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Political issues drive a wedge in some St. Louis school board races

 Candidates for the Rockwood School District's board of education participate in a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters on March 8th.
Kate Grumke
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Candidates for the Rockwood School District's board of education participate in a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters on March 8. The candidates answered questions about divisive education issues such as how race and diversity are talked about in schools.

At candidate forums and on social media, debates over highly politicized issues, such as masking and how race, history and LGBTQ issues are taught in schools, have dominated some local school board races.

When St. Louis County voters go to the polls on April 5, they will be voting in more contested school board races than in the previous decade, and in some districts, wedge issues have become the focus. Though a number of candidates have said that politics has no place in school board races, groups from both sides of the political divide are creating guides with lists of candidates that align with their viewpoints.

Political debates in education often come in waves, but this is a particularly heated time, said Vladimir Kogan, an associate professor of political science at the Ohio State University.

“Whenever educational issues become salient at the national level, the dynamics play out in local elections, because that's what people pay attention to,” Kogan said.

Missouri lawmakers have also filed bills that would change the way school board elections are held, by moving them to November or having candidates declare a party. The Missouri School Boards Association has denounced the bills, saying they could make things even more political.

“We're very much opposed to that legislation,” said Brent Ghan, deputy executive director for the association. “We feel that it would create a more partisan atmosphere for school board elections should they be on a November ballot with a lot of other partisan races.”

Partisan issues

At a forum in the Rockwood School District in early March, the candidates were divided on issues including health policies and how schools discuss race, history and LGBTQ issues. The room was also physically divided.

But in interviews after the event, most of the candidates said they think the politicization of education has gone too far.

 A campaign yard sign for Jessica Clark is displayed in the Rockwood School District on March 28th. The sign says "vote conservative" under her name.
Kayla Drake
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A campaign yard sign for Jessica Clark is displayed in the Rockwood School District on March 28. The sign says "Vote Conservative" under her name.

“I think it's way too political, and we have to figure out how to put something in place to make sure that that's minimal,” said Jessica Clark, a candidate for Rockwood’s school board whose yard signs include the words “Vote Conservative” under her name.

Because school boards are elected, they are inherently political, but Ghan said it’s an issue when boards become mired in partisanship.

“We're seeing politics involved in school board races more frequently than we used to, and that's of some concern to us,” Ghan said. “Sometimes we have groups outside the communities — we're seeing that more frequently now — that are getting involved in local school board races.”

In Missouri, some statewide organizations have been creating lists of candidates that align with their views and sharing them on social media. The Missouri Equity Education Partnership, a grassroots organization that advocates for anti-bias, anti-racist education and has a school board candidate guide. Andy Wells, the Missouri chapter president of No Left Turn in Education, has also shared candidate guides on social media. The national grassroots group advocates against Critical Race Theory, a term that conservatives have applied to a broad range of curricula relating to race and diversity.

The focus on political wedge issues is part of a national effort to win voters in the suburbs, where education issues are particularly salient, said Kogan. Politicians at the national level have also stoked these debates, using rhetoric that inflames already-tense school board races.

“President Trump was very divisive in particular, and he had strong opinions on all these issues,” Kogan said. “I think you have this top-down elite leadership on educational issues, and when you don't have that, you don't see polarization.”

National Republican leaders have also spoken openly about this strategy. Steve Bannon, a former adviser to Trump, told Politico the focus on school boards and the fight against critical race theory is, “the Tea Party to the 10th power.”

But all of this has happened before, Kogan said. In the 1980s, politics was focused on prayer in school. By the early 2000s, the debate had shifted to intelligent design, or how evolution is taught in schools.

“I think if you go back really the last 40 years or so, you can find a lot of examples of similar dynamics of whatever the hot issue of the day was,” Kogan said.

Election change

In the Missouri legislature, Republicans lawmakers have sponsored bills to move school board elections to November and have candidates declare a party.

The Missouri School Boards Association has voiced its opposition to the proposals, arguing they could deepen the partisan divide over education and make school board elections more political and more expensive.

“A November general election ballot is very lengthy; school board races would likely be way down on those ballots and would probably get a lot less attention,” Brent Ghan said. “They would probably have to raise a lot more money for those campaigns.”

 The League of Women Voters displayed voter registration information at a candidates forum for the Rockwood School District's board of education on March 8th.
Kate Grumke
/
St. Louis Public Radio
The League of Women Voters displayed voter registration information at a candidates forum for the Rockwood School District's board of education on March 8.

But some political experts have a different view. Moving the elections to November could increase turnout in the typically low-turnout municipal elections, said Kogan. In St. Louis County last year, about 15% of registered voters weighed in on the election.

Kogan said the current low turnout means special interest groups like teachers unions have greater sway than they would in a higher-turnout election. “I think a lot of the opposition to on-cycle elections is really based on that idea, because school interests enjoy a lot of power and don't want to give it up,” he said.

Another issue with the way these elections are held is that the April electorate is an older group of voters that doesn’t necessarily have kids, Kogan said.

“I don't think there's a way to easily change rules to make it less about adults and more about kids because kids don't vote,” Kogan said. “What you're really talking about is a bunch of adults with adult political agendas, fighting with a bunch of other adults, and they're all claiming that they're doing it for the kids.”

Other issues

Despite deepening political divides in some races, not every school district in the St. Louis area is focusing on partisan battles during this year’s elections. The Normandy Schools Collaborative and Riverview Gardens are directly electing school board candidates for the first time in eight years and 12 years, respectively.

At a recent candidate forum in Normandy, the main topic of discussion was how to improve the district’s academics in order to return to fully accredited status. Candidates repeatedly said this year’s elections are historic after years of state control.

It’s those types of issues that make these elections so important, Ghan said.

“The decisions that school boards make have more of an impact on our communities and on people's lives and our children's lives than almost any other level of government,” he said. “People need to pay close attention to school board races and the folks who are running for local school boards.”

Follow Kate on Twitter: @Kate Grumke

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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