KJZZ is a service of Rio Salado College,
and Maricopa Community Colleges

Copyright © 2024 KJZZ/Rio Salado College/MCCCD
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Díaz and Roberts: Should Arizona make school board elections partisan?

School board meetings have become political hotbeds in recent years as the culture wars and debates over book bans have played out. Now, one Arizona lawmaker wants to make school boards more political, by requiring candidates to run with a party listed by their name.

Republican freshman Sen. Justine Wadsack’s SB 1097 was advanced by Republican lawmakers last week. Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts says this might be the last thing schools need.

Roberts and editorial page editor Elvia Díaz joined The Show to talk more about it.

Justine Wadsack
Justine Wadsack in a Senate committee meeting at the Arizona State Capitol on Feb. 15, 2023

LAUREN GILGER: Laurie, let’s begin with you and a little bit of context here. School boards have become pretty political of late. Begin with some of that for us. How have we watched this happen?

LAURIE ROBERTS: I think that parents really woke up during the pandemic, when their schools closed for a long, long period of time. And once they began reopening, their eyes had been open to things that they felt were being taught in the schools that they didn’t much appreciate. You’ve heard them all before: critical race theory, gender ideology, those sorts of things — the feeling that there’s pornography in the elementary school libraries, that the teachers are staying up nights trying to figure out how to indoctrinate your children.

So there was this whole group of very conservative parents throughout the country who have really awakened to the fact that that school boards are now this hotbed of conspiracy. Back when I covered school boards, it’s the sleepy place you ever want to be. It’s usually just a group of parents and and public school supporters who agree that to volunteer on this board, they do things like curriculum and school policy. And now all of a sudden they’ve become a battleground in recent years, which is sort of the lead-in to where we are today.

GILGER: Right. Right. So tell us your take on this proposal from Sen. Justine Wadsack. What do you think about this idea of making school board elections political in this way?

ROBERTS: Well, if you think that the Arizona Legislature works well, if you think that the United States Congress works well, that these very partisan split organizations that you can watch even today, watch the border debate this week. It’s about good policy for America, or is this about splitting off and doing what’s right for your party because an election is coming, because Donald Trump says one thing and Joe Biden wants another, when most of America is in the middle and just wants some sort of a compromise solution? We’re going to bring that kind of politics into school board elections now? And according to Sen. Wadsack, she would like to not just stop there.

I want to read you one of the quotes from her hearing last week before the Senate Education Committee, and this is a quote, direct quote: “We should have partisan, maybe Partizan judges. Maybe we should do partisan everybody. Because right now the world is split, I think. And you have people that want to live their lives by one ideology and others want to live by another. And they get to choose.”

So her point is now that we not only need partisan school boards, maybe we need to go back to partisan judges. Is that really where we want to be going? Do we want judges, for example, who are beholden to a political ideology, or do we want judges who are beholden to uphold the law?

It’s the same with school boards. Do we want school boards that seek consensus to try to solve the problems and make schools better? Or do we want each of them dug into their respective potholes just to shoot at each other and never get anything done?

GILGER: It’s an interesting question. Let me turn to you, Elvia. These kinds of elections, like school boards, city government still — they’re nonpartisan elections. Does that mean, you think, that voters don’t know where people that they’re voting for stand politically?

ELVIA DÍAZ: Well, and I think that’s the issue here, Lauren, that everything is political and we can’t kid ourselves. Just the fact that we don’t know that political affiliation doesn’t mean that the school curriculum hasn’t been political from the beginning. So everyone has an agenda. And when you get onto a school board, either a parent or a community member, they do it because of an agenda.

But one thing that is very clear and that Laurie was mentioning is that when you make it party affiliation, then you’re only concerned about getting elected again. And as she said, “beholden to the people that are elected to you,” and that injects a different dynamic to the school curriculum and everything to do with public funding and where the money is is going to go to, how it’s going to be distributed. So it'll be just chaos.

But it is political already, and conservatives have made that very clear even long before COVID, Laurie was mentioning, they had already laid the groundwork there. And it was right, you know, and this is true. Parents woke up during the pandemic, but it was already in the process of being this, so political and so divisive.

GILGER: Laurie, what educators have to say about this?

ROBERTS: They’re pretty much united against this idea. The only organized group that I have heard that is for it is the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which is a formally dark money group because you can’t have dark money in Arizona anymore, thankfully. But a group that is pretty aligned with the very far right. They are for this bill. The School Boards Association, the (Arizona Association of School Business Officials), the county superintendents organization — they’re all in opposition to it.

And one of the reasons is that if you have partisan school board elections, that would mean that when a school board member resigns for whatever reason — and we have 200+ boards boards across the state, so there’s probably a lot of resignations — that person must be replaced by somebody in the same political party. Especially in some of our rural areas, you have a hard time finding any warm body who’s willing to sit on the school board, much less having to find someone of a particular party that was elected to the position. So it’s just yet one more problem with it.

I will point out that 41 states require nonpartisan elections. Only four require partisan elections. And the rest of them leave it to the local communities to decide whether or not they want to have parts of elections.

GILGER: Let me end with you here, Elvia. I wonder when you look at these sort of nonpartisan elections and how, as Laurie just outlined, most states around the country require this for school boards. There are many other local elections that are also nonpartisan. Do you think the idea of that is enough? That those kind of very local governmental bodies function better because there is sort of at least a veil of bipartisanship, nonpartisanship in these governmental bodies?

DÍAZ: This, at the very least is one thing that you don’t have to worry about if you are a board member, that you can actually try to work across the aisle, literally speaking here, and you can really look at what is best for for the children and what is best for parents without having to worried about your political affiliation, people attacking you in the next election or attacking you because you are a member of a certain political party. So, yes, I do think it makes a difference.

More stories from KJZZ

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.