Trend toward partisan school board elections raises concerns
- In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled legislature has converted about a quarter of the state’s school board races from non-partisan to partisan races despite the fact that about half of the state's nearly 800 school board members currently identify as Democratic and 36% identify as Republican, Education Week reports.
- The push toward partisan school board elections in North Carolina gained momentum since 2013, when the federal government loosened the reins on Voting Rights Act restrictions.
- While some critics fear the political and polarizing implications of such a move, others, including University f Madison-Wisconsin PhD candidate Evan Crawford, who is completing his dissertation on partisan school board elections, say school board issues are so complex that party politics play little part, and that members of nonpartisan boards are sometimes even more likely to express polarized policy views.
Nationally, the issue of partisan school board elections is complex. About 90% of school boards around the county have non-partisan elections. Louisiana and Pennsylvania hold partisan elections statewide, and North Carolina and Utah are the two latest to look at expanding partisan races. However, in Utah, a district court ruled this month that such races violated the state's constitution.
The impact of such a move is controversial. A 2010 paper titled “Partisanship in Local Elections: Regression Discontinuity Estimates from Unconventional School Board Races” states that voters in such races “indeed are relying heavily on party cues when making vote choices, confirming results using correlational methods.” The John Locke Foundation argues that such cues are valuable tool: “Partisan elections do not solve the problem of rational ignorance but may help uninformed voters be a little less ignorant when casting their votes. Party designations indicate a candidate’s general approach to governance, policy formation, and problem solving, information that the rationally ignorant voter would not otherwise possess. Obviously, no candidate adheres to a party’s platform on all issues and at all times, so party labels do not provide perfect information to voters. Surely limited information is better than no information at all.”
However, opponents argue that such a move will limit the potential pool of candidates because of logistical issues like increased cost of campaigning, challenges standing out in a political field of candidates, and the desire to avoid the political fray. Such challenges are more likely to discourage minority candidates, they say. The issues are up to state and local governments to decide but are well worth watching, as it may change the school board game in the future.