Before Kimberly Dukes was an Atlanta Public Schools mother, she was a student in the system. She remembers how her mother couldn’t always be present during her educational journey.
“I had a single mother who worked,” Dukes said. “My mom didn’t understand advocacy. She put me from school to school to basically do what was convenient for her, not understanding that every school wasn’t set up to make sure every child had a successful outlook on life.”
Still, Dukes’ mother taught her the importance of Black parents advocating for their kids when it mattered most — at a parent-teacher conference. Her mother noticed that Dukes was being grouped with children the school had deemed “unteachable” after receiving insight from her teacher, Dukes said.
“My mama came and noticed the breakdown of the kids,” Dukes said. “I was grouped with the kids that they thought could not learn or didn’t want to learn.”
After that conversation, Dukes said, she was removed from that group and funneled into another cohort of students. The transition, she said, changed her education environment and outlook that she has today.
Dukes, now a mother of 10 children who all either attend or graduated from APS, teaches other parents the power of advocacy through the nonprofit organization she founded, Atlanta Thrive. She’s trying to help them have a voice in decisions that shape their children’s journeys at APS — by focusing their attention on the folks who run APS.
Dukes and other education equity advocates across the city are mobilizing Atlanta’s Black communities for the 2023 school board election. Polls opened for early voting on Oct. 16 and Election Day is Nov. 7. Advocates are using a variety of methods that include canvassing, community outreach through programmatic work, and reaching voters on social media — all as a means of boosting how residents engage with board elections this year.
In a district where 74% of the students are Black and 71% are economically disadvantaged, school board elections should be a focal point for the Black community. Factors like lack of civic education, changes to Georgia election law that limit absentee ballot voting, and socioeconomic disadvantages of the voting population need to be taken into consideration when motivating voters to the polls this fall.
Now, advocates are working to find policy solutions to boost turnout for an election where voters are charged with deciding the next five representatives for APS and the district’s more than 35,000 Black students. While low engagement in local elections is a broader concern, school board elections often get even less attention.
Pearl Dowe, a political science professor at Emory University, emphasized that reminding voters “all politics are local” is key to resonating with more Black potential voters. She also says that when it comes to issues, politicians campaign on the promise of addressing the issue but don’t necessarily circle back when it matters the most to voters.
“Politicians have to make issues relevant for Black voters to turn out,” Dowe said. “But, oftentimes in local elections, because of the nature of how those issues have been used and are not discussed, they don’t seem as relevant to the voter.”
Understanding the low voter engagement issue
Capital B Atlanta crunched the data on voter participation in the 2021 municipal election, comparing the voting-age population in the city and individual BOE districts to the number of votes cast in each race. While low engagement in local elections is a broader concern, school board elections often get even less attention. Our analysis bears this out.
Nearly 97,200 people cast votes in the general election for mayor, about 23% of people who were old enough to vote, according to city and county data.
In comparison, an average of about 19% of voting-age residents voted in the three citywide at-large school district races for the Board of Education. The percentage was the same in BOE district-specific races, in which only residents in that district can vote.
The district with the lowest number of votes cast — just 7,400, or 10% of the district’s voting-age population — was District 2, which includes the majority of Black neighborhoods in south and west Atlanta serviced by schools in the Washington and Douglass high school clusters. At both high schools, over 95% of students are Black.
Tammy Greer, a Georgia State University public policy professor who studies the relationship between community and civic engagement and inequitable public policies for underserved communities, attributes low interest in local elections to the candidates’ lack of visibility and inadequate civic education in the broader society. Greer says that low turnout is also driven by many other factors, including the lack of authentic news coverage of lower-profile elections that pose higher local stakes versus federal elections.
“We don’t focus on local races,” Greer said. “This is what [affects] communities immediately, but there’s no authentic, genuine conversation around these local races and the impact that it has on communities.”
Dowe agrees with Greer, arguing that changes to Georgia’s election laws systematically disenfranchise Black voters by creating extra steps — like requiring residents to send in ID cards with their absentee ballots and shortening hours of drop boxes — that threaten voter accessibility.
“Part of how oppression works is that people will respond in a way that will be the result of oppression, and it’ll be favorable to oppression,” Dowe said. “So if people feel, ‘OK, they don’t want me to vote and my vote doesn’t matter,’ why should I vote?”
There is also a disconnect for voters who may not have the civic understanding of what school boards actually do, the vital roles they play in the community, or where exactly the boards fit in the complex web of local, state, and federal government, according to Greer.
“When you listen to parents and certain communities, they attribute learning and what goes on in the classroom with the federal government, and that is not the federal government’s responsibility,” Greer said. “So it is the lack of understanding who’s responsible for what, which is that lack of civic education, which then dovetails into the lack of civic participation.”
Just as literacy can affect a child’s ability to attain well-paying jobs and economic stability in their future, Dowe said it also impacts a voter’s ability to make informed decisions. And, she said, people from low-income backgrounds who are struggling to make ends meet face other barriers to engaging with local elections.
“One of the things that we know about their perspective on life is that they need immediate change,” Dowe said. “They don’t need change that’s going to take four years, five years. So as a result of that, the politicians and politics doesn’t seem to be a viable option because the change does not occur fast enough.”
The way forward: policy problems and grassroots solutions
Advocates contend that empowering the community to overcome low turnout requires a multifaceted approach.
Dukes said Atlanta Thrive is focused on bridging the civic education gap among parents, recognizing that each parent is different and requires different levels of support to ensure they have equitable access to information about their school district, its elected officials, state testing, grading indexes for districts, and local school board elections.
“We are trying to meet them where they are so that we can activate them where we need to,” Dukes said.
The organization runs programs that help educate parents in the different levels of advocacy. One of the programs, the Goals and Guardrails initiative, provides support to parents of all walks of life who are interested in mobilizing for education advocacy in the community.
Thrive members reach the parents through door-knocking, canvassing in places like carpool lines, and by attending engagement opportunities like community town halls, school board meetings, and PTA meetings. Atlanta Thrive also has a parent-focused fellowship that teaches community members the history of APS, how public education systems work, and the necessary steps to advocate for their children by understanding and learning APS policies.
“We invite parents that are in different stages,” Dukes says. “We bring all of them together in a diverse space to spark the fire for parents that don’t know and the parents that do know, allowing them to lead those charges when we talk about the educational campaign.”
Michaela Shelton, the voter engagement lead for Equity in Education, a local nonprofit education advocacy, said boosting voter education, activation, and overall interest in the school board is key.
However, due to the history of civics in Atlanta, Shelton says she is hopeful that voters will show up to cast their ballot in what she said is a necessary step toward putting APS’s children first.
“Voting and civil rights shaped Atlanta,” Shelton said. “We have a legacy where we have, across the district, an 84% graduation rate, but only 22% of Black students can read — that’s the legacy that I hope that we could rewrite, that we could build upon.”
For Dukes, voting in the upcoming school board election not only represents a step forward in the battle for equity at APS that parents can take — it’s also a way to forge meaningful partnerships between the school board and the communities it’s meant to serve.
By doing this, Dukes says groups like hers can reach parents in real time and encourage parents by producing genuine, lasting relationships.
“If it was a partnership, we would be able to educate our parents and our stakeholders in real time, and it would feel genuine when we’re planning and getting these people in these seats,” Dukes said.
“They’ll be more comfortable with having a conversation with the people who actually manage the board, which is us.”