Sidebar Pages 32-33
Party Politics and School
BY DON E. LIFTO AND J. BRADFORD SENDEN
The Tea Party movement, which began on the national stage as a reaction to the recession, government spending and health care reform, has trickled down inevitably to state and local politics affecting school tax elections.
While only 18 percent of voters identify themselves as aligned with the Tea Party, according to a November 2011 account in The New York Times, the movement has spawned the secondary effect of expanding and strengthening the conservative base of the Republican Party. Increasingly, this has resulted in principle-based, intractable opposition to new taxes at any level of government, including school referenda seeking operating or facility funding.
To better understand how Tea Party politics affect voters’ attitudes about school referenda, we completed two random-sample telephone surveys in Minnesota, which included questions that probed party affiliation and perspectives related to public schools and school referenda. One was a July 2011 statewide survey of 400 registered voters. The second was a 2010 survey of 424 voters in a suburban school district in preparation for an operating referendum. For both surveys, the margin of error was approximately 4.5 percent. The results paint a similar picture of Tea Party members and their effect on school referenda.
The demographics of those self-identifying with the Tea Party include equal numbers of men and women. The majority were over 35 (39 percent were between 35 and 54, and 39 percent were 55 or older), but 23 percent were between 18 and 34. The vast majority were Republicans (64 percent). Seventy-two percent described themselves as “very active voters” as measured by their participation in past elections. Finally, using the responses from the district-level survey, 34 percent of those who identified with the Tea Party were current public school parents.
Based on these two studies, we believe success at the polls in the current political environment will require an informed eye on party politics and attention to the following key planning strategies:
PLANNING AND EXECUTION. Campaign planning should be based on research and best practices and address the need to coordinate the school district’s informational campaign with the advocacy work of volunteers. School leaders should blend political strategies proven to work everywhere with nuanced approaches based on the unique history and culture of their local community. How school leaders design and execute the campaign does make a difference in the outcome.
VOTER DEMOGRAPHY. The foundation for planning begins with counting. A count book of registered voters provides the school district with detailed demographic information (age, gender, past voting habits, parent status, etc.). A thorough understanding of this information is the first step in developing a campaign’s target structure as well as effectively executing canvassing and get-out-the-vote plans.
FEASIBILITY ANALYSIS. A valid random-sample survey of registered voters measures support (or lack thereof) for the tax proposal or bond referendum. Survey results inform and guide the board of education and superintendent before they make a final commitment to conduct a tax election. A well-designed survey provides useful information about overall support, but also measures support for components of the broader plan and receptivity by demographic groups. This information is invaluable in order to develop a winning target structure for the campaign.
MESSAGES. Core messages (to all voters) and targeted messages (to selected blocs of voters) should be designed and delivered in both print and electronic formats based on the target structure and survey results. While information from the school district and the campaign will differ in strategy and tone, they must be coordinated in terms of common core messages.
Rising to this leadership challenge will increase a district’s chance of success at the ballot box and make it less likely the next school tax proposal gets thrown overboard by the electorate.
Don Lifto, formerly a superintendent for 25 years, is senior vice president and director of the Public Education Group at Springsted Inc. in St. Paul, Minn. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brad Senden is managing partner of the Center for Community Opinion in San Ramon, Calif. Lifto and Senden are co-authors of School Finance Elections: A Comprehensive Planning Model for Success, Second Edition.