Schools should be guided by their communities, not Ky’s political parties | Opinion

The proposal under consideration by the Kentucky General Assembly to make city and school board positions partisan is a bad idea that will have a negative effect on schools, communities, and the Commonwealth overall.

For starters, the partisan board of education provision is likely to violate section 183 of the state Constitution, clarified by the 1989 Rose decision, which mandates that an “efficient” system of common schools “be operated…with no political influence.”

In our hyper-polarized nation, transitioning our boards of education to partisan influences would effectively wrestle local control of schools in the Commonwealth out of the hands of community leaders who are influenced by what is best for students, families, and the community, and hand them over to state and national party leadership, both of which have time and again shown they are guided more by party loyalty rather than the greater good.

The Republican governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sunnu, said it most effectively. He recently told the Washington Post that to force locally elected and accountable school districts or town councils to bend to the will of the party or the statehouse is not leadership, nor is it conservative, and it is certainly not freedom.

As a former superintendent of a public school district in Kentucky, I enjoyed working with some of the most professional and student-centered board members in the Commonwealth. I knew their political leanings, and party ideology rarely, if ever, influenced their decision making. Two of the most ardent Republican members consistently supported tax increases that were needed for facilities and raises for our teachers. Conversely, the most loyal Democrats on my boards consistently voted against these tax increases.

In a partisan board, members of either party would not have the luxury of making those decisions, they would instead have to answer to a party apparatus. And their positions on everything from early childhood education, race, equity, as well as funding would be guided by party positions, not necessarily what is best for the students or what reflects the local community standards.

As a researcher I have studied boards of education and communities, I have found that in our polarized nation, the most successful regions put aside partisan politics for what is best for the local community. In a recent study of the prosperity of small cities, I found that the most hyper-partisan places in the presidential elections from 2008-2020 are more likely to be in distress. The most prosperous do not allow the national binary political divisions to influence or interfere with their work at the community level. Politics has become nationalized, while problem solving is localized. The more direct form of democracy in city governments and boards of education are addressing the needs of our citizens and moving our country forward more effectively and efficiently than any state or national government. Injecting partisanship into local governments and school boards will encourage more hyper-partisan behavior and introduce polarization in places where it otherwise does not exist.

Nicholas Brake
Nicholas Brake

Nonpartisan local elected officials and the school board movement originated during the Progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It created boards and councils as institutions independent of the corrupting political influence of party machines. Board of education members in Kentucky since the adoption of KERA and as well as city officials have been among the most professional and well trained in the nation.

Why would we introduce partisanship into city councils and boards of education and jeopardize the parts of our political system that are working most effectively? They are among the only public sector groups able to consistently rise above the toxic divisions that dominate our politics. Say no to partisan city councils and boards of education and in doing so we will say yes to supporting the continued work of the real problem solvers in our public life.

Nicholas Brake, Ph.D. is the former superintendent of the Owensboro Independent School District and is currently a faculty member teaching courses in education and public administration at Western Kentucky University.