School boards matter. Indeed, in Fordham’s new report Do School Boards Matter? researchers found that knowledgeable, hard-working boards that prioritize student achievement govern higher-performing districts. Perhaps this is no surprise, particularly given the wide-ranging authority of boards. In Ohio, school boards’ statutory powers include prescribing curriculum, appointing a treasurer and superintendent, creating a school schedule, and entering into labor contracts with teachers. Meanwhile, we in Columbus have painfully observed what happens when a school board fails to exercise diligent oversight.
School boards, then, can be potent entities (or dismally impotent ones). But does anyone care about them?
To dig into this question, I look at the November 2013 school-board elections for Franklin County. The county has a nice mix of districts, including one big-city district (Columbus) and a number of both high- and low-wealth suburban districts. I look at three data points: The number of contested seats, voter turnout rates, and “undervotes” among those who actually went to the polls. This slice of data portrays a general air of apathy among the electorate toward school boards.
First, when it comes to competition for seats, many of the seats went uncontested. Remarkably, there were just seventy-two candidates vying for fifty board seats across Franklin County—less than two candidates per open seat. In fact, five of the seventeen school districts had entirely uncontested races (the number of candidates equaled the number of open seats). If you ran for office in those districts, you automatically...