Hall Pass: Your Ticket to Understanding School Board Politics, Edition #117

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 religious charter schools  
  • School board filing deadlines, election results, and recall certifications
  • Recent studies assess the academic benefits of federal K-12 pandemic relief
  • Understanding the financial return on educational investments (Part 5):  The fields of study that provide significant increases to earnings as students earn higher degrees
  • Extracurricular: education news and numbers from around the web
  • Candidate Connection survey

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On the issues: The debate over religious charter schools

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.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled 6-2 (with one judge recusing) on June 25 that public funding for St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual Charter School—which would have been the nation’s first religious charter school—was unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School Board voted 3-2 in June 2023 to approve the school.

Today, we’re featuring excerpts from the majority opinion and a dissent. 

The Oklahoma Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort for civil matters, while the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals is the court of last resort for criminal matters. Only Oklahoma and Texas have two courts of last resort. The governor appoints justices with the assistance of a nonpartisan commission, whose members are selected by the governor, the Oklahoma Bar Association, and state legislative leaders. 

Democratic governors appointed four current justices, while Republican governors appointed five.

The court’s majority wrote that religious charter schools violate the state’s constitution, which prohibits state funding for the “use, benefit or support of a sect or system of religion.” The opinion said approving St. Isidore’s charter would damage protections against religious discrimination. The justices also said religious charter schools would violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  

Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Dana Kuehn wrote that St. Isidore’s charter did not violate the state’s constitution because it did not extend special treatment to the religious school—it only offered the school the same government assistance available to secular charter schools. Kuehn wrote that denying a charter “based solely on [its] religious character or affiliation” violated the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act.

DRUMMOND v. OKLAHOMA STATEWIDE VIRTUAL CHARTER SCHOOL BOARD (Majority opinion) | Oklahoma Supreme Court Justices Douglas Combs, Richard Darby, James Edmondson, Noma Gurich, Yvonne Kauger, James Winchester, Oklahoma State Courts Network

“The framers’ intent is clear: the State is prohibited from using public money for the ‘use, benefit or support of a sect or system of religion.’ Although a public charter school, St. Isidore is an instrument of the Catholic church, operated by the Catholic church, and will further the evangelizing mission of the Catholic church in its educational programs. The expenditure of state funds for St. Isidore’s operations constitutes the use of state funds for the benefit and support of the Catholic church. It also constitutes the use of state funds for ‘the use, benefit, or support of . . . a sectarian institution.’ The St. Isidore Contract violates the plain terms of Article 2, Section 5 of the Oklahoma Constitution. Enforcing the St. Isidore Contract would create a slippery slope and what the framers’ warned against—the destruction of Oklahomans’ freedom to practice religion without fear of governmental intervention. … While we have already found the St. Isidore Contract to violate two provisions of the Oklahoma Constitution, which affords bona fide, separate, adequate, and independent grounds upon which today’s opinion is rested, the St. Isidore Contract also violates the federal Establishment Clause.”

DRUMMOND v. OKLAHOMA STATEWIDE VIRTUAL CHARTER SCHOOL BOARD (Dissent) | Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Dana Kuehn, Oklahoma State Courts Network

‘The funds are not a donation, but compensation for services rendered. Whether payment goes to the student/parent, or the school directly, is of no practical difference under this scheme; if a student does not enroll, the school does not receive funds related to that additional student. … [E]nrollment in a charter school is fundamentally a choice for parents to make. St. Isidore would not be ‘taking over’ any function that is traditionally the exclusive realm of the State. It would exist alongside state-mandated secular options. … The Act’s requirement that charter schools be nonsectarian (70 O.S. § 3-136(A)(2)) also violates the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act (OFRA), which mandates that the State shall not ‘substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion’ — even if the law or rule in question is one of general applicability. 51 O.S. § 253(A). As amended in November 2023, this statute specifies that the State may not exclude any entity from participating in a government program ‘based solely on [its] religious character or affiliation.” 51 O.S. § 253(D). Aside from the fact that the Act’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement violates the Free Exercise Clause, it is also a dead letter under Oklahoma law, as the ORFA is the more recent expression of legislative intent.”

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

This year, Ballotpedia will cover elections for over 11,000 school board seats across more than 30 states. We’re expanding our coverage each year with our eye on the more 13,000 districts with elected school boards. 

Election results from the past week

On July 2, voters in California’s Sunol Glen Unified School District voted in a recall election against board members Ryan Jergensen and Linda Hurley.

As of July 3, unofficial results show Jergensen losing the recall election 53.8%-46.2%. Results also show Hurley losing 52.8%-47.3%.

The Sunol Glen Unified School District is located northeast of Fremont, near San Francisco.

The recall effort started after the board voted 2-1 on Sept. 12, 2023, to pass a resolution that said only the U.S. and California flags could be flown on school grounds. Jergensen and Hurley voted in favor, and fellow board member Peter “Ted” Romo voted against.

Community members who disagreed with the resolution said its purpose was to stop the district from flying the LGBTQ+ Pride flag, which had been flown since June 2023. Both Jergensen and Hurley said they were not targeting any group when they voted for the resolution. They said the U.S. and California flags were all-inclusive.

This was the eighth school board recall to go to a vote this year. 

Recent studies assess the academic benefits of federal K-12 pandemic relief

Between March 2020 and March 2021, the federal government allocated about $190 billion to schools through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grants—roughly a fifth of what K-12 schools spent each year between 2010 and 2020. Congress took a hands-off approach to much of the funding, giving districts wide latitude to spend the money as students returned to classrooms and school boards grappled with declines in learning. 

What effect did federal pandemic relief have on student achievement? 

Two studies, conducted separately but both released on June 26, sought to provide an initial answer to that question, even as districts race to commit the last of the ESSER funding before the September deadline. 

Here’s what these studies do—and do not—tell us. 

Researchers found that, on average, ESSER grants improved math and reading scores in the districts included in the studies—but not enough to offset pandemic-related learning loss. Researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, and the University of Washington examined the test scores of students in grades three through eight in 2022 and 2023. 

In “Federal Pandemic Relief and Academic Recovery,” researchers with Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research and Stanford’s Educational Opportunity Project compared average district test scores in reading and math from 2016-19 to 2022-23. The authors state: “Our results imply that the federal pandemic relief contributed to academic recovery during the 2022-23 school year, and that the impacts were in line with what would have been expected from prior research. Because the federal relief dollars were disproportionately targeted at low-income districts, they are contributing to narrowing the gaps which widened during the pandemic.”

According to NPR’s Cory Turner, the researchers estimated that “every $1,000 in federal relief spent per student bought the kind of math test score gains that come with 3% of a school year, or about six school days of learning.” Reading test score gains were smaller, coming in at about three days of learning per $1,000. 

In the second study, “ESSER and Student Achievement: Assessing the Impacts of the Largest One-Time Federal Investment in K12 Schools,” researchers from the University of Washington used a dataset of math and reading achievement scores from over 5,000 districts in 30 states. The researchers found that ESSER funding led to gains in math, but did not find that gains in reading were statistically significant. 

Although ESSER grants represented the largest infusion of federal funding for schools in U.S. history, researchers found that the amount was likely insufficient to offset learning declines since the beginning of the pandemic. The Harvard and Stanford researchers wrote: “Returning to 2019 [achievement] levels on the basis of federal pandemic relief alone would require $18,800 per student”—or over $900 billion for all 48 million public school students. 

In the second study, researchers from the University of Washington estimated that the funding needed to erase pandemic-related learning loss would range from $9,000 to $13,000 per student—or $550 billion to $800 billion. 

The studies don’t tell us what kind of spending worked to raise academic achievement. Congress put few restrictions on how districts could spend the federal pandemic aid—not all of it had to go toward interventions that could reverse learning loss. 

Center for Education Data & Research Director Dan Goldhaber, who co-authored the University of Washington study, said, “Candidly, I think the impact was small, and there are some reasons why it wasn’t larger. Only 20% of ESSER money was even earmarked for learning loss, and I don’t think there was a lot of oversight of whether that 20% was well spent.”

In addition to after-school programs and tutoring, districts have spent the pandemic aid on everything from teacher raises to facility upgrades. The Washington Examiner’s Breccan Thies wrote: “Some of the money was used to advance left-wing ideologies such as critical race theory and gender theory in the classroom. Other schools spent their pandemic funds on non-academic expenses such as refreshing sports fields to synthetic turf and updating sound systems in school gymnasiums and theaters. In two of the more bizarre cases, one school district purchased an ice cream truck with its pandemic relief funds, while another financed accommodations at Las Vegas’s ritzy Caesars Palace.”

Harvard and Stanford researchers said future state or federal aid could “boost achievement even more by incentivizing districts to invest specifically in evidence-based academic catch-up efforts with higher cost effectiveness, such as extending the school year or summer learning (as Texas has done) or expanding tutoring programs (as Maryland and Virginia have done.)”

Here’s the backstory on ESSER funding. Congress allocated roughly $190 billion to schools between March 2020 and March 2021 through three rounds of (ESSER) Fund grants. Congress also allocated about 10% of ESSER funding—or about $19 billion—to state education agencies. Congress mostly followed Title I funding formulas in allocating ESSER grants, meaning districts with more low-income families generally received more funding. Title I is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

In April, we published a quick primer on ESSER funding. Click here to read that story.

Understanding the financial return on educational investments (Part 5):  The fields of study that provide significant increases to earnings as students earn higher degrees

On June 26, we analyzed the degrees with the highest and lowest average earnings for graduates according to MyFloridaFuture, an online dashboard from the State University System of Florida for comparing salaries, student loans, and employment rates for different programs and career paths. The State University System of Florida developed the dashboard in response to a 2021 law. In a six-part series, we’re exploring MyFloridaFuture’s data and looking at other states with similar laws. In our fifth story, we’ll look at our analysis of the different fields of study that confer significantly higher average earnings for graduates with higher degrees.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that, nationwide in 2022, the median earnings of full-time employed 25- to 34-year-olds with a master’s degree or higher ($80,200) were 20 percent higher than the earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree ($66,600) as their highest level of attainment. The returns on investment with regard to earnings for achieving higher-level degrees vary widely for different fields of study. 

  • Jumping to the next education level up (e.g., bachelor’s to master’s or a master’s to a doctorate) resulted in decreased average earnings one year after graduation for 17 fields of study (10% of the 178 majors that offered multiple degree levels).
  • 85 fields of study (48%) had average earnings increases of 25% or less for achieving the next education level.
  • Only eight fields of study (4.5%) had a greater than 75% increase in average earnings when students moved up from a bachelor’s to a master’s or from a master’s to a doctorate.
  • 26 fields had a greater than 75% increase in average earnings one year after graduating when comparing bachelor’s degrees to doctorates.

Extracurricular: education news and numbers 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 Gustavo Ortega and Hayley Ross, the two candidates running in the Aug. 20 primary for Miami-Dade County Public Schools school board District 3. 

Miami-Dade County Public Schools is the largest district in Florida, with an estimated enrollment of around 347,500 students. Five seats on the nine-member board are up for election this year.  

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

  • “Promoting Educational Innovation
  • Universal Preschool for 3-Year-old
  • Ensuring Student Safety in Our Schools”

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

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

  • “I want to guarantee the safety of our children. Whether that is updating the risk assessment and emergency respnse protocalls for our schools or making sure our schools are properly maintained and up to code.
  • Our children education is overshadowed by political issues that are distrating from the important issues. We need to return to focusing on the basics so our children can be competitve on an international scale and curriculum must be age appropriate. Age Appropriate is not a subjective term. There are common sense standard established and when they are in question, it is up to parents to decide.
  • Our children cannot receive continuous quality of education, it we can’t keep quality teacher in the public school systems. Constantly recruiting and training teachers is more expensive them supporting our current teachers. I want to ensure that teachers are receive a proper living wage, that resources are available to them to eliminate their out of pocket costs, and I want to make sure they have quality continuing education to keep them ahead of the curve.”

Click here to read the rest of Ross’ answers. 

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

In the 2022 election cycle, 6,087 candidates completed 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 sample ballot.