Partisanship has long been divorced from most school elections in the United States.
In fact, all school board elections in Missouri are nonpartisan, according to Kelli Hopkins, a director of education policy for the Missouri School Boards Association. Board candidates don’t run as Republicans or Democrats.
Theoretical papers argue that nonpartisan school board members are beholden to all citizens, not just those of a particular party, and that without partisanship there’s a wide variety of candidate choice — not just Republicans and Democrats.
To even further divorce all school elections from partisanship, districts rarely hold elections in November. Many elections run in February, April, June, or August, but most often in April — a month least linked with partisan elections.
“The separation of school board elections from general elections was a deliberate attempt by Progressive-era reformers to reduce partisan influence in the school election process,” write Ann Allen and David Plank in a 2005 paper for the Politics of Education Association.
Still, there is controversy surrounding both the timing of school elections and school board candidate partisanship. Some have argued that partisan school board elections would bring up lagging turnout. Others, that holding school elections in November would do the same. The question is, is it worth it?
These arguments have some serious implications for school district governance. But would partisanship or November school elections do what advocates say? Would turnout increase dramatically?
Right now, I can only comment on the timing.
If we look at school elections held in April and those on the ballot in November, the difference in turnout is often startling. And, from what I’ve seen, November school elections always have higher turnout than those in April.
The Lathrop R-2 School District put bond issues on the ballot, once in November 2000, once in April 2006. The bond amounts were $4,300,000 and $7,350,000, respectively. So it would seem that the April bond issue, with a significantly higher dollar amount, would garner the most attention.
In fact, turnout in the April election was 39.04 percent, while in November it was 81.94 percent, more than double the April turnout.
Some caveats: this definitely falls into the realm of the anecdotal, and it is likely most instances are less dramatic, as with Clinton 124 School District, where turnout for a bond issue in April 2000 was 31.38 percent, as opposed to 54.58 percent for one in November 2002.
It could be that voting in the school race was incidental only. More people vote in national elections, so there are more potential voters at the polls.
Regardless, turnout increases in school elections when they are held in conjunction with more high-profile elections. Whether this actually captures voter interest or merely highlights irresponsible, uninformed voting is debateable. But if the goal is higher turnout, here’s at least one avenue to further explore.