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Making school board elections “on cycle” would boost voter turnout

Education policies that put politics before students rarely turn out well. 

Take school lockdowns, for example. They had a detrimental effect on students—not just in terms of mental health, but also academically. A new report shows that since the beginning of the lockdowns, proficiency scores in math saw the largest decline in fourth and eighth graders ever recorded. Reading proficiency among students also dropped compared to 2019. 

Lockdowns and other school policies from the past few years are causing parents to take an even closer look at the decisions made by school boards. For the more than 50 million children in the American public school system, many decisions about their education fall to school boards, making the role of a school board member an important one with heavy consequences. Nationwide, 96 percent of these school board members are elected. 

But in 37 states, few voters are turning out to vote in these elections—because they’re not held alongside other major elections. These elections are called “off cycle.”

For example, Missouri holds school board elections every April. In Kansas, they’re held in November of odd-numbered years.

Why is this a problem?

School boards oversee student transportation, teacher compensation, and even have a say in curriculum decisions and instructional policies. The individuals who sit on a district’s school board have a heavy influence on the educational experience of every student in that district. 

Voter turnout in off-cycle elections is a fraction of that for major statewide or federal elections. In a study of 10 states with off-cycle school board elections, voter turnout for these elections averaged a dismal 23 percent. Meanwhile, the average voter turnout for the 2020 presidential election in these states was 77 percent.

And this is by design: Lower voter turnout gives special-interest groups like unions more say in public education, and the community and parents even less. This means that candidates tend to reflect those special interests. Low turnout also means that the voters electing school board members don’t adequately reflect the makeup of the student body and community. 

On average, fewer than one-quarter of the voters of these states participated in elections that carry enormous weight for public school students.

This disparity between on-cycle and off-cycle elections is distressing in that a dismal fraction of the voting public is having a say in school board elections. 

But there’s an easy fixSync school board elections with statewide elections. 

Doing so will ensure that school board elections are considered alongside major statewide and federal elections by larger swaths of the public. This reform will not only make school boards more representative of the children and families they serve, but it will also ensure that public education is not up for grabs by special interests. 

Read more about school board election reform: 

Out of Cycle, Out of Mind: Why School Board Elections Should Be Held with Statewide Elections

Fox News: School board elections should be on Election Day by Jonathan Bain and Tarren Bragdon 

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