Indiana Considers Putting Party Affiliation Next to Candidates in School Board Elections

Indiana Republican lawmakers are considering several issues related to public schools for debate during their next legislative session in January, including potentially adding the choice to be identified on the ballot with a particular political party when running for a school board seat.

The legislators say their goal is to provide parents in the state with more transparency on who is teaching their children in public schools and the chance to have more input on what is taught and why.

Currently, Indiana is one of 42 states where school board elections are nonpartisan.

Some critics of the proposal, such as former state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, say adding politics into the races is "a really bad idea" stemming from heated discussions at local school board meetings. McCormick was elected in 2016 as a Republican but has changed her party affiliation.

"I think the people who will be encouraged to run are those that are going to be good soldiers for these political agendas," McCormick said, according to the Associated Press. "It's hard to find good people who want to do it for the right reason, and they're out there, but it's tough. And then you layer this on—it's a whole other layer of difficulty."

House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, a Republican, said candidates would be allowed to choose whether they were publicly identified with a political party.

"I would argue that putting an R or D behind your name does not necessarily identify exactly where you're going to be in terms of school policy," Behning said. "I do see some value, maybe, in allowing candidates to self identify."

The issues poised for Indiana's legislative session that starts January 4 come amid complaints from conservatives across the country about public schools.

Indiana Republicans, Public Schools, Party Affiliation
Indiana lawmakers will discuss several measures related to public schools in their upcoming legislative session, including the possibility of allowing school board candidates to identify by political party on the ballot for their elections. Above, voters cast their ballots at a polling place on May 3, 2016, in Fowler, Indiana. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Others in the Republican-dominated Indiana Legislature, however, want to go further.

Republican Representative Bob Morris of Fort Wayne said he has heard many complaints about closed school board meetings and "limited opportunities" for the public to engage in school decisions.

"Many constituents have told me they have no idea what these school board members stand for, who they're with, where they're at," Morris said. "If they have a party affiliation and they're registered in a certain party, then that needs to be behind their name. Looking at the politics involved on these school boards, politics are everywhere. We should have partisan races."

Republican lawmakers in other states are pushing legislation to ban the teaching of "critical race theory," which has become a catch-all term for efforts to teach that systemic racism remains a persistent problem in the U.S.

Indiana legislative leaders don't appear set to go that far.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston has said he expects a bill "ensuring that parents have more insight and input into the curricular materials and surveys being used in their schools."

GOP state senators agree that it "isn't appropriate to teach that one race is superior to another or inferior from another," but it is difficult to know whether any schools are teaching such concepts, Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said.

"If you go out amongst the schools in the state of Indiana, that definition is really, really nebulous and difficult to pin down," Bray said. "So you'd have to speak to what it is exactly that you're trying to stop, rather than just using the words 'critical race theory.'"

Tom Simpson, a Yorktown School Board member who is president of the Indiana School Board Association, said he believed most school board meetings have remained civil as meeting attendance and participation has increased during the pandemic.

"In my opinion, creating potential partisan divides or putting political ideology ahead of sound educational decisions is not wise," Simpson said. "Electing the best qualified people is vastly more important than their political affiliation and with few exceptions, the people have gotten it right. If voters choose to oust an incumbent and select new leadership, that process happens today without partisan elections."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.