Editorial: Keep party politics out of school board races

The Terre Haute Tribune-Star

Among all of the wrong-headed pieces of legislation concocted by the extreme partisan wing of the Indiana General Assembly’s ruling Republican Party, it is hard to label the GOP plan to politicize Hoosier school board races as the worst.

It faces stiff competition, after all, making it hard to choose just one.

There is RFRA, the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the antithesis of Hoosier hospitality. And the 2005 photo ID law, heralded as a remedy to a nonexistent voter fraud scourge, more than a decade before the nonexistent voter fraud scourge went national. Then there is the enactment of a 2019 law that took away Hoosiers’ ability to choose their state superintendents of public instruction, making it a governor-appointed position instead of an elected office, as it had been for 166 years.

That is just a sampling of nearly two decades of extremism in the legislature. There, Republicans hold 71% of the Indiana House seats and 78% of the Indiana Senate seats, even though the party’s candidates in statewide races receive a more modest 53% to 57% of the vote, on average — a distorted advantage perpetuated by the legislative districts strategically drawn by the GOP legislators themselves.

Such dominance allows them to forward detrimental ideas, like politicizing Hoosiers’ local school boards. It’s a bad plan with no redeeming qualities. But as with all of these schemes, the Republicans give this idea a shiny coat of rationalization to cover up political motives.

By introducing a bill requiring school board candidates to declare a political party, Republicans will be “ensuring that parents have more insight and input into the curricular materials and surveys being used in their schools,” said Todd Huston, Republican speaker of the Indiana House.

Wrong. In reality, the placement of an “R” or “D” or “L” next to a school board candidate’s name does not provide more insight to that person’s probable behavior in office than the current nonpartisan system. Instead, it would simply empower party bosses to recruit and fund candidates willing to serve the politicos’ election-driven objectives.

Under Indiana’s nonpartisan system, school board candidates are often the most carefully chosen by voters. The lack of a party label leads voters to study the choices, attend candidate forums by groups like the League of Women Voters, and read pre-election interviews in the local newspaper. Those choices cannot be made by simply finding the “R” or “D” or “L.”

The real motivation for injecting politics into hometown schools is to expand a political party’s influence.

Republicans are seizing on unrest over the no-win decisions school boards are having to make to keep kids safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. A partisan election would let state and national party leaders dictate the substance of candidates’ campaigns. School board candidates who normally are not overtly political would have to get overtly political.

Would a school board dominated by one party approve contracts of teachers who requested a ballot for the opposing party in an Indiana primary?

The toxic atmosphere in Congress and statehouses needs fixed, not spread further and into Hoosier schools. Keep control of schools in the hands of independent local residents, not a political party machine.