Sixty-five percent. If you get it on a test, you’re barely scraping by. If you get it as turnout in a presidential election, you’re thrilled.
In fact, Missouri’s average county turnout in the 2004 presidential election was just about that — 65.12 percent. But that’s in the highest-profile election in the United States. So, what happens in local school board elections? Well, obviously, turnout dips. Or plummets.
In a June 2008 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 83 percent of Americans said that education was either ‘extremely important’ or ‘very important’ to them in making their decision on who to vote for this November.
If education is so important to so many people, selecting the president is just step one, right? We should expect to see high turnout in local elections, too, because it’s those elections in which voters ostensibly have the most direct influence on their own local education policy.
In Missouri school districts, at least, the exact opposite is true.
I have collected district-level turnout percentages for 30 Missouri counties, which includes more than 150 school districts (though not all of those are majority districts in the county). Average turnout in Missouri school board elections (in my sample): 16.91 percent. Now, that’s failing the test. And far from thrilling.
Bates County had the highest turnout in my sample across its six districts, at an average of 26.76 percent. The lowest? Douglas County’s 7.87-percent average across its five districts.
I’m not calling out Douglas County or praising Bates. Both figures are low. So, does that mean that Missourians don’t think education is ‘extremely important’ or ‘very important’? Of course not. It means that people talk big and fail to act. People get busy. They live their lives, and they manage to stir themselves in November because the stakes are high.
What they fail to realize is that the stakes are high in April, too. After all, their votes are much more likely to count in a school election with 17-percent turnout than in a national one. And what they’re influencing is incredibly important.
Voting in local school elections won’t drive national education policy, of course, but it will affect community education decisions. Who is the superintendent? How much is he paid? Where will local dollars be spent, and what will they accomplish?
Voters have a say in this. They choose school board members, and board members make those decisions. It’s time they start treating these issues on the local level as they do on the national level — as if they were “extremely important.”