Saturday, April 23, 2022

Small: School-board election reform will empower parents

School-board election reform will empower parents
By Jonathan Small

Recently, the Stillwater Board of Education announced it will not change course on its policy of allowing boys to use the girls’ bathrooms unless given “no choice” by state officials.

They took that stance despite countless requests to change course from Stillwater parents and the fact that the rare non-gender-conforming student can easily use a single-stall bathroom at the school. The Stillwater board stuck with recommendations from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister’s agency and ignored both parent wishes and actual legal requirements.

For parents who wonder why local school boards—not just in Oklahoma, but nationwide—seem increasingly indifferent to the needs of student families, one answer can be found in the fact that most school-board elections are in the spring, which results in very low turnout.

That has major, negative consequences for families, as research by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University demonstrated. That review covered data from four states, including Oklahoma, and showed low-turnout elections make school boards responsive only to a relative handful of voters who have little in common, economically and racially, with the children served by a district.

In fact, researchers found “the majority of voters in a typical school board election in each of the four states we examine is ‘unlikely’ to have children.”

Put simply, spring elections result in school boards controlled by people who don’t have children in the district and don’t care what most parents think.

“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.”

Fortunately, Oklahoma lawmakers are working to fix this problem and have advanced Senate Bill 962, by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, which would shift the general election for school-board seats to November.

This is a common-sense idea, so naturally the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, United Suburban Schools Association, Organization of Rural OK Schools, Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, and the Oklahoma Association for Career and Technical Education oppose it.

Those groups claim Oklahomans will be “less informed about school board candidates if they appear on a general election ballot” and there will be “less meaningful conversation about local education issues.”

Seriously? The current system involves almost no meaningful conversation or voter awareness. In March 2021, less than 4 percent of eligible voters participated in a district-wide primary election for Oklahoma City School Board chair. Recent “high-profile” school board races in Edmond drew around 7 percent of voters.

In contrast, turnout for November elections is many multiples greater.

Those who oppose school-board election reform aren’t fighting for better schools. They’re fighting to keep parents from having influence in Oklahoma classrooms.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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