Voters head to the polls across Iowa Tuesday to elect local school boards and many candidates are running for office for the first time.
Last spring, the Ready to Run campaign training program sponsored by the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Woman and Politics at Iowa State University attracted 172 people, more than double the next-highest enrollment. Iowa State political science professor Dianne Bystrom says some of them will be on local school board ballots.
“This is really the first opportunity, one of the first opportunities, that people have had to run since the results of the 2016 elections,” Bystrom says, “and if you look at the stories of many of the participants in Ready to Run Iowa who decided to run for local office, they woke up after the election and thought, ‘what can I do?’”
Bystrom says for women, in particular, serving on a school board can be a gateway to seeking higher office. School boards come closer to gender parity than other elected bodies, she says. In Iowa, women hold almost 39 percent of local school board seats, which is a little below the national average.
“I think it’s really a tremendous opportunity to get women involved in running for local office,” Bystrom says. But women can aim higher than local positions. “I think we need to do a better job of convincing them that once they’ve run for school board they are prepared to take another step, if they choose, and run for state legislature and even the US Congress.”
Nationwide, Bystrom says research has shown women tend to run for office to address a specific issue that affects them, their families or their neighborhoods. Men, on the other hand, more often run for office as a career stepping-stone. Bystrom says that’s an over-generalization, but nevertheless suggests an ambition gap that programs like Ready to Run hope to close.
Bystrom says she’ll be looking at voter turnout to see how it compares to two years ago, which may indicate whether the electorate is any more engaged after the last general election.
This will be the last year for standalone school board elections in Iowa. In 2019 they will occur on the same day as municipal elections.