A large part of the national conversation, from gun control and pandemic response to questions about race relations and gender rights, now revolves around U.S. schools.
A scroll through the headlines shows that school boards across the country are grappling with social issues that will be front and center in the 2024 election, making them a flashpoint as board members set policy and precedent. Many have drawn national attention as they endure heated debates, public protests, and even acts of intimidation or hostility.
Sophisticated public affairs teams are taking steps to monitor the action, watching agendas for important policy changes in the same way they monitor bills in cities, state legislatures, and Congress. That’s why Quorum has new capabilities, allowing teams to track approximately 900 of the largest school boards around the country.
For organizations that advocate on education and social issues, as well as those who do business directly with schools, the ability to identify issues, recognize trends, and respond quickly means your voice can be heard in real-time.
“An early warning system gives you the chance to move the needle,” said Alex Wirth, co-founder and CEO of Quorum. “School boards now play a more important role in setting policy, both nationally and within each state. Public affairs teams need the right tools and tactics to adjust and respond.”
Why School Boards Are Important
Government affairs teams have taken an increasing interest in local government in recent years. That makes sense because a large and diverse list of industries are regulated at the local level, including airlines, construction, energy, retail, utilities, waste, and a great deal more.
While most of that involves city and county councils, school boards represent a whole different arena with a different set of industries involved—and that arena is sizable. There are more than 49.5 million students enrolled in public schools from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade nationwide, according to the latest numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics. Thousands of school districts make decisions that directly impact these students.
Education is regulated by the federal government, which sets standards and accountability for public schools nationwide. Each state also has its own regulations for schools, setting funding and education standards that explain exactly what will be taught in math, English, science, and other subjects. Yet even after all of that, local school boards, which are most often made up of elected officials, still have a high degree of autonomy. Often, they control much of what happens in neighborhood schools, including hiring, safety protocols, extracurricular activities, and the allocation of education resources.
Recently, these boards have been tested in historic ways. The pandemic, which closed down schools nationwide, brought about the single largest disruption to education in a generation. Millions of children suffered educational setbacks. After schools reopened, many districts were beset by crucial—and controversial—policy questions that demand answers. For example:
- Safety and Gun Control. The increasing frequency of terrorizing school shootings has raised major questions, not only about gun control but about which measures are appropriate to keep schools safe. Debates over drills, protocols, and radical measures such as arming teachers have taken place nationwide.
- LGBTQ+ Rights. How LGBTQ+ issues are treated in schools has become a divisive issue. For example, school boards have had to address many questions surrounding transgender children, from participation in sports to which bathrooms to use. Questions extend into curricula, too, including how sexual orientation and gender identity is discussed in classrooms.
- Race Relations. How issues of race and racial history are addressed in school curricula has been a subject of passionate debate. For example, a framework describing an AP African American studies class for high schoolers sparked controversy when it was substantially altered after drawing criticism from political quarters, notably from Florida Governor and potential Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.
- Pandemic Response. Schools were a central focus of conflict during the pandemic, with debates over mask mandates, social distancing, vaccination and school closures raging in communities across the country. Most of these issues no longer make headlines, but they raised big questions about how schools should respond in future emergencies.
Who Tracks School Boards?
It is easy to see how many different types of organizations would find themselves tracking school board decisions in order to ensure they have a full view of the policy landscape.
An organization interested in libraries will want to know when books are removed from schools. A union representing teachers will want to know about radical curriculum changes. Here are some organizations that are likely to be interested in tracking school district activity.
- Education advocates
- Gun control and gun rights organizations
- Police and public safety advocates
- LGBTQ+ rights organizations
- Racial equality advocates
- Corporate vendors
- Labor unions
- Healthcare and health policy organizations
Another that tracking is important is business development. When school districts purchase products and services, whether it is textbooks, safety equipment, technology or construction, they often issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) and invite companies to bid. But, with thousands of districts around the country, finding out when an RFP is released can be challenging. Monitoring school board agendas is one way to learn when these opportunities arise, allowing companies to file a timely response.
How to Track School Board Activity
School districts are run differently from place to place, but all have similarities. Some cover a city or municipality and some extend over an entire county. Most are run by a school board, but a few are run by a mayor. All must follow federal law and are accountable to state education officials.
U.S. school districts in large cities can potentially have hundreds of thousands of students. New York City had almost 957,000 public school students in 2019, according to the latest numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics. The Los Angeles Unified School District had more than 483,000. While these are well-known large districts, less-known areas can still have massive student populations. Clark County, in Nevada, for example, had 329,000.
School boards in districts of this size are often small—even the massive Los Angeles district has only seven members. Whatever the size, most boards make decisions and take votes at public meetings, which are often held in the evening to accommodate public participation. Boards are required to publish their agenda in advance and most invite comments from the public on issues large and small. Organizations interested in tracking school boards will track agendas for these meetings and get alerts for issues of interest.
As any organization that tracks state legislation knows, monitoring a large number of active public bodies is a challenge. But there are some strategies that can make these efforts dramatically more efficient. Here are some ideas:
- Use a Professional Tool. Trying to track the action in multiple school districts individually is all but impossible A professional tool, by contrast, can search hundreds of districts without manual work and do it fast. Quorum’s tool, for example, will monitor every district in the U.S. with more than 10,000 students. Teams can can track meetings, receive alerts, and quickly identify when and where issues are being discussed.
- Focus on Agendas. School boards produce a great deal of paper, from reports and contracts to minutes of the last meeting. Much of this will be of little value, because it explains what has happened in the past. What teams need are agendas because they show the issues coming up for debate. Quorum’s tool offers every agenda made public for the districts we cover, and that list will expand throughout 2023
- Learn Your Search Language. Teams must learn the language that identifies their issues. For example, regulation impacting gender identity may not contain terms like “gay” or “lesbian,” but it may use the term “sexual orientation.” Learning the language to look for makes tracking much easier. This is another place where a professional tool can help by offering the ability to conduct a large number of searches quickly. It won’t take long for your team to dial in.
- Look for Policy Trends. Policy language often travels from one school board to another, as it does in city councils and state legislatures. The ability to see the same issue taken up in multiple locales is a key piece of insight that allows you to properly gauge policy threats in your issue area. These trends can easily go undetected without a tracking program in place. Professional tracking can make it easier to see action on the same issue, even if that action is taking place before many different school boards.
Overall, tracking activity at school boards makes sense for many organizations, and the advent of professional tools makes it far more feasible than it was even a few years ago, when it required large amounts of staff time. A professional tool can be run by a single staffer, search large parts of the country and give your organization vision into how school boards are debating your issues—before the decisions are made.