races to run schools

Education is on the ballot in 2017 — here’s what to watch for and why it matters

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Education is on the ballot on Tuesday. It’s an off-year election, but that means school board and mayoral contests are especially likely to be on the ballot — in other words, in many places voters are electing the politicians who most directly control schools. There are also two big governors’ seats up for grabs.

Here’s why the vote on Tuesday matters and what the results could mean for schools:

We know from research (and experience) that elections matter for education policy.

In politics, education policy doesn’t always get the attention that Chalkbeat readers and reporters may think it deserves, particularly at the federal level. But that doesn’t mean that who gets elected doesn’t matter for schools — far from it.

Two recent research studies confirm as much. One analysis of North Carolina school board elections found that electing a Democratic school board members led to substantially reduced school segregation. Another recent study found that Democratic state governors meant more money were distributed to schools with more students of color (though they didn’t lead to higher or lower test scores).

It’s also clear that different candidates and parties have substantial policy differences on education issues.

This comes as the complexion of school board races have changed in many places — long sleepy affairs with little outside money, in many districts, national interests on both sides of the debate are racking up big spending totals.

Colorado school board races have national import (and spending)

Nowhere is the new breed of school board elections more apparent than in Colorado, where there are a number of fierce battles for the future of some of the state’s largest school districts.

In Denver, four seats on the board are up for grabs — just enough for critics of the current direction to grab control and reverse course if they sweep the available seats. The city has embraced the expansion of charter schools, as well as tough accountability measures for performance, including closing schools; it’s an approach that some want to take nationwide. Critics have said it’s akin to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s free-market vision of school choice — a charge school board members, and DeVos herself, reject. Substantial money is pouring in, as well as lots of controversy for mailers those dollars are paying for.

Meanwhile, in Douglas County, an affluent district between Denver and Colorado Springs, unions are battling a different brand of school choice advocates. Here, Republican-backed candidates support private school vouchers of the sort championed by DeVos. The district’s voucher program has been tied up with a lawsuit; the Colorado Supreme Court originally ruled the program unconstitutional in 2015, but was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider in light of a recent decision that was more favorable to sending public money to religious schools. It could even pave the way for a Supreme Court case that blocks state provisions barring voucher programs.

But skeptics of vouchers running for school board say they would withdraw the district from the program, effectively killing it and the case that could set a broader precedent. That’s one reason the race has also drawn national attention.

Governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia could have education implications

In Virginia, a bitter race pits Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam against Republican Ed Gillespie, and education has been a significant issue. Gillespie has vowed to expand charter schools in a state where there are only eight, and hopes to create a voucher-style program known as education savings accounts; Northam opposes these moves and has focused on greater investment in teachers and early childhood education. Polls are relatively tight in this closely watched race.

That’s not the case in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy is expected to prevail over his Republican opponent Kim Guadagno and succeed Gov. Chris Christie, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election. Christie has been a champion of the state’s charter sector, which has expanded rapidly under his watch, including in Newark. Murphy has been cooler to charters than Christie or Guadagno, though says he doesn’t oppose them.

Also notable in the Garden State: the largest local teachers union is going all out to oust the state senate president, Steve Sweeney, who is a Democrat. The union rarely backs Republicans, but in this case is spending millions of dollars to support a pro-Trump candidate over the senate leader who has tangled with the union on issues including pensions and school funding. This has infuriated state Democrats. It’s a high-risk play — which some say may backfire, particularly if Sweeney wins — designed to show the strength of the union.

Mayoral and school board elections across the country mean control of schools is at stake in many districts

There will be dozens of mayoral elections and hundreds of school board races on Tuesday. Here’s a sampling of them.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to cruise to reelection this week; as the head of the largest school system in the country, he’s instituted sweeping changes, including implementing universal pre-kindergarten. Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh faces a challenge from one of city’s top charter critics — a key opponent of last year’s failed effort to expand charters statewide — but Walsh is on a path to prevail.

In New Orleans, the mayor doesn’t hold formal sway in schools, but that hasn’t stopped the issue from playing a role in the election, in a city where nearly all students attend charter schools. One candidate, LaToya Cantrell, co-founded a charter school, and her opponent has criticized the school’s academic record.

Mayoral elections will also happen in big cities including Atlanta, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. While the mayors in most of these cities do not control the schools, whoever runs the city will surely influence them.

Meanwhile, there are a number of school board races in some big districts across the country, including Atlanta, Bridgeport, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Columbus (Ohio), Houston, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, and Seattle. The direction of their schools boards matters for large numbers of children: Together, these districts educate over 600,000 students.

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Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.