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States and Education

State Boards Of Education

Education is legally a responsibility of state government in the United States. The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the states are reserved to the states respectively or to the people." Because the Constitution does not specifically mention education, this amendment serves as the legal basis for the historical evolution of education as a state function.

The New Context

For most of the nation's history, the states have exercised these responsibilities gingerly and have been a weak link in the federal system. It was not until the late twentieth century that the states have begun to proactively exercise their powerful legal responsibilities and great reservoir of unused power in the field of education. Most states, in congruence with the historical norms of local control of education, have traditionally delegated much of the operational responsibility for schools to local boards of education.

This pattern of unaggressive state leadership changed dramatically in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Public education without question has become the nation's most salient domestic public policy issue. The country's influential business and political leadership (on a bipartisan basis) have become engaged in unprecedented ways in implementing their commitment to improved public education. Presidents, governors, corporate CEOs, and state and federal legislators all proclaim the need for high standards and academic achievement for all children. This laser-like concern for and focus upon education has elicited escalating public demands and political pressure for the states to focus and discharge their legal responsibilities to improve the quality of education.

The Role of State Boards

State boards of education along with governors, legislatures, and state education agencies are integral components of the state policy system. State boards, which exist in all but two states (Minnesota and Wisconsin are the exceptions), are agencies with major general responsibilities for the development and management of public education within each state. Typically, the state board of education governs the state education department or agency. Although state boards have only recently become influential entities in a number of states, the aforementioned pressures to improve education will inevitably make them more visible and significant players in all jurisdictions.


There is enormous variety among the forty-eight states that have approximately 500 citizens serving on state boards of education. As Table 1 indicates, the states have numerous and wide variations in the manner in which members are selected, the size of their boards, and the length of terms of office.

Thirty state boards are appointed by governors subject to legislative approval in six states. Ten states elect their state boards: six on partisan and four on nonpartisan ballots. State boards are appointed by the legislature in three states (New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina). In four states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Ohio) the state boards comprise both elected and appointed members. In Washington State, the state board consists of nine members elected by local school board members and one member elected by private schools.

The number of voting state board members also varies from a low of seven (in nine states) to twenty-one in Pennsylvania. There are thirty-eight states with seven to eleven members serving. Twelve states have a nine-member board, ten states have an eleven-member board, and nine states have seven member boards. These seven-, nine-, and eleven-member boards are the most prevalent in the nation.

The length of term of office for state board members likewise varies across the country. The term of office ranges from three years to nine years, the most common term by far being four years (in twenty-two states) and six years (in eleven states). The overwhelming number of states have statutes that require overlapping terms. Special provisions or unique features of state boards abound from state to state with infinite variety. For example, in Alabama the governor presides as president of the board. In Delaware, two of the seven state board members must have experience as local board members. In Indiana, four of the eleven members must be professional educators. In New Jersey, three of the thirteen members must be women. In Washington State, the chief state school officer can vote only to break ties. More generic or common provisions mandate residency requirements for board members and the exclusion of educators from board service in a number of states.

In the late twentieth century there was a trend toward more student participation on state boards. As Table 1 reflects, five states have students as voting members of the board and an additional five states have students as nonvoting members. This reflects the growing voice of students as testing and related policy issues come to the forefront. Table 1 also reinforces the wide structural and operational diversity that characterizes state boards with forty-eight boards having "unique features" and thirty-eight earning "special notes" to distinguish them from their counterparts.






Basic Responsibilities

Although state legislatures have the ultimate legal authority for determining educational policy, a number of specific legal responsibilities have been delegated to state boards and are commonly shared. State boards generally serve as representatives of the larger public in conceptualizing and formulating the mission of the schools, and exercising overall leadership responsibility in the following areas:

  • Standards setting
  • Accreditation of state education programs
  • Teacher and administrator certification
  • Review of state education department budgets
  • Promulgation of graduation requirements
  • Development and implementation of state testing and assessment programs

The historical role of most state boards had been the articulation of rules and regulations that mandated only minimum standards with regard to matters such as subjects to be included in the curriculum, school construction, and school bus safety. This relatively passive role of state boards has changed with the advent of the standards movement.

The power state boards have to appoint the chief state school officers in twenty-five states (gubernatorial approval is required in two jurisdictions) may represent their most important responsibility. It is the state education agency that customarily staffs state boards. The chief thus is in a pivotal position to control the staff, agenda setting, and information flow through his or her authority as the line leader of the state education agency. As a full-time educator with the requisite professional standing and expertise, the chief is in the best position to determine whether state board policies are successfully designed and implemented.

State Boards and the New Politics of Education

As the nation's influential business and political leaders have asserted leadership in the education reform movement, the former, relatively closed, system of decision-making dominated by education groups has been opened to new players at all governmental levels. At the state level, governors, corporate leaders, legislators and governors' education aides, for example, frequently have become the drivers of policy changes preempting the traditional prerogatives of chief state school officers, and state education agencies as well as state boards.

This "new politics of education" and its attendant focus upon education reform have made state boards somewhat more visible or (at least) less invisible. As education has become a more significant policy concern at the state level, more attention is being paid to the caliber and influence of state board members. A governor appointing a state board member in the current environment is less likely to view the selection process as a midlevel patronage matter. The trend is toward designating influential higher status appointees who can move the governor's substantive agenda on increasingly visible and politically important education issues such as testing and accountability. In the past, governors would rarely interfere with the deliberations of their appointees and commonly took a "hands-off" posture on the relatively mundane issues that were on the agendas of the state board. This has changed dramatically at the start of the twenty-first century as the political stakes have escalated on education issues and growing numbers of state board members have moved into the mainstream of state politics.

These developments have been a mixed blessing for appointed state board members. The visibility and increased status of board members has certainly been a very positive development; on the other hand, board members are often less politically independent and not infrequently are viewed as being not civic leaders promoting education improvement but political agents of the governor.

As the standards movement has emerged as the often-controversial cornerstone of education reform, state board members have become much more publicly visible and engaged in highly volatile and complex issues such as testing and accountability. They have been far less insulated from state politics and in many cases have become influential participants in the ongoing policy debates about standards, assessments, and accountability. Many state board members likewise have become less parochial and currently are involved in national discussions as well as issues in their own states. There is, for example, keen interest among state board members in the possible fiscal and political implications of President George W. Bush's federal educational program on state powers and responsibilities.

In jurisdictions that elect their state board members the political dynamics are, of course, quite different. Elected officials understandably depend upon various special interest groups whose political power and financial resources can swing elections. State board elections, like their counterparts at the local level, do not customarily attract large voter turnouts. Indeed, candidates for state boards commonly are little known to the public. This provides organized interest groups with inordinate influence in state board elections. In other words, small core groups readily can control the composition of boards in elective states that provide very fertile ground for organized special interest groups to dominate the election process.

Changing Dynamics

The changing state politics of education has caused new sets of relationships among the several components of the state policy system. The new transcendency of education and the opening up of the once relatively closed policymaking system to business and political leaders has changed the relationship of state board members to other participants in the state policysetting process in significant ways. As school issues have become more embroiled in the political mainstream, chief state school officers, for example, have become more pleased to have influential state board members serve as buffers. In essence, many politically well-connected board members currently are positioned to provide valuable political cover for pressured appointed chiefs. On the other hand, in states in which chiefs are elected and have their own independent political base they can be more dismissive of their boards and in some cases even totally ignore them.

The recent visibility and political involvement of state board members have created new forms of pressure upon these formerly relatively obscure state officials. Early-twenty-first-century appointees are more likely to be very busy high-powered successful business and civic leaders who do not have the time to serve extended terms on state boards. As a result of growing turnover, the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) estimates that the average tenure of its members has decreased from twelve to six years. Highly volatile struggles over the testing issue in states like Virginia and Massachusetts and the bitter struggle over evolution in Kansas reflect only a few examples of the conflicts that have engulfed board members in states where members are both appointed and elected. These highly controversial issues, not surprisingly, have attracted escalating media interest. The saliency of school issues at the state level has triggered the growth of coverage of state boards by a much more sophisticated and knowledgeable media corps.

Pivotal Role of Governors

The nation's governors see education as a "hot" issue, and as a result, all want to be viewed as "Education Governors." Whether they are Republican or Democrat or liberal or conservative, all governors are cognizant of the political rewards of being viewed as a proponent or supporter of education reform and improvement. These chief executives, of course, are the pivotal players in determining education policy in the states. State boards have not only been profoundly affected by the quality of gubernatorial appointments but they also have been influenced in states (where board members are elected as well as appointed) by more vigorous efforts of their governors to consolidate their power to determine and shape educational policy.

In their efforts to build a more diverse base of support for their policies, governors in many states have appointed broadly based influential commissions, roundtables, and/or advisory bodies to make recommendations about complex, controversial state-policy issues such as finance, teacher quality, standards, governance, and accountability. Issues such as these logically should be within the purview of the policysetting responsibilities of state boards. In essence, these gubernatorial or, on occasion, legislatively appointed entities are making recommendations that legally should be promulgated under the aegis of state boards. This not uncommon utilization of commissions and analogous groups certainly clouds and dilutes the authority of state boards. Governors, of course, view such entities as a means through which they can not only broaden support for desired policies but also buffer themselves from state boards that because of overlapping terms or turnover may not be politically responsive to their programs and not as controllable as time-limited commissions.

The recent increase in gubernatorial authority has been paralleled quite logically by the escalating influence of governors' aides in the state education policymaking process. These aides, while often young and not particularly experienced in education issues, usually are politically savvy and well connected. Many have served as campaign aides to their governors and "have their ear" in special or unique ways. Their influence, while often unacknowledged, can hardly be underestimated as loyal and trusted confidants to the chief executives.

The Future

In the early twenty-first century, one can predict with much confidence that state boards will continue their climb out of obscurity in the years ahead. State board members will be increasingly visible and more influential public figures. Governors and the electorate will seek to have more business or private sector types serve on these bodies because they bring different and needed knowledge and understanding of budgets, management, and the changing demographics that are so profoundly reshaping U.S. society. The demographic revolution increasingly will reconfigure the composition of state boards with the inevitable designation of many more Hispanic Americans and citizens of color to serve.

State boards will continue to be under pressure to assume a more aggressive leadership role. They will be expected to provide guidance and advocacy in this enlarged leadership role. They must be more effective and "out front" mobilizers of public and community support for the school enterprise. They also must reach out as lay leaders in the mobilization of the coalitions that will be essential in the more participatory and complicated state educational politics of the future.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation EncyclopediaStates and Education - State Administrative Services In Education, State Boards Of Education, State Governments In Higher Education - LEGAL BASIS OF STATE RELATIONS TO NONPUBLIC SCHOOLS