Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #46

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 ChatGPT in schools
  • In your district: Budgets
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • Florida Department of Education rejects African American Studies course
  • Extracurricular: education news from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey

Email us at editor@ballotpedia.org to share reactions or story ideas!

On the issues: The debate over ChatGPT 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.

ChatGPT is an online artificial intelligence program, released to the public in November 2022, that can respond to questions and requests in a smooth and often convincingly human manner. It can quickly write essays, code, and solve difficult math problems. Media outlets across the world have covered ChatGPT, highlighting the discussions and debates over the use of artificial intelligence programs in business, education, and beyond. 

Educators have responded to ChatGPT in varying ways. Districts in Los Angeles and New York City have already banned the service out of a concern that it could assist students in cheating. Other districts, like Chicago Public Schools, have not banned ChatGPT. 

Angela Duckworth and Lyle Ungar write that schools should not rush to ban ChatGPT in classrooms. They say such bans are impossible to enforce and students will still find ways to use the program if schools try to prohibit it. Duckworth and Unger say schools and teachers should instead work with students to develop assignments that incorporate ChatGPT but still require deeper critical thinking from students. 

The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board writes that schools should act quickly to ban ChatGPT in classrooms until educators develop a clear idea of how it might be incorporated into lessons without hurting students. The Editorial Board says allowing artificial intelligence programs in schools could tempt students to cheat since ChatGPT responses can sometimes pass plagiarism checks and teacher scrutiny. 

Op-Ed: Don’t ban chatbots in classrooms — use them to change how we teach | Angela Duckworth and Lyle Ungar, Los Angeles Times

“Banning such use of artificial intelligence from the classroom is an understandable but nearsighted response. Instead, we must find a way forward in which such technologies complement, rather than substitute for, student thinking. One day soon, GPT and similar AI models could be to essay writing what calculators are to calculus. … Banning ChatGPT is like prohibiting students from using Wikipedia or spell-checkers. Even if it were the “right” thing to do in principle, it is impossible in practice. Students will find ways around the ban, which of course will necessitate a further defensive response from teachers and administrators, and so on. It’s hard to believe that an escalating arms race between digitally fluent teenagers and their educators will end in a decisive victory for the latter. … [W]e must also figure out how to do something new: How to use tools like GPT to catalyze, not cannibalize, deeper thinking. Just like a Google search, GPT often generates text that is fluent and plausible — but wrong. So using it requires the same cognitive heavy lifting that writing does: deciding what questions to ask, formulating a thesis, asking more questions, generating an outline, picking which points to elaborate and which to drop, looking for facts to support the arguments, finding appropriate references to back them up and polishing the text.”

Editorial: Did your kid write that essay? Or did ChatGPT? | The Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune

“CPS is right to review the merits of student and teacher use of ChatGPT, but it’s wrong in not taking the same route as New York and Los Angeles. Cheating is as synonymous with classrooms as chalk and erasers. Yesteryear techniques ranged from crib sheets cupped in a student’s palms to a simple peek over the shoulder of a classmate. Today’s digital age takes the potential for cheating to new levels, and ChatGPT makes it far too easy for struggling students to lean on AI-generated writing in place of what comes out of their own heads. What’s especially worrisome is that ChatGPT’s syntax appears to be polished and natural enough to elude not just anti-plagiarism software but even the most seasoned educator’s scrutiny. We’re not Luddites, and we believe that technology must always be given space to advance the educational experience at every level, from preschool to university. ChatGPT may well have undeniable utility in a variety of classroom circumstances. First, however, school districts must determine how to best use ChatGPT without allowing its exploitation of student learning. Only then should it make its way into classrooms. … ChatGPT, and the myriad other manifestations of AI, should be welcomed for what they are — game-changers that help us live better lives. But in classrooms, care must always be taken to ensure that a new means of educating helps rather than harms.”

In your district: Budgets

We recently asked readers the following question:

What are your thoughts on the current and the proposed budget for your school district?

Today, we’re sharing a handful of those responses. 

A school board member from Wisconsin wrote

I would love to see a greater focus on funds directed towards long term capital improvements. There is not enough allowable funds to support our students and buildings.

A school board member from New Jersey wrote:

I am in New Jersey. We are experiencing about 7% inflation but are limited to no more than a 2% raise to the budget. Services will have to be cut, class sizes will grow, new teachers will have to find employment elsewhere.

A teacher from Virginia wrote:

The proposed budget includes a 5% salary increase partially funded by the state, which is nice, but a greater increase would be nice in the face of a retention crisis and inflation. Greater increases are being discussed at the state level, so we’ll see what happens. The budget also addresses mental health services and maintenance needs, which are both needed expenses.

A school board member from Vermont wrote:

We are a small district with about 420 students and shrinking. Faculty and learning support staff continues to grow to where our employed adults to students is 1:3 and our per student costs exceed $30,000! We are only able to ask tuition of 67% of our per student costs, yet much of the Board is willing to bet that voter indifference will enable continuation of this spiraling upward cost cycle. The change back to in-person town meeting, versus inclusion of all voters by mail, underlies their assumption that budget increase in excess of 10% will continue to fly and we see elementary classes of less than 10 students with three teachers in the room. How can we provide quality education on a smaller scale? Private schools seem to be able to do so. Why can’t we?

A community member from New Jersey wrote:

“School budgets in Stanhope New Jersey, in my view, the board voted without resident approval to remove public involvement in voting for the budget. They put a cap of two to three percent on budget escalation. They elected to establish Capital improvement bonds for future use as the chairman stated so as to maintain the present tax levy ratio and only initiate Capital repairs on a needs basis on select capital projects. The bonds are voted residence un-itemized, meaning voters were not allowed to pick and choose which specific items they supported for a bond. Stanhope board did not elect to have the vote take place at the same time as a general election intentionally so as to minimize voter turnout. This is the same practice used when School board elections take place intentionally to minimize turnout. Voters in the town are about 2480 some 300 voted with 200 approving the bond. How unrepresentative can an election be when voter turnout is under roughly 10% and approval is 8%.

It is time to remove school boards and place control in the hands of the county or state because school board members do not bring any special expertise to the board and members are manipulated by its chairman an ex vice principal along with the superintendent. Charter schools and parent choice should be the only consideration given by States so as to educate the children of that state.”

Thank you to all who responded. We’ll be back with a new question next month. If you have ideas for a question you’d like to see us ask, reply to this email to let us know!

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 elections

Ballotpedia is covering all school board elections in Oklahoma on Feb. 14, which districts hold primaries. General elections are on April 4. Some of the districts holding elections include:

Ballotpedia is also covering a special school board election to fill a vacancy on the Charleston County School District Board of Trustees on Feb. 7. Two candidates are running for the District 6 seat—Daron Lee Calhoun II and Lee Runyon.

On Feb. 21, Ballotpedia will cover school board primaries in Wisconsin. We’ll have more to say about those elections in the coming weeks. 

Click here to learn more about 2023 school board elections.

Florida Department of Education rejects African American Studies course

On Jan. 12, the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Articulation announced in a letter to the College Board, an education nonprofit that oversees the Advancement Placement (AP) program in high schools, that a pilot AP African American Studies course “is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value” and would not be included in state curricula. The letter said the state would be willing to reopen discussions with the College Board if it revised the course. 

Florida law requires public schools to teach African American history. 

AP courses allow public high school students to receive college credit. The African American Studies course is currently being tested in 60 schools across the country, with the aim of offering the course in all high schools in the 2024-2025 school year. 

The College Board said “the interdisciplinary course reaches into a variety of fields—literature, the arts and humanities, political science, geography, and science—to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans.” According to the College Board, students in AP classes are expected to analyze issues from different perspectives but are not required to agree with any point of view. 

The Florida Department of Education letter did not cite the law the AP African American Studies course is alleged to have violated. In 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed House Bill 7, which regulates how schools and businesses can teach topics like race and gender. The law prohibits schools and businesses from requiring students or employees to participate in trainings or classes that teach “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” DeSantis has referred to the law as the Stop WOKE Act. 

On Nov. 17, 2022, U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida Judge Mark E. Walker blocked a part of the law regulating discussions of race in colleges and universities. That case is ongoing. Former President Barack Obama (D) appointed Walker in 2012.

Reactions to the Florida Department of Education’s decision largely played out along partisan lines. 

Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D) said “Gov. DeSantis’ whitewashing of history and book bans are his latest assault on American history and our First Amendment rights. Horrifyingly, it is our vulnerable and underrepresented students who will suffer the most as a result.”

DeSantis said, “We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them when you try to use Black history to shoehorn in queer theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”

On Jan. 20, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre criticized the decision, saying: “Let’s not forget, [the Florida Department of Education] didn’t block AP European history, they didn’t block music history or art history, but the state chooses to block a course that is meant for high-achieving high school students to learn about their history of arts and culture.”

Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, whom DeSantis recommended for the position in 2021, tweeted: “Despite the lies from the Biden White House, Florida rejected an AP course filled with Critical Race Theory and other obvious violations of Florida law. We proudly require the teaching of African American history. We do not accept woke indoctrination masquerading as education.”

Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a term that has been used by academics in scholarly works dating back to the 1970s. The term has come into widespread use among politicians, journalists, and others in recent years, particularly in debates about K-12 curriculum outside academia. Since its early development, the term has taken on a wider variety of perceived meanings.

Diaz released a chart highlighting parts of the course the Department of Education found objectionable, including topics focused on Intersectionality and Activism, the Reparations Movement, and Black Queer Studies. The chart said the section on Intersectionality and Activism was a concern because “Intersectionality is foundational to CRT, and ranks people based on their race, wealth, gender and sexual orientation.” The chart said the section on the Reparations Movement was a concern because “All points and resources in this study advocate for reparations. There is no critical perspective or balancing opinion in this lesson.”

For some, like Jason Nichols, a senior lecturer in the University of Maryland College Park’s African American Studies Department, the concern is that the refusal to approve the course is a form of censorship. Nichols said, “Most of all, Americans who are concerned about free speech should be terrified by reactionary government officials like DeSantis, whose answer to complicated questions is authoritarian censorship, book banning, and curtailing academic freedoms.”

Writing for National Review, Stanley Kurtz faulted the College Board for refusing to release to the public the course material, saying, “This secrecy validates long-standing concerns about the College Board’s acting as a de facto unelected national school board.” Kurtz said other states should decline to approve the course until the College Board publicly shares the course content. 

The College Board said: “The process of piloting and revising course frameworks is a standard part of any new AP course, and frameworks change significantly as a result. We look forward to publicly releasing the updated course framework as soon as it is completed and well before this class is widely available in American high schools.”

Ballotpedia has covered a range of CRT- and CRT-adjacent issues. Click the links below to read more of our coverage:

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 Adaline Villneurve Rutherford (R), who won outright in the primary for St. Tammany Parish School Board District 3 in Louisiana, and Terri Knudsen, who won in the general election for Morgan Hill Unified Board of Education Trustee Area 3 in California.

Louisiana is one of four states that automatically allow partisan school board board elections or party labels to appear on the ballot. 

Here’s how Rutherford answered the question, “Please list below 3 key messages of your campaign. What are the main points you want voters to remember about your goals for your time in office?”

  • “Our children deserve better! We need to get back to being the best! At one time the St. Tammany Parish School System was TOP, but now we are ranked 18th. Clearly, we are not utilizing our supportive community resources to maximize our teachers’ potential. I want to see CHANGE!
  • We need to address teacher and substitute shortages. We need to work harder to retain our teachers. We also need to quickly do background checks and get people signed up to substitute. We can’t have this continue the way it is.
  • Accountability and transparency are key. My priorities would be to hold the school board accountable fiscally, to be an accessible voice for my constituents and district employees, and move forward in a positive direction.”

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

Here’s how Knudsen answered the question, “Please list below 3 key messages of your campaign. What are the main points you want voters to remember about your goals for your time in office?”

  • I will advocate for responsible budgets that directly impact the classroom. We need to attract and retain excellent teachers and have smaller class sizes.
  • If elected, I will listen and seek input from all stakeholders, including students and their families, community members and school staff, before decisions are made.
  • Our schools need to identify and provide support for all students, especially those who struggle, such as LGTBQ, socio-economically disadvantaged, students of color and students with disabilities. As a board member, I will only approve policies that will be in the best interest of all of our students and schools.

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