Next week, Pasadena Unified voters will elect school board members by trustee areas for the first time, switching from at-large elections in which all candidates compete districtwide. Education Week reports that dozens of California school districts have switched to trustee areas to encourage racial and ethnic diversity on their boards and avoid being sued under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The law outlaws at-large elections that thwart minority voters from electing candidates of their choice.

The EdWeek piece quotes Peter Fagan, a partner in the Los Angeles-based law firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, who says, “While not all school districts are rushing to shift, in today’s budget climate very few have the desire to fight these lawsuits. The only safe harbor for districts is to shift to trustee-area elections, whether or not it helps elect minority representation, which is not always the case.” In the case of Pasadena Unified, 10 candidates – three white, three black, and four Latino – are competing for four open seats on a school board that has been predominantly white.

Under the law, a school district  can ask voters to switch to elections by districts or it can seek permission from the State Board of Education. According to EdWeek, 79 districts have received a State Board waiver since 2005, including 59 in the past year. The State Board has approved all requests.

California’s voting rights act is unique, and so other states must turn to the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect the rights of minority voters. But as Wednesday’s hearing indicated, conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court appear eager to overturn critical sections of that law.

 

 


Filed under: Featured, Quick Hits, School Boards, State Board of Education

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  1. navigio says:

    If I’m not mistaken, the issue in front of the supreme court surrounded preclearance, and not the validity of the entire act. (?) Regardless, this issue needs more than a quick hit. Pasadena is perhaps a poster child for how the intent of the voting rights act can backfire. Although its true that board has been predominantly white (currently with two minorities out of 7 members), the resulting geographical districts have the real potential to remove minority representation altogether.

    It is also a shame that districts must choose against defending what they think is appropriate because they will end up needing to take money from kids’ educations to pay for lawyer costs.

    For me, the real question wrt this law is about the relative value of at-large representation and local representation. At-large representation has the potential to allow a district-wide majority to disenfranchise any district minority (the primary reason the voting rights act exists), however, it also provides every constituent with a full set of board members with which to work. Local representation gives you one choice and if you are not politically aligned, too bad. Even worse, if your district has choice schools, your child may attend a school not ‘covered’ by your local representative. Again, too bad.

    The other curio is what happens during the transition from at-large to geographic districting. In pasadena, only some of the districts will get new local representatives in this election, the other are ‘stuck with’ the remaining at-large representatives. This necessarily gives the latter the impression that they have no representative, especially if none of the at-large reps lives in a district that has to wait until the next election for their local vote. There are obviously solutions to all this, but they all cost money, so boards dont implement them.

    Although I do agree with the fundamental concept of removing the ability of a majority to disenfranchise the entire district, I am dismayed at the exponential loss of real representation for everyone. That may end up being worse in the long run. There has to be a better way to do this.