Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #32

Welcome to Hall Pass, a newsletter written to keep you plugged into the conversations driving school board politics and governance.

In today’s edition, you’ll find:

  • On the issues: The debate over Virginia’s transgender school guidance 
  • Four states provide for partisan labels for school board elections 
  • Extracurricular: education news from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey

Reply to this email to share reactions or story ideas!

On the issues: The debate over Virginia’s transgender school guidance

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.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Younkin (R) released guidance Sept. 16 related to public school transgender policies. The guidance does the following: 

  • Limits participation in boys’ and girls’ school sports to a student’s biological sex. 
  • Permits teachers to use pronouns that do not align with a student’s biological sex when parents approve the usage. 
  • School districts cannot “compel … personnel or other students to address or refer to students in any manner that would violate their constitutionally protected rights.”

The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board writes that the guidance will encourage discrimination and bullying against transgender students. The Editorial Board also says Youngkin’s administration is unlikely to enforce the guidance or prosecute schools, districts, or teachers who do not comply, so it created needless divisions.

Mary Vought writes that the guidance protects parental decision-making rights and makes it clear that schoolchildren do not belong to the government. Vought says prior Democratic administrations tried to take rights away from parents, and Youngkin’s guidance sets a better balance that respects families and prioritizes family choices over bureaucratic interference. She says the guidance is common sense.

Editorial: Youngkin’s harmful policy proposal targets transgender children | The Virginian-Pilot & Daily Press Editorial Board, The Virginian Pilot & Daily Press

“Without an enforcement mechanism, however, school districts that refused to adopt these protections have faced no penalty. So far. It’s possible they might face lawsuits from students and families, but nobody expects the Youngkin administration to pressure them. The governor made that abundantly clear with the release of this new policy model which cynically begins by declaring that schools should be ‘free [f]rom discrimination, harassment or bullying’ — and proceeds to ensure transgender kids will face those very things simply because they are who they are. How is it dignified to use the ‘dead name’ of a child in transition or insist on using the wrong pronouns? How is it respectful to force children to use a bathroom that doesn’t align with their identity? Perhaps the governor can provide some explanation. … But the real issue is this: Given the choice between compassion and cruelty, the Youngkin administration embraced the latter and is advancing an effort that will make life even more miserable for kids just trying to figure out who they are in the world. The governor says he wants ‘divisive concepts’ out of schools. He’s got a funny way of showing it.”

Opinion | Virginia’s new school guidance protects parental rights | Mary Vought, The Washington Post

“To the left, children exist primarily as wards of the state — ones that government officials can teach, or indoctrinate, as they wish — rather than the responsibility of the parents who brought them into the world and in almost all cases care more for them than anyone else, bureaucrats included. The Youngkin guidance correctly overturns this woke ideology and restores parental rights to their proper place. Principles such as ‘schools shall defer to parents to make the best decisions with respect to their children’ and ‘schools shall keep parents informed about their children’s well-being’ make perfect sense to the vast majority of Virginians. Rather than allowing students to ‘change’ genders behind their parents’ backs, the guidance places those household conversations where they belong: at home, within a family unit. … Prior administrations acted in ways that undermined parental rights, constitutional protections and the conscience beliefs of others. In issuing its new guidance, the Youngkin administration has restored the proper balance where it belongs. I applaud him for his actions, and other Virginia parents should do so as well.”

State law in four states provides for partisan labels for school board elections 

The vast majority of school districts—estimated at around 90%—hold nonpartisan elections, in which candidates run without a party affiliation affixed to their name on the ballot. 

In a previous edition of this newsletter, we looked at the growing debate over partisan elections and featured a summary of bills introduced this year in states like Indiana, South Carolina, and West Virginia that would allow or require districts to hold partisan elections. 

With school board general elections coming up on Nov. 8, we thought it would be a good time to dig into our research on where state law provides for partisan school board elections. Two questions guided this research: First, could we find a state law providing for partisan elections? Second, does state law give local governments the flexibility to hold partisan elections if they choose?

Here’s what we found:

  • In 41 states and the District of Columbia, state law requires nonpartisan elections for school boards.
  • Law in four states—Alabama, Connecticut, Louisiana, and, with some exceptions, Pennsylvania—automatically allow partisan school board board elections or party labels to appear on the ballot. These four states have a combined 878 school districts and 7,652 elected school board members. That’s about seven percent of all school districts in the country.
  • State law in at least five states—Georgia, Rhode Island, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina—either explicitly allows for partisan or nonpartisan elections or gives local authorities enough control over elections to effectively allow the option. These five states have a combined 554 school districts and 3,342 elected school board members.

In North Carolina and Georgia, some districts hold partisan elections while others do not. As of 2018, at least 36 county school districts in North Carolina had adopted partisan elections. According to the Georgia School Board Association in 2021, 109 of the state’s 180 school districts have non-partisan elections, leaving 71 with partisan elections. 

Tennessee joined Georgia and North Carolina in allowing—but not requiring—districts to hold partisan school board elections on Nov. 12, 2021, when Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed HB9072 into law. The law, which took effect immediately, says that candidates can run as the representative of a political party if a county party committee “elects to conduct school board elections on a partisan basis.” In districts holding partisan elections, the law says “political parties may elect to nominate a candidate under party rules rather than by primary election.” 

According to Chalkbeat Tennessee, school board candidates in more than half of Tennessee’s counties ran in partisan races in the Aug. 4 primary.  

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

Today, we’re highlighting survey responses from the Nov. 8 general election for Wake County Schools District 4 in North Carolina. The Wake County Public School system is the largest district in North Carolina, with an estimated 159,802 students.  

Four candidates are running in the nonpartisan race. Incumbent Tara Waters, Becky Lew-Hobbs, and Michael T. Williams completed Ballotpedia’s Candidate Connection survey. Candidate Daniel Grant-King did not complete the survey.  

Here’s how Waters, who first took office on March 15, 2022, answered the question “What areas of public policy are you personally passionate about?

“Tara is committed to applying an equity lens to the decision-making processes. In that effort, it is important to her to ask some critical questions that might include: • Are the right people at the table to make the decision? • What are the potential impacts on those who are historically underrepresented? • Does the decision have the potential to ignore or increase existing disparities or produce other unintended consequences? • How will evaluation and monitoring be implemented to ensure equity?

By asking these and similar questions, she believes elected officials can help ensure policies and procedures with everyone in mind are implemented. While no decision will fully satisfy all groups, as an equity lens is applied, Tara hopes to address issues that impede progress for our most vulnerable communities and thereby strengthen the district as a whole.”

Click here to read the rest of Waters’  responses. 

Here’s how Lew-Hobbs answered the question “What areas of public policy are you personally passionate about?

“The current board has been in place for a decade. They have disregarded the best interests of students, have demonstrated contempt for their constituents, & have burdened teachers to do things beyond the scope of providing a quality education.

  • Quality Education-The board has sacrificed providing quality education; instead, they focus on political & social driven agendas. • Board Transparency -The board does not listen to or respond to parents and the community. Emails are ignored & they do not respond to public comments. • Learning Loss-For more than 2 yrs parents have voiced concerns over learning loss. Yet the board has mocked & ignored parents. Instead, the board chose to follow the guidance of the NCAE calling learning loss a “false construct”. • Supporting Teachers -Teachers are frustrated because they are asked to do more than teach. When teachers must spend time issuing surveys, gathering medical & psychological data they have less time to focus on teaching. • Board Integrity -The board has been shown to be negligent when they attempted to appoint someone to the open D-4 position who did not reside in the district.

All students deserve a quality, unbiased education to give them the educational foundation for their future careers. As your school board representative, I will advocate for all children, implement sound curriculum choices, listen to parents, & be fiscally responsible so that we can bring quality education back to all students of Wake County.”

Click here to read the rest of Waters’ responses. 

Here’s how Williams answered the question, “What areas of public policy are you personally passionate about?

“I am passionate about ensuring that our schools have the human, physical, fiscal, technological, and other resources necessary to meet the needs of the students we serve. While the tax base in our community may not be as high as some other parts of the district, our students are just as valuable and important as those in the more affluent areas of the district. It is incumbent upon us as parents, guardians, and concerned citizens to ensure that every student in our area receives a quality education from highly qualified professionals, in safe and modern facilities replete with state of the art technological and instructional resources.”

Click here to read the rest of Williams’ responses. 

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