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Ohio school board races may be nonpartisan, but they’re far from apolitical

Voters in a central Ohio polling place check in with poll workers to during a special election on Aug. 8, 2023.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
Turnout for this week's election is supposed to be higher than it was for the special election in August. For many communities, school board races are on the ballot along with the two statewide issues.

Voters are casting ballots on two statewide issues today. But there’s lots of local levies and races for Ohioans to decide on as well. Among those: school board positions. The races are nonpartisan – candidates don’t run as a Republican or Democrat. But the contests are still fraught with controversial political issues.

Education reporter Conor Morris, with Ohio Newsroom member station Ideastream Public Media, has been reporting on the state of school boards and joined Today from The Ohio Newsroom to discuss what’s at stake in these races.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

How board meetings have changed in recent years

"Since the pandemic, these normally calm and sleepy board meetings have taken on new life. There's dozens of people that will show up to these meetings, especially in suburban school districts. And there's a couple main planks that parents — especially those who identify as conservative — are worried about: they talk a lot about the content of books in classrooms and libraries, they argue that things they don't agree with or sexually explicit should be removed.

Bathroom use is a big one. They say that it should be based on students' sex assigned at birth rather than gender identity. Another big one is critical race theory — it's a high level academic theory that racism is baked into the very fabric of American society.

On the reality in Ohio schools

"These candidates, who are often conservative, but not always, are aligning themselves with the so-called parents' rights movement. Candidates who I would call more traditional, who try to stick with the nonpartisan nature of these races, they say they don't know where parents' rights have ever been eroded in the education space.

There are some first-time candidates that told me they decided to run because these board of ed meetings have become too chaotic, too focused on political and cultural issues."

On national and statewide influence on these races

"This election cycle, we've seen Republican Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose endorse candidates across the state. [Ohio] Auditor Keith Faber announced some endorsements recently too as well as some financial support for these candidates.

There's also the national political group Moms for Liberty. They endorsed seven candidates in Stark County as well as some candidates in Franklin and Hamilton County. Moms for Liberty has been labeled an 'extremist group' by the Southern Poverty Law Center."

On the impact on education

"Vladimir Kogan, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, has crunched the numbers, looking back on districts that were consumed by these political and cultural controversies in recent years. And he found that there is a small, but significant drop in some students' test scores in the wake of these incidents. He argues that every minute and every dollar spent arguing about these things is not a dollar or a minute spent improving things like curriculum for example."

Clare Roth is the managing editor of The Ohio Newsroom. She coordinates coverage of the entire state, focusing particularly on news deserts.