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Election Day is less than two months away—but one key race won’t be on most ballots. They’re school board elections, and that’s a big problem for families nationwide.
In 37 states, school board elections aren’t held in conjunction with statewide or national elections. This strange system was deliberately created to give special interests an advantage, since voter turnout is much lower at other times of the year. That’s especially concerning at a time when parents are demanding greater control over their kids’ education. For the sake of democracy and accountability, states should move these critical elections to coincide with regular election days.
If you’re wondering when your school board elections are, chances are it’s when you least expect it. That’s why, in state after state, hardly anyone shows up to vote.
Consider Missouri. According to new research from our organization, in recent school board elections for the 15 largest school districts, a mere 14 percent of voters showed up. That’s compared to 77 percent turnout in the 2020 general election. It’s a similar story in neighboring Illinois, where 15 percent of voters turned out for school board elections, whereas 73 percent showed up to vote for president. A similar trend has played out from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to Idaho and Montana, among many others.
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Voters may not be mobilized, but others are. When parents don’t turn out, they often end up with school board members who don’t reflect their values. Worse, the election winners are more likely to be special interests who don’t fight for students’ needs.
There’s strong evidence that interest groups deliberately pushed for the current system. Why? Because they knew that lower turnout would benefit them. University of California-Berkeley scholar Sarah Anzia has shown how early progressives sought to effectively disenfranchise voters who didn’t share their views by moving local elections off cycle. They especially wanted to keep immigrants and low-income people from showing up to vote.
A hundred years later, teachers’ unions are making the most of this unfair and borderline undemocratic system. They face fewer hurdles to victory, which helps explain why union-backed candidates win about 70 percent of competitive school board races.
One way to blunt that edge is by putting hot-button issues at the center of elections, like some states are doing with things like critical race theory. Parents have more reason to vote when they fear their children aren’t learning the fundamentals of education, such as reading, writing, and math. Yet long-term, the best way to limit the power of special interests and ensure representative elections is by permanently increasing turnout. That requires connecting school board elections to statewide elections.
Some states prove that a switch is possible and beneficial for democracy. A 2006 Texas law moved about a fifth of school board elections to the same day as national elections. The result? The Lone Star State has increased turnout and diminished teachers’ union power.
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Florida is another good example of school board elections done right. It holds them in conjunction with statewide races, including primaries for national offices like the U.S. Senate and the House. That led to much higher turnout in elections last month, compared to the off-cycle elections that happen elsewhere. Conservatives won at least 20 out of 30 races (several more went to runoffs) and no fewer than five school boards flipped from liberal to conservative, most notably in the heavily populated Miami Dade, Sarasota, and Duval counties, the latter of which includes Jacksonville. Since turnout was higher, the elections more accurately reflected the will of the people.
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Other states should follow suit. The timing of an election is the single biggest predictor of voter turnout, and states should encourage as many people as possible to show up at the polls. At the very least, states should ensure that school board elections fall on the same day as statewide races, like Florida. It would be even better if they happened on the main election day in a given year, including midterms and presidential races. That’s when Florida’s school board runoff elections will happen this year.
The most important elections should be held on the most obvious election days. The result would be higher turnout, less manipulation by special interests, and more trust in election outcomes. That’s worth remembering when you show up this November only to find you can’t vote in one of the races that most affects your family.
Tarren Bragdon is CEO of the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountability.
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