Thursday, August 5, 2021

Should School Board Elections Be More Partisan

 Aaron Churchill, the Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute, this morning wants to make the case for partisan school board elections.

Lots of states have non- or bi-partisan school board elections. Ohio doesn't note a party affiliation. In Pennsylvania, candidates can cross file and run in both R and D primaries, and so are listed as both parties on the final ballot. Churchill notes that this fall districts are pre-occupied with things like masking and "critical race theory" (in other words, things actually not directly related to actual education) and school board are, for sure, currently heating up

Churchill notes that a "small body of research" shows that, lacking partisan labels, voters choose based on an assortment of bad reasons, and it's certainly true that an awful lot of US citizens do a crappy job of fulfilling their civic election duty. I'm just not convinced that adding an R or D label to school board elections doesn't just add one more bad reason to choose a candidate.

Is there a Democrat or Republican approach to education? Neither party has ever shown itself to be particularly interested in or knowledgeable about public education. "When leading our local school district, I will follow my party's line," is a terrible pledge for candidates from any party. Nor does party affiliation reveal a particular bent. A Democrat could be a public education supporter, or a corporate education reformster with privatization on their mind. A Republican could be a traditional GOP supporter of public education (as long as it doesn't get too spendy) or a raving Trumper intent on keeping masks and Black Person Stuff out of schools. 

Churchill asks

Are nonpartisan elections really insulating public schools from divisive politics? Or is it na├»ve to think that school boards are apolitical governing bodies? If indeed there are ideological differences about how to run schools and educate children, shouldn’t the electorate get a hint about where candidates are likely to stand?

Yes, yes, and yes. But this is a non-sequitor set of questions--knowing party affiliation doesn't tell us what the person's ideological stances are.

In fact, it's entirely possible to develop a whole system of ideas and beliefs about how children learn and how schools should work without actually having to reference political ideologies at all. Really.

Churchill is frustrated that in the last school board elections he didn't have any idea where the candidates stood, and he wants more transparent elections, and that's all good--but slapping an R or D on the ballot doesn't get us there. 

In fact, there's nothing but down side to forcing school board candidates to declare allegiance to a particular political party. For instance, do we really need to have school board candidates take a hard stance on whether or not Trump won the 2020 election just to get past a school board primary? US politics are soaked in a deeply toxic brine right now, and we'll never keep that out of the world of public education (because everything that soaks the larger society soaks schools, too), but there's no reason to make it easier for that toxic brine to penetrate school board elections.

Reformsters often assert that teachers unions are too involved in these elections and end up controlling the school boards. I'd love to read about those cities where the board is in thrall to the teachers and therefor teachers get everything they ever want. And supposedly in the big cities, school board membership comes with all sorts of power and perks and wealth and fame, though I'm having a hard time thinking of anyone who launched a major political career with school board membership. (I'll look for it in the comments.)

School boards are local institutions, and they deal with local issues in ways that national politics don't necessarily apply to. Should East Egg elementary school get a new roof? Are we all pissed off about last season's football coaching? Is the absentee make-up work policy fair? People who think, write, talk, and live national policy often forget one thing about local school districts--on the local level, people, school districts, and school boards can go days, weeks, months at a time without thinking about a single national education policy issue, no matter how hard thinky tanks and bloggers and federal bureaucrats are yammering about them. Knowing where you might stand on national ed policy issues does not tell whether or not you support expanding local AP options, or whether there should be an elementary choir program, or whether or not it was a damned shame that the principals were re-assigned last year.

Injecting partisan politics might generate a great deal more heat (especially right now), but it won't generate any more light.

Want more transparency? Do what unions do-- get together, ask the candidates the questions you care about, and publish the answers to your people. Stage public debates or talk sessions. Push candidates to get their message out there--whatever it might be. Require full disclosure of funding sources. If your race is so small that your candidates have tiny budgets, raise a bunch of money and buy each candidate the same amount of media exposure to use as they wish--buy them some transparency. 

And if you're really concerned about this on a national level, then work on the other school board election problem. In small districts in my neck of the woods, it's not uncommon to have too few candidates for the unpaid board seats. I don't know the national figures for this, but I suspect that we are not a unique phenomenon (the Curmudgucation Institute doesn't have the budget to research this, but I invite a think tank to do so). If so, how do we get more people to become involved in helping to run their local district? I'm betting the answer is not to encourage them to link themselves to partisan politics.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree, Board elections should only be about school policy.

    In my city, school board elections are the customary first step in a political career. Win or lose, you get your name out there in preparation for running for city council or auditor or whatever. I don't like this. I want people who care about schools, not about using the position as a stepping stone to other things.