Legislation that would move school board general elections to a November ballot may now be just one vote away from Governor Kevin Stitt’s desk.
Senate Bill 962by State Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Greg Treat and State House Speaker Charles McCall, would move the general election for school board seats to November, putting them on a general election ballot with high-level races such as presidential and governor races.
State Rep. Kevin West, a Moore Republican who took the bill to the house rules committee, said the change could significantly increase school board election turnout compared to the current practice of holding school board elections. on spring dates that usually escape the notice of voters. .
“The way it is right now, we’ve seen very low turnouts,” West said. “It would only increase those turnouts.”
State Rep. John Pfeiffer, R-Orlando, noted that school districts currently have to pay for the cost of spring school board elections, which “especially in some of my small rural schools, it puts a bit of liability on them with their budgets. being what they are.
He said moving school board races to a general election ballot would mean the state would cover most or all of the election costs instead of local districts.
“It might actually save some of these schools money because they don’t have to pay to run a whole election just for themselves,” Pfeiffer said.
State Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said opponents are “concerned” about the postponement of school board elections to November because they fear it will cause school board races “to become inherently partisan. if they were subject to a November ballot”.
But state Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, noted that nonpartisan races are already being held alongside partisan races.
“There are judges on the November ballot who are non-partisan,” Osburn said.
A group of lobbyist organizations opposed the passage of SB 962, fighting to maintain the status quo. The Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), United Suburban Schools Association, Organization of Rural OK Schools, Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, and Oklahoma Association for Career and Technical Education have published a legislative alert calling on lawmakers to reject the bill.
These groups claimed that 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 voters’ attention.” when they compete for time and attention against other elections and ballot measures.
Opponent groups claimed that school board candidate races would also become more expensive if candidates had to communicate with a potentially larger pool of voters during a period of multiple elections.
“This bill is not about improving schools for students, which should be the end point of all education-related legislation,” the school lobbyist alert said. “Instead, it may actually lead to less meaningful conversation about local education issues due to the crowded general election ballots and partisan politics that tend to dominate fall elections.”
The claims made by opponents stand in stark contrast to concerns raised elsewhere about low voter turnout in Oklahoma’s school board elections.
In March 2021, Mary Mélon, president of The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools, Noted that the previous month’s district-wide primary election for Oklahoma City School Board President drew fewer than 5,000 voters out of 139,206 eligible, a turnout of less than 4%.
In February, Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Treat noted that recent high-profile school board races had nonetheless drawn very low turnout.
“Last week we had a very contentious school election in Edmond,” Treat said. “The two most controversial achieved a 6% turnout and a 7% turnout of eligible voters. It was catastrophic. »
The low turnout in Oklahoma’s school board elections contrasts with the turnout in the November elections. For example, the November 2020 elections attracted turnout record in Oklahoma with more than 1.5 million votes cast, representing 55% of eligible voters according to estimates.
And academic researchers have warned that school elections with low turnout could cause school boards to ignore the needs of the children they are meant to serve.
To research published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute in January 2020 looked at data from four states, including Oklahoma. Among other things, the researchers found that “the majority of voters in a typical school election in each of the four states we examine are ‘unlikely’ to have children.”
This creates political incentives that may not align with students’ best interests, the report suggests.
“Intuitively, elected officials have less incentive to respond to the needs of voters who represent a smaller share of their electorate, all other things being equal,” the researchers said.
The working paper revealed several areas of disconnect between those who vote in low-turnout school board races and the greater number of families whose children attend local districts.
“The American system of deference to local school boards in making critical decisions about educational governance rests on the assumption that the goals of the voters who elect those boards will be aligned with the educational interests of public school students. “, wrote the researchers. “Our analysis highlights several reasons to doubt the validity of this assumption in many contexts.”
However, the report says institutional reforms such as those contained in SB 962 could reduce “disparities in political participation.”
“For example, moving school board elections around the cycle to coincide with higher turnout national elections is likely to significantly strengthen the political representation of households with children and increase the racial diversity of the electorate,” the report said.
SB 962 previously passed the Oklahoma Senate 38-9 in 2021, but did not receive a hearing in the Oklahoma House of Representatives this session and was deferred to the 2022 legislative session.
SB 962 passed the house rules committee on a 5-2 votes who broke along party lines with Republicans in support. The bill now moves to the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. If he passes this chamber without amendment, he will then pass to Governor Kevin Stitt.