Today, millions of voters will go to the polls and see state and local school board candidates on their ballots. We know that turnout for school board elections is pathetically low. A recent state school board election in Arkansas only managed to turn out 2 percent of the state’s registered voters. Two percent! Reasons voters give for failing to vote for school board candidates include not having enough information about them or thinking that the election is not particularly important — that it won’t really affect their lives.
Though most people pay little attention to these races and cannot name their elected state school board representatives or even their local school board members, these board members often play a vital role in implementing education laws passed by the legislature and creating policies that can affect every child who attends public school. In Ohio, the State Board of Education is charged with writing the regulations to enforce the new Common Core standards and the state-mandated testing that goes along with the standards. They also administer the regulations for private schools, charter schools, and homeschools. They even have the power to radically change the homeschooling regulations without involving the legislature. Yet a large number of Ohioans don’t vote in these elections and don’t pay any attention to what the board does.
Likewise with local school board elections, many people are uninformed about the candidates and their views. Your local school board decides how the money your district collects for the schools is spent. Is the board stacked with union hacks? Many — if not most — of them are. State and local teachers unions spend a boatload of money to maintain control of school boards. Union-controlled board members will likely happily give in to union demands at contract time and tell the football team to take a hike when the money runs out. They know the voters will usually cave in and vote for a school levy if they make the kids and parent feel the pain by cutting out sports and busing. They know most voters won’t bother to read the union contracts to find out about the Cadillac benefit plans the teachers enjoy (with no co-pays or deductibles on their health insurance and 100% employer-funded pension plans). It’s for the children, they’ll cry, as they hold out their tin cups and beg beleaguered taxpayers for more money.
Since most school board elections are nonpartisan, it’s often difficult to discern which side of important issues candidates are on. Your local newspaper probably won’t report if a candidate is a union plant, a rabid anti-school choice zealot, or a vocal homeschooling opponent. Most candidates read their talking-point twaddle when the newspaper calls to interview them. “I believe that strong schools make our community better,” they intone. You’ll rarely hear them saying they want to raise your taxes or run the charter school out of town when they’re running for office. You won’t know until after they’re elected that they’re zero-tolerance zealots who will turn your child over to the county prosecutor when he chews his peanut butter and jelly sandwich into the shape of an assault rifle. These are important questions that are rarely asked, because we’re told the important things are vague notions about “great schools” and “property values.” We’re lulled into thinking that everything will work out OK as long as the candidates support “strong schools,” whatever that means.
While we spend a lot time, money, and bandwidth worrying about Congress and the next president, we underestimate the enormous amount of control school boards have over our lives and the education of our children. In Ohio, we have an organization called Ohioans for Educational Freedom that focuses on informing people about education issues. They have a PAC that works to elect conservative state school board candidates and was integral in electing several in the last election. In the 2010 State Board of Education election, a conservative board member was elected by a mere 2300 votes out of 239,000 cast in her district. The margin between the top two candidates — the second place candidate was heavily funded by the unions — was 1 percent. The Ohioans for Educational Freedom website received nearly 2 million hits during that election season, mobilizing homeschoolers and other supporters of school choice to elect a candidate who supported their educational philosophy by educating them about the views of the candidates in that district.
We need more focused groups like Ohioans for Educational Freedom and we need to expand their reach. They need our financial support and grassroots help to elect good candidates who support conservative principles in education.
As a voter, it’s imperative that you learn about the candidates who will rule over your family from these state and local boards and that you choose wisely on election day. If you don’t have a group you trust that vets the candidates, get their phone numbers from your local board of elections and call them. It can be completely awkward — I’ve done it — but afterward you will have a better understanding of where they stand on the issues that are important to you. In the process, you will have the opportunity to voice your opinions and begin to build a relationship with the potential new board member. And you may be surprised to find a candidate who shares your views and welcomes your input and help in his election and afterward, during his term in office.
Ultimately, school board elections, while often ignored and disregarded, will be among the most important you will see on your ballot on Tuesday. Don’t waste your franchise by voting present.