The Schools You Save May Be Your Own
The 2022 Redistricting of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board
The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is currently undergoing redistricting, the mandated process by which political bodies redraw their boundaries to adjust for changes in population size and distribution. Redistricting occurs at least every ten years in conjunction with the decennial census. The final maps adopted have a profound impact on how communities are represented, which in turn affects policy and distribution of resources.
This year’s redistricting of the EBR School Board may be one of the most critical in its history. According to the data provided by the school board’s demographer, the total population within the school system boundaries is 387,169. The school board is currently composed of 9 single-member districts. In order to ensure that each person’s vote carries about the same weight, the districts must contain approximately the same population. With 9 single-member districts, the ideal district size is 43,019, a size far larger than a typical school board district in Louisiana. Each district must be within 5% of the ideal, but the 2020 Census data indicate that several of the districts are wildly outside the acceptable range. That malapportionment alone indicates the need for a significant revision of the current map.
In addition, the current districts do not accurately reflect the overall demographics of the school district’s population. According to the census data provided by the school board’s demographer, the total population is 47.5% Black and only 40.9% white. While neither racial group constitutes a majority, those numbers indicate there should be more majority-Black districts than majority-White districts. However, five of the 9 single-member districts are majority-White. Three are majority-Black. One is a “swing district”; its total Black population is only 50.3% and its total Black voting age population is only 47.8%. That is statistically insufficient to qualify it as a majority-Black district. That’s unacceptable. The map will have to be dramatically reconfigured to ensure it will allow for equal representation.
To help ensure a fair map is adopted, community members should learn about the redistricting process. Maps must follow certain guidelines in order to ensure the constitutional principle of one person, one vote. Districts should be compact and contiguous. They must be approximately equal in population size and protect communities of interest. However, stakeholders should also be aware that the political landscape changed profoundly in the last couple decades rendering these guidelines and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act inadequate.
Department of Education programs, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, promoted the proliferation of charter schools, which are publicly funded but governed by undemocratic boards—a new and insidious form of voter suppression. In 2010, the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case dramatically altered campaign finance rules, authorizing corporations and outside groups to spend unlimited funds in elections. In 2013, the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder effectively eliminated the Department of Justice’s oversight of new maps in jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression, including East Baton Rouge Parish. These factors are having a significant impact on the governance structure of our school board and on our elections.
The combination of these factors has allowed the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and other pro-charter groups to pour money into our school board elections to help elect pro-charter school candidates. These business-backed school board members have supported charter-friendly policies and altered the configuration of the board itself. In 2010 following the Citizens United decision, BRAC lobbied the School Board to downsize from 12 to 11 members. In the following election, BRAC, et al was able to dramatically increase its campaign contributions, and according to news reports, “win narrow control of the School Board.” In 2014, after the Shelby County v. Holder decision eliminated the preclearance requirement of new maps, the 6-5 business-backed majority on the School Board voted to reapportion the school district once again, reducing the number of single-member districts from 11 to 9. The “narrow control” held steady at 5-4. In 2018 campaign contributions increased exponentially. Super PACs funded by BRAC and out-of-state billionaires poured money into key races, targeting school board members opposed to charter schools. The 5-4 business-backed majority increased to 8-1.
Enlarging single-member districts is a new form of vote dilution.
If we want to elect candidates who are not beholden to billionaires, the focus cannot be on party affiliation—Republicans are pitted against Republicans and Democrats are pitted against Democrats based on their adherence to policy positions promoted by billionaires. Nor can the focus be exclusively on race. If we simply maintain 9 single-member districts and just attempt to increase the number of majority-Black districts, the unwieldy size of the districts will remain and the billionaires and business interests will retain their advantage. It’s the size of the current districts—not the racial or political makeup—that puts the billionaires in a better position to elect candidates who support education policies that enrich billionaires.
And the billionaires’ policies are ultimately undermining our voting rights. Please understand that business interests are pushing privatization—charter schools—because privatization is a form of voter suppression. In regards to charter schools, this is evident in the fact that charter school board members are not elected. They are appointed. Voters do not have the ability to vote them out of their seats. Once the school system is chartered, the question of who is elected to the public school system board will be a moot point. Those elected to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board will be powerless figureheads.
This issue must be addressed immediately if we wish to retain some semblance of democratic control of our public schools. Advocating for a fair map—a truly fair map—is key. In this new political landscape, the relevant guidelines to create a fair map for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board must include the following objectives:
- Districts must be drawn to reflect the overall racial demographics of the school district; there should be more majority-Black districts than majority-White districts.
- Districts must have a low constituent to elected official ratio; we must increase the number of single-member districts in order to reduce the ideal population size within each.
- Increasing the number of majority-Black districts will ensure that African Americans will not be packed into too few districts in order to dilute their voting strength on the overall school board.
Increasing the number of single-member districts to reduce the constituent to elected official ratio will mitigate—not eliminate—the influence of campaign contributions in our elections. School board elections will once again be competitive, an essential component to the democratic process. Smaller districts have the additional benefit of allowing elected officials to better serve their constituents. School board members can be more responsive to stakeholders.
How Many Single-Member Districts Do We Need?
Any increase in the number of single-member districts would be beneficial, but it is important to balance that with the other guidelines required to create fair maps, the most important of which is balanced racial makeup. More Black people live within the school system boundaries than white people. Neither racial group constitutes a majority, but the numbers still support the need for more majority-Black districts than majority-White districts. Since the district itself is neither majority-Black nor majority-White, not all districts must be either majority-Black or majority-White. A fair map could include a minimal number of “swing districts,” districts in which neither racial group constitutes a majority. If the racial makeup is appropriately balanced, such districts would favor neither a Black or white candidate since any candidate able to appeal to members of both racial groups would be in a better position to win an election.
Other possible considerations include the following:
A good proposal may be for 11 single-member districts. This is the number of single-member districts in the last map subjected to preclearance and approved by the Department of Justice. It would also reduce the ratio of elected official to constituents to 1 : 35,197. One cause for concern with an 11-member map is that BRAC, et al was able to first “win narrow control” of the board in 2010 after the board was reduced from 12 to 11 single-member districts. Eleven single-member districts may be insufficient to protect the integrity of our elections.
A better proposal may be for 12 single-member districts. The EBR School Board had 12 school board districts before Citizens United was decided and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber began its campaign to enlarge the districts. With 12 single-member districts, the ratio of elected official to constituents would be reduced even further to 1 : 32,264.
The best proposal may be for 15 single-member districts. This is the highest number of districts currently allowed under statute, and it would reduce the ratio of elected official to constituents to 1 : 25,811. That’s much closer to the ideal population size recommended in 1971: 1 : 23,763. School board races would once again be competitive; it would not be necessary for candidates to garner campaign contributions from billionaires and financial interests in order to win an election. In addition, with fewer constituents, elected officials would be more responsive to stakeholders.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. At least it shouldn’t be. In order to ensure the election of our school board members remains democratic, we must have a fair map; a map that provides for equitable representation; a map that ensures money doesn’t dictate the outcome of an election; a map that restores or increases the number of single-member districts for the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. Community members, public school stakeholders especially, should focus on this current redistricting process to help make that happen.