State lawmakers revive effort to require partisan school board elections

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Indiana lawmakers are trying again to pass a Republican-backed proposal to make school board elections partisan despite opposition from school board members and education advocates from across the state.

Candidates running for school boards would be required to identify as a Republican, Democrat or Independent, according to the legislation.

Currently, Indiana is among 41 states where local school board elections are held without any party identification on the ballot for candidates.

The bill’s author, Republican Sen. Jack Sandlin of Indianapolis, said the impetus of the bill stemmed from his conversations with Hoosiers who feel their views have been “excluded” from school board meetings.

He contended during a bill hearing at the Indiana Statehouse on Monday that elected party officials have a “higher degree of responsibility” to voters. Forcing school board candidates to declare a party will provide greater transparency, he said.

“I wouldn’t have brought this bill if I didn’t believe that this would make a better system for education in Indiana,” Sandlin said. “I think that we need to reform our system. I think (partisan elections) is a system that will work.”

Last year, a similar bill got a hearing in a House committee but never received a vote. Nearly two dozen education advocates testified against the previous bill and no one spoke in favor.

More than a dozen parents and school board members from districts across Indiana pushed back on the latest plan on Monday, arguing that such steps would needlessly further insert politics into local school decisions. A handful of parents, voters and school board candidates from the Brownsburg, Carmel, Elkhart and Zionsville school districts spoke in favor of the bill.

The measure did not advance from the House elections committee Monday. The committee chairman, Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, said the proposal would be held and that lawmakers will “continue to work on it in the future.” No date has been set for a vote that could move the bill to the full Senate.

Ford said the committee could consider an amendment to the bill that would allow school districts to place the issue on a referendum. It’s not clear if GOP lawmakers will be on board.

Pushback from school boards

Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said the group—which represents 290 school corporations across the state—“adamantly opposes” the bill.

“If passed, partisan school board elections will get more politics into education and further divide our communities rather than unify us in the best interest of children,” Spradlin said. “Delivery of education in our school communities should not be governed by politics. There is no Democrat or Republican way to teach children.”

Bob Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, added that the proposal would drive school boards to make decisions “based on what is in favor of a political party … not what is best for children.”

Representing the Indiana Coalition for Public Education and the American Federation of Teachers, lobbyist Joel Hand said, too, that the bill would make it “virtually impossible” for an Independent candidate to prevail in a school board election.

“When you start injecting partisanship into school board elections, you’re talking about having party bosses select who runs for those positions, and then also having party funding running into those elections, as well,” Hand said. “If an Independent candidate runs, and they have an opponent who has the backing of a political party chairman, and the funding, and the get-out-to-vote operations of a political party, how is that Independent candidate ever going to win?”

GOP ‘transparency’ efforts continue

Under the bill, a candidate must state their party affiliation or identify as an independent. A declared affiliation as a Republican or Democrat can be challenged, however.

Currently, laws in four states—Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania—automatically allow partisan school board board elections or party labels to appear on the ballot.

Laws in at least five other states—Georgia, Rhode Island, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina—either explicitly allow for partisan or nonpartisan elections or give local officials decision-making authority to allow the option.

A party affiliation can’t be claimed if a challenger shows that the candidate did not vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries in the most recent two elections, or if they can get a certification from the county party chair.

Although Democrats expressed concern that partisan elections could bring “intense” and “hyper-political” issues into schools, Sandlin said he doesn’t see partisanship that exists in the national political system carrying over into local school board races.

“I think that most parents coalesce around things that are going to move the education opportunities forward for their children,” Sandlin said.

The bills come amid ongoing complaints from conservatives across the country about public schools, as well as discourse in some school districts in Indiana over topics ranging from gender identity expression to teaching about racial injustice.

Indiana Republican lawmakers are now continuing their efforts to push bills that they argue will give parents more sway over what happens in classrooms.

Half a dozen other bills seeking to alter school board elections have been filed in the House and Senate, although no hearings have been scheduled for those proposals so far.

In the House, Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil, introduced a bill nearly identical to Sandlin’s to require school board candidates to state their party affiliation on the ballot and certificate of nomination.

Morrison said in a news release that the change “would help parents be more informed when selecting the candidate that best aligns with their values.”

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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