Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #27

Welcome to Hall Pass. This newsletter keeps you plugged into the conversations driving school board politics and governance. Each week, we bring you a roundup of the latest on school board elections, along with sharp commentary and research from across the political spectrum on the issues confronting school boards in the country’s more than 13,000 school districts. We’ll also bring you the latest on school board elections and recall efforts, including candidate filing deadlines and election results.

In today’s edition, you’ll find:

  • On the issues:  The debate over literacy and how to teach reading 
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • Understanding the country’s more than 82,000 school board members
  • Extracurricular: education news from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey
  • School board candidates per seat up for election

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On the issues: The debate over literacy and how to teach reading 

In this section, we curate reporting, analysis, and commentary on the issues school board members deliberate when they set out to offer the best education possible in their district.

How educators teach children to read, especially in lower grades, is a topic of debate in the education community. Phonics-based teaching helps students learn to sound out and decode words. Whole-language instruction, on the other hand, suggests students can naturally learn to read through exposure to books with pictures and context that facilitate a memorization process. Some educators say they use both teaching methods to create a hybrid curriculum.

Emily Hanford writes that teachers who use hybrid models often believe learning to read is a natural process children pick up from engaging books that spark visual memorization. Hanford says guiding students through books with unfamiliar letter patterns and having students try to guess words based on pictures and context is ineffective for teaching reading. She says teachers should focus on teaching the sounds letters represent.

Kathleen Mikulka writes that phonics should be one part of a hybrid reading curriculum that also includes guided reading and other techniques from whole-language teaching. Mikulka says that phonics alone can be boring and unengaging for students and what she calls a middle way can give teachers more flexibility to work with students and personalize their instruction. 

Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wrong Way? | Emily Hanford, The New York Times

“It may seem as if kids are learning to read when they’re exposed to books, and some kids do pick up sound-letter correspondences quickly and easily. But the science shows clearly that to become a good reader, you must learn to decode words. Many whole-language proponents added some phonics to their approach and rebranded it ‘balanced literacy.’ But they did not give up their core belief that learning to read is a natural process that occurs when parents and teachers expose children to good books. So, while you’re likely to find some phonics lessons in a balanced-literacy classroom, you’re also likely to find a lot of other practices rooted in the idea that children learn to read by reading rather than by direct instruction in the relationship between sounds and letters. For example, teachers will give young children books that contain words with letter patterns the children haven’t yet been taught. You’ll see alphabetical ‘word walls’ that rest on the idea that learning to read is a visual memory process rather than a process of understanding how letters represent sounds. You’ll hear teachers telling kids to guess at words they don’t know based on context and pictures rather than systematically teaching children how to decode.”

TEACHER VOICE: We need phonics, along with other supports, for reading | Kathleen Mikulka, The Hechinger Report

“On the importance of explicit, systematic phonics instruction, I agree with Emily Hanford’s arguments in her recent article. I also believe that part of the reason we are still having this debate of phonics versus whole language versus balanced literacy is a matter of definitions. Phonics instruction that is all worksheets all the time and those little decodable books is boring. All picture books all the time is great fun, but students are being shortchanged without the phonics piece. … Since balanced literacy means different things to different people, we need to come up with an alternative name that encompasses the best of both worlds. This new program should be reading instruction, including systematic and explicit phonics, read aloud, guided reading, and free-choice reading. As I moved from teaching kindergarten to first and then second grade, as well as a curriculum coordinator and “response to intervention” teacher and coach, I have found this to be a powerful program for all students. … We have work to do. We must define and name this new middle way. We must keep the good parts of whole language and keep the pendulum from swinging all the way back to all phonics all the time.”

School board update: filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications

Ballotpedia has historically covered school board elections in about 500 of the country’s largest districts. We’re gradually expanding the number we cover with our eye on all of the roughly 14,000 districts with elected school boards.

Election results from the past week


We covered school board primary elections in 24 districts on Aug. 23.

Click here for district-specific election results.

Upcoming school board elections


We’re covering school board general elections in Boise on Sept. 6. Five seats are up for election, including special elections for three at-large seats. 

Understanding the country’s more than 82,000 school board members

The U.S. education system is a patchwork of local, state, and federal laws, regulations, and funding. The multilayered nature of this system has made comprehensive data on the number of school districts and school board members in the country difficult to assemble. However, a new Ballotpedia report fills this long-standing knowledge gap with objective, comprehensive data about all public school districts in the country. 

Our team combined original research—including scouring district and school board websites and email and phone outreach—with data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).  

This report does not include private or charter schools, or schools lacking their own school board.

Here’s what we found.

The big picture

  • The U.S. school system is composed of 13,194 districts. 
  • Around 82,423 elected school board members represent those districts (this figure includes vacancies). 
  • The average number of school board members per district ranges from 3.45 in West Virginia to 9.97 in Connecticut. Hawaii, with one overarching school district across seven islands, has nine board members. 

Men are more likely to serve on school boards

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women made up approximately 50.1% of the total U.S. population in 2019, while men made up approximately 48.9% of the population. How does that compare to the composition of male and female school board members? 

Nationwide, 52.15% of school board members are male, while 43.29% are female. We were unable to determine gender information for the remaining school board members (around 4.5%). 

The gender breakdown varies by state. The five states with the highest percentage of male school board members are:

  • Arkansas (63.90%)
  • Oklahoma (63.65%)
  • Tennessee (63.57%)
  • Texas (63.35%)
  • Nebraska (60.74%)

The five states with the highest percentage of female school board members are:

  • Florida (59.02%)
  • Alaska (58.59%)
  • Maryland (56.98%)
  • Arizona (55.77%)
  • Maine (54.79%)

Texas has the most school districts and the most school board members, but Connecticut has the most board members per district

Every state has at least one school district—and most states have more than 100. Hawaii, with one district, is a bit of an outlier. The Hawaii State Department of Education is a single district that oversees 257 schools across seven islands. Similarly, one district oversees all 116 schools in the District of Columbia. 

Unlike Hawaii, most states have many districts, though the numbers vary dramatically. 

Texas has more districts than any other state—1,022 (California, with 977, is not far behind). Aside from Hawaii, Delaware, with 19 school districts, is the state with the fewest districts. 

While Texas has the highest number of school districts and school board members, Connecticut has the most school board members per district—9.97. Texas has 6.84 board members per district, while California has only 5.04. West Virginia has the fewest board members per district, at 3.45. 

Click here to explore this data and more.  

Extracurricular: education news from around the web

This section contains links to recent education-related articles from around the internet. If you know of a story we should be reading, reply to this email to share it with us! 

Take our Candidate Connection survey to reach voters in your district

Everyone deserves to know their candidates. However, we know it can be hard for voters to find information about their candidates, especially for local offices such as school boards. That’s why we created Candidate Connection—a survey designed to help candidates tell voters about their campaigns, their issues, and so much more. 

In the 2020 election cycle, 4,745 candidates completed the survey. 

If you’re a school board candidate or incumbent, click here to take the survey.

The survey contains more than 30 questions, and you can respond to the ones you feel will best represent your views to voters. If you complete the survey, a box with your answers will display on your Ballotpedia profile. Your responses will also appear in our mobile app, My Vote Ballotpedia.

And if you’re not running for school board, but there is an election in your community this year, share the link with the candidates and urge them to take the survey!

School board candidates per seat up for election

Since 2018, we’ve tracked the ratio of school board candidates to seats up for election within our coverage scope. Greater awareness of issues or conflicts around school board governance can result in more candidates running for each office. Click here to see historical data on this subject.  

This year, 2.48 candidates are running for each seat in the 1,258 school board races we are covering in districts where the filing deadline has passed. The 2.48 candidates per seat is 24% more than in 2020.