The volatile mix of partisan politics and school board elections is on full display in North Carolina.
The Republican-controlled legislature in the last five years has systematically flipped the election process for more than a quarter of the state’s 116 local school boards from nonpartisan races to ones in which candidates are identified by party affiliation.
Depending on whom you talk to in this politically purple state, it’s a historic shift that could lead to much-needed transparency, upend board-member relations, or shrink black and Latino political representation in a racially and ethnically diverse state.
The push toward partisan school board elections in North Carolina has gained momentum since 2013, shortly after the federal government loosened the reins on Voting Rights Act restrictions under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder decision, and after Republicans took control of the North Carolina legislature. The state now has 35 school boards that will be elected on a partisan basis—at least 10 of them added to that pool by lawmakers this year alone.
The Shelby ruling did not deal explicitly with partisan elections, but the subsequent shift in that direction has alarmed civil rights advocates nonetheless.
“As soon as they took the chain off the dog, the dog went to bite you,” said Steve Bowden, a Greensboro, N.C.-based lawyer who in 2011 challenged on behalf of NAACP the state’s election laws.
The state’s Republicans say having local school board candidates identify by party affiliation on primary and general election ballots is simply an effort to make sure voters know candidates’ stances on polarizing issues such as school integration, vouchers, and which restroom transgender students should use.
But North Carolina Democrats counter that party politics will only bring to local school board meetings the sort of partisan rancor that’s dominated federal and state politics in recent years.
“I believe people should look at the qualities of the individual and determine if they have a heart for education,” said Bea Basnight, a Democrat and the chair of Dare County’s board of education, which will hold partisan elections for the first time next year. “We put our party affiliations aside when we walk through the door because it’s about the children.”
Nationally, statistics about school board elections and their electoral status are hard to come by. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute estimates that of the roughly 13,500 boards around the country, the vast majority are elected. Among those, around 90 percent, are elected on a nonpartisan basis.
That tradition stems back to the Progressive-era reform movement at the turn of the 20th century which managed to flush machine politics from school board elections after a series of high-profile corruption scandals in places like New York City and Chicago.
Today, only Louisiana and Pennsylvania require all their school boards to be elected on a partisan basis, and almost a fifth of school districts in Georgia require partisan school board races.
But as Republicans have taken control of the majority of statehouses, legislators in Florida, Indiana, Kansas, and Tennessee have pushed to join them. An advocacy group in Utah is asking a judge to strike down a law that made that state’s state board of education partisan last year.
Driving the debate is whether state or local officials should determine how school boards members are elected, whether partisan elections change who gets elected, and whether there is, ultimately, a “Democratic” or “Republican” way to run a school district.
Terry Stoops, the vice president of research at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, N.C., said those running for local school boards for far too long have hidden their true agendas from voters. Besides, he said, the state’s teachers union, disproportionately endorses Democratic candidates. (The state’s union, the North Carolina Association of Educators, said it was nonpartisan in its endorsement process.)
“Education is a partisan issue regardless of whether candidates have labels attached to their name,” Stoops said.
But Ann Allen, a political scientist at Ohio State University who researches school governance, said the vast majority of issues school board members spend their time debating—such as budgets, the hiring of the next superintendent, and curriculum—are too nuanced to be evenly split between Democrat or Republican platforms.
“There’s a lot of complexity that goes into governing schools,” she said. “There’s a lot of balls in the air at all times. I don’t think the issues fall neatly into conservative and liberal politics.”
Evan Crawford, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is completing his dissertation on partisan school board elections, surveyed dozens of board members serving on partisan and nonpartisan boards in North Carolina and Georgia.
He found that members of nonpartisan boards were sometimes even more likely to express polarized policy views.
“Are people who are running in partisan elections ... used to being more moderate because if they have an ‘R’ or ‘D’ in front of their name they need to get voters from the other side?” he asked.
North Carolina’s election laws and congressional and legislative voting districts have been tangled up in federal courts for years. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year let stand a federal appeals court’s ruling that North Carolina Republicans set up voter registration hurdles preventing “with almost surgical precision” black residents from showing up to the polls, and that the state purposely packed black and Latino residents into single districts to limit their voting power.
North Carolina’s Shift
The state as of this year will make its judges run on a partisan ballot. And this fall, the legislature redrew its judicial voting districts so that Republicans have an edge over Democrats and in a way that means that black judges will have to run against each other.
About half of the state’s nearly 800 school board members today currently identify as Democratic and 36 percent identify as Republican, according to an Education Week Research Center’s analysis of board members’ voter registration forms.
But despite years of federal and state court efforts to craft voting districts so that historically marginalized black and Latino communities are proportionately represented on school boards, there remains a disparity. In two-thirds of districts, where the majority of students are black or Latino, the majority of school board members are white. And although 16 percent of the state’s students are Latino, Education Week found only three Latino school board members in the entire state.
The history of North Carolina’s election laws is steeped in political, racial and legal strife between local and state officials and its black and white communities.
It wasn’t until 1969 that most of the state’s voters were allowed to directly elect their school board members. A series of lawsuits in the 1970s and 1980s by black civil rights activists flipped several school districts from at-large elections to single-member district elections to assure minority candidates had a better chance of winning. (Despite representing almost a quarter of the state’s student population, at that time there were few black school board members.)
“When you’re trying to address issues of equity and disproportionality around everything from suspensions to black representation in Advanced Placement classes, it becomes a lot more difficult,” said Keith Sutton, who until last year was the only black member on the eight-member Wake County school board, in a district that’s 30 percent black. “Our issues go missed or unaddressed because there are fewer minorities on the board, and if you raise those issues, it goes to, ‘All you care about is issues around race and disparities.’ ”
Theodore Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said the switch to partisan elections could negatively impact minority candidates in at-large races in which voters tend to vote along racial lines (25 of the 35 partisan districts have at-large seats).
Republican legislators who proposed partisan elections said their intention was not to win elections but to assist voters.
“It’s been absolutely amazing at how many voters have no idea who’s on the ballot,” said Carteret County Commissioner Bob Cavanaugh, a Republican and the chair of that county’s Tea Party who led an initiative to make that district’s election partisan.
Some local school board members say they fear that appealing to voters on a party basis will result in split votes on run-of-the-mill board decisions and could lead to further polarization.
In Winston-Salem, Ryan M. Eller led a petition in 2010 to get rid of partisan elections after years of wrangling with the Republican-majority school board over school integration and discipline disparities, among other things.
“The more we got into it, the more we discovered that not only were these issues not partisan in their nature, the solutions we needed were being inhibited ... because of the partisanship in the elections,” said Eller, who now is the executive director of Define American, an advocacy group for immigrants.
After the group staged a protest at the capitol in Raleigh in 2010, lawmakers flipped the district to non-partisan. But just a year later, it reversed course and returned the district to partisan board elections.
And in Guilford County, after the legislature in 2015 flipped the board from nonpartisan to partisan elections, the state changed the board’s districts to match those of the partisan and Republican-dominated county commissioners.
Girding for Battle
Meanwhile, hundreds of school board members in North Carolina are preparing for the huge shift next year in how they campaign to serve on their school boards.
Partisan elections require party endorsements, debates, and both primary and general elections, a process that could last all year long.
Bea Basnight, the Democratic board chair of Dare County’s school district, estimates a partisan election could cost her up to $7,000. She’ll have to purchase bumper stickers and post signs up and down the 100-mile stretch of beaches that make up her scenic district, a spit of islands that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean. In this county of 8,771 voters, there are 191 more registered Republicans than Democrats. More than 11,000 residents registered as unaffiliated.
She said she’ll make a pitch to both the Republican and Democratic parties for their endorsement.
“I represent everybody,” she said.
Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky and Research Analyst Alex Harwin contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Shift to Party-Driven Elections Looms as a Wild Card in N.C.