Politics playing bigger role in school board elections

Politics

(NewsNation) — For years public school board elections have mostly kept out of divisive politics. But after controversial issues like Common Core, COVID and issues involving sex, race and gender, many parents in America are eager to elect school board members who better align with their own personal values.

In a recent NewsNation/Decision Desk HQ poll, just over 90% of respondents say that parents should at least have some control over their children’s public school curriculum.

This year, Tennessee is getting a chance to explore how electing a school board based on party affiliations can impact public education.

For the first time, voters in Williamson County, Tennessee, south of Nashville, will now see school board candidates listed on the ballot with party affiliations.

Last year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a bill allowing political parties to nominate candidates for school board races, which were previously nonpartisan elections.

Cassie Rose, a Tennessee mom of two, said the new law allowing school board candidates to designate a political party is making her once-quiet school board meetings more intense.

“Now, there’s a side whereas before, it was like, these were our kids, these were our schools, this was something that we could all work on together,” she said. “I mean, it really just has flattened the conversation into like, a right-versus-left conversation.”

Rose isn’t alone with her concerns; some school board members are worried too.

“I don’t want to put an R or a D, or anything else, between me and my relationship with my teachers and my students and my families,” said Nancy Garrett, chair of Williamson County School Board.

According to the Tennessee Secretary of State, since the bill was signed into law in Nov. 2021, 61 Tennessee counties have opted for partisan elections.

Williamson County, where Garrett has been on the school board since 2016, is now one of those counties. She had never declared a party — until now — and decided to run as an Independent candidate.

“Everybody sends their hopes and dreams to public schools and we love all children and we serve all children, and there’s no other way for me,” Garrett said. “Nonpartisan public services is the way for me.”

Tennessee isn’t the only state where partisan school board elections are on the docket.

In Flordia, school boards are nonpartisan positions. There are no political affiliations listed on the ballot. But Florida lawmakers recently sponsored a bill that would have allowed the Sunshine State to have partisan elections.

That bill died in subcommittee in March, but some leaders are still fighting for it.

“We do that with every other race. And again, to me, it comes back to transparency, this issue about giving a voter as much information as you can about a candidate,” said Republican Florida state Rep. Spencer Roach. “And something that I think we should bring back and look at doing again”

Since the pandemic, when so many school districts across the country were forced to make varying and sometimes controversial decisions — like how long their schools would be remote, if masks and vaccines were required, and what types of subjects should be taught — education has come to the forefront of many political discussions.

“I think that these sort of radical school boards that we saw during COVID have awakened the largest and most powerful interest group in American politics. And that’s parents,” Roach said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist both recently released lists of school board candidates they support. No party affiliations were revealed for those selections but both DeSantis and Crist said their selections shared similar views.

In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Younkin won the historically blue state while sympathizing with some parents’ frustrations over COVID protocols in schools.

Some parents NewsNation spoke to, however, are still uncomfortable with the idea of partisan school board elections.

“Do it in Washington, that’s totally fine,” Rose said. “I mean, do it in other places, you know, But when you start talking about our schools and our children, like, that crosses a line with me, and yes, I do find that terrifying.”

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