An education election? Looking ahead to elected educators’ impact

What role did education play in the 2018 election, and what will the results mean for schools?

 

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In the weeks after the November midterm elections, there were endless commentaries and predictions about what the election results would mean for education. There were no easy answers to that question, although many tried to spin the results to support their own interests or cause. Some dubbed 2018 “The Year of the Teacher,” and expectations were high for the hundreds of teachers running for office. Despite some outsized estimates about how many teachers ran for office, reporters from Education Week could only verify 177 teacher-candidates, with just over 40 winning their races. Still, their presence in races all over the country, especially in states that have seen drastic budget cuts and teacher strikes, stoked the educator-warrior in many of us. Now that the dust has settled and the winners are getting down to work, let’s consider how these new state and local leaders might influence the education debate.

The midterm results
To begin with, it’s helpful to understand what was happening in education before the midterms. States were working hard on their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), all of which were finally approved by Secretary Betsy DeVos. At the federal level, Congress managed to come together and pass the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (also known as Perkins). In higher education, Secretary DeVos rankled Democrats in Congress and others by seeking to reverse the Obama-era “gainful employment” regulations, the rule that requires colleges and universities to ensure graduates have manageable debt-to-income ratios. And yet another billionaire, this time Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, decided to donate millions to his pet project, early childhood education.

With all of this as the backdrop, Americans went to the polls and elected more than 40 educators, several pro-education governors, and a former Teacher of the Year who will now serve as Connecticut’s first Black member of Congress. Although many teachers did not win their races, those who did will now be in a position to assert their teacher voice beyond the classroom. Many will join the ranks of their state legislatures, which hold enormous power when it comes to education. Their presence, no matter how small, marks slow progress in the fight to have more teachers represented among those who influence policy and practice.

It’s also interesting to look at where teachers and pro-education education candidates won and where they did not. In Oklahoma, a state that has seen catastrophic education budget cuts, 66 educators ran for state legislature but only six won, and voters did not elect the pro-education gubernatorial candidate who was supported by teacher unions. On the flip side, however, Kansas Democrat Laura Kelly won the governor’s race by campaigning hard against Republican Kris Kobach’s draconian budget cuts and his lack of support for public education. And in Wisconsin, longtime educator Tony Evers beat Republican Scott Walker, foe of the teacher unions and budget slasher extraordinaire. Was it an overwhelming concern for public education that got these individuals elected? Probably not. But it is fair to assume education was an important part of the equation. If the public cares about education as much as it says it does (see, for example, PDK’s poll of public attitudes about education), then voters in Wisconsin and Kansas did what any reasonable person would do: They voted for candidates who appear to support public education.

A colleague of mine pointed out something else interesting in the election results. Not a single school funding initiative was passed in the states that had teacher strikes last year. In fact, in North Carolina, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that would lower the maximum income tax from 10 to 7%, a cut that opponents say could starve public education if that revenue is not made up in property or sales taxes. Colorado’s voters also rejected a school funding initiative, and Arizona’s “Invest in Ed” initiative was actually struck from the ballot by the Arizona Supreme Court.

There is a kind of cognitive dissonance in these states that echoes recent polling data. The 2018 PDK poll showed strong support for increased teacher pay (66% said teachers in their communities were paid to little) and even stronger support for teachers who strike for higher pay (73% said they would support teachers in their own communities striking). But the responses about how to pay for such increases were more divided: Half favor raising taxes and half favor spending more on higher-need students and less on students with more resources. It seems that although Americans are largely unified in their support for teachers and public education, they are far more muddled about how to pay for that support.

Still, voters in a few states were very clear about how to support public education: Maryland voters were nearly unanimous in their decision to dedicate funds from state video lotteries to education supplementary funding, potentially boosting school spending by $125 million in 2020, with an additional $500 million annually thereafter. Voters in New Jersey also passed a ballot referendum that will raise $500 million for school security.

The education outlook

So what does all of this tell us about what to expect for education in 2019 and 2020? Here are some predictions from where I sit:

Cost questions. The midterm results show us that while Americans want to support teachers and public education, they just don’t seem to connect that support with higher taxes or budget increases. This contradiction will continue to be an issue for public education as Americans struggle to define the value of supporting public schools. The question everyone wants an easy answer for is incredibly complex: What does it really cost to support a high-performing public education system in the United States?

Teaching in 2020. Teachers and the teaching profession will remain in the spotlight leading up to the 2020 elections. Ongoing concerns about the future of the profession may finally get some much-needed attention because 1) more educators are now in positions of power and influence; 2) high-stakes teacher evaluations have lost favor and system leaders are looking to boost performance in other, more effective ways; and 3) states and districts have more control over decision making and could implement innovative strategies to attract and retain better teachers.

Congressional pushback. At the federal level, the new Congress is likely to be just as adversarial as the old Congress except that House Democrats now have the power to push back harder on decisions made by Secretary DeVos. Their most likely targets are the administration’s ongoing efforts to overturn Obama-era rules on student loan forgiveness and holding for-profit providers accountable to students (the aforementioned gainful employment rule) and the secretary’s newly proposed rules for how schools should investigate sexual harassment and assault. Her rewrite of Title IX rules that focus more on the rights of the accused has Democrats and many others up in arms and promises to be a major battle.

Student safety. School safety and student well-being will also remain in the spotlight. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent School Violence, more than two dozen candidates endorsed by gun safety advocates were elected in House races. This, coupled with the ongoing advocacy of the Parkland students, will likely influence future discussions about school safety and mental health at the federal, state, and local levels.

ESSA implementation. The implementation of state ESSA plans will be closely watched by some discrete groups, but without any significant federal oversight, states and local school districts will hold all the cards. One important thing to watch is the degree to which the research community focuses on measuring the effects of various school improvement activities now that they are guided only by the law’s four-tiered evidence requirement and not dictated by the feds. After years of tightly defined school improvement strategies, this newfound flexibility and power is an innovation worth studying.

Do you have predictions of your own? I would love to hear them. Email me at mferguson@gwu.edu.

 

Citation: Ferguson, M. (2019). An education election? Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (5), 64-65.

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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