Category Archives: Equity

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.

ICYMI: Is There or Isn’t There a Looming Fiscal Cliff for Education?

Throughout the past month, Bellwether has weighed in on the financial health of schools in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, with different reactions, resources, and recommendations from across our team. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: 

You can read all the posts in the series here, and we welcome your reactions! Thanks for following along.

Which Outcomes Should Minnesota Hold Its High Schools Responsible For?

Long before the pandemic, schools and communities recognized that a high school diploma is no longer enough. Today, eight in 10 Minnesota students graduate high school, but as more graduates look to a future amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they may question whether their high school has adequately prepared them to succeed in college or career.

Minnesota has taken steps to create programs to prepare students for life beyond high school, as well as collect critical information and data about those efforts. Yet the state has failed to incorporate postsecondary outcomes into the way it evaluates high school performance. It’s time to fix this mismatch.

Minnesota’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which dates back to 1985, was the first-of-its-kind to help students complete high school and college coursework at the same time. Nearly 250,000 Minnesota students have benefited from this program since its inception, and that number doubles once you include Minnesota’s other dual enrollment programming.

In addition to information on the PSEO program, the state tracks student performance in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, as well as SAT and ACT results. Minnesota also tracks a variety of additional measures on high school graduates, such as postsecondary enrollment and employment outcomes like the number of hours worked, in what industry, and the hourly wages earned. 

Unfortunately, Minnesota’s efforts at data collection result in nice graphs on a website with little effect on student success. What is the point of data collection unless it informs programming, benefits students, and helps ensure all students are given equal opportunities?

High school leaders may think it’s unfair to hold them accountable for what happens outside their walls. But students need to be prepared for the world that awaits them, whether that is a pandemic-ravaged economy or remote college learning, and schools bear significant responsibility to provide that preparation. Continue reading

The 3 Million Who Never Showed Up for Virtual Schooling

For some students, the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic on education goes far beyond coping with the difficulties of distance learning. For these students, a day in March or April marks the last day of their formal education altogether. Out of the approximately 53 million K-12 students in the United States who stopped attending in-person school in the spring, an estimated three million may have never showed up online at all.

That figure comes from a new Bellwether analysis that estimates the number of students who, due to various barriers, did not make the transition, remaining disconnected even as schooling continued online. Just as the pandemic has disproportionately affected our most vulnerable and marginalized communities, this “disconnected” population is more likely to be composed of English learners, students in foster care, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and students with disabilities. Three million students is approximately 1 out of every 4 of these student populations combined — and also roughly equivalent to the entire school-age population of Florida.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes, social unrest, and a general election, it’s easy to miss what’s happening here. But just like the pandemic itself, the defining feature of this crisis is the scale — this is something that every district, in every state, is struggling to address. Once a young person leaves school, it can be very difficult to re-engage them. The long-term implications of even a short period of learning loss are serious, and the outcomes associated with dropping out of high school are even more dire.

We could be witnessing the beginning of an event that has lifelong implications for this generation of students, in much the same way that the Great Recession has hamstrung millennials’ accumulation of wealth relative to previous generations. And among the young people of this new generation, the harshest impacts fall, time after time, on communities of color, students with disabilities, and those living in poverty. 

That’s a gloomy picture to paint, and it’s easy to feel as though we can’t grapple with this problem the way we would want to, given the enormity of everything else happening in the world. But there are concrete steps we can take right now to mitigate the damage being done, from improving attendance data collection — and data sharing — across public agencies to implementing interventions that meet the most vulnerable students where they are. Many teachers and leaders have identified a need for collaboration with social service providers and telecommunications firms to provide Internet connectivity to those in dire need. And states must provide stronger guidance, funding, and resources for schools and social services that can be spent flexibly, effectively, and in a timely manner.

Above all, the number one thing public officials can do to start to repair the damage done — and to prevent the unimaginable harm of a “lost generation” — is to develop and effectively implement the public policies needed to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic by reducing community transmission to levels negligible enough to permit a return to the normal school environment. There is no sustainable education policy workaround that can surmount a public health crisis of this magnitude. Back on March 13, seven months ago, it was difficult to imagine we would find ourselves in this position; our best course of action now is to take aggressive action on behalf of the roughly three million students whose educational futures are in the balance.

Four Latina Education Leaders on Better Serving Dual Language Learners and Families

leana Ortiz, a New Orleans parent advocate with EdNavigator, talks about ensuring that dual language families are recognized and included: When I think about the families I serve in my community, these families have risked everything. They’ve crossed oceans, they’ve been detained, they’ve experienced things that are really tragic and traumatic, and a big reason why is to try and give their families and their kids a shot at a better life. And they believe that comes with education. I get pretty fiery when I feel like I’m not seeing that honored by teachers or by schools. Sometimes when I’m talking to teachers and schools about offering translated materials, it sounds like I’m asking for something extra. But it’s not something extra.

There are almost 60 million Latinos in the U.S., and Latino children make up almost a quarter of the children in our country — and our schools. Still, “media coverage of Hispanics tends to focus on immigration and crime, instead of how Latino families live, work and learn in their hometowns.”

Hispanic Heritage Month, ending today, is an opportunity to elevate stories of resilience and identify opportunities to positively engage Latino communities. Bellwether is taking a look at language access and the ways our schools either engage or fail to engage bilingual families. Dual language learners (DLLs), children under the age of 8 who have at least one parent who speaks a language other than English, represent a fast-growing group of students in the United States, and the most prevalent language spoken by this group is Spanish. 

But our education system is failing these children in both our approach and attitude. Many of our education policies are oriented toward remedying “deficits” in English, instead of embracing  bilingualism as an asset that leads towards multicultural perspectives, advanced learning, and national enrichment. This deficit-based approach contributes to academic disparities between DLLs and monolingual students that are evident as early as kindergarten. When educational settings devalue DLLs’ strengths, families of dual language learners can feel unwelcome.   

In the course of researching our new report, Language Counts: Supporting Early Math Development for Dual Language Learners, we spoke to parents and advocates to understand why it’s important to shift from a deficit- to an asset-based model of engagement with dual language learners. 

These conversations elevate the voices of those who are too often an afterthought when creating education policy and serve as a reminder that every child and every parent, regardless of their English proficiency, deserves equal access to the support they need to succeed.  Continue reading