PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Schools in the U.S. are set to receive $123 billion in federal pandemic relief funding. Across the country, parents and school administrators are engaging in spirited debates about whether to teach critical race theory. And Americans are bitterly divided in their opinions about how and when to resume in-person instruction following rising rates of vaccination against COVID-19.
One might expect that given all that’s at stake, school board meetings across the U.S. would be hotbeds of discussion. But in many cases, they’re the same staid, sparsely attended affairs that they can often be.
“We have more than 13,000 school boards in the U.S., and each one of them meets monthly,” said Jonathan Collins, an assistant professor of education at Brown University. “Everyone hates these things. People have told me they think going to school board meetings is like watching paint dry, like listening to nails on a chalkboard.”
But after observing school board meetings in Southern California, Collins noticed not all of them were dull. Unlike many of its neighbors, the Burbank Unified School District’s board didn’t just solicit public comments — it also responded to them, he said, eliciting two-way conversation.
Collins wondered: Could encouraging dialogue between citizens and their elected officials boost meeting attendance? The answer, according to his latest study, might be yes.
The study, published on Monday, May 24 in the American Political Science Review, found that giving the public more opportunities to engage in conversation with their school boards could significantly boost trust in local leaders and interest in attending public meetings — especially among people of color and individuals from low-income households.
Collins’ findings, when combined with conclusions from previous studies, imply that giving the public more opportunities to converse with elected leaders could increase civic engagement and lead to greater public trust in leaders — which, in turn, could help school boards and city councils better represent their constituents.
“One thing I have found in my previous research is a correlation between student performance and democratic norms,” Collins said. “If students are doing well, the district has stronger democratic norms — meaning, there’s respectful dialogue at meetings, there are fair and competitive school board elections, and the board operates with a certain level of transparency. So I wondered, how could school board meetings factor into that? What could draw more people to them, and what could make them more engaging?”
To find out, Collins engineered an online survey that required participants to watch one of three videos from school board meetings in different cities. A third of participants were served a video that showed a school board official opening the meeting floor to public comment, only to be met by silence. Another third watched a video that showed a school board yielding the floor to a community member, then rapidly moving on to other agenda items. And the final third watched a video where a member of the public had a chance to share concerns and receive a reply from board members.
Before and after watching the video, participants answered questions about their participation, and likely future participation, in school board meetings, perception of their own schools and school board, and opinions on the most pressing issues facing schools today.