Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #35

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 who should decide which books should be available in schools
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • In your district: reader replies on declining enrollment
  • Upcoming school board general elections
  • Extracurricular: education news from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey
  • School board candidates per seat up for election

Reply to this email to share reactions or story ideas!

On the issues: The debate over who should decide which books should be available in schools

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.

What books students should be able to access in school libraries has long been a topic of debate. One important question in that debate is ”who” should be able to make such decisions.

Hayes Brown says parental campaigns against books and school board decisions to remove material from school libraries are harmful, limiting, and insulting to children and teens. He also says school boards should be more resistant to calls from parents to remove books from school libraries because it is healthy for students to have access to new and challenging ideas.

Suzanne Bates writes that challenges to school library books and course materials have come from parents on the left and the right and are not necessarily bad. Bates says it is the job of parents to make sure schools stay on what she calls the right track and are not teaching concepts or offering students materials that alienate large portions of the population. She says all material in schools is curated, so it is not unreasonable for parents to question the curation and advance accountability.

School board book bans on LGBTQ issues and race are hurting, not helping, students | Hayes Brown, MSNBC

“I understand it must be terrifying for parents to send their children off to school, where they’re outside their control for the majority of the day. That fear is part of why Republicans have been so successful in recent campaigns against “critical race theory” and transgender youth in sports. However, the truth is the books under examination are rarely too difficult for students to handle — it’s their parents who struggle. … What’s often lost in this discussion … is that many of the maligned books are there for high school students to read and digest. These parents’ attempts to block access to these works is as limiting as it is insulting to the teenagers they’re supposedly protecting. And even if younger children have access to these books, I can’t imagine being a parent upset that my child is reading more advanced material. … The most fear is directed at challenging, complicated books that deal with the exact sort of struggles and themes that many parents would prefer their children never face in real life. But the students who most need to read many of these books are the ones who are struggling with these issues in real life.”

Perspective: Parents are right to be concerned about what kids read | Suzanne Bates, Deseret News

“[N]o matter what public perception is, public schools are already places where library books and course materials are curated. This is true whether the curation is because of cultural insensitivity or sexually explicit material, or just plain old personal taste. You cannot fit every book into a school library, or on a high school class book list, so choices are made about what makes it in and what doesn’t. … As parents, it’s our responsibility to keep an eye on what our children are learning, and to ask whether what they are taught helps them become better educated, better prepared for meaningful citizenship and better humans. We will all have different answers on what content accomplishes these goals, but when ‘public’ school materials become so politicized that they are alienating a large swath of the population, chances are we are not on the right track. … [O]ne can celebrate free speech and still believe that not every book belongs in a K-12 public school library. We’ve often differentiated what is appropriate for children versus what is appropriate for adults. When public school librarians celebrate a “banned” book that contains graphic illustrations of sex between a minor and an adult, and parents are labeled “far-right” or “bigots” for objecting, that feels like gaslighting.”

In your district: reader replies on declining enrollment

We recently asked readers the following question about how districts should address declining enrollment:

Recent research suggests public school enrollment has declined since 2020 as parents, concerned about things like pandemic-driven learning loss, have shown an increased willingness to consider alternative educational arrangements. 

What should districts do to address the challenge of declining enrollment?

Thank you to all who responded. Today, we’re sharing a handful of those responses. We’ll return in November with another reader question. If you have ideas for a question you’d like to see us ask, reply to this email to let us know!

A teacher at a high school in California wrote:

“Continue to offer strong academics (in the end, that’s what I think most parents want), but also ongoing (PK-12) pull-out classes/electives in art, music, computer science (or how to use computers for younger students) and great extracurriculars. These are interesting and/or fun classes and activities that draw in a lot of students (and are often hard for a parent to provide without a lot of expense) as well as being community-building for the students. You simply can’t have the experience of Homecoming in an online environment, for instance.”

A school board member in Michigan wrote:

“Keep standards high. Keep students and staff as top priorities. Educate ALL students. Work with local governments and businesses to bring more businesses and high paying jobs to our rural areas.”

A community member from Arizona wrote:

“Be more active and much more visible in the community as a respected community leader.  Educators tend to be somewhat myopic, parochial and insular as a result our schools tend to be ‘that building down the street with a fence around it that kids go to every day’. The community at large hears from schools only when there is a bond issue or budget override that needs to be passed, or a scandal of some sort that makes the paper. Educators including teachers, administrators, school board members and advocates need to be involved in Kiwanis/Rotary/lions and the like, have frequent positive mention in local news media and be far more visible.”

A teacher in Virginia wrote

“This is an incomplete question, as while the power of individual districts varies by state, in most cases it is limited to a significant degree as other entities including local governments, the federal government, and several state level actors (including governors, state legislators, and state department and boards of education) all have power over this situation as well. 

All of these entities first and foremost need to focus on recruiting and retaining the best teachers. We are in a crisis and parents will not want to send their children to schools without enough teachers. To do this, we need funding for pay increases and administrative and support staff need to focus on taking as much as possible off of each teacher’s plate so that we can fully focus on teaching. Solving the burnout crisis would go a long way to getting kids back into public schools. 

Beyond that, public education has become far too politicized. We need to remember that while parents ultimately have authority over what is best for their child, schools and teachers want to work with parents to provide the best possible education for all children. Greater opportunities for career and other programs to prepare children for life after high school would go a long way towards helping public schools to live up to their mission to prepare every child for adulthood.”

A school board member from Washington wrote

“In our district families are leaving because of the state’s agenda they are pushing down students’ throats. What may work in the city does not work in these rural districts, but you have taken most local control away. At this point, until our district can make decisions that are best for the students in our district, the schools’ hands are tied.”

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 the more than 13,000 districts with elected school boards.

Upcoming school board general elections

We’re covering over 500 school board elections in 23 states on Nov. 8. Between now and Election Day, we’ll bring you quick previews of our school board battlegrounds.   

Today, let’s look at a few elections in Texas. Many districts in Texas held general elections on May 7. We covered those elections in Tarrant County in the May 18 edition of this newsletter.  

Leander Independent School District: Five of seven seats—Places 1,2, 5, 6, and 7—are up for election, and all of them are contested. Incumbents are running for re-election for Places 1, 2, 5, and 7. In 2020, some parents complained about high school reading material, prompting a yearlong literature review that resulted in the District removing 11 elective books from the curriculum. That decision has been a fault line in the elections this year, with some candidates running on removing more material. Leander, located just north of Austin, is on our list of school board elections where one or more candidates has taken a stance on at least one of the following topics: race in education/critical race theory, responses to the coronavirus pandemic, sex and gender in schools.

As of the 2019-2020 school year, Leander Independent School District had approximately 41,381 students, 2,753 teachers, and 47 schools. 

Round Rock Independent School District: Four seats are up for general election and one seat is up for a special election. All five incumbents are running for re-election. The Republican Party of Texas has endorsed John Keagy, Orlando Salinas, Jill Farris, Christie Slape, and Don Zimmerman. The candidates are running as a slate. The 1776 Project PAC, which has endorsed conservative school board candidates all over the country, has endorsed the slate. The Round Rock Democrats Club has endorsed Estevan J. Chuy Zarate, Alicia Markum, and Tiffanie Harrison. You can read candidate statements here. Round Rock is on our list of school board elections where one or more candidates has taken a stance on at least one of the following topics: race in education/critical race theory, responses to the coronavirus pandemic, sex and gender in schools.

As of the 2020-2021 school year, Leander Independent School District had approximately 50,953 students, 3,537 teachers, and 58 schools.

We’ll be back next week to look at battleground school board elections in other states. 

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 Santa Clara County Board of Education Trustee Area 7 in California. Two seats—Districts 6 and 7—are up for election (District 2 was up for election but the general election was canceled after only one candidate filed). 

Raeena Lari and Natalie Prcevski are running in the nonpartisan race. 

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

“Preparing each and every student for the future by meeting students where they are: When a student requires individualized attention to catch up or advanced level coursework to stay engaged, our job is to provide them what is necessary for their growth and enrichment. We have to empower children and hold the education system accountable for their well-being. After school care is important to bridge any existing gaps.

Prioritizing mental and physical health and wellness: As a Health Advisory Commissioner, I recognize that children cannot learn and teachers cannot teach if they are not doing well. We need to be in prevention mode for both mental and physical health issues. Early detection is key for prevention. This includes having enough counselors in school with an open door policy. Services readily available in school are used more often.

Advocating for equitable pay for teachers and access to affordable housing in the neighborhoods they work in: Studies have shown that higher teacher pay is linked to better learning outcomes. When educators are less stressed, they can focus on their students.”

Click here to read more of Lari’s responses. 

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

“Propelling student achievement for all students and all levels of learners. Let’s teach the real-world skills our students need to be successful in school and in life. They deserve the opportunity to move forward.

Creating safe, healthy environments where students and teachers can thrive. Mental health awareness and support is fore front post pandemic. We need infrastructure in place to be inclusive, fair, present and listening to ALL.

Partnering together with parents and the community to rebuild trust in our public schools. I am a product of public school. My child is in public school. Schools should be centers of our community. Together we lay the foundation for our students to navigate the evolving and complex world before us.”

Click here to read more of Prcevski’s responses.