Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #53

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 Florida’s education savings account bill 
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • In your district: reader replies on the four-day school week
  • Texas Education Agency takes over state’s largest school district 
  • 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 Florida’s education savings account bill

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.

On March 17, the Florida House of Representatives passed House Bill 1, which would expand Florida’s education savings accounts (ESAs). The bill would allow all students eligible for public school enrollment to receive up to $8,000 for education-related expenses outside the public school system. The funds can be used for curricular materials for homeschooling, tutoring services, private school tuition, and certain other education-related expenses.

Juan Martinez writes that HB1 would allow greater schooling flexibility and customization, especially for lower-income families. Marinez says the option for parents to tailor their children’s education would create more opportunities for students. Martinez also says taxpayers should fund students instead of “a one size fits all system.”

Sally Butzin writes that parents, lower-income families, and taxpayers in general should trust the government to hold public schools accountable and expand public school services and funding. Butzin says HB1 does not establish sufficient accountability around ESA spending. She also says ESAs harm public schools in favor of private schools, which Butzin says reduces equality.    

Education savings accounts offer flexibility to build children’s best future | Juan Martinez, Orlando Sentinel

“The recently introduced HB1 will expand the ability for parents to make personalized decisions for their children’s education by establishing educational savings accounts (ESAs) that would allow families to utilize their child’s share of public schooling funds to pay for customized education options. Rather than being limited by what school district one lives in, families would be able to use these funds for a variety of options that allow them to customize their children’s education in ways that best suit their unique gifts, talents, and needs. …  [T]he purpose of state education policy is to best educate students, not to maintain a status quo educational system that’s outdated and doesn’t serve learners. The world has changed from when mass schooling was first instituted, and it continues to change to this day. Public education must continue to evolve along with it. Funding students, rather than a one size fits all system, will allow for the children of Florida to get an education that will best prepare them for their own unique future. … At the end of the day, the reality is that traditional model has failed to meet the needs of so many students, especially Hispanic ones.”

Private education at public expense: From bad to worse | Sally Butzin, Tallahassee Democrat

“Since the 19th century, American citizens have trusted in the covenant made between taxpayers and their government to use their money to benefit the welfare of the citizens, including maintaining an equitable system of free public education. Taxpayers have trusted that the government would provide oversight and accountability for the education of its youth. Now for the first time in history we see taxpayer money being diverted to individual persons through a private organization called Step Up for Students (stepupforstudents.org) with little or no transparency or accountability. We also see that voucher language has been manipulated to fool citizens. … Education “Savings” Accounts should be called Education “Spending” Accounts. An ESA is essentially a debit card for many non-vetted purchases including home schooling. … This bill fundamentally transforms our public education system, which has always been the great equalizer. Despite dwindling funds and over-regulations, public schools continue to educate most of Florida’s children. Rather than working to improve public schools, the goal is to dismantle them brick by brick.”

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

We recently asked readers the following question about teacher compensation:

Do you believe teacher compensation should be based on merit, seniority (which usually includes level of education), or a combination of both merit and seniority?

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 retired school superintendent in New York wrote

“Teachers have usually reacted viscerally to proposals for merit compensation. They will tell you they believe that such plans are subject to cronyism and favoritism. Almost as bad, they will tell you that objective measures do not capture essential aspects of teaching. What’s more, schools are communities which succeed or fail together. Any effort to consider merit should be considered on a school level.”

A school board member in New Hampshire wrote

“I have believed for many years that merit should play a role in compensation. We introduced a modest merit pay element in our professional staff contract a few years ago in the form of a merit bonus and it created so much negative impact that it was removed from the contract when renegotiated. One teacher awarded the merit pay refused to accept it. Staff and administration could not identify a worthwhile metric. Deep discussion with staff representation revealed that our teachers value the certainty of a traditional step table with predicted income rather than introduce any uncertainty or atmosphere of competition. Finding an appropriate metric that was truly a measure of teacher performance seemed to be the greatest obstacle. I expected resistance from the staff but was surprised by the passionate opposition from our highest performing teachers, including those who had received the additional pay.”

A school board member in Iowa wrote

“Combination of both merit and Seniority. It’s long past time to reward those that have a proven history of getting students to excel, and solely because they have tenure.”

A community member in Pennsylvania wrote

“It should be a combination based on merit and seniority. Let’s face it, we all remember that some teachers are better at teaching than others, and it isn’t always incumbent upon one or the other. One teacher having low seniority but with a proven track record of results and ability to relate to students may be better at it than one that has been there a long time but is basically getting stale at it. On the other hand some do better and better as the years go by. There should be a way to combine both in some sort of point system. We’ve all had teachers that have been at it for a while that aren’t very good at presenting lessons in a way that keep us engaged and others that are almost fresh out of college but have a knack for keeping young people interested and have a fresh approach. There’s also the opposite where some experience make them more effective with tried and true methods. Teachers are people too, and we all learn and perform at different rates at any given point in our lives. Most businesses use this combination for decisions about advancement from my experience.”

A school board member in Colorado wrote

“I believe teacher compensation should be based on level of education and years of experience. It is a fact that there are some teachers who always go above and beyond and those who do only the minimum. Some believe that’s a good reason to implement a merit-based system of compensation. As a retired special education teacher and now a school board member, I have yet to see a quality rubric for determining how “merit” is measured. If that could be created so that special education teachers are fairly and equally “compared” to classroom teachers (for example), I would consider the idea of merit-based pay for my school district.”

A school committee member wrote

“I believe teacher pay should be based on seniority, continuing education, and “merit,” in that order. The trick is that “merit” is so very hard to measure, and is often subjective and thus subject to favoritism.”

A teacher’s spouse in Pennsylvania wrote:

“While merit based teacher compensation sounds like a smart idea, it turns out that measuring merit is highly subjective. Test scores, for instance, are based on a number of factors teachers cannot control, just as much as those they can- student anxiety, home life, commitment, etc. While school administrators have rubrics for performance reviews, it has been our experience that what the rubric measures depends entirely on who is doing the evaluations. Two different administrators will give opposite feedback on the same lesson, for example. Fads play a role too- you’ll get a good score for group projects one year when its “in”, but another year they’ll say it isn’t rigorous enough. Some of these rubrics try to force all teachers into the same teaching style, rather than allowing them the flexibility to play to their personal strengths.”

A community member in California wrote:

“A combination of merit and seniority/level of education. That said, there needs to be a major overhaul so that good teachers are not penalized because their students do not perform well on standardized testing–ESPECIALLY since those results often are tied to socioeconomic reasons that are not properly calculated.”

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

In 2023, about 24,100 school board seats are up for election in 35 states. Ballotpedia is covering elections for approximately 8,750 seats in 3,211 school districts across 28 states—or about 36% of all school board elections. Read more about Ballotpedia’s coverage of school board elections here.  

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:

Texas Education Agency takes over state’s largest school district 

A yearslong struggle between the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the Houston Independent School District (HISD) came to an end last week. 

On March 15, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath announced in a letter he was appointing a Board of Managers to replace the Houston Independent School District’s (HISD) elected Board of Trustees. Morath cited a number of reasons for the move, including that “one of the district’s campuses received unacceptable academic accountability ratings for five consecutive years.” 

Morath, whom Gov. Greg Abbott (R) appointed to oversee the Texas Education Agency in 2015, first signaled his intent to remove the HISD Board of Trustees on Nov. 6, 2019. Morath notified the district of his decision to replace the elected school board and appoint a superintendent following a TEA investigation into the board’s governance and repeatedly poor academic performance ratings at Wheatley High School. However, HISD lawyers filed a complaint against the TEA, and Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy issued an injunction that prohibited Morath from taking control of the district. On Jan. 13, 2023, the Texas Supreme Court ruled state law allows the TEA to take control of the district, ending the injunction.

HISD is the largest district in Texas and the eighth-largest district in the country, with an estimated student population of 200,000. There are 276 schools in the district, including Phillis Wheatley High School, the school Morath identified in his letter as having had several years of poor academic performance. In 2022, Wheatley received its first passing grade in eight years. 

State takeovers of schools or districts are relatively uncommon, though many states have laws allowing for such takeovers. In a 2016 report for The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), political scientist Ashley Jochim writes that “rationales for state involvement in local public school systems have evolved over time but they have almost always been reserved for schools and districts with a consistent record of poor performance—a measure of last resort.”

Jochim’s report found that 35 states had laws permitting the state to take over districts or schools. The first time a state assumed control of a school district was in 1989, when New Jersey took over Jersey City Public Schools following years of poor student performance and increasingly dilapidated buildings. Although the state had relinquished much of its control of the district by 2008, it wasn’t until 2022 when the takeover formally ended. 

New Jersey also assumed control of districts in Newark and Paterson in the early 1990s. 

Other prominent examples of state takeovers include Pennsylvania’s takeover of the Philadelphia school system in 2001 and the Massachusetts Department of Education’s takeover of Lawrence Public Schools in 2011. 

HISD isn’t the first district the TEA has taken over, but it is the largest. In the past 30 years, TEA has taken control of 15 other districts.

Morath said House Bill 1842, which Abbott signed into law in 2015, requires him to take over districts whose schools receive failing grades for five consecutive years. Three Republicans and two Democrats authored HB 1842, including state Rep. Harold Dutton (D), who defended the TEA’s takeover of HISD in a Houston Chronicle op-ed on March 13. Dutton wrote, “When a student fails once, there are consequences. When a district fails at least five consecutive times, there should also be consequences.”

Morath said the new Board of Managers and superintendent would not take over before June 1. The elected Board of Trustees will serve in an advisory capacity, and elections will still take place. The appointed board will serve for two years. At that time, Morath will need to announce a timeline for returning control back to the Board of Trustees or extend the state takeover for an additional two years. 

The TEA is accepting applications for the Board of Managers from Houston residents through April 6.  

Morath listed three conditions the district would have to meet for the state to return control to an elected board:

  • No school receives Ds or Fs for multiple years.
  • The district’s special education program complies with state and federal laws. 
  • The board demonstrates a focus on improving student outcomes.

The takeover has fueled disagreement since Morath announced his intention to remove the elected board in 2019. Gov. Abbott, who backed Morath’s decision from the beginning, said, “There has been a longtime failure by HISD and the victims of the failure are the students.” 

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D), who represents Texas’ 18th Congressional District—which includes parts of Houston—and formerly served on the Houston City Council, called on the U.S. Department of Education to launch a civil rights investigation into the takeover. The ACLU of Texas tweeted: “The state takeover of HISD is not about public education — it’s about political control of a 90 percent Black and brown student body in one of the country’s most diverse cities.” The organization went on to say HISD needed more resources, not dictates from officeholders in other cities.  

Reaction among the Board of Trustees has also been polarized. Board President Daniela Hernandez, who was elected in 2020, said, “I believe in the democratically elected board. I ran for this position. I think that community voice is very important for local school districts. HISD is a local school district, and we need to do everything that we can to keep it in local control.” Kendall Baker, who was elected in 2021, said, “I have full confidence that Mike Morath will do everything possible to help parents, teachers, taxpayers, and students. Exterminate the place, find the bodies, and head over back to us.”

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 Heather Manzella, who is running in the general election for one of four at-large seats on the School District U-46 Board of Education in Illinois on April 4, and Luba Koval, who is running in the general election for one of three at-large seats on the Liberty Schools Board of Education in Missouri on April 4. 

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

“Communication and partnership with parents to support and empower each child to achieve to the best of their abilities is essential for each student to become a responsible, contributing member of society.”

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

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

“A child’s learning is not limited to the classroom but instead their entire environment. To capitalize on a child’s formative years, there should be a strong partnership between a child’s parents/caregivers and their teacher. This ensures the two are speaking the “same language”. Opportunities for parents to check-in with teachers outside of two conferences a year are so important. An uninformed parent becomes a concerned and isolated parent that cannot effectively support their child at home. I believe for the vast majority of time, this is not due to a teacher not wanting to communicate with parents, but simply the system they’re working in doesn’t allow for effective parent follow-up. Our teachers’ workload needs to be structured in a way that provides them with an effective communication system for families. II would strive to find what can we take off of teacher’s plates so that there is an opportunity for parents and teachers to partner. This will benefit all involved. For this reason I support the Parent’s Bill of Rights.”

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