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 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.
 Alabama, Delaware, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia