Board-Savvy Superintendent

Partisan vs. Nonpartisan Board Elections
By EVAN P. CRAWFORD/School Administrator, June 2018

IN 2013, THE North Carolina Legislature passed a bill that made the Lee County school board elections partisan. It became the 16th county school board in the state to require candidates to appear on the ballot with their party affiliation.

Although the school board itself opposed the change, members adapted to the new reality — one incumbent even changed his party registration to help his re-election chances. (It worked.)

This fall, 35 North Carolina school districts will hold partisan school board elections. While it remains true the vast majority of school boards nationwide hold officially nonpartisan elections, the North Carolina case reveals a small but growing trend of legislatures moving boards of education to a partisan election model.

Governance Impact
Does partisanship in elections make a difference in the policy views of school boards? To date, no systematic examination has been undertaken, yet to the extent superintendents must navigate school board politics, any change in how board members are elected may have real consequences for board-superintendent relations. While any connection between election systems and this relationship lies beyond the scope of my current research, an examination of differences between partisan and nonpartisan boards is a necessary first step.

The trouble with contemporary debates surrounding school board electoral systems is that both nonpartisan reformers and those defending the role of parties make their arguments with relatively little empirical evidence to support their claims. Research on elections for offices other than school board suggest that party labels give voters more information and may increase voter participation.

At the same time, requiring candidates to run in party primaries could inject partisan politics into local school issues where they did not exist before, and it might result in school board members acting more like traditional partisan politicians than apolitical citizens acting only in the interest of the local schools and community.

Statewide Surveys
To inform this debate, I conducted an original survey of North Carolina and Georgia school board members.

In my survey, I randomly assigned board members to two groups. A control group was asked about their level of support for three policies (Common Core standards, school vouchers and school prayer) in a neutral manner. A treatment group was asked about the same three policies but also reminded of the general position each political party held on the relevant issues.

On each of the three policy questions, the gap in average policy support expressed by Democrats and Republicans was significant among nonpartisan-elected board members. In other words, they responded the way we would expect Democrats and Republicans to respond, and a significant gap existed between the two parties.

Among the partisan-elected board members, however, the average levels of policy support expressed by Democrats and Republicans were statistically indistinguishable from each other.

Policy Gaps
What effect did informing board members of the major party positions on policy issues have on their levels of support?

For Common Core, being told that the Democrats generally supported the standards and Republicans generally opposed them increased support among Democrats and decreased support among Republicans. Importantly, this effect existed for board members elected in nonpartisan and partisan elections.

When informed of the general position each party held for school vouchers and school prayer, the gap in policy support widened among partisan-elected board members only. This party information had no effect on the differences between Democrats and Republicans who run in nonpartisan contests.

Debates about how to elect school board members is not likely to fade away any time soon. My research shows the potential effects of such reforms are not so obvious.
EVAN CRAWFORD becomes an assistant professor of political science this fall at the University of San Diego. Twitter: @evancrawford