School board elections could make (or break) our democracy

by Julie Marsh, Pedro Noguera and Miguel Casar Rodriguez

School boards across America are under attack. We have all seen the disruptions at school board meetings triggered by clashes over controversial policies regarding the teaching of race and racism, ethnic and gender studies and LGBTQ+ inclusion. What we may not have noticed, however, is that these attacks are not only about school boards, but about public education as a whole.

These disruptions are much more than concerned parents advocating for what’s best for their children. Instead, it is part of a strategic and deliberate — and well-funded — effort to erode public schools in order to advance a much broader political agenda. Initially tapping into parent frustration over school closures and mask mandates, political agitators have targeted school boards, and in several cases, the schools and educators who serve in them, to mobilize their base.

In a country that prides itself on being a beacon of free thought and democracy, growing assaults on the teaching of history, book bans and the criminalization and surveillance of teachers are a threat to both. School boards have become a key political battleground. As former Trump adviser Steve Bannon called out in early 2021, “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.”

Local control and governance through elected school boards has long been criticized because of what they have contributed to gross inequity in school funding. But this model can also lead to greater community engagement with schools if people approach them with that spirit. In our own research, more than two-thirds of California voters — 73% of voters with children and 69% of those without children — agreed that “local school boards are important because they ensure that decisions about education are made close to those who will be affected by them.”

We know that politics is often a dirty business. And when politics becomes a struggle for power at all costs and schools are disrupted, children lose. And let’s be clear: more often than not, these agitators are not parents of children in the schools they disrupt. A recent national poll showed that 76% of parents support the schools their children attend.

The disruptions are taking a toll on an already burdened school system. Personal threats and attacks are resulting in resignations and turnover. They also dampen community participation in the democratic process and reduce the interest of potential educators in joining the profession and leading schools. Most importantly, precious time is taken away from what should be at the center: students.

In November, communities in 17 states will hold school board elections. Typically, these off-cycle elections rarely see turnouts of more than 10% of eligible voters. But this time, these elections will be massively consequential. Those who participate — along with the powerful interests backing candidates — will have a disproportionately large amount of power over the lives of American children, as well as the future of public schools and our democracy writ large.

Democracy takes work, and without participation from those who believe in the value and importance of public education, it will fall apart. Moreover, if we give up our power, there are others who will claim it.

Rather than give up because of the rancor, let’s reclaim school boards and engage with them. As voters, we encourage you to:

  • Find out more. Board meetings are open and generally livestreamed or recorded. Look into what is on the monthly board agenda. When there are protests, look into who the individuals are and who is providing them with financial support.
  • Vote. Many elections are occurring this November, but others occur in May and April. Stay engaged and show up to vote.
  • Model healthy civic engagement. Do research on local candidates with young people, discuss local issues with them, support them to form opinions, take them to the polls and board meetings and show them how to express dissent.
  • Mobilize. This November, thousands of school board seats will be decided — whether by you or by the select few that will take advantage of your abstention. Don’t let this occur. The stakes are too high.

Julie Marsh is a professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education. Pedro Noguera is the dean of USC Rossier School of Education. Miguel Casar Rodriguez is an assistant professor at University of Alabama’s School of Education.