I fell asleep in the first board of education meeting I ever attended. I was 19 and interning at the Maryland State Department of Education. I can’t remember exactly what the subject of the meeting was, other than it had to do with Race to the Top, but I do know that I had to be woken by my supervisor when people were clearing the room. Later, when I was working in Baltimore schools, I found myself constantly in local governance dialogues with a wide range of stakeholders. Fortunately, I stayed awake during these (having discovered coffee at this point in my life), but I came away from these experiences feeling that many of the core problems I cared about the most in education could be traced back to these (varyingly) deliberative spaces and the people who occupied them. These experiences served as my primary inspiration for attending graduate school with a focus on education policy and politics.
Local school boards, to me, are primarily interesting in terms of their democratic capacity. Some of the biggest issues affecting justice and educational equity are decided by these boards that consist of individuals with often conflicting values, varying sources of information, and rich histories connected to their communities. However, we know almost nothing, relative to other areas of education policy, about how to assess these spaces or enhance them. What draws me to school board work is the frequent feeling that the research community has not spent enough time observing how they actually work or identifying their current and potential capacity for serving an important purpose in deliberative democracy. (Though notably, there has been some good work from a small handful of scholars that we should not dismiss. My point here is that there is just so, so much more we need to do.) However, having been (attempting) board-related work for some time now, I also know that part of the reason for this relative dearth of research is because there is also a relative dearth of useful data. In contrast to the widely-available secondary datasets available in education ranging from administrative data collections to NCES surveys to, even, qualitative transcripts related to COVID responses, there is little to nothing available for the curious, burgeoning school board researcher. The ESBI project is one way to try to change that and start a conversation that is very long overdue.