Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #42

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

A note to readers: It’s the holidays, and so we’ll be off next week to celebrate accordingly. We’ll return to your inbox again on Jan. 4, 2023. Thanks, as always, for reading, and we’ll see you in the New Year!

In today’s edition, you’ll find:

  • On the issues: The debate over school vouchers and whether they hurt or help rural communities 
  • The top five Hall Pass education stories of 2022
  • In school board elections, conflict issues break along existing party lines, incumbents lose at higher rate
  • Oklahoma attorney general says law prohibiting religious charter schools likely unconstitutional
  • 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 school vouchers and whether they hurt or help rural communities

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.

School vouchers and education savings accounts give parents money to spend on education at public schools, tuition at private schools, tutors, homeschooling curricula, and other educational materials. Today, we’ll look at discussions about whether the policy would help or hurt students in rural school districts.

Corey DeAngelis writes that school voucher and education savings account programs work well in rural areas. DeAngelis says competition between schools benefits students and families and does not reduce the quantity or quality of educational resources. He also says teachers unions are more powerful in rural areas relative to other political organizations and says they are responsible for arguments against vouchers in those areas.

Jill Long Thompson writes that school voucher and education savings account programs are bad for students and hurt rural schools more than urban schools. Thompson says such programs divert resources away from public schools that already lack the resources needed to provide quality education. Instead, these programs lead to the creation of a variety of low-quality private schools. She says rural public schools need more funding, not more competition.

The Little Red Schoolhouse Could Do With a Little Competition | Corey DeAngelis, Wall Street Journal

“Teachers unions and their allies are arguing that giving families choices in education would devastate their state’s rural public schools. This claim is neither new nor persuasive. … These same politicians also claim that rural constituents wouldn’t benefit from school choice because the local public school is their only option. These arguments can’t both be true. If rural families didn’t have any other options, public schools wouldn’t suffer. And if rural public schools are as great as the teachers unions say they are, they would have no need to worry about a little competition. The truth is that rural families benefit from school choice as much as any others do. More options are better than none, and supply isn’t fixed. If you put taxpayer-funded education dollars in the hands of parents, new private education providers will sprout up to meet demand. … Despite a growth in private options, the mass exodus from rural public schools that many have warned about hasn’t happened. In fact, 25 of the 28 studies on the topic find that private-school choice leads to better outcomes in public schools, from increased test scores to reduced absenteeism and suspensions. Competition is a rising tide that lifts all boats. … [G]iving families more options doesn’t result in a net loss of jobs; school choice simply allows families to determine where those jobs are concentrated.”

Vouchers can’t make rural schools great again | Jill Long Thompson, The Journal Gazette

“For rural communities, in particular, voucher programs create a business model that simply will not work. Running a rural school is very challenging because the resources are always limited, and oftentimes scarce. Vouchers encourage the creation of small private schools. But, we don’t need more schools in rural communities; we need more resources to strengthen the schools we have. Increasing the number of schools means increasing the overhead, which is why vouchers dilute resources even further. A school voucher program is the education policy equivalent of a county highway program that would give residents money to build little private roads anywhere they want. That would not only be costly and inefficient; it would not serve the community’s transportation needs. One must look no further than our own state, with its aggressive voucher program, to see the problems it causes for small rural school systems. Since 2011, Indiana has shifted $520 million into the state voucher program. Unfortunately, many of the schools receiving the vouchers have not performed as well as the public schools that lost funding because of the vouchers. A voucher program is not the solution to the challenges facing public education.”

The top five Hall Pass education stories of 2022

Hall Pass launched on Feb. 9, 2022. Thank you for joining us in this newsletter—we are grateful to have you as a subscriber. 

Every Wednesday, we’ve helped you understand the debates shaping education and curricula policy and make sense of the ever-changing world of school board politics. As we close out the year, let’s take a look back at our top education stories. 

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

On Aug. 24, we released a comprehensive report on the country’s 82,423 school board members and 13,194 school districts. Our research detailed the nationwide gender composition of school boards, the number of board members by state, and the breakdown of at-large and by-district school board seats.  

The seven education-related ballot measures voters decided on Nov. 8

Education was on the ballot in seven states on Nov. 8, with voters deciding measures related to college tuition, school meals, legislative oversight of state board rules, and more. Find out which measures passed in our story recapping the Nov. 8 ballot measure results. 

A brief history of school boards in early America

In this article, we traced the development of public education and school boards in America from the colonies through the beginning of the 19th century. 

How states fund public schools: an introduction 

Public school funding, which comes from federal, state, and local sources, isn’t the easiest topic to grasp. In this article, we explained the three primary funding formulas states use to allocate education funds. Learn how your state allocates funds at the link above. 

Charter schools in America: some basics

Did you know Minnesota was the first state to pass a law authorizing charter schools in 1991? In this article, we took a look at the history of charter schools and provided an overview of charter school funding. We also walked you through charter school statistics, including the number of charter schools by state and recent enrollment figures.

We’re looking forward to bringing you more education stories in 2023. If you have ideas for a topic we should cover, reply to this email to let us know.  

In school board elections, conflict issues break along existing party lines, incumbents lose at higher rate

Since Nov. 8, we’ve brought you periodic updates on our progress tracking the results of school board conflict updates. We’ve finished our analysis of 1,779 races in 545 school districts where candidates took a stance on at least one of three topics—race in education, responses to the coronavirus pandemic, and sex and gender in schools.

Here’s what we found. 

  • Candidates who supported measures like equity plans, mask requirements, and gender inclusion won 45% of these seats
  • Candidates who opposed those policies won 31%
  • Candidates whose stances could not be identified won 23%

Continuing a trend we observed in school board conflict elections in 2021 and earlier in 2022, just under one-third of incumbents lost to challengers in those races on Nov. 8. In our regular school board coverage from 2018 to 2020, 18% of incumbents lost re-election, on average.

We label each winner as either supporting or opposing the three conflict topics. If we cannot determine a stance, we mark the winner unclear. Broadly, we label a candidate supporting if they support things like including the role of race in curricula or learning materials, mask and/or vaccine requirements, or the inclusion of topics in sexual education regarding orientations and gender identities. We label a candidate opposing if they oppose things like critical race theory, mask and/or vaccine requirements, or comprehensive sexual education. In cases where we labeled a winner as supporting on at least one topic and opposing on another, we used the category mixed.  

Candidates supporting things like equity plans and mask requirements won 58.6% of seats in counties Joe Biden (D) won in 2020, while candidates opposing those policies won 43.5% of seats in counties Donald Trump (R) won.

Of all 791 winners we labeled supporting, 75% won in counties Biden carried. Of the 558 winners labeled opposing, 60% won in counties Trump carried. 

Click here to learn more about conflicts in school board elections. 

Oklahoma attorney general says law prohibiting religious charter schools likely unconstitutional

On Dec. 1, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor (R) released an advisory opinion saying that, in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decisions, a state law prohibiting religiously affiliated charter schools likely violates the First Amendment. 

Oklahoma is one of 45 states that permit charter schools. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are publicly funded. In all 45 states, charter schools must be secular schools. 

Oklahoma first established charter schools in 1999, when then-Gov. Frank Keating (R) signed the Education Reform Act.

The law states: “A charter school shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations. A sponsor may not authorize a charter school or program that is affiliated with a nonpublic sectarian school or religious institution.”

O’Connor writes: “We do not believe the U.S. Supreme Court would accept the argument that, because charter schools are considered public for various purposes, that a state should be allowed to discriminate against religiously affiliated private participants who wish to establish and operate charter schools in accordance with their faith alongside other private participants.”

O’Connor references three recent SCOTUS decisions he believes undermine state law prohibiting religious charter schools—Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, and Carson v. Makin

  • In Trinity Lutheran Church, decided in 2016, the court ruled 7-2 that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources violated Trinity Lutheran Church’s First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources had denied the church’s request for a grant that would have helped its associated preschool and daycare center resurface its playground.
  • In Espinoza, decided in 2020, the court ruled 5-4 that a provision of the Montana Constitution prohibiting religiously affiliated churches or schools from receiving taxpayer money was unconstitutional. The majority said that disqualifying recipients from a public benefit because of their religious character inhibits the recipients’ free exercise of religion. 
  • Finally, earlier this year, the court ruled 6-3 in Makin that a nonsectarian requirement in a Maine tuition assistance program violated the Free Exercise Clause. We covered Makin in-depth in these pages earlier this year here

O’Connor released the advisory opinion after Archbishop Paul Coakley, the head of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, expressed an interest in establishing a Catholic charter school. Shortly after O’Connor released his opinion, the Archdiocese announced it intended to submit an application. According to The New York Sun’s Raina Raskin, the state charter board’s decision, which could come within a few months, will likely trigger litigation. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said, “Attorney General John O’Connor’s opinion rightfully defends parents, education freedom and religious liberty in Oklahoma. Ultimately, government takes a backseat to parents who get to determine the best learning environment for their child.” Secretary of Public Education (and incoming superintendent of education) Ryan Walters (R) said, “there’s never a more important decision than to protect one’s religious liberties.”

The Oklahoma Education Association, which opposes O’Connor’s advisory opinion, said, “The recent decisions of the US Supreme Court are not contextually similar to the suggestion that a publicly funded school district requiring affirmation of particular religious tenets and doctrine as a condition of admission would receive a similar endorsement from a court.  The predictions suggested by the Oklahoma Attorney General are exactly that – predictions by a political figure of how a court may rule if faced with that legal question.”

In 2016, Oklahoma voters rejected State Question 790, with 57.12% voting against the measure and 42.88% voting in support. The measure would have repealed Section 5 of Article 2 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which prohibits public money from being spent for religious purposes. The measure was proposed largely in response to a state supreme court ruling that found a Ten Commandments monument displayed on the grounds of the Oklahoma state capitol violated Section 5 of Article 2 of the state Constitution. 

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

We’re featuring survey responses from school board candidates who won their races on Nov. 8. 

Today, we’re looking at responses from Jane Lea Smith, who won the general election for San Dieguito Union High School District Board of Education Area 3 in California, and Edward Buster, who was one of two candidates who won in the general election for Vail Unified School District Governing Board At-large in Arizona. 

Here’s how Smith answered the question, “What are the main points you want voters to remember about your goals for your time in office?

  • “Restore functional governance and effective leadership through an emphasis on professionalism, clear role delineation, and a transparent, rigorous search for an experienced superintendent who understands and embraces our unique community.
  • Address financial stability and accountability concerns, prioritizing expenditures that directly affect student safety and the quality of our educational programs.
  • Embrace diversity and equity by ensuring all students feel welcome, supporting vulnerable students, addressing achievement gaps, and continuing to expand opportunities for all students.”

Click here to read the rest of Smith’s answers.

Here’s how Buster answered the question, “What are the main points you want voters to remember about your goals for your time in office?”

  • “The main reasons for my desire to serve on the Vail School District Governing Board, is our school district’s positive influence on the successes of my five now adult sons. With this opportunity, I can now pay it forward to an extraordinary community that so warmly embraced me and my family when we moved to Corona de Tucson almost 16 years ago.
  • I have long been and continue to be a strong proponent for education. I am running because the school board should set the direction for our schools through a collaborative vision, advancing policy, demonstrating accountability, developing a consensus and by maintaining leadership roles in the community.
  • My overarching vision is to ensure as our well-prepared students go away to college, trade school, accept apprenticeships, or establish themselves, they will one day endeavor to return to the Greater Vail Area to raise their families as it is in the community’s best interest to have and maintain a smart, well-educated, community-minded, and healthy workforce.”

Click here to read the rest of Buster’s answers.