It’s election season. And if you live in North Carolina you might think the only elections are those for president, U.S. Senate and governor. Fever pitch campaigns for those races have made voters weary and given them even less time than normal to focus on important down ballot local races like those for school board.
Depending on how you count, North Carolina has about 115 school boards and about 800 school board members. Many of those races are on the ballot this November. Since school board races generally don’t attract notoriety or money for radio or TV ads, many school board candidates remain largely unknown to local voters.
Historically, conservatives have not been as vocal about down ballot races. That’s a mistake. Education is often the largest expenditure for state and local government. Local school board members not only make budget and policy decisions that impact the day-to-day operations of how our schools are financed and administered but also how our children are educated. Few local positions are as consequential.
Now more than ever, we need conservatives who are actively engaged and informed about how local schools are run. Sections 36 and 47 of Chapter 115C-36 of the North Carolina state statutes lay out the powers and duties of school boards. Generally speaking, board members set education policy consistent with the state’s education program, make decisions about the superintendent’s personnel recommendations, manage financial affairs and work to ensure schools have adequate facilities.
You can make a compelling argument that the decisions school board members make may be more far-reaching and significant than many statewide offices. So why are these down ballot races often skipped and forgotten by voters altogether? Some voters may be scared off by boards that are largely controlled by organizations at odds with the interests of parents, children or taxpayers.
Education is frequently a top issue among voters at the state and national levels. However, it seems voters don’t give the races the attention they deserve.
According to Ballotpedia, studies of America’s 1,000 largest school districts found that between 32 and 36 percent of elections were unopposed each year. Between 58-62 percent of incumbents won seats each year and between 81-83 percent of incumbents who sought re-election each year won. Data on the percentage of North Carolina races were unopposed is not readily available. However, there are no reasons to believe it’s much different than the national percentages.
However, there are other reasons why conservatives should be actively involved in school board elections. One of the most important reasons relates to the fundamental questions that the educational process seeks to answer: how should we live? What values will we embrace? How should we live together? Education is an inherently philosophical and political activity. If conservatives are truly concerned about influencing society, they must get serious about getting educated and involved with institutions that shape the next generation.
Some think conservatives have stayed out of school board races because of a history of school board elections being nonpartisan. Many Democrats and progressives have fought Republican efforts to make school board elections non-partisan. They contend partisanship is a bad idea. Such ideas are usually put forward by those who adhere to the naïve idea that schools are all one big happy family with no disagreements. The nonpartisan argument is problematic for several reasons.
School boards have already embraced political advocacy. Seven years ago, The North Carolina Association of School Boards created the NC Carolina School Boards Action Center , an organization that can engage in political activity to defend its interests and promote its agenda. There are many problems with this arrangement. For starters, why should local school boards use tax dollars to fund an organization’s political agenda, much less one that is unpopular with many?
Remember, the warm fuzzy idea of non-partisanship is itself a partisan idea. The fact is people have different ideas about how to improve education and how to run schools. Showing that those views sometimes align with political parties is a good thing and a way of helping voters be more educated about the likely positions of school board members or candidates. It‘s also a better way of helping voters than merely letting individuals find out about candidates on their own.
If school board members are the elected officials who are responsible for our schools, where is the outrage over the poor performance of our students? Only 30 percent of public-school students in grades 3 through 8 tested proficient or above in both math and English in 2018-19 – and the percentages for minorities are even lower. In what other field are leaders kept on when such a high percentage of students fail to meet performance marks?
The lack of focused outrage might be evidence of what many believe: the average North Carolinian doesn’t understand how schools are run or financed or who controls public education in North Carolina. About two-thirds of a district’s funds come from the state, another quarter from the county and about 10 percent from the federal government. All but a few school districts are prohibited from raising taxes. A fact which creates a lot of misunderstanding and leads to much finger pointing – and favors the status quo.
Our nation was built on the principle of self-governance and government that was small, limited and close to the people. Our public schools should be the model for how self-governance works. It hasn’t. The activism of progressives and social liberals and the lure of federal funding has significantly eroded the principle of local control, to the detriment of students, families and taxpayers. If we hope to correct these mistakes and restore balance to our schools, conservatives must embrace these challenges, point out the failures of the conventional wisdom and offer a better way. When we do, we will make our schools better and our votes count.