Education , Law & Principles

Oklahoma education group: Parents not ‘tuned in’ to school needs

Ray Carter | February 16, 2024

An activist group has urged lawmakers to kill a bill that would move school-board elections to the November general-election ballot, claiming increased voter turnout would be bad because those additional voters are not “tuned in” to school needs.

House Bill 3563, by state Rep. Chris Banning, R-Bixby, would move school-board general elections to November, placing them on the same ballot as major state and federal elections such as presidential and gubernatorial races, ensuring far higher voter turnout.

But in a Feb. 10 email sent to lawmakers on the House Elections and Ethics Committee, the Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC), a group that typically aligns with school administrators, declared, “Many voters in a general election are not tuned in to the needs of the school district and may not have researched the candidates to know their stance on issues impacting our children.”

Many of the voters PLAC says are not “tuned in” to school needs are parents.

Research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in January 2020 reviewed data from four states, including Oklahoma. Among other things, researchers found that “the majority of voters in a typical school board election in each of the four states we examine is ‘unlikely’ to have children.”

That creates political incentives that may not align with the best interests of students, the report suggested.

The working paper noted that “moving school board elections on-cycle, to coincide with higher-turnout national elections, is likely to significantly boost the political representation of households with children and increase the racial diversity of the electorate.”

Oklahoma parents say PLAC is wrong to oppose increased voter-and-parent input in school issues, saying lack of participation is a product of off-cycle elections, not voter disinterest.

“I’m all for the idea of changing it to the general election because a lot of times people don’t even realize there’s an election going on at other times of the year,” said Kelly Shank, a parent of three children in the Norman public school district. “And because of that, they aren’t tuned in. If you don’t know there’s an election coming up, why would you even look into the candidates that are running?”

Oklahoma is one of only 12 states that requires school-board elections to be held “off cycle,” meaning they are not on the same ballot as major races that draw strong voter turnout.

In 2006, the Texas Legislature changed that state’s laws to require 20 percent of school districts to hold on-cycle elections that coincide with major races. Those districts experienced a 16-percent increase in voter turnout, according to research done by Bradley Ward, the deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity–Oklahoma, who holds a Ph.D. in education policy.

Since 2011, four states have moved school-board elections to increase voter turnout: Arizona, Arkansas, New Jersey, and Michigan. Ward found the resulting increase in voter turnout was dramatic in some races in Michigan. Turnout for a school-board race in the Manchester school district in Michigan increased from just four voters in 2008 to 4,775 voters in 2012, an increase of 119,275 percent. In the Chelsea school district, turnout rose from just 21 votes in a 2008 race to 12,730 in a 2012 election, an increase of 60,519 percent.

“There’s not a state that we have researched yet that the school elections have moved and voter turnout has decreased,” said Banning, a father of four children in public school. “There has always been a significant increase at every one we’ve researched.”

Under the definition used by PLAC, less than 1 percent of voters are “tuned in” to school issues, based on turnout in the current off-cycle elections used to select school-board members in Oklahoma.

Although the Lawton school district is among the 10 largest districts in Oklahoma, Ward found an April 5, 2022, school-board election in Lawton drew just 191 votes, which was less than 1 percent of eligible voters. Turnout in all school districts holding school-board elections that day averaged less than 4 percent.

In contrast, the November 2022 elections, which included statewide races such as governor, drew 50.35 percent of voters, and the November 2020 elections, when the presidential race topped the ballot, attracted 69.34 percent of voters.

Scott Hasson, parent of a 13-year-old in the Deer Creek school district, knows more than most how off-cycle elections effectively disenfranchise many voters—because he was a school-board candidate in the district last year.

“People didn’t know,” Hasson said.

He said the “tuned in” voters PLAC touts are disproportionately individuals with vested interests rather than members of the broader community. Hasson’s school-board race was scheduled on Valentine’s Day in 2023, a date few people associate with voting, he noted.

Hasson said the current system protects school officials from having to care what parents think, because parents are effectively disenfranchised by odd-date, low-visibility elections.

“They don’t care about parents,” Hasson said. “And they don’t have to.”

PLAC has history of political stances at odds with parents, local communities

In recent years, officials with PLAC have taken numerous stances that put them at odds with many parents and even the betterment of local schools. And PLAC has often waded into issues with little connection to school policy while claiming to represent the views of school parents.

In April 2023, Sherri Brown, legislative chair for the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, spoke in opposition to proposed Oklahoma State Department of Education rules that prohibited school officials from doing anything to “encourage, coerce, or attempt to encourage or coerce a minor child to withhold information from the child’s Parent(s) or guardian(s).” Under the regulations, school officials were also required to disclose to a child’s parents “any information” regarding “material changes reasonably expected to be important to parents regarding their child’s health, social, or psychological development, including Identity information.”

Brown indicated parents should be kept in the dark about student conversations with adults at school unless the child authorizes disclosure.

“Children have the right to privacy when they share thoughts and feelings with a trusted counselor, teacher, or principal,” Brown said.

In 2021, the Tulsa chapter of PLAC was among a group of activist organizations that claimed pending legislation “would drastically destabilize local public school budgets in rural and urban districts across the state.” The bill opposed by PLAC, which ultimately became law, restricted the practice of paying schools with declining enrollment for students who no longer attended the school, a practice informally referred to as “ghost student” funding.

At that time, Oklahoma public schools were being paid for more than 55,000 “ghost students,” which translated into around $195 million in payments to school districts for the education of children who did not exist in those districts.

“Ghost student” funding primarily benefitted the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts, which had nearly 6,800 and 3,300 “ghost students,” respectively. Just 22 districts accounted for 30,691 “ghost students” that year, meaning 4 percent of Oklahoma school districts received roughly 55 percent of “ghost student” payments.

Had funding been provided based on actual student counts, most school districts would have received a greater amount of funding overall, including more than 200 mostly rural districts that had declining enrollment.

In 2020, PLAC opposed an election-security measure that required voters to include a photocopy of a form of identification along with a signed affidavit when they voted absentee. PLAC said the law was “a barrier to many without access to a copier.”

Also in 2020, PLAC opposed numerous tax breaks, including bills that would reduce teachers’ out-of-pocket health insurance costs, help pay to improve school security, and support adoption.

In 2019, PLAC endorsed a House Democratic budget plan that not only spent the entirety of that year’s $570 million surplus but also raised taxes on Oklahomans’ incomes and investments by more than $200 million.

Changing school-board election dates would save schools millions

In addition to increasing voter awareness and participation in school affairs, HB 3563 would provide public schools with a multi-million-dollar windfall.

Under state law, schools must reimburse county election boards for the cost of elections conducted when school issues are the only thing on the ballot. By shifting school-board elections to a general-election ballot aligned with state and federal elections, the state would pay the full cost.

Ward found that Oklahoma schools spent $16.8 million on election services in 2023.

Banning noted opponents of HB 3563, such as PLAC, are indirectly supporting the diversion of nearly $17 million per year away from school classrooms to pay for off-cycle elections.

House Bill 3563 passed the House Elections and Ethics Committee on a 6-2 vote and now awaits a vote on the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. Similar legislation passed out of the Oklahoma Senate in 2023 with strong support.

Banning said increased voter participation should be viewed as a benefit, not a problem.

“The Oklahoma Constitution is very clear that all elections should be free and very equal,” Banning said. “The Constitution does not say all elections should be free and only for ‘tuned in’ voters.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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