Teachers unions wield great power in determining school board races, but with state legislation and Tea Party activism, their power is being diminished.

As I write this, a school board election held in Los Angeles on May 17th is too close to call. Even with the backing of Mayor Villaraigosa, Luis Sanchez is still lagging union-supported frontrunner Bennett Kayser by a few hundred votes.

Whoever prevails, there is a much bigger story – less than 8% of eligible voters voted in this election. And even worse than that, 8% is nothing out of the ordinary. The size of the district doesn’t seem to matter; people just don’t seem to be interested in voting in school board elections.

To be sure, part of the low voter problem is that these elections are held in the spring when there is nothing else on the ballot. The groups that have to gain the most by a small turnout are the special interests that are the most organized. Terry Moe, in his excellent new book Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, leaves no doubt that the teachers unions are by far the most dominant of these groups. The unions, even if they don’t outspend their opponents, have a great advantage because of their organizational mechanism and a large group of ready voters (teachers and other school workers) who reliably turn out to vote for the union-endorsed candidates.

School boards are a very important part of the educational process. They have a great effect on the quality of education and how monies are allocated in a given school district. Specifically, a school board is involved with such things as making policies that govern recruitment of teachers, protecting the morals and health of pupils, establishing budgets, guiding collective bargaining, adopting textbooks, etc. On union-dominated school boards, frequently teachers and other education workers’ needs dominate, leaving fiscal restraint and children’s needs in the dust.

This kind of irresponsibility has been prevalent for years now. In 2003-04, of 982 school districts across California (many dominated by union-friendly board members), 552 combined for $682 million in red ink. Then, in Los Angeles in 2007, the school board voted to give health care benefits to part-time cafeteria workers — a decision that cost the already cash-strapped district $105 million over three years. In addition to the burden on taxpayers, wasteful spending also impacts students by cutting back on basic needs like enrichment programs, summer school sessions and functioning school libraries

How do we best deal with all this? Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has one solution. He just signed into law a measure that will require elections for school board seats be held in the fall, rather than in the spring. If this were to be replicated in all 50 states, the low voter turnout problem would be resolved. But we would still be burdened with the fact that the teachers unions are very well organized, giving their candidates a distinct advantage.

Enter the Tea Party. Another special interest group – this one mostly concerned with taxpayers and children – has begun to insert itself into school board races all over the country. Sick and tired of business as usual, Tea Partiers have begun to point their flintier and more child-centered arrows at school boards. Whether by raising a ruckus at school board meetings or running candidates, Tea Partiers are starting to give the unions a run for their money.

Headlines like Tea party gets involved in local school board elections (Utah), Tea Party Candidates Impacting School Board Races (North Carolina), Tea party leader seeks school board seat (Wisconsin) and IL Tea Party Activists Expose Alleged Gift Cards-For-Votes School Scam (Illinois) are starting to sprout up all over.

The damage that a union-influenced school board can do is considerable. Such a board can wantonly waste taxpayer dollars and never be held accountable. Even if we do manage to get the spendthrifts voted out of office, they are frequently replaced by others who also toe the union line. As such, people of all political stripes should welcome – and support – the Tea Party as a force ready to combat the teachers unions’ dominance of our nation’s school boards.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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