School lockdowns spurred parents to participate in local school board politics to an unprecedented degree. In response, the education establishment is crying foul. But despite their apparently sober-minded concerns about the “politicization” of public schools, the establishment’s objections suggest fear of losing its long-held power.
That much was clear in the reaction to Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s endorsement of 30 school board candidates statewide. Apparently, by giving voters more information about where candidates stood on the issues, DeSantis was politicizing education. One columnist even called the move “a little scary,” asking, “wouldn’t we rather have candidates who commit to serving our children and local taxpayers/communities first, rather than the governor?”
Where were these critics for the past several decades, when teachers’ unions dominated the nation’s local school board elections? A recent analysis that I conducted, tracking the performance of nearly 5,000 union-endorsed candidates who ran for school board seats in California, New York, and Florida shows that the unions have long been the 800-pound gorilla in these elections.
Four patterns stand out. First, union-endorsed candidates win roughly 70 percent of all competitive school board races. Second, union support helps both incumbents and challengers, offering a greater electoral advantage than does incumbency. Third, union-friendly candidates tend to win in both strong (California, New York) and weak (Florida) union states, as well as in conservative and liberal school districts. Fourth, union endorsements can propel losing candidates to victory. In general, unions are kingmakers in these elections: rewarding allies and abandoning foes, shaping the composition of the nation’s school boards to their liking.
A political system that allows one special-interest group to dominate low-turnout, low-information elections isn’t a model of robust democracy. For all the talk in progressive circles about political inequality and citizen participation, few mention this power disparity in school districts. If calls against politicizing education were genuine, surely progressives would have something to say about stealth school board elections in which seven in ten winners come with the teachers’-union seal of approval. But these complaints aren’t about democracy—they’re a gambit to maintain political power.
Seeing through this hypocrisy, DeSantis used his bully pulpit to challenge the unions’ longstanding monopoly in his state’s school board elections this year. It worked: in the 19 elections where one of the governor’s candidates went head-to-head with a union-backed opponent, the unions won just four races (and advanced to a general-election runoff in just three). In previous elections, union-favored candidates won more than 70 percent of the time when they made an endorsement in these districts. By contrast, in districts where DeSantis got involved, the best outcome for Florida teachers’ unions in 2022 would be a 40 percent win rate. No wonder the education establishment has gotten cold feet about new players and a more transparent information environment for voters.
Is the new focus on school board elections worsening partisan polarization in education? Hardly. This allegation conveniently omits to mention how teachers’ unions give most of their political contributions to Democrats and progressive causes, making their control over school boards anything but nonpartisan. By making it easier for citizens to choose candidates whose values align with their own, partisan endorsements such as DeSantis’s help level the playing field. In Pennsylvania, where school board elections provide party cues, nearly 60 percent of parents’-rights candidates won their races in 2021.
Complaints that the Right is nationalizing school board elections are also problematic. By taking money from right-wing donors, critics say, parents’-rights groups are “going outside their lane.” This complaint could just as easily be made of teachers’ unions, who have long lobbied and been active on issues that extend far beyond the domain of education policy. Yet suddenly angst is building on the Left about parent activists coordinating with national groups and taking positions on non-education issues.
Teachers’ unions aren’t likely to get knocked from their perch atop the education landscape anytime soon, but signs of their waning dominance have them scrambling. Attacks against parent-led disruptions aren’t about principles. They’re expressions of the anxiety that newly engaged American families and their elected representatives have begun to provoke in union circles.
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