A Disconnect Between Support and Service: Low Voter Turnout and Participation in School Board Elections

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source: Green & Write, November 17, 2015

Another Election Day has recently passed and an online search for “uncontested school board elections” yields an abundance of recent news stories where only incumbents were vying for open school board seats or in some cases, no one was running. 

Uncontested Candidates and Empty School Board Seats

This year in New Jersey, there were a total of 805 uncontested school board seats and for 130 of them, no one was even on the ballot. According to local news sources, these seats could be filled with just one write-in vote, so long as the individual who is named is eligible to serve. To be eligible, individuals only need to meet a few basic requirements, such as having U.S. citizenship and being able to read and write.

Similarly, an entire county in Virginia had no contested school board seats and two districts didn’t have a single individual running. In California, Stanislaus County had 8 open seats with no interested candidates. Existing boards will have to appoint members to fill these openings.

Low Voter Turnout in Local School Board Elections

Very few people come out to vote in local school board elections. In some

Photo Courtesy of theocean

Photo Courtesy of theocean

cases, less than 5% of voters cast ballots for school board members. This year, New Jersey projects a record low turnout of 20.8%. Similar rates were also found in other states, such as Indiana and Maine.

Public Support for School Boards

Despite the apparent lack of interest in serving as school board members or voting for others to do so, Americans are still largely in favor of local governance of public schools.

According to the 2014 PDK/Gallup Poll that measures Americans’ attitudes towards public schools, 56% of Americans believe that local school boards should have the greatest influence on what is taught in public schools, as opposed to state or federal government. In general, the public’s satisfaction with school boards has been increasing. From 1991 to 2006, the percentage of Americans who rated their school boards with an “A” or “B” grew from 30% to 49%.

Contradictions

There is a clear disconnect between what Americans are saying and what they are doing. The public’s stated support for local school boards does not appear to align with their interest in serving on these boards or electing others to do so.

With so few people voting for school board members and so many uncontested elections, it seems that school boards are no longer truly representative of the communities they serve. In order for school boards to truly function as democratic governing bodies, it is time for the public to take a more vested interest in who is representing them.

Contact Amy: aulettoa@msu.edu

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.