Education won’t be top of mind for all voters on Tuesday. But in some parts of the country, schools are at the heart of intense political battles.
In Wisconsin, teachers unions are hoping a former educator will oust their longtime foe, Scott Walker. In Arizona, a school voucher program is on the ballot — though school choice advocates aren’t happy about it. And across the country, local school board races, dozens of governors’ elections, and the fight for Congress are all set to shape education policy for years to come.
If you’re focused on education, here are some races worth caring about.
Lots of new governors stand to shape schools
You’ll see the biggest fireworks, when it comes to education policy, in the 36 governors races.
Republican candidates have tended to focus on expanding school choice initiatives, including private-school vouchers. Democrats generally emphasize increasing school funding, though that’s something a number of Republicans have also embraced this year. Keep in mind that some key state issues that aren’t directly related to education, like whether to expand Medicaid, can affect how well kids do in school, too.
A few races we’ll be watching:
- In Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, appears likely to oust Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Pritzker has pledged to increase school funding, halt charter school growth, and end the tax-credit voucher program that Rauner helped put in place.
- In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers, a former teacher and the state’s schools chief, also stands a good chance of toppling two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is reviled by unions for his successful efforts to limit union membership. Walker has claimed credit for recent increases in school funding under his watch. Evers has countered that earlier in Walker’s tenure, spending fell.
- In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has a comfortable lead in the polls over education professor David Garcia, who has tried to ride the wave of teacher activism in the state. Education has been a top issue in the race, and the candidates differ sharply on school vouchers.
- In Ohio, both candidates have distanced themselves from ECOT, a virtual charter school that shut down in January amid scandal. The race is a toss-up between Democrat Richard Cordray and Republican Mike DeWine, with each claiming the other wasn’t tough enough on the school.
- In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis are locked in a bitter fight. Gillum has vowed to raise corporate taxes to increase teachers’ starting salaries to $50,000, criticized for-profit charter schools, and said he would end the state’s large tax-credit voucher program. DeSantis has said he supports school choice and that teachers should be paid based on performance.
- In Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp is facing Democrat Stacey Abrams, who’s hoping to become the first black woman elected governor in one of the country’s most closely watched races. Both say they will “fully fund” public schools. But Kemp has promised to “expand school choice,” while Abrams has said she would “protect [public schools] from privatization.”
- In Oregon, Democrat Gov. Kate Brown faces a spirited challenge from Republican Knute Buehler, who has criticized Oregon’s low graduation rate. Brown was also criticized for the state’s initial decision to withhold school ratings until after the election, a decision that was eventually reversed.
- In Connecticut, favored Democrat Ned Lamont has been talking less about his support of controversial education reform policies, including linking teacher evaluations to student test scores, focusing instead on ways to keep teachers in the profession with ideas like student-loan forgiveness. Republican Bob Stefanowski wants to expand charter and magnet schools, and has said that schools should focus on spending existing money better rather than hope for more dollars.
If these heavy favorites win, here’s what it’s likely to mean:
- In California, Democrat Gavin Newsom is likely to be cooler toward charter schools, but more open to expanded education data systems than his predecessor. You may remember that charter advocates gambled by spending big on Newsom’s primary opponent earlier this year, but fell well short.
- Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has promised to create a Detroit-specific strategy to improve schools there, including closing down charter schools with poor results. She’s also said she wants to allocate more funding for low-income students and expand pre-kindergarten.
- In Tennessee, Republican Bill Lee says he wants to reduce the “burden” of state testing. He also wants to create a voucher program, an idea that’s gained little traction in the state.
- In Colorado, Democrat Jared Polis, a charter school founder, says he will prioritize increasing funding for education.
The schools chief race to watch: California, where it’s become a charter–union proxy battle
One of the most expensive races in the country is the battle to become California’s school superintendent.
The position has limited power, but more than $50 million has been poured into the race, largely from charter advocates backing Marshall Tuck, a former head of Green Dot, a Los Angeles-based charter network. Teachers unions have financed the campaign of Tony Thurmond, a legislator and former social worker.
Nominally, the race is nonpartisan. Both candidates identify as Democrats, and both say they want to increase school funding. But they differ on charter schools: Thurmond has called for halting their expansion until they can be studied more carefully; Tuck opposes that.
Both sides have released misleading attack ads, including an ad from Thurmond implying that Tuck was endorsed by Betsy DeVos. He hasn’t been. Tuck says that although he supports nonprofit charter schools, he doesn’t support vouchers, for-profit charter schools, or DeVos.
The one public poll shows Tuck with a 48 to 36 percent lead, drawing strong support from Republicans and independents.
Six other states — Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming — also have elections for state school chiefs on Tuesday.
Going local: The school board races that could have a big impact
School board elections are often sleepy affairs. But when they draw significant money and attention, it often signals a battle between charter school advocates and supporters of traditional public schools.
Worth watching this year: the three contested seats on the board of Indianapolis Public Schools, a district that has embraced the charter-friendly, autonomy-focused “portfolio model.” Teachers unions have invested substantially in the race, supporting candidates who oppose the model; Stand For Children, a national group that supports it, has endorsed three people running. Candidates are divided over the district’s innovation network, which turns over certain struggling schools to charter operators.
Oakland — a district that is struggling financially and facing fierce debates over the expansion of charter schools — also has three school board seats up for grabs, though only one is contested. One candidate is calling for a moratorium on charter schools, and another is more open to them.
There’s also a local referendum in Newark to determine whether its newly empowered school board will continue to be directly elected or appointed by the city’s mayor.
In Arizona, a ballot initiative with plenty of confusion
Thirteen states will have education-related ballot questions up for a vote, many focusing on school funding. But the most high-profile may be a question in Arizona about whether to expand eligibility for the state’s voucher-like school choice program.
What’s interesting about this one is that neither result would be welcome news for school choice advocates, who are split on how to vote. The ballot initiative would either maintain or repeal a law expanding the types of students eligible for the program. But that law would also make it harder to remove a cap on the total number of students who could qualify.
Polls suggest voters may be confused about what the initiative actually does, leaving the outcome uncertain.
Yes, the race for Congress matters
Political observers will be focused on whether Democrats manage to take control of the U.S. House or Senate. For education issues, the direct implications of the control of Congress are probably limited, particularly because even with unified Republican control, Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have gained virtually zero traction on proposed education budget cuts or federal school choice initiatives. Education just does not seem to be a big priority of Congress, and on budget issues there is a lot of bipartisan agreement.
Still, Democratic control of the House, a likely possibility, could lead to more oversight hearings on how DeVos is implementing the federal education law and civil rights law. A Democratic Senate, which is less likely, would influence who is appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court should a vacancy open up — a body with the power to make critical education decisions.
But although the stakes aren’t particularly high for DeVos, she been a frequent topic on the campaign trail for Democrats — starring, and not in a good way, in many attack ads against Republicans.
In a closely watched Senate race in Texas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke has attacked Republican Ted Cruz for serving as the “deciding vote in putting Betsy DeVos in charge of our children’s public education.” (Technically, all 50 Senators who voted for DeVos were “deciding” votes.)
Jahana Hayes and teachers across the country vie for elected office
Much has been made about teachers running for office this year. Education Week has compiled this list of over 150 current teachers running for state legislature, and they appear particularly common in states — Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — that have seen statewide teacher protests recently.
Still, it doesn’t appear that there has been any increase in the number or share of candidates for state legislature who are current and former teachers.
A particularly notable teacher on the ballot is Jahana Hayes, the national teacher of year in 2016. She’s running as a Democrat in Connecticut and is heavily favored to win.
“I think that for a long time, teachers, we don’t see ourselves as political people,” Hayes told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “I think what’s happening is that many people think that our profession is being threatened.”