Remember the commercial from years ago that encouraged shoppers to “look for the union label”? The message, if memory serves, was that the union label offered shoppers the guarantee of a quality garment made by someone earning a decent wage.
Now remember when Johnston County voters elected their school board members by party label? That label too was a guarantee – that the candidates believed, at least broadly, in what their parties stood for.
Johnston County abandoned partisan school elections many years ago now, but frankly, we’ve come to miss the party label.
The argument made all those years ago was that educating children wasn’t a Democratic or Republican thing. The argument, made mostly by our Republican friends, sounded good, but we’ve come to view it as false.
Anyone who follows the N.C. General Assembly knows that the Republicans in power now approach education quite differently than the Democrats do. The Republicans want to end tenure, expand charter schools, give vouchers to families that want to send their children to private schools and tie teacher pay more closely to students performance, among other things. Few Democrats want any of those things.
At the county school board level, the philosophical divide is not so stark. But under Democrats, you might recall, the school board threatened to sue county commissioners over funding. Today’s school board, though officially nonpartisan, is made up mostly of Republicans, and while they might lobby county commissioners hard for more funding, they don’t threaten to sue.
That’s another thing. While the school board is officially nonpartisan, voters still look up the candidates’ party affiliation, and that’s assuming they haven’t seen the ads the political parties run touting their candidates. The only place you don’t see a candidate’s party affiliation is on the ballot, which seems a little silly. And with a free-for-all primary just weeks away, it also seems a disservice to Johnston voters, who have little time to learn about the candidates.
We also think nonpartisan elections have done the school board itself a disservice. Without a party platform to follow, school board candidates tend to campaign on singular issues of importance to them. This year, for example, a couple of candidates have said they want to focus on the education of special-needs children. That’s a worthy issue, but it’s also a plank, not a platform. And in our experience, any board made up of individual planks instead of one platform cedes the agenda to its hired bureaucrats, whose interests, frankly, don’t always align with those of students and parents. Johnston County is fortunate that Superintendent Ed Croom has proven to be a cautious innovator, but in any county, the school board, not the superintendent, should set the agenda, and we think the party label helps shape that agenda.
We don’t expect the school board to suddenly reverse course and lobby for the return of partisan elections. But we see little point in maintaining a system that benefits neither voters nor the school board that serves them.