Tag Archives: school boards

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.

Performative Action Isn’t Enough. It’s Time for Real Change in Hanover County Schools

Michael Johnson is an intern with Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.

On Tuesday, July 14th, the school board of Hanover County, Virginia narrowly ruled (4-3) in favor of changing the names of two schools named after confederate leaders: Lee Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

As someone who grew up in and attended Hanover County Public Schools, removing those names has long been overdue. Located less than 30 minutes from the former capital of the confederacy, Hanover County has repeatedly blocked community members’ efforts to change the two school names in the past, most recently in 2018.

But while the mobilization to replace symbols of white supremacy is imperative, it’s only a prerequisite. In the absence of structural change, renaming fails to redress the structures which reproduce oppression and generate harm for Black and brown communities

Growing up in Hanover County, racism was another day of the week, an inevitable truth which seemed too ingrained to change. My mother knows this first hand. Born in 1960, she was among the first class to integrate Hanover County Public Schools during the 1969-1970 school year, 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

photo courtesy the author

I know this first hand as well. Beyond the school names commemorating confederate leaders, racism manifested through the microaggressions of my white peers telling me “you are smart for a Black person” or “you sound white.” It manifested more overtly when being called the N-word by a group of white students once on my way to the bathroom, another time after Prom, and yet again when students etched racial epithets on the building of my high school. The most recent examples include KKK recruitment flyers being found in the yards of Hanover County residents in February and an open rally of nearly a dozen Klan members in July. An Instagram page created in June, @BlackatHanoverCPS, documents ongoing racial hatred filling the halls of our schools. 

These are not isolated events: they are indicative of the endemic racism deeply rooted in the community, symbolized by the former school names. 

However, unlike the names — which were removed virtually overnight following the School Board vote — behaviors, beliefs, and systems are not as easily changed. Similar to the district’s staunch opposition to integration during my mother’s time, the Hanover County School Board and Board of Supervisors continue to illustrate this resistance to change.  Continue reading

Three “Must-Have” Areas of Freedom that Autonomous Schools Need to Succeed

My colleagues and I have been working with districts in several states to design and launch autonomous district schools, and over the past several months, we’ve rolled out a series of blog posts and other resources to explain how these kinds of schools can work best, including the new video below:

An obvious question in this work is: Which types of autonomies are crucial to the success of autonomous district school efforts?

Having worked with hundreds of high-performing schools around the country over the past fifteen years, I believe that strong alignment within and across three key areas is necessary to deliver excellent outcomes for students:

1. People

In a traditional district school, the principal likely has a number of people on her team who she did not hire. Maybe a few of them are not bought into the principal’s vision and would rather be on another campus. 

Principals in autonomous schools must have control over who is on their team, how roles are structured, and how teachers use their time, as my colleague Tresha Ward has written extensively about. Think about high-performing charter schools or networks: inevitably they have a leadership team and staff that believe deeply in the mission and unique instructional approach. 

Similarly, principals in district autonomous schools need to be able to select and support a team that is aligned around a common vision and strategy for educating children, wants to be part of the school, and is committed to professional learning and growth. Continue reading

Denver Voters Just “Flipped” the School Board

The votes in Denver have been counted. Tuesday’s election of Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick to Denver Public School’s board signals a seismic shift away from the education reforms made over the last fourteen years. Long known as one of the country’s most reform-friendly elected school boards, all three of the new members were supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the local teachers’ union.

headshot of newly elected Denver school board member Tay Anderson wearing a bright red tshirt with DCTA, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

photo of Tay Anderson courtesy his Facebook page

For the first time in over a decade, the balance of power on the board has shifted towards people supporting more traditional, union-friendly policies. This may signal that changes to Denver Public Schools (DPS) lacked durable support from the community. DCTA mobilized voters in response to a feeling that “for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities,” as my colleague Alex wrote on Monday.

Beginning in 2005, DPS began to grant more autonomy to schools, establish charter-friendly policies, and create a standardized performance management tool for all schools, resulting in student achievement gains and an increased graduation rate. As profiled on our Eight Cities website, DPS offers a mixture of school choices to students, including charter, district, and innovation options — and a unified enrollment system that allows families, at least in theory, to select the best school for their students. 

These policy changes were enabled by the composition of the district’s school board, with at least four of seven members aligned with education reform from 2009 to 2018. Four of those years (2013 – 2017) even saw unanimous support.

Yet reforms included closures of popular neighborhood schools. Newly elected board member Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old DPS graduate, experienced a school closure firsthand, inspiring him to become an advocate for Denver’s students. His platform includes building a teaching force more representative of local student demographics.

Some parents struggled to navigate the school performance management and unified enrollment systems, often defaulting to the neighborhood school based on proximity. Some objected to the expansion of charter schools, which DPS welcomed to meet rising enrollment in the 2000s. Teachers pushed back against the merit-pay system, culminating in a strike earlier this year. Other critics of reform efforts point out that despite the gains, the district has struggled to close achievement gaps between students of color and white students.

With the results of this election, the seven-person board now has five union-aligned members. If Tuesday’s results indicate dramatic changes to come in Denver’s school policies, it’s a district to watch.

This post was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvement.

School Board Demographics Don’t Match Student Demographics  — And That’s a Problem

This post is part of a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness.

Today’s average public school board member is a white male with a family income of over $100K a year. 

The majority of today’s public schools students, on the other hand, are female, students of color, and very likely to be from low-income families. Many are first-generation Americans navigating their own lives while also serving as de facto interpreters for their parents. 

If school board members don’t look like the students they represent, how can boards understand and value the needs of our most underserved students — and make decisions through an equity lens?

Bellwether recently completed research on Rhode Island’s governance practices, including how  school boards operate. Similar to the findings of a 2018 National School Boards Association report, we found that more than 60% of board members in Rhode Island are white and have advanced degrees, while fewer than 6% grew up in poverty or received special education or English language learning support. In contrast, 49% of Rhode Island’s public schools’ students are people of color: 31% are Hispanic/Latinx and close to 10% are Black/African American. 40% of these students are from low-income families, almost 20% are identified as having a disability, and almost 10% are English language learners.

Rhode Island is not alone. A recent study of Ohio’s school boards illustrates how lack of representation and understanding hurts underserved students. In the case of Ohio, citizens from more affluent areas run for school board and are elected, and then amplify the voices of families from their neighborhoods. As a result, affluent students and their schools receive greater resources.

For more equitable school board decision making, here are three suggestions for state departments of education, school boards, and leaders:

Continue reading