Category Archives: Education Policy

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.

State Governments Will Be Even More Partisan Post 2020. What Does That Mean for Education?

In our federated system of K-12 education governance, state legislatures and governors play a huge role in shaping the educational experience of our nation’s children. Heading into the 2020 election cycle, only one state’s legislature was under split partisan control (Minnesota’s House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats, their Senate by Republicans). In every other state, one party had complete control of the legislature. In 36 states, one party held a trifecta of government control: both legislative chambers plus the governorship. 

The 2020 elections looked like an opportunity to disrupt that dynamic. Several legislative chambers looked like they might flip, including both chambers in Arizona and Alaska, Iowa’s House, Michigan’s House, Minnesota’s Senate, North Carolina’s Senate, and the Pennsylvania House. In an environment that appeared to favor Democrats across the country, it was a chance to break the stranglehold of single-party control in at least a few states.

But in the wake of the 2020 elections, it looks like we’ll have more of the same. So far, the only legislative chamber that flipped control is in New Hampshire, giving the Republicans a new trifecta under Gov. Chris Sununu. The GOP gained another trifecta in Montana following the election of Greg Gianforte as Governor. While there is still a chance that one or both chambers may flip in Arizona or Alaska, we certainly did not see Democrats making significant inroads in state-level races around the country. 

The next few years are sure to be critical for K-12 education policy. Schools, educators, and families are still struggling with educating kids in the midst of a global pandemic. State-level policymakers will not only have to support efforts to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction and face potential budgetary challenges, they will also need to address massive learning losses from months of disrupted learning — and in the case of some students, no learning at all

In 38 states, most of the policies to address those challenges will be formed and enacted by a single political party. In states controlled by Democrats, they’ll probably defer too much to teachers unions as they fight to keep schools closed. On the other side of things, Republican-led states may be hesitant to spend on measures to help schools reopen safely, like HVAC system upgrades

After all the ballots are counted, our nation will remain deeply divided on many fronts, but the challenges facing students, families, and educators transcend partisan affiliations. Let’s hope that state policymakers from both parties can rise to the moment.

Stay tuned for more Election 2020 coverage here.

Ballot Initiative Results in CA, WA, and Other States — and Implications for Education

On Election Day, Bellwether shared a roundup of key races and issues we are closely watching due their potential impact on education,. While the nation nervously waits for clarity in the Presidential race, the results from several important and expensive ballot initiatives have rolled in. Here are four that I’m paying attention to:

California’s Proposition 16

This ballot measure, which would have reversed the state’s longstanding ban on affirmative action in government hiring and in public university admissions, failed. After a summer marked by activism and calls for racial justice, 56% of voters in arguably the most progressive state rejected the measure. As a result of the state’s 1997 ban on affirmative action, the percent of Black students in the state’s university system has dropped in half, even as the state has produced more Black high school graduates. The ban also negatively affected the enrollment of Latino and Native American students in California’s public universities. In all, eight states have affirmative action bans similar to California’s and this loss is likely to have a chilling effect on activists looking to overturn bans in their states. 

California’s Proposition 15

The union-backed initiative that would result in higher property taxes for commercial and industry property to provide additional funding for local governments, schools, and community colleges is trailing as of this writing. Were it to pass, Proposition 15 would be the largest tax increase in California history, resulting in a net increase in tax revenues of up to $12 billion, 40% of which would go to K-12 schools and community colleges. At the time of writing, it appears that the majority of California voters will reject this tax hike and, along with it, potentially billions of additional revenue for schools.

Washington State’s Referendum 90

Washington became the first state this week to pass a comprehensive sex education mandate with nearly 60% support. The mandate requires public schools to offer families the option of age-appropriate curriculum focused on issues including human development and consent. Opponents of the measure argued inaccurately that the legislation would impede on local administrators’ ability to control the curriculum, but it appears voters were not swayed by these arguments. Washington now joins 24 other states and D.C. that require sex education. 

Multi-state Drug Reform

On Tuesday, voters across the nation sent a clear message and voted for drug policy reform. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. In Mississippi and South Dakota, voters legalized medical marijuana. In Oregon voters decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin, and in Washington, D.C., voters decriminalized psychedelic plants (like mushrooms). With these new policies to decriminalize and legalize certain drugs will come new questions for parents and educational officials. How should officials address issues of student drug possession? What will the impact of legalization be on K-12 achievement? What rights do employees have who use recreationally? Leaders can look for some answers in Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2012, saw the rate of teen drug use fall to its lowest level in a decade. 

Stay tuned for more Election 2020 coverage here.

What Bellwether Is Watching Out For in Election 2020

That there’s a lot at stake in this election is obvious. And there is a lot at stake for schools even as they’ve been mostly an afterthought on the campaign trail. There are immediate questions about COVID-19 relief and, going forward, big questions for early education, higher education, assessment, accountability, and choice policies for K-12 schools. 

This is nothing new: Bellwether has an entire genre of blog posts about how little education gets talked about during presidential debates, vice presidential debates, State of the Union addresses, and other federal policy conversations. And while single-issue education voters may not be unicorns, they are pretty rare.  

At Bellwether we track the election and what it means for clients, and we pay attention to the context and conditions schools operate in. Our team is united by a shared mission of improving life and education outcomes for underserved students, but we differ about how best to do that — and, by extension, about politics. But like everyone, we are paying close attention this year.

Here’s some of what we are watching for: Continue reading

Business Organizations Play a Key Role in Education Advocacy Post-COVID

Questions about when and how to reopen schools will have ripple effects for the business sector and broader economy. If schools cannot open at all, or open only part-time or for small groups of students on a rotating basis, adults cannot return to work. Without a workforce, businesses cannot reopen and the economy remains shuttered. As a result, the business community has an especially important role to play in current deliberations about whether and how to reopen schools.

Business advocacy organizations, such as chambers of commerce and business roundtables, are well-suited to engage in these deliberations. These organizations advocate on behalf of policies that ensure students gain the skills, knowledge, and experiences they need to be successful in the current and future economy. This can look like helping to pass legislation requiring computer science coursework or successfully advocating for legislation to improve access to industry-recognized credentials and work-based learning experiences. In light of the current pandemic, business advocacy organizations bring an important voice to the conversation about what schooling could and should look like in the near future.  

What makes these organizations well-suited to engage in these conversations? While there’s limited research examining how the most successful organizations work, my colleagues and I recently completed a report that uncovered three key strengths that the most successful have in common. 

First, business advocacy organizations have a deep understanding of the advocacy landscape in their state and understand how to bring diverse groups — such as Republicans and Democrats or business and labor — together for a common cause. In Washington State, for example, the Washington Roundtable coordinates the College Promise Coalition, which includes stakeholders from public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities, students, families, alumni, education advocates, education leaders, and business leaders. As part of its advocacy to improve enrollment and completion rates in the state’s postsecondary institutions, the coalition’s broad base demonstrated widespread support for the Workforce Education Investment Act, which ultimately passed. Coordinating community-wide efforts like these will be imperative as regions work to repair their business, economic, and education sectors in a post-COVID world.  Continue reading