Election 2020

Education Equity on the Ballot

Election 2020: Education Equity on the Ballot


On November 3, voters nationwide will cast their ballots for local, state and federal candidates who espouse their values and ideals. A political, social, economic, and educational landscape fraught with inequities demands leaders capable of developing and implementing innovative solutions to promote equitable access to resources for our society’s most vulnerable populations. Those who are elected in 2020 – a year marked by profound hardship – will have the opportunity to lead and set a path to   overcome the equity challenges uncovered by this year, including providing all students equitable opportunities to learn.

A strong public education system is vital to achieving equity in our society. In the words of United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “we are never going to reach equality in America until we achieve equality in education.” The events of this year have underscored the truth of these words. As schools throughout the South and the rest of the nation shuttered in March due to COVID-19, a vast digital divide between wealthy and low-income and students became apparent. Millions of students in the South struggled to access and utilize online learning platforms. Millions lost access to critical services provided by their schools, such as nutritious meals, health care, and mental health support. In the spring, educators struggled to adapt to an exclusively online teaching environment and, as the fall approached, took issue with hasty school reopening plans in some of the southern states most heavily affected by COVID-19. While many school districts adapted and developed short- and long-term distance learning protocols, state budget shortfalls and limited federal relief funds prevented a more robust response to the growing crisis in education. Federal and state leaders, from the President of the United States to members of state boards of education, continue to play an important role in the authorization, distribution and allocation of emergency COVID-19 relief funds for public schools in the South. Now, voters have the opportunity to ensure that these funds are directed and spent in ways that support student populations that historically have been underserved.

Education on the Ballot

Education is on the ballot in federal and statewide races throughout the South in 2020. In addition to their influence over emergency relief funds for public education, elected officials at all levels – from local and state school boards, state legislatures, and state executive offices to the federal legislative and executive branches – wield varying levels of influence and power on critical items such as education budgets, school funding, curriculum and instruction, teacher and administrator recruitment and retention, and regulatory and accountability measures. They also have the authority to appoint individuals to key positions who will set policy and procedures at all levels of government. Education policy decisions are particularly important, as they often have the most serious financial implications, furthest reach and greatest potential to make a difference in students’ lives.

In fiscal year (FY) 2019, southern states dedicated almost 20 percent of their total state budget to public K-12 education expenses. Despite being one of the most prominent line items in southern states’ budgets, education continues to be underfunded compared to the rest of the United States. Census data show that the South’s average per-pupil expenditure of $10,285 is the lowest in the nation and over $2,000 lower than the national average. Alabama, North Carolina and Texas – three of the six states[1] included in Election 2020 – all spend less per-pupil than the southern average, with Alabama spending the most and North Carolina spending the least among the three. Despite pre-pandemic budgets that included salary increases for educators, all but two southern states and all but one Election 2020 state – Delaware – pay their teachers less than the national average. West Virginia, one of the states included in Election 2020, has the second-lowest average teacher salary in the nation. It is evident that there is significant room for improvement in education, and the 2020 election offers voters the chance to elect candidates who will make some of these improvements.

[1] Alabama, Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia

The Races We Are Focused On

Each office up for election this year in the South and around the country will have an important impact on education policy. This guide includes races for governor, state education chief, and/or state board of education in the following states: Alabama, Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. Given the important role of the federal government in allocating education funding to states and supporting the needs of vulnerable student populations through programs such as Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), SEF is also presenting the education policy records, stances and proposals of the Democratic and Republican presidential tickets. In total, SEF’s Election 2020: Education Equity on the Ballot project involved a thorough review of 40 candidates for public office – 36 for state-level leadership positions and four for the two highest offices in the nation. We developed and sent a candidate questionnaire to all 36 state-level candidates and, using the responses we received and widely-publicized statements and information from each candidate, compiled comprehensive profiles on the following candidates for elected office:

Setting the Agenda

If elected, the candidates for the above positions will have the opportunity to drive education policy and help set the priorities of their respective state’s general assemblies. Therefore, it is important to ensure that candidates’ positions are rooted in equity for students of color and low-income students, a desire to advance and improve public education and a plan to build a strong, diverse teacher workforce that will foster safe and nurturing school environments. As we designed our candidate survey and profiles for Election 2020, we selected issues that are consistent with our Public Policy Priorities, resonant with the political and cultural moment our nation is in and indicative of what it will take to expand opportunities and improve achievement for students of color and low-income students in Alabama, Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. The issue areas we selected and an explanation of each are below.

Issue Why It’s Important

COVID-19 Response and Plan for Distance Learning
School closures in the spring and fall caused a rapid, unplanned and widespread shift to distance learning. Most school districts lacked the technology and staff infrastructure to equitably transition to distance learning; yet, they created and executed their plans, often with little external support. In light of the ongoing pandemic, candidates for public office at the state and federal levels should have a plan for addressing the educational ramifications of COVID-19 and the distance learning needs of students.

Culturally-Relevant and Anti-Racist Curriculum and Pedagogy
Students perform better when they see themselves reflected in their school, their teachers and their studies. Curriculum that is representative of a diverse student population and teaching practices that affirm students’ varied identities and experiences can create a more inclusive learning environment for students.

Early Childhood Education
Investing in comprehensive, birth-to-five early childhood education increases student achievement and saves taxpayer dollars by minimizing government costs to adults who receive quality early educational experiences.

Elections for State Superintendent of Education and State Board of Education
Holding elections for state boards of education and state superintendents of education concurrently with more prominent national elections, especially during quadrennial presidential elections, encourages higher voter turnout and elevates the importance of education as a public policy issue.

Equitable K-12 Funding
Research proves that investments in public education matter, especially for students of color and low-income students. The changing and growing needs of students and districts today require additional targeted investments to decrease the gap in access to resources and opportunities for academic success. A key priority of all candidates for elected office should be to develop education funding formulas that account for the needs of students of color and low-income students.

Private School Choice
Private school choice is the practice of using public, taxpayer dollars or dollar-for-dollar tax credits to fund student scholarships for private schools and private educational services. Most research findings show no material difference in learning outcomes for students who receive school vouchers or publicly-funded scholarships to attend private schools. In addition to diverting resources from public schools, all private schools – those that receive taxpayer dollars and those that do not – follow different accountability, reporting, regulatory and admissions standards than public schools.

School Disciplinary Policies
Students of color, particularly Black students, are referred to administration, suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white peers for  similar infractions. Additionally, Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina and Texas still allow corporal punishment, or physical discipline, for students in public schools. Reversing disproportionate discipline for students of color and ending corporal punishment will make schools safer places to learn.

School District Governance
Allowing local school districts to maintain control of their operations will ensure that communities are not politically disenfranchised and are given a voice in the direction of their schools. While regulatory oversight from the federal and state departments of education is necessary, local school board members are most intimately aware of and attuned to the needs of their constituents and community.

School Resource and Police Officers
School resource officers and school police, when untrained or deployed for minor offenses, can contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and the incarceration of youth. The presence of police officers within schools has particularly negative consequences for Black students, with federal data showing that Black students are disproportionately referred to law enforcement for school-based offenses.

Teacher Recruitment and Retention
Research indicates that teachers, particularly teachers of color, have a positive impact on student success and academic performance. Public schools perform better when states invest in educators. Successful teacher recruitment efforts will involve the dedication of funding toward scholarship and loan forgiveness programs, leveraging community partnerships to enable teachers to teach in the communities they grew up in, and creating partnerships with institutions of higher education. Successful teacher retention efforts will involve ongoing professional development, adequate compensation, and ample opportunities for growth and leadership.

Usage of Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Funds and Other Federal COVID-19 Relief Funds
As a part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act federal relief package, governors of all 50 states received a flexible pot of federal dollars to support K-12 schools and institutions of higher education impacted by COVID-19. Governors and state departments of education also received other allocations of funding for education through the CARES Act. While many governors have allocated their GEER funds toward supporting public education, others have bucked congressional intent and used part of their funds to support private school choice programs. GEER funds and all other federal relief funds were passed with the expectations that public assistance would support public schools and their most impacted students.

Virtual and For-Profit Charter Schools
Research on virtual and for-profit operated charter schools consistently shows poor student outcomes. Virtual school and distance-learning students perform significantly worse than their counterparts in other types of charter and district public schools. These types of schools also skirt accountability measures and are often poorly managed, and the continued use of public funds to support them may drain valuable resources from equitable, public, and high-performing charter schools.

Wraparound Services
Wraparound services such as health care, nutrition and social and emotional support are critical to ensuring that students’ needs outside of school are addressed. A concerted effort to focus on the “whole child” will allow students to thrive both within and beyond the classroom.

Next Steps

This guide is designed to provide you, the voter, with objective, factual information about the education platforms of candidates in major statewide races throughout the South. We hope you find our candidate guide useful as you determine the issues that matter to you and cast your vote this fall. Before you request your absentee ballot or go to the polls, we encourage you to check your voter registration status and the deadlines associated with absentee voting in your state.

Check Your Voter Registration Status: https://www.vote.org/am-i-registered-to-vote/

Register to Vote: https://vote.gov/   

Absentee Ballot Deadlines: https://www.vote.org/absentee-ballot-deadlines/

If you have any questions or concerns about any of the information in this guide, please reach out to SEF’s Legislative and Research Analyst, Sujith Cherukumilli, at scherukumilli@southerneducation.org.

Download sections of the guide.