Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #56

Ballotpedia's Hall Pass

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 middle school algebra 
  • Share candidate endorsements with us! 
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • Reflections on COSSBA’s inaugural conference   
  • 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 middle school algebra

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.

During the 2014-2015 school year, the San Francisco Unified School District enacted a policy that prevents advanced students from taking Algebra 1 classes in eighth grade. Instead, the district requires all students to take the same classes, regardless of ability, through 10th grade (at which point advanced students can try to accelerate into harder classes like calculus and trigonometry). On March 22, a group of parents sued the district, saying Algebra I should once again be on offer for middle school students with the requisite mathematical knowledge. 

Stephen Sawchuk writes that eliminating advanced (also called tracked) courses from middle school curricula promotes equity between students of different races and economic backgrounds. Sawchuck says wealthier parents use advanced classes to help their children gain an unfair academic advantage over poorer students. He says the data shows that the policy has helped close that gap and improve algebra outcomes for more students.

Rex Ridgeway and David Margulies write that the San Francisco policy limits student advancement and removes opportunities from students who are proficient at math and would benefit from advanced instruction. They say wealthier families can work around the policy and pay for higher-level classes and tutoring, while high-performing poorer students have no way of accessing more difficult classes and getting a head start on college prerequisites.   

A Bold Effort to End Algebra Tracking Shows Promise | Stephen Sawchuk, EducationWeek

“Part of an ambitious project to end the relentless assignment of underserved students into lower-level math, the city now requires all students to take math courses of equal rigor through geometry, in classrooms that are no longer segregated by ability. That means no ‘honors’ classes. No gifted track. No weighted GPAs until later in high school. No 8th grade Algebra 1. … In effect, by de-tracking math classes, San Francisco has done away with one of the key avenues that the well-connected use to give their children an academic advantage. … This year, San Francisco got something of an ace in its back pocket to show skeptics of the plan: Data shows better math outcomes for students who took the de-tracked courses compared with the cohort before them. The number of students repeating algebra has fallen among all ethnic and racial groups, and fewer are receiving D’s and F’s in Algebra 1. About a third more students are ready for calculus, and that pool is more diverse than it’s ever been. While it’s not proof-positive that the new course sequence has caused the better outcomes, leaders say, it’s a hopeful sign.”

SFUSD’s delay of algebra 1 has created a nightmare of workarounds | Rex Ridgeway and David Margulies, San Francisco Examiner

“All parents want opportunities for their children to excel academically. However, reaching the top in math at San Francisco Unified School District, is like climbing a cactus tree. It’s going to hurt. At SFUSD, a math curriculum limiting student advancement currently exists; especially hindering socio-economically disadvantaged students from advancing in math. This is counter to what parents expect from a school district. … A lack of transparency, and manipulating data to justify policies, demonstrates how SFUSD operates. The benefits of eighth-grade algebra 1 are clearly explained in an open letter signed by nearly 1,800 science, technology, engineering and math professionals. This course initiates a five-year pathway to STEM readiness culminating in AP calculus in 12th grade. In practice, SFUSD’s delay of algebra 1 has created a nightmare of workarounds. Families with resources turn to fee-required online algebra 1 courses in eighth grade, outside the public school system, or enroll their kids in private schools.”

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 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 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. This year, 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 this year. Click here to read more about our 2023 school board coverage. 

Upcoming school board elections

We’re covering school board elections in the following states in the next month.

Texas

Some districts in the Lonestar State will hold general elections on May 6, while others will hold general elections on Nov. 7. On May 6, we’re covering elections in 58 districts, including the following with more than 75,000 students:

New Jersey

Newark Public Schools, the largest district by enrollment in the Garden State, is holding general elections on April 25. Three seats are up for election. 

Nebraska

Lincoln Public Schools, the state’s second largest district by enrollment, is holding general elections May 2. Primaries were April 4. Three seats are up for election. 

Reflections on COSSBA’s inaugural conference    

My colleague Juan García de Parades sat down with me last week to get my thoughts on my recent trip to Tampa, Fla., where I attended the Consortium of State School Boards Association’s (COSSBA) inaugural conference. If you’re a subscriber to Ballotpedia’s Daily Brew, you’ll have gotten an early look at this story last week. What follows is an abbreviated version of our conversation.

Juan Garcia de Parades: How was Tampa? 

Samuel Wonacott: Tampa was a lot warmer than Tulsa, Okla., where I live, and there were more palm trees (Tulsa does not have palm trees)! I’ve always enjoyed a good palm tree. 

Juan: Glad you got some sun! Let’s talk about the conference. Set the stage for our readers. What is the Consortium of State School Boards Associations? It’s a relatively new organization, right?

Samuel: That’s right. A group of state school boards associations came together and founded COSSBA in 2021. Before that, the primary national organization representing state school boards associations was the National School Boards Association (NSBA), which was founded in 1940. NSBA says that it works “with and through our State Associations, NSBA Advocates for Equity and Excellence in Public Education through School Board Leadership.” COSSBA describes itself as a “non-partisan, national alliance dedicated to sharing resources and information to support, promote and strengthen state school boards associations as they serve their local school districts and board members.”

COSSBA is made up of many former members of the NSBA. Interestingly, the NSBA also held its annual conference in Orlando last week. 

Juan: Can you explain what a state school boards association does?

Samuel: They are nonprofit organizations made up of school board members from around the state. Governance rules vary by state but all associations essentially serve the same purpose—providing training and resources to school board members and superintendents and representation in state government. That is, they lobby on behalf of school board members. 

Juan: Okay, so a bunch of state school boards associations got together in 2021 and formed COSSBA. Why? 

Samuel: In September 2021, NSBA leadership wrote a letter to President Joe Biden (D) referencing threats and disruptions at school board meetings, and said some of those actions could be considered the equivalent of domestic terrorism. The NSBA requested federal law enforcement to train and assist school board members on handling these disruptions. A month later,  U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum in which he directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. attorneys to meet within 30 days with leaders in every federal judicial district to discuss ways to address threats against school board members and educators. 

Critics of the NSBA letter said it and Garland’s memorandum unfairly compared parental concerns over masking policies and other COVID-19 responses to domestic terrorism. A group of 17 state attorneys general—all Republicans—sent a letter to Biden and Garland on Oct. 18 asking for them to withdraw the memo because of the chilling effect it could have on parents’ speech rights. 

Although the NSBA board apologized for how the letter was worded, between October 2021 and June 2022, 25 state school board associations decided to terminate or not renew membership in the NSBA. Many of those states later formed COSSBA. 

Juan: You spoke with many school board members at the conference. What sort of education topics were they talking about? Were there any big themes you picked up on?

Samuel: I asked board members about the biggest issues in their districts, and I heard some common themes. One was that districts were struggling with the aftermath of the pandemic. From issues like teacher morale to student discipline, many seemed to believe the pandemic was kind of the root of many current district hurdles. Relatedly, board members also talked about the struggle of rebuilding the community’s trust in the board in the pandemic’s aftermath. Funding was another theme, another issue that came up quite a bit. That included concerns about funding disparities within districts, where individual schools—some just miles apart—end up receiving different amounts of money, which lead to divergences in per-pupil spending, school facility quality, and so forth. 

Juan: What about conference-wide themes? What topics and issues defined the conference?

Samuel: Even though you can make a case that politics played a pretty big role in the events that led to COSSBA’s formation, the conference itself was pretty decidedly apolitical. The learning sessions, which were mostly led by school board members, covered school safety, school board governance, how to select superintendents, talking to the media, and so on. Neither the attendees nor the conference programming had much to say on hot-button political or culture topics. One session, probably the one that touched most overtly on politics, was titled “Staying in the Center Lane—Leading in Turbulent Times.” It was presented as a case study about how the politically diverse Dublin City Schools board, in Dublin, Ohio, operates in good faith even in the midst of real disagreement. So, even there, the focus wasn’t on political issues per se but, rather, on how a board can manage political differences and conflicting values.

Juan: Was there much talk about state-level education policies? 

Samuel: Not so much, as the board members and conference organizers were really focused on policies school boards have direct—or, through the superintendent—indirect control over. There was one session I attended on how the Idaho School Boards Association has welcomed charter schools into its ranks that occasioned some strong, differing opinions on the topic of charter schools in the Q&A period. But with the exception of that session, I didn’t hear much talk about, say, charter schools, vouchers, or Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)—three big education policy topics in the news this year. 

Juan: Who was at the conference? What states were represented?

Samuel: This was COSSBA’s inaugural conference—and a lot of people were there! According to registration data there were more than 1,700 registered attendees and vendors. School board members from all 23 states associated with COSSBA registered for the conference. You had school board members from small, rural schools with only a few thousand students, to some of the largest districts in the country—like Miami-Dade Public Schools, in Florida. 

Juan: Did attendees have much to say about the COSSBA/NSBA split? 

Samuel: No, not really. I would say most people I talked to were optimistic about COSSBA’s future and excited to be part of a new organization at the national level. That said, I talked to many longtime board members who had attended NSBA conferences in the past, and many of them were taking a wait-and-see approach to COSSBA.   

Juan: Thanks for that information on the conference. Which COSSBA states are holding elections this year?

Samuel: Fifteen of the 23 states whose state associations are affiliated with COSSBA are holding school board elections this year. That includes four states whose elections we’re covering comprehensively—Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Eight of the states holding elections this year are NSBA members. One state holding elections—Iowa—holds dual membership in COSSBA and NSBA, while three states—Nebraska, Texas, and Wisconsin—are unaffiliated with either organization. 

Juan: Thanks, Samuel. 

Samuel: Thanks, Juan! 

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 Simon Salinas and Katherine Goodwin, who are running in the May 6 general election for Plano Independent School District school board Place 7 in Texas. Incumbent Cody Weaver, who is also running, has not completed the survey.  

The Plano Independent School District is the 18th largest district in Texas, with an estimated enrollment of around 53,000 students. 

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

  • “Fiscal Responsibility & Equal Distribution of Funds: I will be responsible with tax dollars and will continue making sure that underserved communities in our district are receiving equal funds.
  • Community Connections: As a recent graduate, I am intimately aware of the current concerns of our students and our teachers. We need to meet the community where they are as opposed to expecting the community to come to us.
  • Teachers, Staff, and Student Success: The Plano ISD Board needs to continue to support innovative initiatives by the teachers and the Plano ISD Administration that make life more rewarding for teachers like including mental health resources. During COVID, my classmates and I experienced a shift in our learning. I believe now more than ever, we have to design a system that offers more individualized options for student success and growth. Kindergarten readiness and College readiness are important targets that are currently lacking attention in our School District. We must make sure that each student in Plano ISD will be ready to learn at a higher level if he/she chooses to attend college or trade school.”

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

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

  • “Katherine Goodwin will ensure educational excellence and equity by working to close the opportunity and achievement gaps for ALL our students, whomever they are, wherever they come from.
  • Plano ISD must help students and parents to feel their children are physically and emotionally safe at school­—lifted by the comfort of feeling they belong.
  • We must honor our educators by paying them what they deserve, protecting their ability to teach the truth and rebuilding trust.”

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




About the author

Samuel Wonacott

Samuel Wonacott is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.