This memo is part of a series on public policy challenges facing San Diego. Click here to read all memos in the series.
There are over 10,000 local school districts in the United States. How voters elect their school board members varies across and within states. In some areas, school board candidates run for office across an entire district—at-large election systems. In other areas, candidates run for office within a specific sub-district or ward—district-based election systems.
History of School Board Election Research
Much of the research in the 1980s and 1990s suggested that at-large systems disadvantaged minority candidates. This concern was based on the idea that at-large elections require candidates to spend more money to appeal to voters across the entirety of a district. These larger costs were thought to disproportionately benefit candidates who had the time and resources to mount such a campaign—which, in many cases, would disproportionately be white candidates.
Many school districts across the country are geographically segregated by race or ethnicity, resulting in a concentration of minority communities’ support for a particular candidate in particular areas. This reality made it all the more difficult for minority-supported candidates to win a seat on the board in at-large elections. As a consequence, some communities served by a school district had no representation on the school board. In extreme cases, winning candidates all came from the same community.
Current Research Findings
More recent studies on the effects of these electoral systems have mixed results. A study of 7,000 cities conducted in 2008 finds that district-based city council elections can increase diversity, but only if underrepresented groups are highly concentrated and compose a substantial portion of the population. Even in these cases, however, researchers find that only African American males and white females were much better off when running in district-based systems. In other words, African American women and Latinx candidates fared no better in district-based compared to at-large elections for city council.
Looking at just California, a 2019 study of all 476 municipalities took advantage of the passage of the California Voting Rights Act in 2001 to see if cities that switched from at large to single-member districts saw an increase in minority representation on the city council and estimated a 10 percent increase.
One aspect of this study was consistent with the nationwide study of 7,000 cities—the effect of switching to district-based elections on minority representation was significantly greater in communities with high concentrations of minority residents. In contrast to the nationwide study, which found that district-based elections advantaged African American men and white women but not Latinx candidates, this California-specific revealed a heightened effect (approximately a 20 percent increase in city council representation) specifically in high-Latinx cities.
The most relevant research about the relationship between school board representation and election type examined elections in the United States’ 1,800 largest school between 2001 and 2008. This study finds that African Americans are overrepresented on school boards that have at-large elections when African Americans are a minority of the population in that district.
In 2010, a study of California school boards examined Latinx representation, including a large-scale survey of candidates. They find that, at the very least, perceptions about at-large elections are barriers to entry for Latinx candidates. At the same time – those same researchers, using 2004-2005 data, find that Latinx representation on school boards is no greater in district-based systems.
Analysis and Ways Forward
Although the evidence is mixed about whether district-based elections have effects on representation, it is important to note that it is mixed in only one direction. This is to say that depending on the type (school board, city council), the time, and the place of the elections, research shows district-based systems either close the representation gap on school boards or have no effect.
In other words—there is no research, as of yet, that demonstrates that district-based elections disadvantage underrepresented groups. It should also be noted that no study of at-large elections has yet accounted for a potential deterrence effect. This means we do not know how many candidates from underrepresented groups (if any) choose not to run for office because of perceived disadvantages in at-large elections.
Beyond the question about at-large vs. district-based election systems, it is also important to consider the other factors that affect minority candidate success. For example, researchers and candidates often identify low voter turnout as a barrier to entry. Further, the timing of school board elections likely affects these systems. Whether or not elections happen alongside state and federal races in November of even years has substantial implications for the electorate’s size and demographic makeup.
For example, San Diego Unified holds a primary election on the same day as the presidential preference and California statewide primary on March 3. While turnout will likely be greater than in prior primary elections (due to the interest and number of candidates running for president), it will pale in comparison to the general election in November. School board candidates are subject to a district-based election during the primary stage, but the demographic makeup of the primary electorate is consistently whiter, older, and wealthier than the population as a whole. Policymakers may consider studying the feasibility of switching to district-based elections for both the primary and the general election or adopting a model similar to other school districts in the region—where only one election is held in November, when turnout is greatest, potentially encouraging minority candidates to run without the possibility of being eliminated in a primary election when the electorate is less representative, or an at-large general when their electoral support is diluted.
How much information voters have about candidates also contributes to participation in the election. In California, school board and other local offices are officially nonpartisan, which is to say candidate party affiliation does not appear on the ballot. This does not prevent actual politics from manifesting, however. My own research shows that there is no difference in how “partisan” the views of school board members are based on whether they are elected through nonpartisan elections (like California) or through traditional partisan contests.
The absence of party labels deprives voters of information and research has shown that it can lead to voters using other cues, such as candidate gender, race, or ethnicity, to inform their vote choice, if they choose to vote at all. This effect looms even larger in local races when most voters already have little information about the candidates.
There are steps potential candidates can take to mitigate these effects and boost voter participation, however. School board candidates are free to make their party affiliations known through avenues outside the ballot, just as parties are free to endorse candidates. The extent to which either of these paths can be explored may help boost voter participation.
Those interested in a healthier and more representative democracy for local school districts should consider all policy proposals that motivate greater levels of political participation.
Project-Based Learning for the Virtual Classroom
Project-based learning (PBL) may not be the first thing that teachers consider when planning for remote or hybrid lessons. However, with a little creativity and an organized approach, project-based learning can engage students in a way that may be lacking during typical virtual instruction. So what is it, exactly? PBL, simply put, is an approach to learning through exploration of a real-world problem or question. Ideally, students choose to investigate a problem or challenge that means something to them – something that impacts their daily lives. Then, through research, collaboration, and exploration, students gain a deeper understanding of the issue or challenge and how they can contribute to a solution. Even more important is the fact that, through project-based learning, students gain a better understanding of who they are as learners and critical thinkers. With being said, let’s look at how instructors can utilize PBL in virtual settings.
How to Organize PBL for Remote Learning
“Embrace the chaos of now” by asking students to discuss what is currently troubling them. When students have a vested interest in their classwork, they will obviously be more inclined to engage in the work and follow through on the assignment. Ask about challenges or problems they’ve been having, such as:
- What has been your biggest struggle with adapting to virtual/remote learning?
- What needs are not being met in this “new normal?”
- How has your daily routine changed since the start of the pandemic?
- What is a problem that you see your peers, neighbors, teachers, community struggling with?
After students have identified an issue or challenge that they personally recognize in their day-to-day lives, ask them to do a little preliminary brainstorming about the problem using a standard KWL chart. The KWL chart is an old favorite in the classroom for any sort of introduction to a new topic, concept, or unit. For project-based learning, the KWL chart provides students with a visual starting point and a trajectory for where their research is headed. The graphic organizer, for those who have not used it before acts as a simple t-chart to organize what students already know (K) about the topic, what they want (W) to know about the topic, and what they learn (L) throughout their research process. This simple visual aid acts as the foundation for critical thinking by visually, yet simply, organizing a student’s thoughts.
Next, you can help students with backward design or backward mapping by outlining objectives first. Again, project-based learning is all about allowing students to explore a challenge and identify a resolution or fix for the problem. In order to adequately lay out the groundwork, students must have a clear and definitive end goal. Therefore, in planning for success, teachers need to help students employ backward mapping strategies by beginning with something like a S.M.A.R.T. (Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Timely.) goal—then working backward from there to achieve that goal.
Instructors can also utilize haptic engagement or hands–on learning by encouraging students to physically try out or experiment with their ideas. Teachers can model this experiential learning by choosing their own PBL to focus on while kids are working. Show students that, in order to truly solve a problem, people must occasionally get their hands dirty. It is also important for teachers to note that success stories are almost always trial and error—a sound solution will not come right away. By testing hypotheses and modifying approaches, students truly understand the value of hands–on, experiential learning. Not only are these demonstrations helpful for getting closer to a solution, but haptic engagement also teaches students about grit, perseverance, and strategies around error analysis.
Another great skill set that students may develop while participating in PBL classroom activities involves retrieval practice. Since students are focusing their work on one primary challenge, they are able to hone their focus and truly absorb new information as they learn. Teachers can help foster retrieval strategies with activities such as Cornell note-taking, peer teaching, and Socratic seminars, in which students take the lead in delivering information to one another.
Try some of these PBL strategies out in your next lesson, whether it be virtual or in-person, and see the results for yourself.
New Preschool Program in Oregon is a Model for the Nation—But Challenges Remain
In November 2020, voters in Multnomah County, home to the city of Portland, resoundingly approved the creation of a new, universal preschool program—a program that could serve as a model for desperately needed preschool and childcare investments for the entire country. All three- and four-year-olds in Multnomah county will be able to attend a free, year-round, universal, high quality preschool program that meets their needs as well as those of most families, providers and staff, and local businesses. Key elements include a wide range of choices for families as well as living wages and professional supports for providers and workers. The program is slated to be equitably funded by a local income tax on the highest income households.
Two big challenges remain: ensuring that families with “non-traditional” work schedules are included, and significantly increasing public investment in facilities to allow preschools to expand well beyond church basements and providers’ homes. Those working non-traditional hours are disproportionately low-income, women, people of color, and often “essential workers” without whom our society and economy would not function. Federal childcare initiatives must address the needs of families with such work schedules, or the families that most need public child care will be left out.
A Universal Model that Serves Diverse Needs
Universal preschool programs benefit all children and lead to better outcomes than means-tested programs for the most disadvantaged children. Means-tested programs such as Head Start seek to deliver services only to households with low incomes. Although means-tested programs “target the poor,” universal programs bring children and families from across the socioeconomic spectrum together, challenging ongoing race, ethnic and class segregation that erodes democracy. Universality also inspires broad support to maintain adequate funding. After fifty well-regarded years, Head Start is still available—but only for a fraction of eligible families, and even then, often only part-time and part-year. High quality preschool and child care is out of reach for the large majority of families who already face the high cost of housing, health care, and student debt with stagnating wages. Importantly, universal preschool is both a two-generation anti-poverty program and a powerful boost to economic development, because it returns $9.45 to the community for every dollar spent.
Families raising young children are diverse and need a wide range of options. Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will offer choices of:
- language and cultural contexts, including Afro-centric and other alternatives,
- types of setting, including family childcare providers, public schools and free-standing centers, and
- schedules, including school year and year-round, full and part-time, weekend days as well as week days, with up to 50 hours a week for families that need or want longer days
Children with disabilities will be included, facilitating earlier identification of health issues and treatment. Expulsions, now too common in preschool settings particularly for children of color, will be prohibited, requiring that the system provide supportive interventions to meet all children’s needs.
Fair Pay and Professional Support for Providers and Workers
Currently, U.S. family childcare providers, preschool teachers, and childcare workers earn poverty wages with few benefits and often cope with difficult working conditions. The result is high turnover; the loss of skilled, experienced and dedicated workers to jobs that better support their families; and damage to the quality of care. High quality child care depends on the ongoing relationships caregivers develop with families, children, and co-workers.
Multnomah County’s new Preschool for All program will pay teachers comparably with kindergarten teachers, doubling their current salaries. The wage floor for assistant teachers and other classroom staff will be set at nearly $20 an hour when the program starts in Fall 2022, with pay levels adjusted to reward increasing skills, training and experience. Continuing professional development will be geared to the schedules of the low-income working parents who are over-represented among preschool workers. Should workers wish to join a union, employers will be required to remain neutral.
Funding universal high quality child care is within reach. Over the past 40 years, U.S. economic gains have been concentrated on an ever smaller group of the wealthy, while responsibility for paying for our infrastructure and public services has been shifted from the affluent to the working and middle classes. Reversing such trends, Multnomah County’s preschool program is to be funded by a county income tax on approximately eight percent of households at the top. Combined federal, state, and local income tax rates for such households will still fall far below the top tax federal income tax rates in place for the much of the 20th century, from the 1930s through the 1970s.
Multnomah County intends to offer preschool up to ten hours a day and on weekend days, but has not committed to other “non-traditional” hours. Employers demand “non-traditional” work schedules for the three occupations expected to add the most jobs between 2019 and 2029: home health and personal care aides, fast food and counter workers, and restaurant cooks. Many retail and hospitality positions also entail low wages and employer insistence that workers maintain “open availability,” and healthcare, construction, and gig workers struggle with work schedules that make it very difficult to find child care.
Multnomah County will pay fair wages to everyone working in the classroom, but will not supplement the pay of people working in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs that pay too little to retain skilled people in the face of a more attractive alternative. The county plans to support some infant and toddler programs, but won’t be able to overcome the severe shortage of affordable, quality care for these age groups, likely to be exacerbated by competition from a preschool system offering better compensation. Finally, preschool and child care is now crowded into inexpensive or public spaces; serving all children well will require a significant investment in physical facilities.
Despite such continuing challenges, Multnomah County’s Preschool for All offers a national model, with its variety of choices to families, living wages for all classroom staff, and an equitable approach to public funding. Each of these aspects needs to be included in any new federal program. In addition, a new federal program should aspire to offer high quality child care to families struggling with difficult work schedules, until labor legislation is revised to place limits on such unpredictable schedules. Strategies will also need to be implemented to improve the wages of workers in Head Start and other public preschool and childcare programs.
Why Political Science Can and Should Lead Diversity Efforts in Higher Education
Diversity is big business in the academy. Foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, and Robert Wood Johnson support academic efforts to diversify the professoriate; and colleges and universities across the country are investing significant resources in diversity efforts. Furthermore, the academy has begun hiring chief diversity officers, following corporate sector trends — 60% of Fortune 500 companies have chief diversity officers among their top-executives.
Although the numbers of women in political science have shown modest growth over the last two decades, the number of women of color in the field has largely remained flat. Political science scholarship on minority representation in U.S. legislatures sheds light on this professional conundrum, too. This literature shows how organized women, racial and ethnic minorities, and their allies can promote diversity and inclusive practices to bring about lasting change in political science, other disciplines and higher education more broadly.
An Opportune Moment for Political Science
Research on social movements shows that, when windows of opportunity arise, activists must have the resources to change the status quo and push for policy breakthroughs. I suggest that heightened attention to institutional diversity across academia presents an opportunity that political scientists can and should seize by presenting themselves as credible stakeholders who are well-equipped to: steward institutions’ newly available resources, run innovative pilot programs, and produce returns on institutional diversity investments for both students and faculty.
Student demands will be a key resource in these efforts, but administrators can often “wait students out” — stalling student diversity efforts until a new cohort must begin afresh. Political Science is uniquely positioned to lead institutional change by using research from the discipline to encourage student activists to investigate the issues, formulate long- and short-term goals, determine the scope of their influence, identify allies and opponents, construct informed arguments, and make specific demands with measurable outcomes. This informed activism can help students leverage their status over time as students, alumni, and donors to move towards shared goals for departmental, disciplinary, and institutional change.
Political Science is attracting many undergraduate women majors. Women are faring as well as men on the discipline’s job market. They are approaching pay equity with male colleagues and increasing their presence in the ranks of full professors. In 2010, women of color comprised 13.5% of female political science faculty, more than double their share in 1980. Although this improvement remains relatively modest compared to the nearly 300% increase in women faculty over that span, the progress for women of color is promising and can act as a foundation for future diversity efforts. Nevertheless, many challenges must still be addressed — including burdens of balancing tenure-track and family responsibilities, “inhospitable” institutional climates, and research norms that discount women’s contributions to collaborative work.
Building a Diversity Infrastructure
Sheer numbers are the first requirement for building diversity infrastructure. With sufficient numbers, members of gender and racial caucuses can promote further change and build organizational capacities. Research on the impact of diversity in Congress shows that the Congressional Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American caucuses encourage information and resource sharing, enhanced communication, and collective action on behalf of racial and ethnic minorities. Through caucuses, task forces, and organized voting blocs, minority legislators have kept low-salience civil rights issues on the congressional agenda despite waning public interest. Women’s and racial and ethnic caucuses in national and regional political science associations show that female political scientists can capitalize on their numbers to act as disruptive-insiders to further diversify faculties and challenge discrimination.
Buy-in from political science department heads who name search committees and from faculty making influential recommendations will be indispensable for furthering these efforts. Departmental objectives can be linked to university diversity efforts. Male faculty members should be encouraged to serve on diversity committees and act as change agents.
Thinking beyond individual departments, women’s caucuses and ethnic caucuses in political science associations could share resources and knowledge and coordinate agendas. If increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the discipline is to be achieved, then women’s caucuses will need to work closely with race and ethnic caucuses in the discipline. Although universal sisterhood may be a worthy ideal, faculty women of color cannot be cast as handmaidens rather than full partners in the work of transforming the discipline.
Mentorship is Not Enough
The number of women of color entering political science faculties has stagnated, and many minority faculty members leave political science departments for more hospitable interdisciplinary centers. Recruitment and retention should therefore be top priorities — and that is going to take more than just mentoring programs.
Mentorship is a common answer to the challenge of recruiting, supporting, and retaining minority faculty. Mentoring, however, only teaches people how to survive in institutions. It does not necessarily attract more people to enter institutions, and it does not help them change institutions. Although the very presence of black women on academic faculties and in front of classrooms changes the academy, that is not enough. Despite widely shared good intentions, the discipline cannot rely on mentoring alone to help women of color overcome racism, sexism, and other systematic obstacles to their advancement. At best, mentoring will help women faculty of color expand their social networks, establish important professional relationships, and better navigate minefields. At worst, mentoring will help some individuals survive and advance, while maintaining longstanding power disparities in the discipline. Mentoring obviously cannot ameliorate the impediments that routinely challenge and undermine women of color at all ranks of the professoriate. Political science must lead the way in identifying and deploying all of the strategies that can bring broader progress in universities and disciplines.
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