As education issues play a more prominent role in political debates, some state lawmakers have joined a new push to make school board elections partisan.
Bills proposed in six states this spring would require or allow local school board candidates to declare a party affiliation on the ballot.
Forty-one states currently require nonpartisan local school board races, the product of historical efforts to separate education governance from divisive politics.
Supporters of such efforts say party labels would give voters one more piece of useful information about candidates and improve voter participation in races that have typically received less attention than those higher on the ballot.
“You’ll have counties in southwest Florida that voted for me by like 40 points, and yet they’re electing people to school board who are totally the opposite philosophy,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said in January as he announced his education priorities. “We want transparency. We want people to do what they think is best in educating voters to the maximum degree.”
But opponents of the new state proposals say issues like school finance and facilities plans should transcend traditional party politics. Changing elections threatens to make current discussions even more contentious, they said.
“I’m just not in favor of even going down a road to start politicizing school board races,” Florida Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Democrat, said during an April debate. “If we’re all honest, we know what happens when we politicize things: We begin to make decisions based on party instead of focusing on people.”
Beyond high-profile policies, school boards are also responsible for managing budgets, personnel decisions, and student support programs that don’t have a clear ideological bent, she said.
School controversies come home to roost
The Florida legislature passed a resolution on April 19 to create a 2024 ballot issue that will ask voters to modify a state law that currently prohibits party labels in school board races. The bill’s sponsor said it was a matter of transparency. Democrats like Osgood who spoke in opposition said it would effectively disenfranchise voters who aren’t registered with a political party and can’t vote in closed primaries.
Lawmakers in at least five other states—Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, and West Virginia—have considered partisan school board bills in their spring legislative sessions, though none of those proposals have made it out of committee.
The efforts, supported by conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and activist groups like local chapters of Moms for Liberty, come as local school boards face threats, tense public comment sessions, and protests.
Up-ballot candidates in gubernatorial, congressional, and presidential races have seized on issues like schools’ COVID-19 precautions, policies related to transgender students, and restrictions on how educators discuss race and sexuality as part of their broader political messaging.
Conservative political action committees poured millions into local school board races around the country in 2022. And politicians like DeSantis have taken the unusual step of making endorsements in dozens of local races.
Some say partisan election bills would add fuel to the fire.
“Partisan politics are a distraction,” the Texas Association of School Boards wrote in opposition to a bill that would require party labels for school board candidates. “School boards should be focused on students, not the controversies of the day.”
Few states have partisan school board races
State laws in Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania already require partisan school board races, according to Ballotpedia, a website that tracks election laws.
Laws in four other states—Georgia, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and South Carolina—allow for some partisan school board races.
In North Carolina, state lawmakers have voted one-by-one to make school board elections partisan in certain districts; 42 of the state’s 115 school systems now have partisan elections, according to local NPR station WFAE. Lawmakers who pushed for such changes pointed to counties that voted for President Donald Trump in the 2020 election while also electing Democratic school board members whose affiliations weren’t listed on the ballot. The results may have been different with listed party identifications, they said.
Nonpartisan local elections, including those for school board, are part of early 20th century Progressive Era political reforms meant to counter the influence of powerful political machines, said Jeff Henig, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who focuses on education and politics.
“The idea was that there’s no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street,” Henig said. “You want neutral expertise and knowledge applied to governance.”
Even then, some argued that efforts to fence off local decision-making from party politics were insincere or insufficient, he said.
The trickling down of national debates on identity, race, and gender has also shifted a focus away from pure policy. In the past, many big education debates over issues like charter schools, testing, and school improvement didn’t split evenly along party lines. But that has shifted as topics like critical race theory animate larger political debates, leading politicians to champion positions on education issues, Henig said.
“Historically, education politics has been separated from general politics and buffered into school-specific decision making bodies,” he said. “That’s been eroding.”
Voters in school board races are often closely affected by decisions like district attendance boundaries, facilities plans, and schedules, issues that aren’t necessarily partisan. And polls show that voters are typically more satisfied with their own local school system than with the U.S. education system in general.
But efforts to draw national political issues into local races could shift who votes—and who they vote for, Henig said.
“Right now I think it’s fair to say that what’s driving this is not a grassroots demand,” he said. “It’s national groups that are looking at local communities and see governance change as a tool for leveraging political change.”