to an agreement with the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners about how to address inequity in schools. (AdobeStock)

If we know anything, it’s that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Board of Education has a penchant for drama (just ask the six superintendents over the last 10 years), so it comes at no surprise that the board of education is yet again embroiled in a dispute that makes for great headlines.

As that conflict seems to have come to an end last week, it’s time to come to terms with the fact that those very headlines have a tendency to bury the real issue — they’re smoke and mirrors. What’s the real issue? It’s been present for years, decades even, and was exposed in a remark made by CMS Chair Elyse Dashew to the county commission: “We’re the experts. It would be irresponsible to hand education decisions over to you.” 

CMS Board of Education members are experts of . . . what? 

Decentralized school boards are notorious for lacking the ability to make effective decisions because their members lack expertise. Now, evidence tells us that this is more fact than conjecture — and given the chaos of the last few weeks, and the last three decades, it should be clear that the CMS Board of Education is no exception.

So, should we be surprised by the perpetual “performance gaps” between white students and students of color in CMS? No, because the real issue is not that the county commission pulls purse strings, or the lack of a more nuanced “plan,” or performance metrics, or central office salaries, or the rotating superintendents. The real issue is the board itself — it always has been — because the system was designed to empower wealthy, white, upper-class citizens who have very little experience in education, but wield a great deal of political power. 

The Elite and Exclusionary Origins of School Boards 

Like many socio-political issues in America, when we investigate the origins of any given system, we often find they were designed to uphold traditionally white, Protestant hierarchies that inherently oppress a minority group’s political power and their capacity for social actualization. Local school boards are no exception, and neither is ours.

By the 1920s, school reformers — who were predominantly affluent, white and motivated to perpetuate a collective white identity and citizenship — set out to institute an administrative approach to school governance that is much like what we have today: one elected board oversees and directs one superintendent to foster one centralized and non-political system.

Their logic was sound, given that local school board systems were, admittedly, a hyper-decentralized, ward-centric mess. Their motivation is what was problematic, as it was used to dismantle ward systems that were empowering immigrants and lower-class citizens to practice their agency. 

Consequently, the “supervisors” of these schools were political actors who maintained a social and financial status within their communities. For the most part, they had no training in education, but held sway over the community’s social and political identity. This sway was used to create the white, upper-class boards we still know today. 

By 1927, the average number of upper-class professionals that were elected to school boards in the first years of this new system drastically rose, ascending from 4% to 58%. Similarly, the number of business owners represented on school boards more than doubled, shifting from from 9% to 25%. On the flip side, the number of traditional wage earners who were elected plummeted from 28% to zero. These numbers enabled board members to influence the direction of schools based on social values that are defined by prosperous, native-born, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

When we look at the makeup of school boards in the 21st century, in comparison to CMS, one would be hard pressed to say that much has changed — traditionally, our school board has been elite, exclusionary and white. 

Elitism Gives Way to a Startling Lack of Representation

Even without reading studies dating back to the 1920s, most of us already know there is a disproportionate number of white, affluent, socially powerful citizens who have been serving on our school boards. The accompanying problem: as our schools become more Black and Brown, our school boards are becoming whiter, wealthier, and less qualified than ever. 

In a 2010 study on school board accountability, Frederick Hess found that 80% of school board members in the U.S. are white. In a 2020 study, those trends still hadn’t changed: 83% of school board members in the U.S. did not report having a colleague of color on their board. While this data tells us something we already know, we need to take into account that 52% of the student body in the U.S. is non-white. In Charlotte, 66% of the school board is white, but 70% of CMS students are Black and Brown. In a representative democracy, these numbers are startling, even more so in a school system that has a long history of segregation and inequity

CMS Board of Education
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students in 1973, after the Swann vs. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling forced the district to implement busing. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

When it comes to socio-economic representation, the trend remains the same. Across the nation, the average school board member living in the wealthiest neighborhoods in their districts, earns $5,000-$9,000 more per year than their neighbors and enjoys $15,000 more in home value. In the last two CMS school board campaigns, we see how these wealth gaps directly correlate to whiteness and victory. In the 2019 at-large CMS board race, the top two vote earners — both white — spent an average of $35,000 each. This is nearly $30,000 more than the third place candidate, a Black woman. In the 2016 district races, the elected candidates of color spent roughly $5,000 between their campaigns, while the white elected candidates spent roughly $81,000. 

Racial and economic representation aside, school board members should be representative of the education system itself. But, furthering the idea that being elected to a school board depends more on your proximity to money and influence within a WASP power structure than your qualifications, we find that most school board members have zero experience in education. 

Sampling North Carolina’s four largest counties uncovers some notable trends. Of 32 total school board seats (72% are held by white members) that account for four separate school boards, only four seats are held by former full-time educators. In Charlotte, only two out of nine board members have full-time experience in the classroom.

These numbers are alarming, especially when we consider that they represent a phenomenon that is a statistical incongruity. But these systems at play have intentionally sought to ensure that white, affluent citizens maintain control of our education systems. 

The Role of the White Electorate

White voters always turnout at a higher rate than their non-white counterparts. Not surprisingly, those gaps widen even more for school board elections. Additionally — and in direct correlation to voter wealth — voters in school board elections are typically white and wealthier by a quarter of a standard deviation than the average family or student in their district (a standard deviation measures how far something is from “typical” using the mean as a baseline – a standard deviation of .75 is considered quite high).

Furthermore, white voters turn out to vote despite not having children who attend public schools. Shockingly, the overwhelming majority of voters — roughly 60% — who vote in school board elections do not have children in the K-12 system.

When it comes to performance discrepancies between students of color and white students (the educational debt), the higher the discrepancy, the more likely it is that white board members are elected. Simply put: white, affluent, empty-nesters turn out to vote more frequently for white school board members and it has an explicitly negative impact on students of color.

CMS Board of Education
Around 60% of people who vote in school board elections do not have children in school. (AdobeStock)

In California, a 60% white school board equates to a negative performance discrepancy of nearly 1.2 standard deviations for Hispanic students. Given the rising percentage of Hispanic students in CMS, this data point is a red flag.

Finally, Vladimir Kogan’s 2019 preliminary study on school board electorates gives us our final disturbing numbers: in school districts that are majority Black and Brown, when the white student enrollment in the district reaches 20%, the average electorate becomes at least 60% white. In other words, the more Black and Brown students there are in a district, the more likely white citizens will turn out to vote. What Kogan is suggesting is that the more diverse a student population is, the more likely a majority white school board will be elected. Again, Charlotte is no exception.

Objectively, this data is troubling and highlights trends that are indicative of exactly how little the American electorate has shifted since the days of slavery, Reconstruction, the onset of Jim Crow and the years leading up to the Great Depression. And it reveals even more about the mindset of the white electorate. 

What Does It All Mean? 

So, what do we make of all this? First, when answering what school board members are experts of, the clear answer is . . . nothing much. When it comes to the question of whether or not the CMS Board of Education can represent the average CMS student or their family, the answer is largely no. 

Ultimately, the CMS Board of Education fits the national trend like a glove. It’s primarily composed of members who don’t have the qualifications that would enable them to make the best decisions for students, let alone for students who aren’t white or wealthy. It’s also a board that repeatedly refuses to take responsibility for its failures, particularly in the ways that it has failed students of color and their families. It’s a board that has benefited from and perpetuated white supremacy and access. 

So, should we be frustrated with the county commission? Of course. But to focus our entire attention on the clickbait-y headlines this time around would be to miss the real problem at hand: for decades on end, we have been electing the wrong people to lead our schools. There are viable solutions to ensure more representative and equitable school board elections, but before we can get to those, we have to tap into our collective humility and acknowledge that lack of representation on the CMS Board of Education is on us — and it’s something that desperately needs to be fixed. Until then, we should only expect more of the same.

Jordan Pineda is a former CMS teacher and school board candidate. He works for a DC action tank coordinating equitable K-12 policy for opportunity youth. He also studies policy reform for racially isolated schools at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

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