Author Archives: Juliet Squire

Three Reasons to Move School Board Elections to November

Last week’s election was a referendum on the Trump Administration, but it wasn’t a referendum on how well schools have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because three out of every four states hold school board elections “off-cycle,” meaning they do not take place at the same time as other state and federal elections. 

The effect is dismal voter turnout. Recent estimates from the National School Boards Association place voter turnout in school board elections between 5 and 10 percent (compared to around 60 percent for presidential elections). Now, while families are acutely aware of how district governance affects their schools and their children, it’s time to move school board elections to the first Tuesday in November. 

First, moving school board elections to be held alongside other major elections could dramatically increase voter turnout. It’s commonly known that voter turnout for midterm elections is far lower than it is during presidential election years. Turnout for off-cycle elections is even lower. This year’s election provided a natural experiment in Dallas, where school board elections are typically held in the spring but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were instead held on Election Day last week. In May 2019, the off-cycle election for three seats on the Dallas school board garnered just 14,000 votes; last week, the election for two seats on the board garnered 86,000 votes, an increase of over 500 percent. 

Second, moving school board elections on cycle would balance out the interest groups most likely to organize and participate when an election is held off-cycle. Sarah Anzia’s research on election timing and turnout substantiates the idea that off-cycle elections are dominated by “politically motivated minorities” such as teachers unions. Consider the case of Los Angeles Unified School District. The district held its first on-cycle elections for two school board seats last week, in which charter school proponents challenged candidates supported by the teachers unions. Regardless of how one feels about charter schools or teachers unions, there’s no doubt the election generated significant attention and debate on an important question. Enormous energy — and money — went into an election with historic turnout. According to the LAist, the 243,000 ballots cast in the race for the District 3 school board seat are almost as many as all of the ballots cast for the same seat between 2003 and 2015. 

Finally, increasing voter turnout can increase the alignment between voter demographics and the demographics of students being served. Research from The Annenberg Institute at Brown University confirms that the demographics of voters are often very different from the demographics of the district’s students. On-cycle elections could help mitigate this phenomenon. Consider Gwinnett County where voters last week elected two African American women and displaced two white women, in an increasingly racially diverse district of suburban Atlanta. Would this have happened if elections were off-cycle and candidates could not ride the wave of increased voter participation in the African American community? On-cycle elections can help ensure that as a community changes, their school board changes with it. 

The argument for off-cycle elections has been that they insulate school board elections from the partisan politics that define elections for state and federal offices. But politics is inevitable in any democratic process, and the timing of elections is a political decision in itself. As the country struggles to get students back into school, and back to learning, surely school boards would benefit from more debate and scrutiny — not less.

Considerations For Private Schools and Their Allies Amid Budget Cuts

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

In August, I wrote for Education Next about how the pandemic was affecting private schools — especially those dedicated to serving high-need students — and the factors that can influence whether a school is able to pivot during uncertain and disruptive times. 

But as state budgets tighten, private schools that rely on vouchers or tax-credit scholarship programs to serve high-need students are not wholly in control of their own destiny. Rather, just as school responses have varied widely, policymaker responses will vary as well. 

After the 2008 recession, for instance, state school choice policies sometimes lost — and sometimes gained — significant funding. For example, funding for Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program dropped 20% after 2008 before rebounding a couple of years later. Meanwhile, funding for Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Parental Choice Program increased by 12%, and policymakers in the Sunshine State increased the ceiling on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program nearly 50%. 

There are limitations on what school choice proponents can predict in uncertain times. Here are three questions they should continue to revisit as the pandemic evolves this fall and new state legislatures prepare to convene in January:

What are the projections for your state’s economy?

The more constrained the resources, the harder it will be for policymakers to preserve and expand private school choice programs. First, it will be important to understand the state tax revenues that fund state voucher programs. State revenues often come from a combination of income and sales taxes, and, as Jennifer Schiess explained, these can be hard to predict. They could be less vulnerable to downturns, since the pandemic hit low-wage workers hardest and low-wage workers make up a smaller share of income tax revenue. Internet shopping could also offset declines in sales tax revenue from brick-and-mortar retail.  Continue reading

9 Considerations for Charter School Mergers in an Era of Limited Budgets

Since March, school funding experts have sought to understand how the economic turmoil coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic would affect school revenue. Most analysts agree that the impact will be significant and will be felt most by those who are the furthest from opportunity. Unfortunately, charter schools — which nationally enroll a student population that is 52 percent low-income, 25 percent Black, and 34 percent Hispanic — are particularly vulnerable to variations in state funding. 

Charter schools struggling with financial sustainability may consider whether the school’s mission might be better served by merging with another charter school. However, while charter school mergers can work, they are far from a simple solution and must be approached carefully.

As our colleagues Lina Bankert and Lauren Schwartze have previously written, a “merger” can take many shapes but, fundamentally, it involves joining together two or more organizations as one entity — through a formal legal agreement — in pursuit of a common goal. In the current financial climate, financial sustainability may be what prompts schools to explore a merger, but any merger conversation should start by defining all of the reasons why it could be a strategic move for each partner in the merger.

These nine considerations will help school leaders determine whether a merger might make sense for their school:

While a merger can support better financial efficiency in the long-term, financial efficiency is neither immediate nor guaranteed. If school leaders are pursuing a merger first and foremost because they believe it promises immediate financial benefits, they should stop and reconsider. A successful merger between two or more charter schools requires a short-term infusion of funding to support the merger process. To conduct due diligence, support internal decision making, plan implementation, and ensure a smooth transition period, school leaders will need financial resources for necessary staff time and legal expertise. Any long-term financial efficiencies will only occur after an initial up-front investment that can sometimes total hundreds of thousands of dollars.  

While a merger can increase financial strength by achieving a larger or more stable revenue base (via combined student enrollment) and by enabling some economies of scale, in practice the additional revenue is often used to support a high-quality school model, via investments to support rigorous and consistent instruction for the merged institution. As a result, a merger should not be thought of as a strategy for “saving money” per se, but instead as a way to combine resources to provide a high-quality education to more students, with the stronger financial footing that comes with that.   

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The Looming Financial Crisis? Resources for the Education Sector

Efforts to lift economy could tip off a financial crisis.” School districts brace for cuts.” Will the Banks Collapse?

With headlines like these making the rounds, there’s no way to avoid questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic has and will impact the economy — and in turn, America’s schools. The uncertainty is very real, and the consequences could be as well, but how can education leaders make sense of often contradictory and evolving prognostications? And if the impact won’t be catastrophic, what is the more complicated outlook?

At Bellwether Education, we’ve worked with schools, CMOs, districts, states, and nonprofits to understand this moment, and have begun to build an understanding — unpredictable as this moment is — of where our sector is headed fiscally, how organizations and policymakers should respond, and the key variables to keep an eye on. We understand how school funding works, from the federal budget process to state legislatures to local levies, and we’ve coached hundreds of clients on planning for and through financial uncertainty. 

In this new series, The Looming Financial Crisis?, we bring our policy chops together with our practical experience with districts, schools, and networks forward to share perspectives on how a financial crisis might play out and where impacts will be felt. Some questions we’ll explore:

  • Where does school revenue come from, what do we know about how the economic downturn might affect lower income communities? 
  • How can districts and schools carry out short-term and long-term planning amidst uncertainty, while prioritizing students furthest from opportunity?
  • What are the potential impacts on private school operations, especially those private schools dedicated to serving high-need students?
  • Will an economic downturn lead to increased interest in charter school mergers, and how should school leaders approach these potential partnerships and their impact on students and school communities? 

We’re here to cut through the noise so the education sector can navigate the uncertain future as effectively and efficiently as possible. Follow along as we roll out insights targeting school districts, state education agencies, individual schools, charter networks, and more.

5 Recommendations to Make “Learning Pods” More Equitable

Born out of desperation, families across the country are looking outside the school system for safe educational options for their children this fall, often partnering with other families to privately finance small-group learning. These “learning pods,” also referred to as “pandemic pods,” have fomented concerns about equity, since only a fraction of Americans can afford to pay a teacher out-of-pocket. 

But “learning pods” need not be inequitable. With the right blend of volunteerism, leadership, and innovation, learning pods can be a tool for increasing equity while traditional school campuses remain closed to students.

Here’s how:

Ask community spaces to donate meeting facilities

The requirements of social distancing demand more space if all students are to get a full education. Meanwhile, there are churches, temples, community centers, office buildings, and storefronts across the country currently sitting empty, as large gatherings are discouraged, adults work from home, and retailers close up shop. Many of those entities would probably be willing to donate their space to small learning communities at no cost, or in exchange for financial relief on their rent or mortgage payments. 

Expand the pool of potential teachers to enable lower student-teacher ratios

Student-to-teacher ratios are lower today than they were 30 or 40 years ago, but still higher than the number of students we might want to share a learning pod in order to minimize public health risks. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average number of students per teacher in 2017 was 16. Including the total number of instructional staff brings that ratio down significantly to 11.7. Add in teachers who have retired or left the profession, substitute teachers, students studying to become teachers, Americorps volunteers, and others and there may just be enough to create learning pods of 10 students or fewer. This could create the conditions for personalized instruction on a scale that’s often been dreamed of but never fully realized.

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