A Quest to Give Minority Voters a Bigger Voice on School Boards
After hours spent knocking on doors and introducing himself to voters in west Modesto, Adolfo Lopez won a seat on the school board in this Central Valley city.
Lopez, 26, is now the only Hispanic member of a seven-member board that governs a district of 32,000 students, more than 61 percent of them Latino.
As a first-time candidate, Lopez was prompted to run in last month's election to represent a part of Modesto composed heavily of low-income, Hispanic, and immigrant families and neighborhoods where residents have long felt overlooked. November's election marked the first time that west Modesto voters could elect a board member to represent their specific community—a move many hope will make the school board more attuned to their needs.
"It finally gives them the ability to have a representative from the area, that knows the area, that has lived through the same experiences," Lopez said. "People see themselves in the process."
Across California, school districts have slowly been switching from at-large elections to single-member districts to comply with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001—a statute designed to make it easier for Hispanic and other minority communities to elect candidates to local offices.
The law—the only one of its kind among states—allows legal challenges to at-large systems if plaintiffs can prove that the voting structure prevents them from electing candidates of their choice.
As the nation's public schools becoming increasingly diverse, there's growing concern that the composition of school boards does not reflect that diversity, and in some communities, the concern has sparked legal battles. There's a lot at stake in those battles as school boards hire superintendents, approve district spending, and set policies that directly impact students, such as choosing curriculum and deciding how students are disciplined.
"There a quiet revolution going on, and I think it's getting louder," said Robert Rubin, a civil rights attorney and former legal director of the San Francisco-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which has successfully sued several California jurisdictions to switch from at-large to single-member district elections.
However, Rubin said, as long as money plays an outsize role in elections, it will be hard for groups that have been historically left out of the political process to get elected in large numbers.
But it matters, he said, because voting rights "determine who gets to say which benefits go where, and which school gets a new facility, and which school gets the best teachers, and which school gets the best textbooks and gets the playground repaired more quickly. That's really what voting rights are all about."
But some critics argue the state's law has done more to benefit lawyers' paydays than it has to move the needle on diversifying representation.
Who's on School Boards?
While school board members make up the largest group of elected officials in the nation—more than 90,000 of them, according to the National School Boards Association—there are scant data on their race and ethnicity. A 2010 report published by NSBA, which surveyed 900 school officials, found that among respondents, 80 percent identified as white, 12 percent as African-American, and 3 percent as Hispanic.
In California, where Hispanic students make up more than 54 percent of students in public schools, Hispanic representation on school boards has improved in recent years but is not close to mirroring student demographics. In a 2015 survey by the California School Boards Association, 66 percent of board members who responded identified as white, while 19 percent said they were Hispanic.
Since the passage of the state's voting rights act, the number of Hispanics serving on local school boards has more than doubled, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. But the data is imperfect since the state does not collect information on either voters' or candidates' race and ethnicity. It's especially challenging to find data on African-American and Asian-American representation on school boards.
An independent analysis also shows that switching from at-large to single-district elections has helped accelerate the numbers of Latino board members.
School districts with more than 2,035 students (the median school district size in California) that switched from at-large voting to district-based voting between 2008 and 2016, saw a larger percentage increase in Hispanic board members than those that remained at-large, according to Morgan Kousser, a professor at the California Institute of Technology. In those that switched, the number of Latinos on the school board grew by 61 percent, while in those that remained at-large, the number of Latinos grew by 18 percent, the analysis by Kousser and research assistant Connor Moffatt found.
Rosalind Gold, the senior director of policy, research, and advocacy at NALEO, cautioned against drawing a direct connection between the law and the increase in Latino representation. The state's Latino population has grown, and more of those residents have registered to vote, she said. The state's Hispanic community has also stepped up efforts to recruit and support more candidates and educate voters about elections, Gold said.
And, Gold stressed, the state's law, like the federal Voting Rights Act, does not guarantee that minority candidates will win if they run. How new district boundaries are drawn and whether communities are involved in that process matters as much as making the switch to district-based elections, Gold said.
Before the Modesto school board could switch to single-member districts, voters had to approve a change to the city's charter, which they did in 2016. While the board drew new district boundaries earlier this year, some members pushed to delay the election for the newly created Area 7 seat to 2019, saying six months was not enough time for a quality candidate to mount a campaign for the Nov. 7 ballot.
That's when a Latino community activist warned the board it was at high risk of violating the state law. Rebecca Harrington, the president of the Latino Community Roundtable, presented the board with two options: hold elections in the heavily-Hispanic Area 7 in 2017 or face the possibility of a lawsuit.
'Bringing a Different Voice'
In the end, the school board capitulated, and the Area 7 race fielded three candidates.
There was Lopez, a community organizer who is Mexican-American; Matthew Harrington, a group home worker who is of Mexican descent (and is Rebecca Harrington's son); and Ryan Schambers, a substitute teacher who is Caucasian.
In an October candidates' forum, the Area 7 candidates told a sparse audience that students in their community did not always have access to the same academic programs, including gifted and talented education, as others in the district.
Lopez, who won the election with 65 percent of the 1,432 votes cast, said that while he was campaigning, some residents told him it was the first time in years that a school board candidate had knocked on their doors.
"Any person that's going to sit on that board should have the goal to improve our students' education—and that should be the No. 1 goal," Lopez said. "It should not be about one side or another. That's when we lose."
But, he added, "We are bringing a different voice."
While proponents see California's voting rights law as a way to give minorities a better shot at running for office, some critics have said it's been more of a boon for trial lawyers who have successfully sued local jurisdictions and won large settlements.
Some city officials have described it as akin to extortion: spend huge sums of taxpayers' money to defend in court and lose, only to pay attorneys' fees or change to district elections. Until the state legislature amended the law in 2015 to cap attorneys' fees at $30,000, the settlements were in the millions.
Joaquin Avila, a civil rights lawyer who wrote the law and is a former president and executive director of MALDEF, said the statute has accomplished what he envisioned: forcing local jurisdictions to level the playing field for minorities running for elected office.
"The question is whether having minority people on the board makes the elected body more sensitive to the particularized needs of the minority community," Avila said. "I think that if you ask minority board members, they'll probably say a resounding 'yes,' that it's very important to be diverse and to have a voice at the table, and a vote at the table."
But the battle over voting rights is still being waged.
In October, Don Higginson, the former mayor of Poway, Calif., sued California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the city, arguing that the state law violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit, funded by The Project on Fair Representation, argues that California's law relies heavily on "race-based sorting of voters," a violation of the narrowly defined circumstances that the U.S. Supreme Court allows for the consideration of race in such cases. The project also backed the lawsuit that challenged the federal Voting Rights Act.
The city changed its at-large system to district-based elections after Kevin Shenkman, a Malibu lawyer, sent a demand letter in June telling the city that it was in violation of the state law.
About 15 percent of Poway's 49,000 residents are Hispanic. In the San Diego Union-Tribune, the former mayor described the demand as having a "gun" pointed at the city fathers' heads. He's asking the court to invalidate the law.
Douglas Johnson, the president of National Demographics Corp., a Claremont, Calif., firm that specializes in demographic analysis and often works with school boards and municipalities to help them comply with the law, says he's seen abuses.
In some cases, private lawyers have sent demand letters to jurisdictions without taking into account local circumstances, including whether there's a history of electing Latinos to governing bodies, the demographics, where the minority population lives, and efforts locally to encourage minority candidates to run. Some jurisdictions with Latinos serving in elected positions have been challenged because the officials' last names were not obviously Hispanic. And in communities that have already switched to district elections to avoid being sued, some have struggled to attract candidates to run for the newly created seats, he said.
"I compare this law a lot to the Americans With Disabilities Act—very well-intentioned laws that have admirable goals but have been abused almost to the point of absurdity," he said.
In Madera, Calif., a Central Valley town an hour south of Modesto, Al Galvez is the school board president.
The Madera school system switched to voting by districts after Rubin and the Lawyers' Committee sued the school district in 2009 on behalf of a Latino custodian. At that time, just one of seven board members was Hispanic, though the city's population was 82 percent Hispanic.
Now, Galvez and three other board members are Hispanic. Two others, who are white, speak fluent Spanish, Galvez said.
Galvez ran unopposed for a seat on the school board in 2014.
He said he was driven to run by concerns about the district's low test scores, particularly for children of color, and what he thought was the district's indifference.
"There were some inequities here that needed to be [addressed], and coming from a business background, I felt that I could bring some skill sets—some organizational skills, professionalism, decorum—that I felt that our board was lacking."
Now retired from a corporate job, he said he draws on his experience as a farmworker during his youth to help inform his actions on the board. He spends half a day in schools twice a week, eats lunch with students, and meet with parents, he said.
The district has expanded school-based resource centers that provide computer access and English-language classes for parents since Galvez joined the board. The centers are open from 8 a.m. to late evenings to accommodate the working schedules of parents who are farmworkers.
At the behest of the board, the district has started to review discipline policies, which still disproportionately affect students of color. Madera is also aggressively expanding career and technical education programs, in recognition that not all students want to go to a four-year college.
And an outdated plan for educating English-learners has been updated, he said.
Galvez credits the state's voting rights law for the evolution of Madera's school board.
But, it takes time to turn a system into one that is responsive to the needs of a diverse student body.
"The whole community, not just the Hispanic community," he said, "sees the positives we are trying to make in the school system."
Vol. 37, Issue 15, Pages 1, 10-11Published in Print: December 13, 2017, as In California, a Quest to Give Minority Voters a Bigger Voice