Diversifying California’s School Boards

Diversifying Latino Representation on California's School Boards

It's impact on perceptions of District problems, priorities and policies

Max Neiman, Institute of Government Studies, UC Berkeley

Belinda Reyes, César E. Chávez Institute

Luis Fraga, Diversity Research Institute, University of Washington

Daniel Krimm, Public Policy Institute of California


California’s student population is increasingly becoming more diverse, with Latinos now comprising around half of the total student population in the State.  The political leadership in most school districts does not reflect this demographic shift, however, with school administrators and teachers still being mostly white.  This lack of concomitant diversity among administrators can result in specific challenges for schools: If ethnic groups’ representation on a governing body tends to result in greater policy responsiveness to those groups, then, consequently, under-representation can result in California’s Latinos being deprived of needed programs and benefits. 

Although school administrators are strongly sympathetic to the needs of all children, lack of diversity among themselves may limit their ability to adequately represent the needs of the entire population they intend to serve.  This yields direct policy consequences, since Latino board members may see issues differently or have different priorities than white members, and may therefore advocate for different policies. 

Moreover, the level of Latino representation could have an impact on Latino students’ performance and on parental involvement in schools.  If Latino board members are regarded as better able to engage Latino children and parents, then greater diversity on our school boards could have a great impact on the educational progress of one of the most disadvantaged populations in California.

Using secondary data from the census and the California Department of Education and an on-line web-based survey of school board trustees, we explored barriers to Latino representation on school boards, as well as trustee perceptions about a variety of policy issues in their districts. 

We found that Latinos represent a relatively small proportion of school board members in California, only about 15 percent. Latino representation does increase along with the broader increase in the number of Latino students, but even so, a majority of districts where Latinos already make up between half and two-thirds of the student body still have no Latino trustees at all. 

Barriers to Representation

The Latino trustees we polled consistently pointed out a host of factors that constitute real barriers to overcome in running for office: prominent among those factors are low voter turnout by Latinos, high numbers of district residents being ineligible to vote, and the high cost of competing in a school board election. They are also more likely to expressed having difficulty filing candidate papers and finding information about their district and policy options.

Interestingly, the commonly used “at-large” systems (see note 1) for school board elections might actually be limiting the number of Latinos making it onto school boards. Close to 20% of the Latino elected officials we polled indicated that this system poses a barrier to more adequate representation, significantly more so than did their white counterparts.

Perceptions of problems and policies

All school board members are motivated to serve in that capacity because they feel a personal passion for seeing young people achieve their best. We found that Latino trustees, however, tend to be more particularly concerned about specific issues such as raising the college-going rate of students of color and increasing the number of people of color who become trustees and teachers. There is strong evidence that Latino representation on school boards actually correlates with the districts’ proportion of bilingual teachers and the percent of Latino teachers, administrators, and student services employees such as counselors, librarians and nurses, even after controlling for the number of Latinos in the district.

The ability of Latino board members to engender more influence on board’s priorities and policies may require that there is more than one Latino trustee serving. We found some support for this proposition.  Board members (both white and Latino) on boards with more than one Latino trustee are slightly more likely to feel that dropout rates and college-going rates among students of color constitute a serious problem and a top priority in their districts.

Policy Recommendations

Election system analysis

There should be systematic analysis of school districts with high proportions of Latino residents and no Latino board members to determine whether at-large elections are in those particular circumstances an impediment to electing Latino school board members. 

District voter registration and turnout

Particular efforts need to be directed towards increasing registration of eligible district voters and elevating voter turnout. 

Campaign aids and spending caps

Campaign spending caps could be an alternative to the high burden election costs puts on Latino candidates. More information and training might help with running for school boards, as well as more information about the district and policy options.

Non-citizen voting

Many of the Latino residents who are not registered to vote are ineligible because they are not as yet citizens, even while they might be legal permanent residents.  Even though they cannot vote, they pay taxes and are obliged to have their children schooled.  If permitted to vote in at least local school elections, non-citizens may also become more engaged with their schools and teachers and may increase Latino representation in school boards. 

Note 1

Using the definition of at-large election systems in the Elections Code: refers to “any of the following methods of electing members to the governing body of a political subdivision: (1) One in which the voters of the entire jurisdiction elect the members to the governing body.  (2) One in which the candidates are required to reside within given areas of the jurisdiction and the voters of the entire jurisdiction elect the members to the governing body.  (3) One that combines at-large elections with district-based elections.”  (California Elections Code, Section 14026).

CCI Investigator: Belinda Reyes, PhD


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