Education

Greg Forster, Ph.D. | April 21, 2022

Having school board elections on Election Day? Genius!

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

The special interests that run Oklahoma's government school monopoly for their own profit are opposed to having elections on Election Day. But they’re really struggling to come up with plausible arguments.


Defenders of the government school monopoly like to wrap themselves in the mantle of “democracy.” Yet they fight tooth and nail to block even the most basic forms of democratic accountability. Oklahoma is now getting ready to take a step toward educational democracy that few states take, and even fewer voters are aware need to be taken: holding school board elections on [checks notes] Election Day.

In the vast ocean of cheap and dishonest rhetoric that substitutes for argument among defenders of the education status quo, one of the most reliable tidewaters is the misuse of the term “democracy.” We are constantly told that a government monopoly on schooling is “the cornerstone of democracy.” (Don’t Google that unless you have a really big bucket ready to hold the flow of mawkish rhetoric that will come flowing out of your screen.)

But when they talk about democracy, they don’t mean political power that is accountable to the people over whom it is exercised. On the contrary, they mean the triumph of their faction and its selfish interests over all competing interests. That, of course, is what will usher in a truly “democratic” society and way of life for everyone, especially them.

It goes without saying that they consistently oppose, in the name of democracy, everything that might make education actually accountable to the people it’s supposed to serve. Whether it’s transparency about what is being taught or school choice policies or legal protection for parental rights, actual democracy is always somehow anti-democratic. Education schools have even invented elaborate political theories to justify defining “democracy” as their unaccountable rule over us.

One of the cornerstones of this strange kind of democracy is holding school board elections at extremely unusual times—generally in the spring. Surprising as this is to ordinary people who are blessedly unfamiliar with the techniques of political rent-seeking, it’s actually quite rare for school board elections to be held on Election Day. This ensures that only the most highly motivated voters participate – the special interests who profit by governing the system for their own advantage. So school boards, who are the front-line party responsible for negotiating terms with school employees, mostly represent the interests of the employees, not the public who pays for the system and is supposed to be served by it.

Small surprise that almost no one votes in school board elections. Even with high-boil controversies over pandemic policies, sexuality, and race in schools, people don’t know when the elections are happening. And if they do, they know that most others don’t, so reform candidates are unlikely to succeed. The disincentive to vote is self-reinforcing.

Last spring, Mary Mélon, president of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, lamented that under 5,000 of almost 140,000 eligible voters had bothered to vote in the city’s school board elections. But her lament did not extend to endorsing the obvious solution, and the only one that might be effective. She pleaded that “changing the election cycle is a question for another day.”

Putting some actual democracy into our “democratic” school system is always a question for another day for these defenders of the status quo. The way we elect school boards could hardly be less democratic if the ballots were kept in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.”

Oklahoma’s legislature is now considering a bill, co-authored by the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House, to move school board elections to November, on the same ballot with other elections. Unsurprisingly, a coalition of special interests has congealed to oppose it. But they’re really struggling to come up with plausible arguments.

Voters “may be less informed about school board candidates if they appear on a general election ballot” because “it will be difficult for school board candidates to capture the attention of voters when they’re competing for time and attention against other elections and ballot measures,” importunes a press release put out jointly by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, the United Suburban Schools Association, the Organization of Rural OK Schools, the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, and the Oklahoma Association for Career and Technical Education. Races will also become more expensive, these special interests point out.

It’s certainly much cheaper and easier to reach voters with your message if the relevant electorate is limited to the under 5,000 special-interest voters who can be relied on to make their way past the “Beware of the Leopard” sign and cast a vote to keep the gravy trains running on time. Reaching the actual public, almost 30 times larger, with a message that makes sense for the kids in the system and the community at large instead of for the special interests that run the government monopoly for their own profit is much more difficult.

But that’s, you know, the whole point of democracy. If you don’t want to have to reach the whole public with your message, what you’re asking for isn’t democracy. It’s the other thing.

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Contributor

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book is Economics: A Student’s Guide (Crossway, 2019).

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