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Commentary By Michael Hartney

School-Board Fights, Democracy and the FBI

Cities Public Sector Reform

Decisions should be more responsive to local needs and preferences.

In “Merrick Garland’s Federal Offense” (Oct. 7), the editorial board questions the attorney general’s intervention into local school-board meetings to investigate what the National School Boards Association describes as parental activity akin “to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” But there’s a broader story here.

School-board meetings have indeed become heated culture-war battlefronts over contentions like Covid-19 policies and race-driven pedagogical modes. But the tension likely stems, at least in part, from some parents feeling misrepresented by the school boards and local officials elected to represent them. Turnout for school-board elections is usually a minuscule 10%-15%.

One way to ensure school-board decisions are more responsive to local constituents’ preferences—and foster the cherished spirit of localism that underpins a healthy democracy—is to elect school boards on-cycle, in November of even years, at the same time regular state and federal elections take place. Elections in too many school districts occur at odd times, yielding a voter turnout that’s at least half of what it could be, and tilting the scales in favor of interest groups, like teachers unions, whose goals sometimes misalign with those of parents.

As I explain in a Manhattan Institute brief, shifting municipal school-board elections on-cycle is not only a cost-saving idea that boosts accountability and enjoys bipartisan appeal; it’s also, in contrast to H.R.1’s voting reforms, the most effective way to increase turnout. Greater turnout yields boards that are more representative of and responsive to local needs, helping generate the type of broader democratic participation that could temper the heated confrontations we’re seeing today.

Michael Hartney

Brookline, Mass.

There are approximately 13,800 public-school districts and local school boards in America. Involving the FBI and U.S. Attorneys to “police” the many citizen interactions with local school boards is absurd.

Perhaps we should start calling public schools by the more accurate term “government schools,” particularly if the aim is to exclude parents and eliminate their involvement. Since the schools are supported by our tax dollars, every U.S. citizen should have a right to speak for or against what is taught and how local schools are run.

Ed Sherwood

Peachtree City, Ga.


Michael Hartney is assistant professor of political science at Boston College and author of a Manhattan Institute report, Revitalizing Local Democracy: The Case for On-Cycle Local Elections

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal