Spring into Action on School Board Reform
With apologies to T. S. Eliot, April is the coolest month. In Missouri, the fish are jumping, the dogwoods are blooming, and major league baseball fans are looking forward to another Opening Day.
April also means school board elections. It would be nice to think that this annual rite of spring would renew and refresh our public schools in the same way that nature restocks our streams and repaints our forest, but this isn’t the case. To proponents of school reform, April really is the cruelest month.
Rather than healthy change and renewal, school board elections will come and go with minimal disturbance to the education establishment in school districts across the state. The system, as it is now, invites apathy and increased union control, perpetuating long-standing problems.
For starters, voter turnout in school board elections is extremely low. In Greene County, for example, only 12 percent of eligible voters made it to the polls in 2013, despite multiple school districts holding elections.
Additionally, parents and taxpayers know very little about the candidates.
While a candidate’s occupation, age, and education may be available—information regarding a candidate’s stance on key education issues is harder to acquire.
With so few people paying attention and so little information disseminated, special interest groups—such as teachers’ unions—can have a disproportionate impact on these elections. While it’s unclear how large a role special interest groups have played in Missouri public school board elections, the danger is that unions are taking bites out of both sides of the apple—campaigning for candidates, then negotiating with union-friendly board members during closed sessions.
Historically, Missouri opted for a system aimed at keeping partisan politics out of school board elections, choosing a month to hold elections in which voters would not be burdened by having to make other electoral choices.
Fifty years ago, this way of thinking may have made some sense, but it makes no sense today. It is time for a complete overhaul of a badly antiquated system.
Here are three suggested reforms.
First, Missouri should move school board elections to coincide with other local, state, and national elections. Scheduling elections in November would assure far greater voter participation. In comparison to April, turnout in the 2012 general election in Greene County was 64 percent.
Second, Missouri should close the loophole in our Sunshine Law that allows school board members to negotiate with teachers’ unions in closed sessions. Taxpayers have a right to know what demands unions are making.
Third, public officials should push for the dissemination of more information during school board elections. Candidates should be encouraged to state their positions on important issues.
Missouri’s system of local public school control is precious, but to ensure that the interests of taxpayers and students are protected, it requires not just reform, but rebirth.
Brittany Wagner is a research assistant at the Show-Me Institute.