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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moving on

Dismissed by KIPP over sexual harassment allegations, co-founder Mike Feinberg starts new organization

KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, who was fired earlier this year over sexual harassment allegations, has started a new organization.

Called the Texas School Venture Fund, the group describes itself as helping individuals start and grow schools. It has already drawn a handful of prominent education reform advocates to its board.

This new group’s existence and Feinberg’s prominent role in it raise questions about how education leaders will deal with sexual abuse and harassment allegations. Its board indicates that some will continue to support Feinberg’s work despite the specific claims against him, which he has denied.

According to KIPP, which has grown to over 200 schools nationwide, Feinberg was dismissed due to allegations of child sexual abuse in the late 1990s and two separate sexual harassment allegations by adult KIPP alumni and employees from the early 2000s, one of which resulted in a financial settlement.

A 2009 photo of Mike Feinberg. (Via MerlinFTP Drop.)

That investigation found the allegation “credible” but did not “conclusively confirm” it, KIPP said. “I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind,” Feinberg said in the statement at the time.

Feinberg’s dismissal sent shockwaves through the education reform community, where he was deeply connected.

Feinberg, who is listed as the president of the new group, declined to comment for this story through his attorney. He described his ambitions for the organization in a LinkedIn post, saying the Texas School Venture Fund would be “a catalyst to the creation of innovative and responsive schools” that would work with educators on “starting new schools, helping single-site schools start to grow, [and] helping networks of schools continue to grow.”

Howard Fuller — the former Milwaukee schools superintendent and prominent advocate of private school vouchers for low-income families — is on the Texas School Venture Fund’s board. He told Chalkbeat that the “core group” that Feinberg will work with are KIPP alumni who want to start their own schools, though he said it will not be limited to KIPP graduates.

“I felt like this was something Mike can do well, so I’m happy to help in any way I can,” he said.

Fuller said he does not believe the allegations against Feinberg and they did not give him pause in continuing to work with him.

“Mike is a very close friend of mine,” Fuller said. “Mike said he did not do it.”

Also on the board of directors of the new group are Leo Linbeck, III, a Texas businessman who is listed as the chair of the board, and Chris Barbic, who led Tennessee’s school turnaround district and now works at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Linbeck declined to speak on the record. Barbic did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Fuller said the group is in its early stages and is seeking funding, though he couldn’t say whether it has any funders presently. (Neerav Kingsland, head of the education giving at the Arnold Foundation, did not immediately respond to an email asking whether his group was funding Feinberg’s organization, which is not listed among Arnold’s current grantees.)

Few new details have emerged about Feinberg’s dismissal or the investigation that precipitated it.

A brief video of KIPP Houston’s board meeting the day before Feinberg’s firing was announced shows members immediately going into executive session, which is private, to consider a personnel matter. Feinberg did not appear to be present.

Three hours later, the board voted to delegate authority to the chair to negotiate and execute “employment arrangements” with Feinberg.

All but one of the board members present supported the move. The exception was Karol Musher, who abstained. Musher is now on the board of the Texas School Venture Fund. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, in March, Chalkbeat filed a public records request to KIPP Houston seeking information about Feinberg’s dismissal, including the investigation conducted by an external law firm.

In an April letter to the Texas attorney general requesting an advisory opinion, a lawyer for KIPP contended that the information is shielded from public disclosure due to attorney–client privilege. (The version of the letter provided to Chalkbeat is partially redacted.)

Chalkbeat has yet to receive word on an opinion by the attorney general.

Where they stand

Where candidates for governor in Michigan stand on major education issues

There’s a lot at stake for students, parents, and educators in this year’s Michigan governor’s race.

The next governor, who will replace term-limited Republican Rick Snyder, could determine everything from how schools are funded to how they’re measured and judged. Some candidates are considering shuttering low-performing schools across the state. Others have called for charter schools to get some additional oversight.

To see where major party candidates stand on crucial education issues, Chalkbeat joined with our partners in the Detroit Journalism Cooperative to ask candidates for their views on school funding, early childhood education, and paying for college.

All seven major-party candidates on the ballot in Michigan’s August 7 primary were invited to sit down with the journalism cooperative, which also includes Bridge Magazine, WDET Radio, Michigan Radio, Detroit Public Television, and New Michigan Media, to answer a range of questions.

Six candidates — three Democrats and three Republicans — accepted our invitation. The one candidate who declined was Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is generally considered the Republican frontrunner.

The candidates were largely asked a standard set of questions. Read some of their answers — edited for length and clarity — below. Sort answers by candidate or see everyone’s answer to each question.

Or, to see each candidate’s full response to the education questions, watch videos of the interviews here.

(Full transcripts of the interviews, including answers to questions about roads, the environment and other issues are here).