Beyond the Ballot: Fueling Acceptance for LGBTQ+ Students In Our Schools

They may be farther down the ballot, but school board elections are some of the most important decisions we make as voters.

School boards are responsible for a wide range of academic, legal, and financial issues impacting our students’ quality of education. For example, boards often approve curricula, evaluate student achievement, and oversee the hiring of superintendents; all of the day-to-day things that impact our children’s lives. As such, their decisions have far-reaching consequences for students, families, and communities. In Illinois, school board members represent the interests of two million public school children.

In recent years, school boards across the country have been leading the attempts to eliminate inclusive learning and erode safe and affirming classrooms for LGBTQ+ students and students of color. 16 states currently have some form of restriction or ban on LGBTQ-related curricula including “Don’t Say Gay” bills and at least 18 states have imposed bans or restrictions on teaching topics of race and gender. It’s these types of attacks that make it important to understand how school boards function and be as informed as possible on who should be on your community’s school boards when it comes time to vote.

What Are the Functions of a School Board?

Illinois has over 850 school districts. There is one school board for every school district. We did the math. There are nearly 6,000 members that serve on school boards in Illinois. Most school boards in Illinois are comprised of 5 – 15 members with four-year terms. These boards hire and evaluate superintendents, who oversee the day-to-day management and policies of school districts set in place by school boards. School boards approve budgets and set spending priorities around classroom resources and educational materials like laptops, textbooks, and art supplies. School boards also determine critical policies impacting students, including disciplinary action, COVID-19 safety requirements, anti-bullying initiatives, police presence on campuses, and criteria for suspensions and expulsion. School boards can only enact a decision or policy by majority vote. Members of the public are welcome to attend school board meetings to listen and observe, but only board members vote to enact policies. This makes it imperative to understand who you are electing on school boards as they are the active voice for the needs of students.

Due to a law passed in 2021, the school board for Chicago will, during the next few years, triple from a seven-member board appointed by the mayor to a 21-member elected board. This will eventually make the Chicago School Board the largest school board in any major city. This first of these voter-elected board members will be on this year’s general ballot in November.

How School Board Elections Impact LGBTQ+ Students?

School board members must engage in tough community conversations on how to handle critical and pressing issues such as school security, racial and gender equity, and public health concerns. There are several school boards across the country that are reducing, or eliminating completely, safe and affirming spaces for students in an already hostile climate for LGBTQ+ students and students of color.  For example:

  • In 2022, the Miami-Dade School Board, one of the largest school districts in the U.S., rejected a resolution to observe October 2022 as LGBTQ History Month. 
  • In August 2023, the Chino Valley Unified School District in San Bernardino County instituted a new policy requiring parental notification when students change their gender identity at school.
  • Some school boards in California are voting to ban Pride flags, or making it difficult to form LGBTQ+ clubs like Gay/Straight Alliances.
  • In 2023, the Francis Howell School Board in Missouri voted to stop offering Black History and Black Literature in the predominantly white suburban area of St. Louis and revoked an anti-racism resolution and ordered copies removed from school buildings.

The increasing number of school boards enacting aggressive anti-LGBTQ+ and students of color is happening in an already hostile climate for these students. In 2024, the American Civils Liberty Union (ACLU) is already tracking 156 anti-LGBTQ+ bills including sports and bathroom bans for trans students, eliminating the teaching of LGBTQ+ history in classrooms and banning books containing queer characters. For students of color there is an increasing number of book bans aimed at the histories of people of color and a coordinate attack to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) curriculum in K-12 even though most primary and secondary schools do not teach CRT and is almost exclusively taught in higher education settings.

These policies are having negative effects on students. According to The Trevor Project, nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation and a majority of LGBTQ+ students reported verbal abuse because fellow students thought they were LGBTQ+. This is increasing rates of mental health difficulties, isolation, suicidal thoughts, and more.

Final Thoughts

We all know how difficult school can be, regardless of your sexual orientation, gender expression, or race. It is our duty to ensure that our communities’ children can live and learn in a safe and inclusive environment. School boards can take an active role in promoting equity and making sure all students get a high-quality education. They partner with superintendents, teachers, families, students, nonprofits, employers, and local colleges to break down barriers to learning, open real-world learning opportunities, and create pipelines to college and career. You can learn more about school boards by visiting the Illinois Association of School Boards.

To learn more about how Howard Brown Health contributes to vital advocacy work and has an impact on local, state, and federal policymaking, please visit our Advocacy webpage


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