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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meet and greet

Tennessee seeks reset in Memphis with next leader of its school turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Stephen Osborn (right), a finalist for superintendent of Tennessee's Achievement Schools District, speaks with Mendell Grinter, leader of the Campaign for School Equity, during a meeting at Martin Luther King College Preparatory School in Memphis.

Pastor Ricky Floyd says he was an “early cheerleader” when the state began taking over low-performing schools in Memphis in 2012 and assigning them to charter operators to improve.

But no more.

Disappointed with those schools’ academic progress and even more disappointed with how Tennessee’s Achievement School District engages with Memphians, he now feels “hoodwinked” by the state.

“What is your plan to cultivate relationships with the community again?” Floyd asked Stephen Osborn, a finalist to become the next superintendent of the state-run district.

Osborn, who is chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education, met with Floyd and other community members Wednesday as Tennessee seeks to whittle down its list of four superintendent candidates revealed last week.

Their brief exchange — in which Osborn pledged to earn community trust by creating better schools — captures the challenge that the district’s next leader will face.

Local trust in the Achievement School District is low, taxed by years of painful state takeovers of neighborhood schools with promises of fast turnarounds but lackluster results. In recent years, several national charter networks have left the district, mostly because of low enrollment but also due to the high cost of turnaround work. And several schools have closed or changed hands.

“I’m sorry that’s been your experience,” Osborn ultimately told Floyd, pastor of the Pursuit of God congregation in the city’s Frayser neighborhood. “I don’t expect to get folks’ faith on day one. I’m going to need to earn it.”

All four candidates have met with Memphis leaders, but Osborn was the first to be brought back for a second round, said Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will make the hire along with Gov. Bill Haslam.

McQueen called the leadership change “a restart moment” and said community input is part of the transition. She emphasized that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The other top candidates include Keith Sanders, a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education; Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen joins Osborn during meetings with community stakeholders.

McQueen accompanied Osborn Wednesday as he met with Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, along with funders, parents and community leaders. A day earlier, he was in Nashville speaking with the governor’s staff and members of the State Board of Education, as well as staff with LEAD Public Schools, which operates two ASD schools in the state’s capital city.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched during the Race to the Top era.

Osborn said he has been watching the ASD’s work from afar and said he is ready to get into the mix.

“This role is one where there’s no bigger impact make in terms of making better outcomes for families and this children,” he told reporters. “Tennessee has a bright, strong and vibrant future.”

Superintendent search

Rhode Island school improvement leader among finalists to head Tennessee’s turnaround district

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis is the home of most of the Achievement School District's turnaround work.

A Rhode Island education leader who is a finalist to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district was in Memphis Wednesday to meet with community members.

Stephen Osborn is the chief for innovation and accelerating school performance at the Rhode Island Department of Education. He is among finalists to lead Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

A second finalist has not been chosen from among the four candidates revealed last week, according to Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education.

She denied a report earlier Wednesday from Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, that Osborn and Memphis education consultant Keith Sanders were the two finalists.

“I truly think we’re still having conversations about the other candidates,” Gast said.

White later walked back his comments. “She’s right. I was making an assumption. I apologize,” he told Chalkbeat in an email.

Before joining Rhode Island education leadership, Osborn was an assistant superintendent with the Louisiana Department of Education and a chief operating officer with New Beginnings Charter School Network in New Orleans.

He was visiting with Memphis community groups Wednesday with Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, including a meet-and-greet in the city’s Frayser neighborhood, which is a hub of state-run district’s work. 

Earlier this month, Gast said the state would narrow down the candidates list from four to two based on input from key district and community members in Memphis. “The final decision on who to hire will be jointly determined by the commissioner and the governor,” she told Chalkbeat.

Sanders is the CEO of his own consulting group in Memphis and is the former chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education. He was a principal at Riverview Middle School in Memphis before leaving in 2007 to co-found the Miller-McCoy Academy in New Orleans, an all-boys charter school that shuttered in 2014.

The two other candidates are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

All four have visited Memphis and met with key leaders, according to Gast.

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. 

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis — at a time when the Achievement School District has much less authority than when it launched in 2012 during the Race to the Top era.