Education , Law & Principles

Oklahoma Republicans join Democrats to reduce parent role in school-board races

Ray Carter | February 20, 2024

A handful of House Republican lawmakers joined Democrats to kill a bill that would have moved school-board elections to the November ballot.

A vote in opposition was a vote to effectively ensure that fewer voters—particularly parents—will be involved since school-board elections would continue to be held at unusual times of the year with little-to-no publicity to alert voters that an election is scheduled.

However, a similar school-board-election measure was voted out of another committee and remains eligible for a vote of the full House.

House Bill 1871, by state Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, R-Elgin, would have moved school-board elections to the same ballot as major statewide and federal elections, including on the June primary and November general-election ballots.

Oklahoma is currently 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. Instead, Oklahoma’s school-board elections are often held on spring dates with little publicity, reducing turnout to miniscule levels that allow special-interest groups to seize control.

Research done by Bradley Ward, the deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity–Oklahoma, who holds a Ph.D. in education policy, found that turnout in all Oklahoma school districts holding elections on April 5, 2022, averaged less than 4 percent.

Hasenbeck, a former teacher, said it is important for school-board races to be given greater prominence and scheduled on days when more people will be involved.

“I want my school-board member to come knock my door, because they’re going to be making decisions that affect my whole community,” Hasenbeck said. “They’re going to be making decisions that are going to affect the value of my home. I think the more people we get participating in that, the more important it is going to become to people.”

She noted that even in large school districts, virtually no voters participate in school-board elections today because few people even know they are occurring.

“I often feel that school-board elections, that we don’t talk about school-board elections,” Hasenbeck said. “And, again, we had one in a 6A school decided by 218 total votes.”

Opponents Warn of ‘Non-Informed Voters’

But opponents waved off those concerns and dismissed the value of community and parental input.

State Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber, declared that higher-turnout general elections draw “a lot of non-informed voters.” Notably, Lowe himself was first elected to the House in a 2020 general election.

Research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in January 2020 shows that many of the voters Lowe dismissed as unworthy of consideration are parents. The Annenberg report reviewed data from four states, including Oklahoma, and 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.”

Lowe suggested there is no reason for people to not participate in spring elections that receive little publicity.

“No one is stopping anybody from voting in a school-board election,” Lowe said. “There is no one stopping them from voting anywhere in any free election.”

But supporters noted that lack of information—including basic publicity about the existence of a school-board election—is the main reason many people do not vote, not a lack of interest.

“Is there something stopping (voters)? No,” Hasenbeck said. “Is there a greater amount of awareness of when Election Day is in November? Yes.”

Other opponents said the potential cost of campaign communications in a higher-turnout election would deter people from filing, implicitly acknowledging that far less voter communication occurs with low-turnout elections on unusual dates.

But state Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, later admitted that Tulsa school board campaigns may already cost $200,000 under the current system, negating that talking point.

State Rep. Tammy West, R-Oklahoma City, said she worried that school-board candidates would be more likely to publicly identify their ideology prior to election if forced to run on a general-election ballot, referring to one political party “recruiting, training, and funding” school-board candidates.

In contrast to the average turnout of 4 percent for April 5, 2022, school-board elections, turnout for the November 2022 elections, which included statewide races such as governor, drew 50.35 percent of voters, while the November 2020 elections, when the presidential race topped the ballot, attracted 69.34 percent of voters.

But state Rep. Mark Vancuren, an Owasso Republican and former coach, argued that parents will not be more likely to vote in school-board races on a general-election ballot than they are on the current spring dates.

“I don’t see the full gain of moving it from where it sits now to another election,” Vancurren said. “They’re not going to be motivated for your candidate in either situation.”

Hasenbeck noted the idea of moving school-board elections to a general-election ballot is popular with Oklahomans.

“I haven’t had anyone in my district call me and say, ‘What are you doing? Don’t do this,’” Hasenbeck said. “I spoke to a group of teachers and law-enforcement agents last week, and they love it.”

The Oklahoma State School Boards Association, which is indirectly funded with taxpayer dollars, lobbied against the bill’s passage, declaring that having to campaign during a general-election campaign when voters are tuned in and paying attention could “discourage good candidates from running for the office when many districts already struggle to attract board candidates.”

But Hasenbeck said giving school-board elections greater prominence would result in more substantive policy discussions that can benefit children in the long run.

“Five years from now, I think school board elections are going to be serious, and we are going to see a difference in the outcomes of our students,” Hasenbeck said.

Although a similar bill passed out of the Oklahoma Senate in 2023 with strong support and a similar bill passed out of the House Elections and Ethics Committee on a 6-2 vote earlier this month and remains eligible for a hearing on the House floor, HB 1871 met a different fate.

HB 1871 failed to pass the House Common Education Committee on a 4-8 vote. Six Republicans peeled off to join committee Democrats in opposition.

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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