The Critical Importance of School Board Elections
There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.Paulo Freire, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”
I live in California and my mail-in ballot is pages and pages long. Like all states, we have candidates and, of course, like Colorado and 24 other states, we also decide a lot of public policy and tax issues by ballot proposition. I try to do my due diligence for all of it — looking up what the League of Women Voters says, who and what the Progressive Caucus or the newspaper have endorsed, discussing with friends and then marking my ballot.
I am embarrassed to say that until a few years ago, I often did not take much care with the school board candidates. I don’t have children and sometimes could not get in touch with friends who had children. It often seemed to me that the differences between the candidates were relatively minor or were things I had no idea how to think about.
But then I did some research. I found out there are about 13,800 public school districts in the United States. These districts collectively educate approximately 55.2 million students. Yet, school board elections often get a dismal 5-10% voter turnout and many school board seats are either uncontested or not filled at all. My lack of interest mirrors the population at large, even though I would say quality of public education is a high priority for me and most Americans.
The right wing has seen their chance with school board elections. Steve Bannon, advisor to Trump, said in a podcast which aired in May, “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.” Bannon’s version of what ‘saves’ our nation is my version of Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell, but his insight that school boards determine a great deal of our future cannot be denied. The far-right fringe, QAnon, has made school board elections a critical focus of their work, with the sense that school board elections can ripple up even to governor’s races.
So now I pay a great deal of attention to who is running for the school board and I vote carefully in that part of the ballot. Here is why. A school board represents the community’s voice in public education. School boards are supposed to ensure that students get the best education they can for the money that is being spent, and determine, among other things, the superintendent, the budget and if students and teachers are using facilities adequately. School boards can determine whether the history of racism (so called critical race theory) is taught or not, when mask mandates are in place, whether LGBTQ students feel welcome in a school district and whether books are banned.
The 55 million students in our public school system are tomorrow’s voters. They are the future of healthcare, technology, education and finance. They deserve an education that encourages them to think for themselves, to read widely, to discuss ideas with a wide variety of people and to prepare to become adults who can navigate our country and our world through the trials that face us now and the almost unimaginable challenges the future holds for them. These students are not pawns in a game of power or an ideological battle for control. So join me in this upcoming election to study school board candidates closely. Look at who endorses them, where they get their money and what they stand for. Ask students and parents about the quality of the schools in your district and what would make them better. Attend debates and ask questions at fundraisers for school board candidates. I come late in the game to the realization that our future depends as much on who is on the school board as who is in the White House.