School boards have become the new partisan battleground in Florida
School board campaigns officially are non-partisan races, but this year – more than ever – politics is front and center. What’s at stake for parents, teachers, students and voters when state politics comes to public school boards?
School boards in Florida are nonpartisan positions. There are no Republicans or Democrats on a ballot when choosing who to vote for to sit on a local public school board.
But politics are increasingly in play in public schools and public school board elections.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has made more than two dozen school board endorsements — an unprecedented move by a sitting governor in local school board elections. This prompted Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist to make his own list of school board endorsements.
Gov. DeSantis was the featured speaker last weekend at a Moms for Liberty conference in Tampa.
"What we are looking to do is really help candidates who are walking the walk, who have strong values who are going to be there for parents and put the students first, and shine a light on that," DeSantis said.
Sex ed, race relations, history, textbooks — all have come under increasing scrutiny driven by Gov. DeSantis’ push into public schools, which was really ignited by the pandemic.
DeSantis pushed public schools to reopen, threatening to withhold funding if they didn’t allow students to come back into the classroom. It was a strategy the state also used when dealing with mask mandates in schools a year ago.
The role of politics in Florida public schools has "certainly been amped up," according to Andrea Messina, CEO of Florida School Boards Association.
I am finding more board members feeling like they have to be more (politically) explicit.Florida School Boards Association CEO Andrea Messina
She was quick to point out that school boards are reflections of local communities. School districts are county-wide in Florida. "The increased polarization in school boards really reflects an increased polarization in communities across our country," she said.
The primary and general elections with school board offices on the ballot will be a test in those officially nonpartisan races of the power of endorsements by higher office holders. How much sway will a top-of-the-ticket Republican or Democrat have on down-ballot school board races is an open question.
It already is having an impact on rhetoric. "I am finding more board members feeling like they have to be more (politically) explicit. Maybe not that they even want to be," said Messina.
"We have all but in name abandoned the idea that school board races are nonpartisan. Florida's sort of led the charge on that," said Joe McLean, reporter with WJXT-TV 4 in Jacksonville. "But what we've seen is ideological splits injected sort of into these school board races. And we're seeing them get a little bit nastier."
School board elections have been nonpartisan in Florida since a 1998 constitutional amendment. About 64% of voters that year approved an amendment stripping political affiliations from school board races.
This spring, Sarasota Sen. Joe Gruters (R-23) tried to remove the nonpartisanship designation of school board campaigns. “You generally know where candidates and elected officials are by looking at whether or not they have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ behind their name,” said Gruters at a December Senate committee hearing, according to the Bradenton Herald. His bill failed to find enough support.
"Most people would want to point to the fact that we should all be able to agree that we want to do what's best for both our children and our money," said Messna. "That's really where the impetus for the nonpartisanship in schools comes from."