New report highlights how a more diverse school board can improve outcomes for a diverse student body

School boards with more racially and ethnically diverse members are more likely to allocate money in a way that can benefit racially and ethnically diverse student bodies, according to new research.

In a new working paper focused on California governance teams and the ways in which they used funding from the state’s School Facility Program, Brett Fischer, a doctoral candidate in economics at the University of Virginia, found that having just one Hispanic board member can lead to drastically increased spending on facilities in schools serving more minority children. The SFP helps districts pay for new facilities and modernization of existing buildings.

Using data on California school board elections held between 1996 and 2007 — as well as SFP spending and student demographic and achievement data — Fischer found that when school boards added one Hispanic member, facilities spending on high-Hispanic, high-poverty schools in that district increased by 66 percent, while spending on low-Hispanic, low-poverty schools saw only insignificant changes.

Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly, if you recall teachers in Michigan, Arizona and Oklahoma posting photos online between 2016 and 2018 of their districts’ decaying classrooms, which in some cases included mold, roaches and leaking pipes), the additional spending appeared to help with teacher retention.

New hiring at high-Hispanic schools decreased by 16 percent, suggesting a decrease in teacher turnover when greater investments were made in these school buildings. That reduced turnover and higher quality facilities in turn likely played a role in the measurable increases in math scores for students at high-Hispanic schools.

“The well-known racial gap in education achievement co-exists alongside a racial gap in education finance,” Fischer wrote, noting that state and federal efforts to remedy that imbalance have largely been unsuccessful at reducing intra-district disparities in white and nonwhite students’ performance.

“School boards play an integral role in education finance. A combination of SFP spending, implicit incentives to encourage teacher retention, and (likely) other, unobservable extra inputs into high-Hispanic schools result in moderate gains in student test scores,” according to Fischer. “These results re-affirm that spending on traditionally disadvantaged students can maximize the returns to the marginal education dollar.”

The findings in this working paper add to growing evidence that diversity within school leadership and among teachers can drastically benefit students — especially students of color.

A 2018 report from the Learning Policy Institute found that teachers of color boost the academic performance of students of color, including improved reading and math test scores, improved graduation rates and increases in aspirations to attend college. That same study found that white students report having positive perceptions of their teachers of color, including feeling cared for and academically challenged. Recent analysis from the Brookings Institution suggest that increasing the recruitment and/or promotion of school leaders from minority racial and ethnic groups can help schools both recruit and retain minority teachers.