School & District Management

State Boards Could Feel Electoral Winds

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 23, 2012 5 min read
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With scores of state school board seats nationwide hanging on the results of next month’s elections, the results could have a quiet but significant impact on education policy at a time when board members’ influence and relationships with other state political leaders are in transition.

Nine states are holding direct elections this cycle for some or all the seats on their state boards of education, including Colorado, Ohio, and Texas. (New Mexico’s elected Public Education Commission—also up for grabs—serves only in an advisory role to the state superintendent.)

Four of the board elections, in Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, and Utah, are nonpartisan.

In addition, eight states in which governors appoint board members—Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia—have gubernatorial contests this year, further raising the stakes.

In all, about one-sixth of the approximately 600 state board seats could change hands this year through elections or subsequent appointments, said Jim Kohlmoos, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, or NASBE, based in Arlington, Va. He also said that turnover among state schools chiefs and governors may increase state boards’ importance, even though the boards often have a low political profile.

State School Board Contests

2012 Partisan Races

Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Texas

2012 Nonpartisan Races

Ohio, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah

2012 All Members Elected

Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Utah, Texas

2012 Mix of Appointed and Elected Members

Ohio (11 members are elected, eight are appointed)

Other Elections and Appointments

• Beginning in 2013, Nevada’s state board will consist of four elected members and three members appointed by the governor. Of the latter group, one will be nominated by the Senate majority leader, and one will be nominated by the House speaker.

• New Mexico has an elected Public Education Commission, but in 2003, the state changed the commission’s role to an advisory position. The board reports to the state superintendent of public instruction.

• North Carolina has two ex officio members of its state board who are elected for other statewide offices: the state treasurer and the lieutenant governor.

• Washington state has five state school board members elected by school district directors.

Source: National Association of State Boards of Education

“With all the churning that’s going on at the state level, the power struggle or whatever, state boards are actually a stabilizing force,” Mr. Kohlmoos said.

In recent years, as governors have tried to exert more influence on their state education systems, they have directed some efforts at their state boards, said Kathy Christie, an education analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

In 2010, for example, Hawaii’s governor gained the power to appoint board members who previously were selected by voters on a statewide basis. In Oregon, legislation passed in 2011 allows the governor to take a broad leadership role in the state’s new education governing system.

“Some people see it as a balance of power; some see it as a conflict of power,” Ms. Christie said.

Lone Star Makeover

Because of the redistricting process this year, all 15 seats on the Texas board of education are up for election, and there could be a shift in the ideological blocs on the board, now made up of 11 Republicans and four Democrats and famous for its battles over curriculum.

A 2011 measure signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, transferred the ultimate power over selection of instructional materials from the state board to districts, although the board still provides an approved list of materials based on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, standards that districts can use for guidance.

That responsibility could make headlines in November 2013, when board members are due to approve a list of science materials that they say meet TEKS standards, and traditional hot-button issues like evolution could create heated discussions among board members.

The three factions on the board—moderate GOP members, more conservative Republicans, and Democrats—could also see their numbers and influence shift, said David Anderson, who leads the education practice at HillCo Partners, a lobbying firm in Austin, Texas.

“Three years ago, there were enough social conservatives on the board that they could control the agenda,” Mr. Anderson said. “Now there are enough moderate Republicans on the board that they can control the agenda.”

Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, a 26-year board veteran who was defeated in 2010 but won her GOP primary this year, could be a swing vote, Mr. Anderson said. Ms. Miller has argued against the role of “liberal professors” in textbooks and “politically correct” U.S. history textbooks.

Two Democratic candidates, Marisa Perez and Martha Dominguez, could also change the partisan balance on the board, despite perceptions, especially during the primary season, that Ms. Perez and Ms. Dominguez were unknown quantities. Earlier this year, Ms. Dominguez even tried to withdraw from the race, only to submit her request to the wrong organization.

Partisan Rancor

Nationwide, state board members increasingly sense that the feedback they get from the public has become divisive and partisan, Mr. Kohlmoos said, with the increasing use of phrases such as “bad teachers” in comments to board members. He said that he hopes the political pendulum swings the other way after the presidential contest so that the tone of education policy discussions can change.

One of the biggest challenges that boards face, in Mr. Kohlmoos’ view, has to do with helping districts prepare for the common-core standards in English/language arts and mathematics and how the common core will affect teacher quality and evaluations.

Angelika Schroeder, a Democratic incumbent on the Colorado board of education, said that in addition to the implementation of nationwide initiatives like the common core, she and her colleagues have been challenged to help the state’s 178 districts carry out new state legislation. Districts have asked the state board, for example, to develop a model curriculum for them as an option.

“The capacity to do that on their own just isn’t there,” because of school funding woes, Ms. Schroeder said.

Ann Fattor, her Republican challenger, said she believes her race might be better if it were nonpartisan, since it could force more people to rely on what they learn about the candidates and the different issues in the race, instead of just on party affiliations.

“You’ve got a lot of [the] voting population that doesn’t do a lot of research,” Ms. Fattor said.

One policy area where Ms. Schroeder tried to distinguish herself from her opponent, for example, was on charter schools. She said she was more cautious about allowing some charter schools to continue operating, saying that she would be likely to focus on their quality.

Ms. Fattor, in turn, contested the idea that Republicans fail to take into account the quality of school choice. She argued, for example, that if Colorado were to pass a tax-credit scholarship or voucher program, schools receiving those funds should be subject to the same testing and accountability system as regular public schools.

Ms. Fattor also said that she was not as supportive of teachers’ unions as Ms. Schroeder, arguing that the unions often hurt their own teachers’ work by tying teachers and schools up with regulations. Ms. Schroeder has received campaign contributions from teachers’ unions in the state totaling $2,000, according to the Helena, Mont.-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, while Ms. Fattor has received no campaign support from teachers’ unions.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Policy Menu Varies in State School Board Elections

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