Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #49

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 the whole language and phonics-based approaches to reading instruction
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • In 10 states, bills creating or expanding education savings account programs have received legislative action since Feb. 13
  • Extracurricular: education news from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey

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On the issues: The debate over the whole language and phonics-based approaches to reading instruction

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 should schools teach reading? Two methods include the whole language and phonics approaches.   

Phonics teaches students to decipher words exclusively based on letter-sound correspondences. Whole language teaches students to look at other cues—such as other words in a sentence or page illustrations—to help them work out meanings. 

Nicholas Kristof writes that the whole language approach is ineffective and distracts from the development of a strong foundation of phonemic awareness. Kristof says the lax focus on phonics in schools explains why two-thirds of fourth graders are not proficient readers. Kristoff says evidence and studies support phonics over whole language.

Katina Zammit writes that the whole language can make reading easier, more enjoyable, and more natural for children. Zammit says that while phonics-based decoding is a good starting point, it is natural for readers of all ages to look at context clues to help discern the meanings (and even the pronunciations) of certain words or phrases.

Two-Thirds of Kids Struggle to Read, and We Know How to Fix It | Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

“One explanation gaining ground is that, with the best of intentions, we grown-ups have bungled the task of teaching kids to read. There is growing evidence from neuroscience and careful experiments that the United States has adopted reading strategies that just don’t work very well and that we haven’t relied enough on a simple starting point — helping kids learn to sound out words with phonics. … I spent much of the 1980s and 1990s as a New York Times correspondent in East Asia, and children there (including mine) learned to read through phonics and phonetic alphabets: hiragana in Japan, bopomofo in Taiwan, pinyin in China and hangul in South Korea. Then I returned with my family to the United States in 1999, and I found that even reading was political: Republicans endorsed phonics, so I was expected as a good liberal to roll my eyes. … I became intrigued by the failures in reading after listening to a riveting six-part podcast, “Sold a Story,” that argues passionately that the education establishment ignored empirical evidence and unintentionally harmed children. … What’s clear is that when two-thirds of American kids are not proficient at reading, we’re failing the next generation. We can fix this, imperfectly, if we’re relentlessly empirical and focus on the evidence.”

Reading is more than sounding out words and decoding. That’s why we use the whole language approach to teaching it | Katina Zammit, The Conversation

“The whole language approach provides children learning to read with more than one way to work out unfamiliar words. They can begin with decoding—breaking the word into its parts and trying to sound them out and then blend them together. This may or may not work. They can also look at where the word is in the sentence and consider what word most likely would come next based on what they have read so far. They can look beyond the word to see if the rest of the sentence can assist to decode the word and pronounce it. We do not read texts one word at a time. We make best guesses as we read and learn to read. We learn from our errors. Sometimes these errors are not that significant—does it matter if I read Sydenham as “SID-EN-HAM” or “SID-N-AM”? Perhaps not. Does it matter that I can decode the word “wind” but don’t pronounce the two differently in “the wind was too strong to wind the sail”? Yes, it probably does. Teaching children to read or to see reading with a focus on phonics and phonemic awareness gives them the illusion “proper” reading is mere decoding and blending. In fact, it has been argued this can put children off reading when entering school.”

In your district: reader replies on the four-day school week

We recently asked readers the following question about the four-day school week:

Should districts adopt a four-day school week?

Thank you to all who responded. Today, we’re sharing a handful of those responses. We’ll return next month 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 school board member in Alabama wrote

“We cannot cover the material in the 180 days allotted.  It will cause havoc with childcare and increase time children are at home alone.”

A teacher in Virginia wrote

“Yes, like many districts mine operated on a four-day class week with one asynchronous Wednesday in the middle during the 2020-21 school year. Having that day for prep and remediation was a game-changer that helped make such a disruptive year more bearable. It might seem counterintuitive as we recover from learning loss, but it’s about the quality, not the quantity of instruction. As other industries move towards four-day work weeks, why not education?”

A school board member from Connecticut wrote

“I think if we added 60 minutes more of instruction per day (4) and give the students an additional day off to charge their batteries I believe they would be more productive.  Colleges typically have their courses spread out and often a student has just one class on a certain day or are handling a four day school week.  Businesses are doing it with great success.”

A school board member from Ohio wrote:

“No, for many reasons including but not limited to keeping kids in a safe environment 5 days a week where they have access to regular measured learning experiences, meals, positive mentoring relationships, appropriate supervision and educational opportunities and extra-curricular options.”

A parent wrote:

“No—too long of days and kids lose interest already by 200pm! Could you imagine getting home after 530pm? From school? Yikes.”

A community member wrote:

“The requirement is 180 days per year however you want to arrange it.”

A former teacher wrote:

“This is an option worth considering, especially a staggered 4-day work week for teachers and a 5-day school week for students.”

A school board member wrote:

“Perhaps, I think this decision must be based on individual district needs.”

A board member from Illinois wrote

“Depends—I have heard that some districts still require teachers to report to work on the day kids aren’t there. In that case, absolutely not unless there were significant pay increases involved. I would have no problem giving two extra hours a day to have the fifth day off, but at what cost? I would really want to know what the union in my district has to say before I go all in.”

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.

Election results from the past week

On Feb. 21, Wisconsin held school board primaries. 

There were 149 candidates running for 43 seats in 38 districts. In Wisconsin, school board primaries are canceled if the ratio of candidates to seats is less than or equal to 2:1. The relevant statute says: “The school board shall require a primary election if there are more than 2 candidates for any seat on a 3-member board or more than twice as many candidates as there are members to be elected to an unnumbered school board of more than 3 members.” 

The two candidates per seat with the most votes advance to the general elections. 

Some of the districts that held elections included:

Wisconsin’s general school board elections are April 4.

In 10 states, bills creating or expanding education savings account programs have received legislative action since Feb. 13

On Feb. 8, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) introduced Arkansas LEARNS, a package of K-12 public education proposals. The proposals were filed as Senate Bill 294 on Feb. 20. 

Sanders’ plan proposes several changes to Arkansas’ education system, including the Children’s Educational Freedom Account. The program would allow parents to use taxpayer-funded education accounts to send their children to schools or pay for curriculum or tutoring outside the public school system. Publicly-funded education accounts are commonly called education savings accounts (ESA). 

Here are a few of the other proposals in the bill:

  • Increase teacher starting salaries from $36,000 to $50,000 
  • Provide all teachers a $2,000 raise in the next school year
  • Revise teacher contracts to require that teachers work at least 190 days a year
  • Create a new dual-track, career-ready diploma geared toward getting students high-paying jobs out of high school

Sanders said, “Once Arkansas LEARNS passes, minimum teacher pay will go from one of the lowest to one of the highest in the nation, parents will be empowered to choose whatever school is best for their family, and our students will finally be back to learning the basics of reading, writing, science, math, and history and put on a pathway to success.”

State Sen. Breanne Davis (R), one of SB 294’s sponsors, planned to bring the bill before the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 22. Critics of the bill have said that’s not enough time for lawmakers to consider legislation with that many parts. 

Democratic Party of Arkansas Chair Grant Tennille said, “There is absolutely no reason this bill should not be presented, debated, considered, and voted on after a week or more of public review. To ram through a monster, 144-page bill with an incredibly controversial voucher scheme at its core is just unconscionable. And voters will make any lawmaker who supports this scam pay at the polls next year.”

The bill has 24 co-sponsors in the Senate and 55 co-sponsors in the House. All co-sponsors are Republicans. Republicans have a 29-6 majority in the Senate and an 82-18 majority in the House. 

According to our data, since the start of the year, legislators in at least 28 states have introduced bills to create or expand ESA programs. Those bills have had varying levels of success. In January, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) signed legislation creating education savings accounts for qualifying students. In Virginia, lawmakers have rejected ESA legislation. In many states, bills remain in committee and have not been acted on in weeks. 

Since Feb. 13, however, legislators in 10 states have acted on bills that would create or expand education savings accounts. Nine of the states are Republican trifectas. In Kansas, which has a divided government, Republicans control the state legislature while Democrats control the governor’s office. 

Here’s an update on ESA bills that have received recent legislative action. 

  • Arkansas: SB294 was introduced on Feb. 20 and referred on the same day to the Senate Education Committee, where it awaits further action. 
  • Florida: The Committee on Education Pre-K-12 voted 9-3 to approve Senate Bill 202 on Feb. 21. The bill now goes to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education for another vote. The bill would expand the existing Family Empowerment Scholarship, which was originally geared toward low-income students, to cover all public school students.
  • Idaho: On Feb. 15, the Senate Education Committee voted 6-3 to approve Senate Bill 1038, setting the proposal up for a full vote in the chamber. The bill would give families $5,950 per child to spend on education outside the public school system. To qualify for the account, students cannot be enrolled in a public school.   
  • Kansas: On Feb. 13, the House Committee on K-12 Education Budget released a report recommending that the committee pass House Bill 2218 once a series of amendments had been incorporated into the bill. HB 2218 would allow qualified students access to about $5,000 that could be used for private school or homeschooling.  
  • Missouri: On Feb. 21, Senate Bill 81 was placed on the Senate’s informal calendar, meaning the Senate will at some point debate amendments to the bill before putting it up to a full vote. The Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee approved the bill on Jan. 31. The measure would provide a tax credit to homeschooling families for education expenses and allow students attending qualifying private schools to use state funds for tuition. 
  • New Hampshire: On Feb. 21, the House Education Committee held a public hearing on House Bill 331, which would remove income eligibility requirements from the states’ Education Freedom Accounts program, opening the program to all students. The Education Freedom Accounts program, which was created in 2021, allows students from families making up to 300% of the federal poverty limit to use taxpayer dollars for private education or homeschooling. 
  • North Dakota: On Feb. 16, the House Appropriations Committee voted 15-8 to recommend not passing House Bill 1532. In North Dakota, standing committees make recommendations, but all bills eventually go to the full chamber for a vote. House Bill 1532 would allow families whose children attend qualified private schools to receive around $1,500 in tuition reimbursement. Homeschooling expenses would not be eligible. 
  • Oklahoma: Legislators have introduced two ESA bills. Senate Bill 822 would create the Oklahoma Education Freedom Act, establishing ESAs for any child. Senate Bill 943, would create the Oklahoma Parent Empowerment Act for Kids Program, which would establish ESAs for students in a county with more than 10,000 people. The Senate Rules Committee is set to act on SB822 next, while the Senate Education Committee is set to act on SB943.   
  • Tennessee: On Feb. 16, the Senate voted 19-6 to pass Senate Bill 12 to expand the state’s Education Savings Account program. The ESA program, created in 2019 to give students around $7,300 for use toward private school tuition, only applies to Shelby and Davidson Counties. Senate Bill 12 would expand the program to include districts in Hamilton County. The bill now goes to the House for consideration. 
  • Texas: On Feb. 15, Senate Bill 176 was referred to the Senate Education Committee. SB176 would create the Texas Parental Empowerment Program, which would provide around $10,000 per student for private school, tutoring, or homeschooling. The accounts would be available to all students.    

We’ll be closely monitoring these and other ESA bills, and will bring you updates in future editions. 

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! 

Our Candidate Connection survey helps voters get to know their school board candidates 

We created our Candidate Connection survey to help solve the ballot information problem. Voters often don’t know who is on their ballot, and they don’t have an easy way to find out. This is especially true for voters wanting a say in school board elections this year, many happening in small districts outside of major cities. 

If you’re a school board candidate or incumbent, click here to take the survey. And if you’re not running for school board but there is an election in your community, share the link with your candidates and urge them to take the survey!

The survey contains more than 30 questions, and you can choose 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.