All around America, debates over race-related classroom curriculum and pandemic health measures in schools have turned school board meetings into culture-war battle zones. The last thing these already-heated forums need is a splash of gasoline in the form of partisan politics. And yet lawmakers in Missouri and elsewhere are suggesting exactly that, with legislation that would politicize what are usually nonpartisan school board elections.
Whether these proposals (mostly from the political right) are intended to torque up the conflict, or are something less sinister, they certainly aren’t in keeping with traditional conservative respect for local control of education.
Politico reports that Tennessee has already moved to make its school board elections partisan, with other red states like Arizona and Florida poised to follow suit this year. Proponents are often blunt about their motives: to make it easier to stack school boards with members who will toe the GOP line on hot-button issues like teaching race-related curriculum and resisting pandemic restrictions.
One Florida Republican legislator told Politico: “We’re out there trying to elect good conservatives that will follow essentially the governor’s mission as it relates to education.” In Gov. Ron DeSantis’ case, that mission has included trying to prevent schools from setting their own mask policies and making their own decisions on how to address racial issues in their curriculums. It’s all part of a new Republican orthodoxy that casts aside the party’s once-fervent opposition to centralized government bigfooting into local decision-making. These days, pandering to the base comes first.
In Missouri, some state Republican lawmakers are trying to get in on the act with legislation to require that all municipal and school district candidates declare what party (if any) they are with. “I just think that voters have a right to know if they’re going to elect school board members or city council members who are maybe particularly conservative, or may be more liberal or progressive,” the sponsor, Rep. Bruce Sassmann, R-Bland, told the Post-Dispatch.
That rationale might work for some political races, but school boards are (or at least should be) different because board members’ jobs are different. The goal should be to raise public education above partisan politics.
The Missouri School Boards Association opposes making school board elections partisan. The group’s executive director, Melissa Randol, told the Post-Dispatch’s Jack Suntrup that Missourians “have historically gone to great lengths to protect the governance of our children from partisan politics. Missourians have wanted our focus to be on children, not a partisan platform.”
Schools aren’t there to promote ideological agendas but to educate children. The informal politicization of school board meetings lately by those intent on dragging them into the culture wars has already made that job difficult. Formalizing that politicization with partisan labels would make it more so.