Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #51

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 education savings accounts (ESAs) 
  • Share candidate endorsements with us! 
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • Where the Chicago mayoral runoff candidates stand on education 
  • 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 education savings accounts (ESAs)

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.

A number of state legislatures are considering bills to create or expand education savings accounts (ESAs). ESAs provide eligible students taxpayer dollars for private school, homeschooling, tutoring, and other education-related expenses. 

Robert Pondiscio writes that ESAs are not a new way to fund education. Instead, Pondiscio says ESAs create a new system of accountability for schools and educators that allows parents to direct and oversee their child’s education instead of trusting school districts and administrators.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. writes that ESAs offer too many choices and says that the government should not necessarily trust that parents will make the best decisions for their children. Finn says some charter and private schools perform poorly even though families choose them and says that the overabundance of money will cause more bad schools to open. 

On ESAs’ popularity and coming challenges: A letter to Checker Finn | Robert Pondiscio, Fordham Institute

“A common talking point among proponents is that ESAs give parents control of their money to customize their child’s education, spending it on private school tuition, tutoring, and other educational products and services. But it’s not “their” money. It’s our money that’s being put under parental control. This is not mere pedantry or a difference of semantics. The cost of education is socialized; we have a shared stake in the education given every child in America and pay school taxes whether or not we have kids in our local school or have kids at all. This distinction—“their” money versus “our” money—holds the key to thinking about ESAs that may assuage your misgivings, Checker. To my way of thinking, an ESA is not a new form of education funding, it’s a different form of education accountability. States like Arizona, Iowa, West Virginia, and Utah that have enacted universal ESAs aren’t giving parents money heedlessly. They’re making a public policy wager to put accountability into the hands of those who “nurture and direct” the child. They’re betting that parents will discharge their “high duty” with more attentiveness, care, and diligence than the state can possibly provide through its districts and schools. It’s a reasonable wager.”

Why I’m wary of universal education savings accounts | Chester E. Finn, Jr., Fordham Institute

“Consider me wary, particularly of the free-swinging, almost-anything-goes version of universal ESAs. … Start with the fact that even good parents often make dubious education choices, choices that ill-serve their kids in the long run. Instead of seeking out schools that maximize children’s future prospects by equipping them with solid skills, knowledge, and (one can hope!) values and behavior patterns, some parents settle for convenient locations or are beguiled by the claims and advertisements of shoddy schools in search of pupils. … Too many of today’s “schools of choice”—charter, private, and district-operated—have mediocre-to-awful outcomes and aren’t racking up solid gains, either, yet they’re full of kids whose parents selected them. No public policy can stop parents from making bad decisions—and a surfeit of policy is paternalistic—but those writing ESA laws (and charter laws, voucher laws, etc.) can boost the odds of good decisions by ensuring that parents regularly receive clear, accurate information on the educational progress of their kids and the performance of their schools, whether those schools are public, private, or some sort of hybrid.”

Share candidate endorsements with us! 

As part of our goal to solve the ballot information problem, Ballotpedia is gathering information about school board candidate endorsements. The ballot information gap widens the further down the ballot you go, and is the worst for the more than 500,000 local offices nationwide, such as school boards or special districts. Endorsements can help voters know more about their candidates and what they stand for. 

Do you know of an individual or group that has endorsed a candidate in a race in your district? Click here 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

On April 4, Oklahoma and Wisconsin will hold school board general elections. We covered Oklahoma’s (Feb. 14) and Wisconsin’s (Feb. 21) primaries in previous editions of this newsletter. We’re covering all school board elections in both Oklahoma and Wisconsin this year. 

We’re also covering elections in the following states/districts on April 4:

Where the Chicago mayoral runoff candidates stand on education 

On Feb. 28, Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city by population, held a general election for mayor. Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas advanced from the nine-candidate field to the April 4 runoff.

Education has been a central issue in the race, in part because the mayor has appointed the seven-member Chicago Public Schools Board of Education since 1995. That arrangement will soon change. In 2021, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) signed a bill that gradually hands control of the board from the mayor to voters and expands the number of members to 21—making it one of the biggest boards in the country. Voters will elect the full board in 2026, but the new mayor will select 11 of the 21 members in 2024. 

Of the 13,194 school districts in the country, only 240—or about 2%—are governed by school boards with more than 10 members. Those 243 districts are spread across 18 states. Chicago Public Schools has the only appointed school board in Illinois. 

Education became an even more visible theme in the race following the general election, because Johnson and Vallas are former educators with experience in the Chicago Public School system. Johnson was a teacher with Chicago Public Schools and an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, while Vallas was a superintendent in several school districts outside Illinois and CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001.

Although municipal elections in Chicago are officially nonpartisan, candidates are typically affiliated with one of the major political parties. Vallas and Johnson are both Democrats. The last Republican mayor of Chicago, William Thompson, left office in 1931. 

Chicago Public Schools is the fourth largest district in the country, having recently fallen behind Miami-Dade Public Schools in Florida.

According to Education Week’s Libby Stanford’s, “While [Johnson’s and Vallas’] conflicting stances on crime and policing have garnered the most attention, the rivals’ education priorities also represent starkly different sides of the national education debate, with Johnson firmly allied with the city’s teachers’ union and Vallas championing school choice.”

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted in September 2022 to endorse Johnson. In January, the Chicago police union endorsed Vallas. 

On Feb. 28, Johnson said: “As head of the Chicago Public Schools, [Vallas] ran the teachers’ pension fund into the ground, closed neighborhood schools, and punished students who are in need. He has literally failed everywhere he has gone.”

Vallas has not said much about Johnson specifically, but did say on March 2 that “Brandon is going to attack because, you know, he can’t offer anything of substance so I’m going to continue to run an issue-oriented campaign.” In a Facebook post on Jan. 13, 2021, Vallas said, “The CTU is progressive in its rhetoric but regressive to the extreme in its efforts to preserve the status quo and place the interests of their members ahead of those of the children. The Achilles Heel of the City of Chicago is its CTU dominated and monopolistic public education system.”

Both candidates have released lengthy education plans. 

Johnson’s 12-point education plan calls for redoing the district’s student-based budgeting model: “The current funding structure, which provides state dollars on a per-student basis, creates a huge disadvantage for schools in communities like Chicago where enrollment and Black populations are declining.” Johnson supports a funding model  based on need rather than enrollment. 

Johnson’s plan also calls for:

  • Investing in ethnic studies and bilingual education to support immigrant students.
  • Expanding child care support throughout the city.
  • Turning schools into Sustainable Community Schools that “provide wraparound academic, health, and social support.”
  • Creating more opportunities for technical training and apprenticeship programs. 

Vallas has made reducing violence the cornerstone of his education plan, saying “Until Chicago schools are SAFE, nothing else matters. Our children cannot thrive in an environment where they are concerned about their safety — both inside schools and in the surrounding neighborhood.” 

Vallas’ plan also calls for:

  • Keeping schools open in the evenings and on weekends and holidays.
  • Creating universal work-study programs for high school students.
  • Giving Local School Councils (LSC) the flexibility to select different school models. LSC’s act as school boards for each school and include a mixture of teachers, community members, and students. 
  • Lifting the enrollment cap on high-performing charter schools.

Johnson and Vallas disagree on the use of taxpayer dollars for private education. In response to Chalkbeat Chicago’s question about expanding a statewide tax-credit scholarship program, Johnson said, “Until every Chicago public school and big-city public school has the baseline of resources provided in suburban districts with high property tax bases, the idea of ‘choice’ is a fallacy.”

Vallas said, “The tax credit scholarship program is beneficial in empowering parents to pick the school that best suits their child’s needs. Whether the students attend private, parochial, public or public charter schools they are students of the City and we need to ensure quality education regardless of their zip code.”

Race in education has also been an issue in the election. 

On March 2, Johnson’s campaign highlighted Vallas’ answers in a 2021 Wirepoints podcast episode. Vallas was asked to talk about critical race theory, to which he said (at about the 23:00 mark): “When it distracts from quality instruction in the core subject areas — which it is, because we seem to be too preoccupied, too much focusing on those things rather than focusing on a core curriculum — our standards suffer and damage is done.” Vallas also said, “For white parents, I mean, how are you going to discipline your child when your child comes home and your child has basically been told that their generation — their race, their parents, their grandparents — they have discriminated against others, and they have somehow victimized another person’s race?”

In a statement, Johnson said: “Chicagoans are starting to learn who the true Paul Vallas is — a man who does not respect Black people, our history or our daily experiences. Between his policies leading (Chicago Public Schools), his racist dog whistles on public safety issues, the hateful, right-wing extremists he associates with, his tweets and now this podcast, we see that Paul Vallas is never going to be someone who represents the interests of the diverse city we call home.”

Between 2021 and 2022, Ballotpedia tracked 1,742 districts in 49 states where candidates took a stance on race in education/critical race theory. You can learn more about the debate over critical race theory here

Click here to learn more about Chicago’s April 4 mayoral runoff election. 

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 looking at responses from Brayden Hunt, who is running in the general election for Western Heights Public Schools school board Number 3 in Oklahoma on April 4, and Jon Pendergrass, who is running in the general election for Northwest Independent School District school board Place 6 on May 6 in Texas.  

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

“Western Heights is a school district full of students and families who have been and are marginalized in various ways. My deepest concern and area of greatest passion is ensuring that all students in the district have access to an education that will give them the greatest opportunity to succeed as adults. I believe Western Heights can provide that education with good leadership in place that chart a new course for the district.”

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

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

“I have always had a passion for public policy in general. Whether it is Federal, State, or Local Policy, I believe incredible policy that makes sense is key to a thriving society. I have always taken a great interest in Public Education. Each of us have been influenced or impacted by the public school system. I personally grew up attending public schools and I am grateful for the education I received. School is where I learned how to read and develop a passion for writing. It is the place that allowed me to socialize with my peers and develop friendships. It was the place where teachers challenged me lead and dream big dreams.

Show me a community that offers a premier public education and I will show you a healthy, thriving, and economically strong community. Our children require the best education we can provide because they are our future. They depend on us to prepare them to lead in whatever industry, profession, or trade they pursue. Whether you are a newly married couple who has just had a baby, parents with a teenager in High School, empty nester, or citizen, public education is important to each of us. The quality of our schools impact the value of our homes we work so hard to maintain and the policies or our school board impact all of us. This is why I am running for NISD School Board PL 6. As a problem solver, I look forward to throwing away the rubber stamp and building a district that can be successful in providing students with an excellent education.”

Click here to read the rest of Pendergrass’ answers.