School-board election reform nears governor’s desk

Education , Law & Principles

Ray Carter | April 19, 2022

School-board election reform nears governor’s desk

Ray Carter

Legislation that would shift school-board general elections to a November ballot may now be just one vote away from Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk.

Senate Bill 962, by state Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat and state House Speaker Charles McCall, would shift the general election for school-board seats to November, placing them on a general-election ballot along with high-profile races such as presidential and gubernatorial races.

State Rep. Kevin West, a Moore Republican who carried the bill in the House Rules Committee, said the shift could significantly boost participation in school-board elections compared to the current practice of holding school-board elections on spring dates that typically evade voter attention.

“The way that it currently is, we've seen some very low voter turnouts,” West said. “This would only increase those voter turnouts.”

State Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, noted that school districts must currently pay the cost of spring school-board elections, which “especially in some of my smaller, rural schools, it puts a little bit of onus on them with their budgets being what they are.”

He indicated moving school-board races to a general-election ballot will mean the state covers most or all of the election cost instead of local districts.

“This could actually save some of these schools money, because they don’t have to pay to run a whole election just for themselves,” Pfeiffer said.

State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said opponents are “concerned” about shifting school-board elections to November because they fear that will make school-board races “in nature become partisan if they were put on a November ballot.”

But state Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, noted nonpartisan races are already conducted alongside partisan races.

“There are judges on the November ballot, which are nonpartisan,” Osburn said.

A group of lobbyist organizations opposed SB 962’s passage, fighting to maintain the status quo. The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), United Suburban Schools Association, Organization of Rural OK Schools, Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, and the Oklahoma Association for Career and Technical Education issued a legislative alert calling on lawmakers to reject the bill.

Those groups claimed that voters “may be less informed about school board candidates if they appear on a general election ballot” because “it will be difficult for school board candidates to capture the attention of voters when they’re competing for time and attention against other elections and ballot measures.”

The opponent groups claimed that school-board candidate races would also become more expensive if candidates have to communicate to the potentially larger voter pool during a time of multiple elections.

“This bill isn’t about making schools better for students, which should be the ultimate point of any education-related legislation,” the school lobbyists’ alert stated. “Instead, it may actually lead to less meaningful conversation about local education issues because of crowded general election ballots and partisan politics that tend to dominate fall elections.”

The claims put forth by opponents are in sharp contrast with concerns raised elsewhere about the low level of voter participation in Oklahoma’s school-board elections.

In March 2021, Mary Mélon, the president of The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, noted that the prior month’s district-wide primary election for Oklahoma City School Board chair drew fewer than 5,000 voters out of 139,206 eligible, a turnout rate of less than 4 percent.

In February, Senate President Pro Tempore Treat noted that recent high-profile school board races had nonetheless drawn very low turnout.

“This past week, we had some really controversial school board elections in Edmond,” Treat said. “The two most controversial got 6-percent turnout and 7-percent turnout of eligible voters. It was abysmal.”

The low turnout for Oklahoma school-board elections is in contrast to turnout for November elections. For example, the November 2020 election drew record turnout in Oklahoma with more than 1.5 million votes cast, representing 55 percent of eligible voters according to estimates.

And academic researchers have warned that low-turnout school-board elections may lead school boards to ignore the needs of the children they are supposed to serve.

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.

“Intuitively, elected officials have less incentive to respond to the needs of constituents who account for a smaller share of their electorate, all else equal,” researchers stated.

The working paper found several areas of disconnect between those who vote in low-turnout school-board races and the broader number of families whose children attend local districts.

“America’s system of deference to local school boards in making essential educational governance decisions is premised on the assumption that the objectives of voters who elect these boards will be aligned with the educational interests of public school students,” researchers wrote. “Our analysis points to several reasons for doubting the validity of this assumption in many contexts.”

However, the report indicated that institutional reforms like those embodied in SB 962 could reduce “disparities in political participation.”

“For example, 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,” the report stated.

SB 962 previously passed the Oklahoma Senate 38-9 in 2021, but did not receive a hearing in the Oklahoma House of Representatives that session and carried to the 2022 legislative session.

SB 962 passed the House Rules Committee on a 5-2 vote that broke along party lines with Republicans in support. The bill now proceeds to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. If it passes that chamber without amendment, it will then proceed to Gov. Kevin Stitt.

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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