Republican legislators said their goal was to “take politics out of education” when they voted in 2017 to replace Indiana’s elected superintendent of public instruction with an appointed state education leader. Now those same folks are poised to put politics back into education at the local level.
Expect the Indiana General Assembly to seriously consider legislation to make local school board elections partisan in its 2022 session, which starts in January and ends in March.
“I’ve heard there are more than a handful of legislators that support or intend to file bills of this nature,” Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, told me. “I think there is certainly going to be a bill that moves.”
Reportedly some GOP lawmakers were already talking about this idea in the spring, during the final weeks of the 2021 legislative session. But it gained momentum over the summer and fall as school board meetings became hotbeds of conflict over race, COVID-19 precautions and other issues.
The school boards association opposes shifting to partisan elections. Spradlin said one worry is that it could reinforce the recent trend of citizens disrupting school board meetings, harassing board members and shouting down school officials, board members and teachers.
“There’s certainly a politically charged climate,” he said, “and these folks are responding to political agendas being pushed out there by certain organizations and groups.”
Indiana is one of 43 states where local school board elections are nonpartisan, according to data collected by the school boards association. (Eleven of Indiana’s 290 districts have appointed boards). Only three states, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, have partisan elections. North Carolina and Georgia have a mix of partisan and nonpartisan contests.
The Indiana School Boards Association supports nonpartisan board elections in its foundational statements. “School board elections should be based on local educational needs and solutions, not political affiliation,” it says. “Candidates should be elected for their qualifications and their commitment to student success, without regard to political party allegiance.”
There are multiple reasons that electing school board members as Democrats or Republicans is a bad idea, said Spradlin, who has been working behind the scenes to counter the idea.
“We ask board members in our organization to leave partisan and petty politics at the boardroom door … and to come with the mindset of doing what’s best for kids,” he said. “We don’t want them to come with the mindset that, first and foremost, their allegiance is to the county chair or the state party platform.”
Another concern: Partisan elections could drive away school board candidates who aren’t political. The pool of candidates can be narrow enough as it is. State law has capped board member salaries at $2,000 a year since 1987. Some districts add per-diem pay, but even with that, board members might make $4,000 for a time-consuming and increasingly thankless job.
Two arguments for partisan elections could be made in something like good faith. One is that voters often don’t know much about board candidates, and a political label would provide some information. The other is that many voters ignore school elections, and partisan elections would boost turnout.
The problem with the first argument is that party affiliation tells us almost nothing about how a candidate would behave as a school board member. The problem with the second is that higher turnout wouldn’t be positive if it resulted from straight-party voting.
I covered local school board meetings for years as a newspaper reporter, and I can recall very few occasions when party affiliation seemed to matter. There were controversies and conflicts — over budget priorities, school attendance areas, special-education policy, bus contracts and other matters — but none of those played out as Democratic vs. Republican divisions.
Most of what school boards do, while important, would seem boring and routine to most people. This year’s meeting disruptions have made it seem like boards are constantly debating so-called critical race theory, controversial books in the library, bathroom policies for transgender students and so on. Those topics might come up under the board’s duty to set policy, but it’s rare.
But it’s not surprising that Indiana’s GOP supermajority wants to pull school boards into the partisan battlefield. Seen through a political lens, ginning up outrage at school boards has little to do with education policy and a lot to do with energizing the base and winning back the suburbs, which have begun to shift Democratic.
In Indiana’s Hamilton County, for example, long a Republican stronghold, only 37% of voters went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but almost 46% voted for Joe Biden in 2020. Maybe it’s no accident that some of the loudest and most disruptive school board protests have been staged in that county.