Terry McDaniel seldom posts on social media.

But questions on a Republican legislator’s 2022 constituent survey prompted McDaniel to raise concerns about the potential for increased politicization of public schools and school boards. He is an Indiana State University professor of educational leadership.

One of the questions on State Rep. Bob Heaton’s constituent survey asks: “Would you support legislation that would restrict educators from advancing their political beliefs in the classroom and ensure ideological neutrality in Hoosier schools?” Heaton, of Terre Haute, is a Republican representing House District 46.

Another question on Heaton’s survey asks if constituents would support “greater election transparency by requiring candidates for these [school board] positions to declare their party affiliation?” School board elections in Indiana are non-partisan, or nonpolitical. A survey by State Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil, asks the same question, and a survey by State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, has a similar one.

Meanwhile, Todd Huston, Republican speaker of the Indiana House, recently stated that Republicans will be introducing a bill “ensuring that parents have more insight and input into the curricular materials and surveys being used in their schools.”

Also, it’s anticipated the Indiana General Assembly will “seriously consider legislation to make local school board elections partisan in its 2022 session,” according to a late October edition of School Matters by Steve Hinnefeld.

The potential infusion of partisan politics into public education has prompted McDaniel to speak out.

“Politics have no business in education. The Legislature has forced their way in and forced their way in,” he said. Republican super-majorities keep changing cutoff scores for statewide tests “so they can make schools look bad.”

He points out, in a social media statement, that “Courts and statutes have ruled over and over that educators cannot advance their own political beliefs” in the classroom. Also, “Courts have ruled over and over that schools have the right to set curriculum, not teachers.” The way he sees it, “So the legislators now want to assure their party has control of school boards. Then the platforms of the political parties can pressure candidates and tell them they will not support the board member unless they support what the party wants in schools,” McDaniel said. What’s motivating it all?

“I think a lot of this is coming from parents that we’ve heard from for the last year and a half that have not been happy with the levels of transparency at the school board level and within the curriculum level,” Ford said.

When people ask questions of school boards, their times are limited or they may feel shut down, Ford said. In one community, a board approved a mask mandate without public comment. “That has drawn a lot of attention from parents,” he said.

When COVID-19 hit and children did online learning at home, “Parents got a peek at the inside of what their kids are experiencing, and I think many have had questions and they don’t feel they are getting a response from school boards,” Ford said.

Ford said he’s also got a lot of feedback from parents who say they would like school board elections to be partisan. Currently, candidates file in July for the November general election, and some people say it “is not enough time to get an understanding of someone’s ideology,” Ford said. They believe “if we’re going to have that short a window, they should be partisan.”

Also, some believe school board races are “drowned out” by other races, Ford said.

“I think politics is already in the schools,” he said. School board members walk in parades with given political parties and attend party events. “I think they end up being good public servants and serve those positions without a partisan mindset. I think that can be the same if they have to declare or not,” he said.

So will there be legislation calling for partisan school board races?

“I’ve not seen any legislation yet that would do that, but it’s certainly being talked about,” Ford said.

Whether he would support it depends on how it is drafted, he said.

Several states already have partisan school board elections; in some, it is statewide, while in other cases the decision to have partisan school board elections is made at the local level.

State Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil, is proposing legislation that would make school board elections partisan; other legislators are as well. Morrison hasn’t filed yet.

“I think it’s worth the conversation,” he said. If such a bill gets a hearing, “I’d be very interested to hear the testimony from both sides.”

He suggests that politics is pervasive throughout society and “especially K-12. The Democrat Party has been supported by the largest partisan organization in this state for years, for decades, being ISTA,” he said, referring to the Indiana State Teachers Association. As far as keeping politics out of public education, “I think that ship sailed a long time ago,” Morrison said.

When people are running for school board, “I think it’s worth asking the question — is it worthwhile for people to know the political persuasion of the people they are putting in there,” Morrison said. “I think a lot of folks voting would like to know where those people who are representing them, where their base line is, where they are coming from.”

He supports partisan school board elections.

Not all of Morrison’s fellow Republicans agree. State Rep. Bruce Borders, R-Jasonville, says he would oppose a change to make school board elections partisan, or political. “I don’t support it. I would have to be really convinced I was really wrong to change my mind,” he said.

He doesn’t believe school board members are concerned with political ideology as much as the day-to-day issues of the school budget, meeting payroll, teacher matters or impacts of the COVID pandemic.

In terms of those day-today issues, “I don’t know how much of a difference it makes being Republican or Democrat” in terms of responding to such difficult challenges as the pandemic, Borders said.

State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, a Democrat from Terre Haute, responded, “You know what I have never heard a single parent say? I want more politics in my kid’s school. The last thing we should do is to inject partisan politics into our schools and our educational process. There is no such thing as schools that only serve Democrat or Republican students, nor should there be.”

Multiple attempts to reach Heaton for comment were not successful.

The bipartisan Indiana Coalition for Public Education says in its list of 2022 legislative priorities that “public schools should have local control — not political control.”

The coalition supports nonpartisan school board elections. “Partisan politics has no place in our children’s schools and kids should not be pawns in party politics. Partisan tests should not influence hiring decisions for administrators or teachers. School board candidates should be accountable to the community as a whole, not political party leaders,” it states. “I think we’re already so polarized,” said Cathy Fuentes- Rohwer, ICPE president. “We need more than ever to be able to come together so that we can make a better future for our kids.” Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, expects the issue will come to a head in the coming session. “We do anticipate a few bills pertaining to the idea of moving to partisan school board elections.”

ISBA believes “a move to partisan school boards will only intensify the disruptive climate that confronted some school boards this summer and into the fall semester,” he said.

Currently, if citizens are dissatisfied with the actions or votes of a school board member, they can run for the office to oppose the school board member or support or vote for another candidate, Spradlin said.

If legislators do pass partisan school board elections legislation, ISBA is working with a group of Republican senators to make the decision a local control matter determined by either a school board or voters within the school communities across Indiana’s 92 counties, Spradlin said.
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