When early voting for Tennessee’s school board elections begins this week, voters in Williamson County, south of Nashville, will see candidates listed on the ballot with party affiliations for the first time.

Half of a dozen school board seats are up for grabs in one of the state’s most hotly contested local elections. Four of five incumbents are running for reelection as Republicans. One of the nine challengers is also running as a Republican, and two are running as Democrats.

Then there’s Nancy Garrett, a lifelong resident who has been a board member since 2016 and served as chair the last two years. Local leaders urged her to identify herself as a Republican on the ballot in her mostly Republican district.

But Garrett, who has voted in every GOP primary since 2014, couldn’t bring herself to run as either a Republican or a Democrat.

“We expect our teachers to be nonpartisan in the classroom,” said Garrett, who’s running as an independent against Republican Drason Beasley. “How can I set a different standard for myself? And how can I put students first if I’m also thinking about partisan politics?”

“I cannot twist myself like a pretzel,” she said.

Nancy Garrett campaigns as an independent candidate in a neighborhood in her district in Franklin, Tennessee, in her reelection bid to serve on the board of Williamson County Schools. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

Not everyone’s on board with the idea, but partisan school board elections are now here in Tennessee, drawing local races under the influence of the national political divide and providing a new source of fuel for the combustive debates over education.

A state law passed last fall gives local political parties more power to choose candidates for races that used to be nonpartisan. In over half of Tennessee counties, a partisan primary selected candidates to run in the coming school board elections on Aug. 4. 

“It’s a changed environment,” said Debbie Gould, president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, a nonpartisan organization that opposed the change.

“We appreciated nonpartisan elections because it helped the public focus on candidates’ positions instead of their party labels,” said Gould, noting that some partisan candidates have declined to participate in her organization’s forums this summer. “We’re also concerned that voters may not work as hard now to learn about those positions.”

Tennessee’s partisan pivot, and the outcomes of races like Garrett’s, are being closely watched in states like Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Missouri, where similar partisan school board bills stalled but could be reintroduced in a nation riven by party politics.

“The pandemic, and school reopenings in particular, punched the chest of national politics, and education has moved quickly from being local to national to partisan,” said Jonathan E. Collins, assistant professor of education and international and public affairs at Brown University, who is writing a book about the politics of school boards.

“All eyes are on Tennessee to see if this is a viable political strategy,” he said of the upcoming elections. “If there’s a surge in campaign donations, voter turnout, and partisan representation on school boards, it will signal to other Republican-leaning states to pass similar legislation. But if it backfires and we see a countermobilization, it could serve as a flare for other states to stay away.”

COVID, CRT, and book bans set stage for partisan elections

Since the early 1900s, the vast majority of the nation’s 13,000 local school boards have been elected without using political party labels.

The reasoning was that the critical but often mundane work of elected school officials — passing budgets, hiring and firing superintendents, setting school policies, approving vendor contracts — should be shielded as much as possible from potential sources of conflict that could distract them from local education issues and their obligation to students.

But the shock of the pandemic and recent cultural battles over curriculum and instruction thrust locally elected school leaders into the spotlight, and provided a platform for conservative Republicans to rally more support around divisive education issues such as mask requirements, book bans, and the rights of transgender students.

Last year, politicians took note when Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin defeated his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, on a promise to give parents more say in their kids’ education. And when sketching its education agenda, the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute urged conservative officials to “strongly consider” pivoting to partisan school board elections.

Republican leaders in Tennessee were among the first to follow that advice. Last fall, the state’s GOP supermajority approved a partisan school board election law during a special legislative session on COVID restrictions. The measure headed to Gov. Bill Lee for his signature before opponents, including organizations representing school boards and superintendents, could mobilize against it.

The law will mean different things for voters depending on where they live and whether they elect board members at large or by district. In most cases, local political parties took the lead in recruiting this year’s candidates for primaries. According to state election officials, 57 of 95 Tennessee counties held at least one school board primary election for at least one political party.

In a few cases, there were no primaries, but local political parties convened caucuses to nominate their candidates.

And in some communities — including Tennessee’s largest district, in Memphis, a Democratic stronghold — local parties rejected partisan school board elections, and nonpartisan races remain the norm.

Clashes between parents and school leaders

Not surprisingly, the partisan shift appears more pronounced in communities where school leaders took the most heat from parents in recent years, especially for pandemic-related health and safety policies like masking, and remote vs. in-person learning.

Candidates have opted to use party labels in urban districts in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, along with large suburban school systems in Madison, Montgomery, Rutherford, and Wilson counties.

“It’s become a very toxic environment,” said Tucker McClendon, outgoing board chair for Chattanooga-based Hamilton County Schools, where angry parents surrounded the boardroom and banged on windows during one meeting in May 2021. Police eventually called in backup officers to control the crowd as the board rejected a proposal to let students remove their masks for the final days of the school year. 

McClendon fears the tone will get even worse under the partisan shift.

“Many people running for the board are on polar opposites of the political spectrum,” he said, “and some don’t actually seem to grasp what a school board does.”

The president of the Tennessee School Boards Association agrees.

“The most effective school boards are those that can reach a compromise. If you can’t do that, you get gridlock,” said Keys Fillauer, who has served on the board for Oak Ridge City Schools since 2001.

Collins, the Brown University researcher who grew up attending public schools in Jackson, Tennessee, says he’ll be watching closely to see if partisan-elected school boards will govern differently from nonpartisan boards, especially when it comes to serving students who need the most help.

Many partisan candidates in Tennessee are talking more about history curriculum and mask mandates than about student poverty, learning loss, and equity, he noted.

“You’re having these partisan fights over education that cover up some of the more important daily issues that need to be addressed policywise,” he said.

Scott Golden, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, counters that party identification will help voters make more informed decisions.

“During the pandemic, every parent was right to get more involved in education when their kids were learning from home,” he said. “That experience really brought to the kitchen table how decisions made by nonpartisan boards were directly impacting their children and families.”

Golden says party labels will encourage voters to weigh in on school board races instead of leaving boxes blank by names they don’t recognize.

“Partisan races just provide more information about the philosophical beliefs of candidates,” he said.

Golden also believes that all school officials will be more accountable to voters if board members declare their political inclinations up front.

“Schools account for 75% to 80% of county budgets, and it’s only right that voters and taxpayers should know as much as possible about the school board members who are overseeing that,” he said.

The pushback is bipartisan

Democrats generally opposed partisan school board races, but their state party still sought to recruit candidates to stay competitive, said Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Hendrell Remus.

“Without a party label or party resources, it’s going to be difficult for independent candidates to win,” Remus said. “And if we don’t engage, there’s also a greater likelihood of misinformation when it comes to things like critical race theory and book banning and other divisive ideas about education being circulated by a fringe element of the Republican Party.”

Still, many candidates are pushing back.

In Oak Ridge, a Republican-leaning town near Knoxville that’s home to several federal nuclear research facilities, all four candidates are running as independents for three at-large seats on the five-member school board.

“The Republican Party tried to recruit people to run as Republicans but weren’t able to,” said Fillauer, the board’s chairman, who is not up for reelection.

“I hope that’s because our candidates are running for the right reason, which is to provide a quality education for all students,” added the retired teacher and coach.

In Murfreesboro, a college town south of Nashville, three of the four candidates are running as independents for three at-large seats on the city’s school board. Among them is Amanda Moore, a mom and attorney who is seeking a second term in office.

“I’ve worked hard as a board member for four years and developed a lot of relationships,” Moore said. “I trust the voters of Murfreesboro will look past party labels.”

The sole declared Republican in the race, retired teacher Barbara Long, says embracing a party label was tactical because she’s a political newcomer in a large district.

“In the campaign realm, it’s an identifier,” she said. “It helps people get to know who you are and what you stand for. It’s like saying you’re a Baptist.”

Will partisanship scare away qualified candidates and leaders?

Critics worried early on that the new law would diminish the pool of qualified candidates by attracting more partisan warriors and discouraging some civic-minded parents. There are signs that’s happening.

Knoxvillian Rachel Snyder Miller, a former teacher with a master’s degree in public administration, has long been interested in running for office. She is passionate about education policy issues like equity and diversity and is inspired by an aunt who once served on a school board and her own 3-year-old daughter who will one day attend Knox County Schools. 

But the new partisan law and the school board rancor she’s seen play out during the pandemic changed her mind about running this year. 

“I don’t know if I can be part of a partisan school board,” said Miller, who also worried that campaigning for both a primary and a general election would be too costly and time-consuming. 

McClendon, who will leave his board in Chattanooga in September, worries the partisan shift will drive out good education leaders, whether on boards or at the central office.

“I tried to get good people to run for my seat, and they said they wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” McClendon said. “As for superintendents, I don’t think any smart person would want to answer to 11 partisan-elected officials. They’d have to think long and hard about the ramifications to their careers.”

Nancy Garrett (second from right) poses with her father, William Nelson, an award-winning chemistry teacher at Williamson County’s Franklin High School, in this 1968 family photograph. (Courtesy of Nancy Garrett)

Garrett, the candidate who chose to run as an independent in Williamson County, knows that she’s facing a tough political fight without a party label. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, she said.

“If we elect school board members who lead in a partisan way and not a professional way, we’ll lose the trust of our educators and they’ll leave,” said Garrett, whose late father was an award-winning teacher in the district where she now serves on the board.  

“It’s a fight,” she said, “over everything this community values about education.”

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.