When the Indiana General Assembly approved property tax reform more than a decade ago, it raised the state sales tax rate to take over the lion's share of K-12 school costs. By holding the purse strings, lawmakers grasped broad control over local schools.
Most legislators seemed satisfied until this year, when a noisy contingent of parents decided mask requirements are an abomination. With no authority to overrule the school boards that voted to require masks, lawmakers eager to appease those parents are now looking to wrest all control from local boards and place it in the hands of political partisans. Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, supports legislation requiring school board candidates to declare a party affiliation.
“When you vote for a person that is nonpartisan in a school board race, you're not sure exactly who you're voting for until they start voting, so then you need to wait four years until you can figure out and go back to the ballot and affect this person ... so I think it's something definitely that I'm going to put my name on to ensure that there is change when it comes to school board races,” Morris told Fort Wayne's WPTA-TV in August.
What would partisan school boards look like? Expect the political gridlock seen in Congress or the supermajority rule found in the state legislature. Board members would be accountable not to students, parents and taxpayers, but to the party officials who determine their political fate. Education policy would be filtered through a Democratic or Republican lens.
While school board members don't currently declare a party affiliation or seek nomination in a primary election, their political leanings aren't necessarily unknown. Some are active in party politics; some use school board service as a springboard to higher elected office.
Nonpartisan elections, however, have served the state well in separating politics and district policy, and voters appear to favor that approach. Last year, Fort Wayne Community Schools District 2 voters threw out incumbent Glenna Jehl after she retweeted right-wing posts that criticized the state's COVID-19 policies and accused Democrats of “supporting terrorists.”
Steve Corona, a 40-year-member of the FWCS board and a vice president of the Indiana School Boards Association, said he doesn't support the proposed change. He also questioned the effect it might have on hiring and retaining of well-qualified superintendents.
“It just really, really bothers me that we can get people who are going to be school board members because of their party affiliation, and not because they have a commitment to improve education in their community,” Corona said.
Indiana voters lost a direct voice in education in January, when the last elected state superintendent was replaced by an appointee who serves at the pleasure of the governor. Three of the four previous state superintendents, including two Republicans, had the strength and audacity to hold views contrary to the Republican governors they served alongside, so the GOP-controlled legislature eliminated the elected office.
With the State Board of Education filled by political appointees, and lawmakers holding expansive control over education funding and policy, partisan school board elections would complete the handover of Indiana's public schools to political interests. Unfortunately, there's nothing to stop it if the Republican supermajority is intent on labeling school board candidates with Ds or Rs. Hoosiers would be wise to speak now and to speak loudly.