House Bill 9072, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Scott Cepicky, would allow political parties to nominate candidates for school board membership and school board candidates to campaign as a nominee or representative of a party.
Under the existing state law, school board elections in Tennessee must be conducted on a nonpartisan basis, meaning that one who seeks a position on a board will not appear on the ballot as a Democrat, Republican, or member of another political party.
The original version of the bill had sought to make partisan school board elections mandatory, but it was amended so that elections don’t have to be partisan. It passed the Tennessee House on Friday morning in a 52–39 vote.
“If the local parties don’t want to do it, they don’t have to. It’s totally permissive and wouldn’t be mandated across the state,” said Cepicky, reported Chalkbeat Tennessee.
The effort comes as controversies around public school boards, including the teaching of critical race theory and COVID-19 restrictions they put in place, continue to make national headlines. According to Ballotpedia, this year so far has seen at least 84 school board recall efforts against 215 board members, nearly triple from the previous year.
While opponents of the proposal argue that school boards elections should be made less, not more political, supporters say that a partisan ballot helps voters get a better sense of where each candidate stands on key issues.
“Our job is to provide as much transparency in the voter box as we can so that people have an idea of the level of expected performance from the people that they send to represent them,” Cepicky said, reported The Tennessean.
According to a 2020 survey by Education Next, Democrats have more favorable views toward increased school spending, the Common Core standard, and the effect of teachers’ unions on schools, while Republicans support school choice programs and basing part of the teachers’ salaries on how well their students learn.
A more recent survey by Morning Consult highlights the partisan divide on critical race theory. Nearly 80 percent of Republican participants said they view critical race theory negatively, compared with 7 and 46 percent of participants identifying Democrats and Independents, respectively. Republicans are also found to be more likely to describe the ideology with stronger words, such as “a Marxist proposal to indoctrinate children by blaming white people for everything.”
In Florida, a similar bill was proposed in September by state Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. It is currently being considered in three state Senate committees.