Tennessee lawmakers are considering a major change to school board elections. If passed, legislation in the state’s House of Representatives would require localities to schedule school board elections on the dates of the federal primary and general elections in August and November, respectively, and to eliminate staggered terms. Moving school board elections to coincide with major federal elections will boost voter participation in these critical contests, which shape the course of localities’ educational offerings and students’ future prospects.

School board elections have serious consequences for local communities and the integrity of American education. Yet only 13 states mandate that localities conduct school board elections on-cycle—in November of even-numbered years, when voters cast their ballots for Congress, most state elected officials, and/or the U.S. president. The remaining 36 states with elected school boards either host their elections in off-cycle years or let local governments decide when to hold them.

States that hold off-cycle school board elections see abysmal voter turnout. Across ten states that host only off-cycle school board elections, the average turnout in the 2020 presidential election was 77 percent, compared with just 23 percent in school board elections. In other words, more than three times more voters cast ballots in an on-cycle election than an off-cycle one. Considering how “quality of public K-12 schools” ranks among Americans’ top ten issues, states ought to treat school board races like the other elections that address voters’ most important concerns.

Of course, certain groups have an interest in depressing school board election turnout and maintaining the status quo. Special-interest groups such as teachers’ unions have significant influence in school board races, with union-backed candidates winning seven out of ten competitive contests. These groups spend large sums to advance their causes; teachers’ unions in California, for example, spent at least $2.8 million on school board races in 2022 alone. Teachers’ unions want to maintain this influence, and keeping school board elections off-cycle helps them do so. In 2011, Michigan moved its school board elections on-cycle, despite fierce opposition from the Michigan Education Association. One year later, some districts had more than 60 percent voter turnout, compared with under 10 percent in the years prior to the legislation’s enactment.

States that defer to unions’ preference for off-cycle elections elevate special interests over student success. The outcomes of school board elections—especially whether union-backed candidates prevail over their grassroots rivals—materially affect educational quality. As the Manhattan Institute’s Michael Hartney noted, for example, districts where teachers’ unions were “very active in electioneering were the least likely to receive significant in-person instruction during” the Covid-19 pandemic, a period that saw K-12 reading and math scores decline significantly. Union-backed school board members often fail to act in students’ best interest.

Off-cycle-voting advocates argue that treating school board elections similarly to federal elections will politicize school boards, but such boards have been political for some time. Similarly, advocates insist that moving school board elections on cycle makes them vulnerable to “down-ballot voting,” where voters simply vote party lines without specifically considering the candidates for each office. Research has found little evidence to support this argument, however, as voters often distinguish between federal and local issues on their ballots. Moreover, voters across the political spectrum think the reform is a good idea. A recent poll shows that 80 percent of likely voters support on-cycle school board elections. Backing is nearly even across party lines, with 82 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Republicans, and 78 percent of Independents in favor, respectively.

Special interests and bureaucrats defend off-cycle school board elections because they want to suppress citizens’ voices. Moving these elections to coincide with other major elections will empower more voters to make institutional changes in education. Parents and taxpayers deserve a say in how their schools are governed. States like Tennessee are pushing back on union dominance of school board elections. More states should follow their lead.

Photo: Blaise Hayward/DigitalVision via Getty Images


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