Shoe-leather politics. Shifting demographics. Lower-than-average voter turnout.
Those are the factors that likely contributed to 18-year-old Mike Floyd unseating a two-term incumbent to win a school board seat in a large suburban Texas district.
The victory drew national headlines, not just because Floyd is only 18, but also because he will take office Tuesday, three days before he graduates from high school.
He will join the seven-member board in the Pearland Independent schools, a 21,000-student district just south of Houston.
— Texas Democrats (@texasdemocrats) May 7, 2017
While school boards have had student representatives for decades, Floyd is the youngest person in recent memory elected to a school board in Texas—and perhaps the nation.
“It is fair to say that it is rare for a student to run for, let alone win, a school board election,” said Barbara Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas School Boards Association.
But no one seems to knows how rare.
A National School Boards Association survey conducted in 2010 found that 0.4 percent of school board members nationwide are younger than 30.
That’s about 1 in every 250 school board members. The survey didn’t ask participants whether they were younger than 20, or even 25.
But at seven years old, that survey data is dated.
While Floyd’s win has a ‘local teen does good’ feel to it, his team ran a sophisticated campaign that belied his age, two political science professors at the University of Houston said.
“He must have been a very good candidate on the doorstep,” said Richard Murray, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “I would assume that either he or people that were supporting him must have talked to an awful lot of voters.”
Education Week could not reach Floyd for comment for this report.
Murray knows the Pearland district well. He has done consulting work with the district in the past, helping gauge support for bond issues. Once a predominately white, semi-rural area, Pearland is now a more ethnically and racially diverse suburb—but divisions remain.
Half of the district remains filled with white residents, many of whom are conservative Republicans. The other half has experienced an influx of African-Americans, Latino, and Asian residents, Murray said.
“It’s sort of two districts now,” said Murray, who is also the director of the Survey Research Institute at the university’s Center for Public Policy. “It’s changing, it’s growing, and the conservative vote is not growing much.”
Floyd likely capitalized on the growing diversity in the district, where his opponent, Rusty DeBorde, and the district superintendent, John Kelly, took heat for their stances on Muslims and transgender bathroom access, Murray said.
In what became a public duel with the parent of a transgender child, Kelly argued against letting the student choose the facilities that matched their gender identity.
Floyd made transgender bathroom access part of his campaign platform. Kelly has not commented publicly on Floyd’s victory.
DeBorde made a last-minute apology after his inflammatory social media posts that raised concerns about a Muslim candidate running for a seat on the Pearland City Council in the days leading up to the election. Education Week could not reach DeBorde for comment.
Floyd’s campaign likely drew out voters offended by the superintendent’s stance and DeBorde’s Facebook post, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
“The suburbs are slowly becoming more progressive, in part driven by migration from other cities and states, but also a younger population that’s moved in,” Rottinghaus said. “Though the traditional narrative is that the suburbs tend to be more conservative and that’s true, there are pockets of progressive politics that give new voices and opportunity.”
The low-voter turnout in the May 6 election also buoyed Floyd’s chances, Murray and Rottinghaus said. Only about 10 percent of voters cast ballots in the off-cycle election.
“In a [high turnout election], I think he would’ve probably been swamped. In a low-turnout, if you can get your friends and supporters to go vote, you can pull some surprises,” Murray said.
“The usual suspects who typically vote in school elections are school employees, and so they would be inclined to support the incumbent board members. But if you have somebody out there running a different kind of campaign, it can change the mix.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.