Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #90

Welcome to Hall Pass, a newsletter written to keep you plugged into the conversations driving school board politics and governance.

A note to readers: It’s the holidays, and so we’ll be off next week to celebrate accordingly. We’ll return to your inbox again on Jan. 3, 2024. Thanks, as always, for reading, and we’ll see you in the New Year!

In today’s edition, you’ll find:

  • On the issues: The debate over curating school libraries 
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • The top four Hall Pass education stories of 2023
  • Nearly half of seats in Kansas’ school board elections uncontested in 2023
  • 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 curating school libraries

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. Missed an issue? Click here to see the previous education debates we’ve covered.

What books should be in school libraries? And how much say should parents have?

Peter DeWitt writes that the movement to remove certain books from school libraries is discriminatory and suppresses student access to diverse perspectives. DeWitt says leaders use inflammatory language to describe books whose messages they disagree with, riling up parents and other community members. He also says parents who want to remove books should read them first.  

Frances Floresca writes that some books contain obscene images and descriptions and that efforts to remove them are not necessarily an attack on diverse perspectives. Floresca says parents and taxpayers have a right to know what materials children can access in school libraries and call for their removal. She also says children can still access sensitive materials outside the classroom with their parents’ consent.

Banning Books Is Not About Protecting Children. It’s About Discrimination Against Others | Peter DeWitt, Education Week

“The dumbing down of America isn’t due to watered-down curriculum as much as it is the direct result of parents, leaders, and teachers who choose to ban books because, somehow, they don’t agree with what is written within those books. In an effort to undermine the quality of the books, governors like Greg Abbot of Texas calls them pornographic. Although I would love to say that Abbott chose his words incorrectly, the reality is that he intentionally chose that word to get parents in his state up in arms. I wonder how many of the books being banned have actually been read by the parents trying to ban them. Sure, they can read a passage at a board meeting, but have they actually read the whole book?”

Frances Floresca: Removing material with sexual content is not ‘book banning’ | Frances Floresca, Salt Lake Tribune

“[V]irtually nobody is in favor of books being banned. Banning books such as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ is different from having content in schools with ‘sensitive materials,’ such as ‘Fun Home’ and ‘Gender Queer,’ which have clear obscene and pornographic images. It is clear virtually nobody wants books banned from schools, and no one is being stopped from reading ‘sensitive materials’ outside the classroom. It should be up to the parents to decide whether or not they want their children to read these materials. … People’s taxpayer dollars are going to these schools, so it is vital for them to be as transparent as possible. It is the people’s right to know if there is obscene and pornographic content in the classrooms, and it is their right to ask them to be removed.”

School board update: filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications

In 2023, Ballotpedia covered elections for over 9,000 school board seats in more than 3,000 districts across 34 states. We’re expanding our coverage each year with our eye on the more than 13,000 districts with elected school boards. 

Upcoming school board elections

On Jan. 9, 2024, voters in the Plattsmouth Community Schools district will decide a recall election against Terri Cunningham-Swanson, a member of the Board of Education. The recall effort started after Cunningham-Swanson called for a formal review of several books in the school library. 

Cunningham-Swanson said the books had “very graphic sexual content. And I do mean graphic. The list of books is on the website, too. Parents can check them out for themselves. Then go to a parent-run website, such as booklooks.org or ratedbooks.org to read the content of these books.”

The board established a committee to review 52 books. On Nov. 14, the committee recommended the board approve 51 of the books for circulation in the library. A majority of the board voted to approve the recommendation. 

Ryan Michael Whitmore, a recall supporter, said, “Terri has decided to push an extreme personal agenda that will be a burden on the staff and taxpayers. The agenda is to remove materials that are related to LGBTIA+, showing certain minorities in a positive light and showing Christianity in a negative light.”

About 1,480 students were enrolled in Plattsmouth Community Schools in 2022. The median school district in the country has around 1,135 students. 

Stay tuned for the results of this election. 

Speaking of recalls…

Yesterday, we released our 2023 recall report, looking back at recall elections at all levels of state and local government throughout the year. We’ll have more to say about our findings in tomorrow’s edition of the Daily Brew, our weekly newsletter on all things politics. In early 2024, we’ll look specifically at the report’s findings on school board recalls in Hall Pass. Stay tuned! 

The top four Hall Pass education stories of 2023

Another year has—almost—come and gone! Thank you for joining us in this newsletter—we’re grateful to have you as a subscriber. 

Every Wednesday, since early 2022, we’ve helped you understand the debates shaping education and curricula policy and make sense of school board politics. As we close out the year, let’s take a look back at our top education stories.

Endorsements in school board elections

We’re cheating a bit here, since our analyses of endorsements in school board elections is not one story but several. This year, we collected data on all school board elections in 10 states, giving us a look at tens of thousands of individual races in districts large and small and allowing us to see big-picture trends. As part of that coverage, we collected any endorsement information we could find for every candidate in those 10 states. Most school board races are officially nonpartisan, but endorsements shine a light on candidates’ partisan leanings and policy stances. 

Montana becomes the 46th state to authorize charter schools

Charter schools continue to play an important role in conversations about the purpose and form of public education. Indeed, on Dec. 11, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit organization that advocates for charter schools, released an annual report that found more than 300,000 students enrolled in charter schools since 2019.   

At the start of this year, 45 states had passed laws authorizing charter schools. That number grew to 46 on May 18, when Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed legislation allowing for the first charter schools to open.  

We looked at the details of the Montana legislation, the history of charter schools, and recent statistics on student enrollment nationwide.

In almost half of states, school board elections are most commonly held off-cycle from federal elections

Election timing may not sound like the sexiest topic, but the date on which elections are held can strongly influence voter turnout. Turnout is most often highest in November elections in even-numbered years, when congressional and most state-level elections take place. Nevertheless, that’s not when most elections for the country’s more than 500,000 local offices— including school boards—happen.

We researched laws and common practices across the country to put together an analysis on when states commonly hold school board elections. 

240 school districts have board with more than 10 members—Chicago Public Schools will soon be one of them

Right now, the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education consists of seven mayoral appointees. But that will change in 2024, as the board begins a two-year transition to being fully elected—and having 21 members. By 2026, Chicago Public Schools, the fourth-largest district in the country, will have one of the largest boards in the country.

How large is the average board? What’s the largest in the country? The smallest? We used data we collected in 2022 on every school district and all 82,000 board members in the country to answer those questions. 

Kansas’ Nov. 7 school board elections

Let’s turn to our latest report on Nov. 7 school board elections. 

Last week, we explored Pennsylvania’s elections. We’ve covered Nov. 7 elections in Colorado and Minnesota and Virginia in past editions. 

Today, the Sunflower State—the last of the 10 states where we provided comprehensive coverage of school board elections this year. We’ll wrap up our election series with a final report in early 2024 on the biggest takeaways from this year’s elections. But more on that in these pages in January. 

Here’s a snippet from our report on Kansas. 

Nearly half of seats in Kansas’ school board elections uncontested in 2023

Of the 1,160 school board seats up for election, 579 (49.9%) were uncontested. 

Fourteen of those uncontested elections had fewer candidates than seats up for election, and 45 had no candidates on the ballot, guaranteeing a total of 68 seats to write-in candidates, representing 6% of all seats up for election.

Overall, 1,100 (95%) of the 1,160 seats up for election were in Republican-leaning districts, 25 (2%) were in Democratic-leaning districts, and 35 (3%) were in districts with a plurality of unaffiliated voters.

While Kansas’ school board elections are officially nonpartisan, Ballotpedia researched publicly available voter files and candidate filing information to identify candidates’ partisan affiliations. Registered Democrats won 84% of the 25 seats in the state’s six Democratic-leaning districts, and registered Republicans won 80% of the 1,100 seats in the 269 Republican-leaning districts.

The results were pretty evenly split for the 35 seats in the 10 unaffiliated-leaning districts. Democrats won 40% of the seats, Republicans won 43%, and independent or minor party candidates won 17%.

Election results generally mirrored each district’s partisan makeup, though there were two outliers.

In one Republican-plurality district, only Democrats won: Olathe Unified School District 233, a Kansas City suburb. In one unaffiliated-plurality district, only Democrats won: Wichita Unified School District 259, a race we covered in-depth this year.

Overall, Republicans won 901 seats (78%), Democrats won 145 (13%), and independent or minor party candidates won 102 (9%). There were 12 winners (1%) whose affiliations we couldn’t identify.

Click here to learn more about Kansas’ school board elections, including incumbent win rates.

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 featuring survey responses from two of the seven candidates who appeared on the ballot in the general election for Saint Paul Board of Education At-large in Minnesota. Four at-large seats were up for election. 

Carlo Franco and Erica Valliant were among the four winning candidates. Franco won 20.6% of the votes, while Vallient won 16.9%. Chauntyll Allen and Yusef Carrillo, the other two winners, did not fill out the survey. 

Last year, 33,475 students were enrolled in St. Paul Public Schools. 

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

  • “Carlo Franco is from and for the City of Saint Paul.
  • Our vision is for a Saint Paul Public Schools district where our schools respond creatively to the needs of every community in our city; where our students feel safe, heard, and prepared for a changing world because we will have invested in our frontlines.
  • Carlo Franco deeply understands the needs of our young people and works in partnership with them to design solutions; on the school board, Carlo will champion quality services for each and every young person throughout our great City of Saint Paul.”

Click here to read the rest of Franco’s responses. 

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

  • “Erica currently has 4 sons enrolled in Saint Paul Public Schools, two in elementary, two in middle school, and 1 son who graduated Saint Paul Central High School in 2020.
  • Working to make sure our students are graduating with strong financial literacy skills while exploring wealth justice so they are prepared to navigate financial decisions that will impact them for years..
  • Investing in ensuring access to quality early learning education and pre-k for all children, Promoting critical thinking skills and practice, Addressing school culture and safety”

Click here to read the rest of Valliant’s responses.