Should School Boards Be Partisan?

March 27, 2022

In North Carolina, most school board elections are non-partisan. This means that candidates do not run and are not listed according to a party affiliation (Democratic, Republican or otherwise). Though state law once required all school board elections to be non-partisan, that law has been gradually changed over time – especially in just the last few years. Between 1970 and 2015, 16 county and city school boards were changed to be elected on a partisan basis. But since 2015, state lawmakers have more than doubled that number. Today, 39 out of 115 school districts in the state are required by state law to elect their members on a partisan basis.

In new polling from Carolina Forward, we find that making school board elections partisan is very unpopular with voters. Half of voters overall reject it, and most of them strongly:

Among poll respondents who have children in K-12 school in their households (denoted in the "Have Kids" category above), partisan school board elections are notably even less popular. There is not a single respondent category where partisan school boards commands net, much less majority, support.

Since 2015, state lawmakers have increasingly chosen to require school board members to choose a partisan label in order to run. Is your county among them?

There are many obvious reasons why making school board elections partisan is a poor choice. The clearest is that school boards are inherently about highly practical local issues, which partisan labels tend to distort. Partisan labels inevitably activate unrelated partisan sentiments - one's views on Donald Trump, the 2020 election or the Senate filibuster, for example - which are irrelevant and distracting to what school boards are actually about. By contrast, nonpartisan elections force candidates to distinguish themselves by taking public positions on locally relevant issues, instead of riding whatever  partisan "wave" is occurring in a given cycle.

There is no obvious source of demand pushing for more partisan school board elections. Indeed, it would be an understatement to say that most voters are not enthusiastic at all about the state of partisan politics in American life. With every measurable voter segment opposing partisan school board elections, the conclusion must be that the recent push to make more of them partisan comes from majority party (that is, Republican) leaders and insiders, whose motivations one can only speculate about.

Most people would agree that school boards are too important to be left to the mercy of partisan politics. The large majority of voters disapprove of making these elections partisan because they're disgusted with the state of current partisan politics - for very good reason. State lawmakers should be rolling back the party politics in local school boards - not expanding them.

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