Education's Key Place in Down-Ballot Elections
Despite not receiving much attention in the presidential race, the issue is top-of-mind in certain contests around the country.
With so much attention focused on the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, voters could be forgiven for forgetting they’ll be asked to decide plenty more in November. And the stakes are high for K-12 education in state-level elections, including races for governor, state education chief, and legislative seats, plus ballot measures on education funding and charter schools.
In Massachusetts, a fierce campaign is being waged over whether to lift the state cap on opening more public charter schools, with millions being spent on dueling TV advertisements. Education is proving a key issue in governors’ contests in Indiana, Montana, and North Carolina, to name a few. Plus, state superintendents are on the November ballot in five states, including Indiana and Montana.
Just this week, the candidates in the Indiana governor’s race engaged in their first debate. The topic? Education. New life was injected into the race after Governor Mike Pence stepped down to join the GOP presidential ticket. The main contenders, Republican Lieutenant Governor Eric Holcomb and Democrat John Gregg, have differing views on school choice, expanding preschool, and student testing.
State-level elections take on extra weight for education this year given that the fresh rewrite of the main federal K-12 education law—called the Every Student Succeeds Act—hands substantial authority back to states.
“The federal government has loosened the reins on testing issues, on state accountability systems,” said Andy Smarick, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute, during an Education Writers Association panel on the elections last month.
“Who’s going to be making these calls over the next several years?” asked Smarick, who was an education official under President George W. Bush and is now president of the Maryland state board of education. “Well, it’s going to be state boards of education, governors, state superintendents, state legislatures.”
Twelve governors’ races are in play this year, plus thousands of seats in state legislatures. Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan organization that tracks elections, ranked the top 20 state legislative chambers across the U.S.—of the 86 holding elections this year—that “might, realistically” see a change in party control. On the list were states including Colorado, Michigan, and New York.
Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, said recently that her union is paying close attention to governors’ races, and singled out elections in Montana and North Carolina as examples.
In Montana, Steve Bullock is “a Democratic governor who has really invested in public schools,” she said at the EWA elections forum. While in North Carolina, the NEA president is hoping Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, will unseat Republican Governor Pat McCrory.
Eskelsen García argues that a push by Governor McCrory for “huge tax cuts, with corporations not paying their fair share, and not investing in their public schools,” leaves him “very vulnerable to his Democratic challenger, who is talking about public-school funding.”
But McCrory touts his record on education on his campaign website, including what he says are increases in state spending—including teacher pay raises—plus additional money for textbooks and a reading initiative.
“This fall, it’s going to get ugly in Massachusetts.”
“Governor Pat McCrory has made the rise of teacher pay a centerpiece of his bid for re-election,” WUNC reported in August. The news outlet finds that while the governor has overseen a substantial rise in educator salaries, the increases are not as dramatic as McCrory suggests, and in the governor’s first year in office, salaries actually declined.
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The Massachusetts ballot measure, which would allow up to 12 new charter schools to open each year, has pitted teachers’ unions, school superintendents, and other charter critics against Republican Governor Charlie Baker, pro-charter advocacy groups, and others, including wealthy supporters from the business community in Massachusetts and beyond.
As a story in Boston Magazine recently warned: “This fall, it’s going to get ugly in Massachusetts. We’re prepping for a projected $30 million public fight with all Education a Key Issue in Down-Ballot Elections - The Atlantic: