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Education is on the ballot in 2017 — here’s what to watch for and why it matters

Final results likely won’t be available until Wednesday. 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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