Democratic party strategists and supporters may believe a “blue wave” is coming in the midterm elections because of widespread opposition to President Trump, but they risk their party’s success if they forget that state and local races more often revolve around issues closer to home – like education.
Education, often overlooked during presidential elections because of the federal government’s relatively small footprint on education policy and funding, rises in prominence in off-year political campaigns, because candidates running for state and local offices have to explain how they’ll spend tax dollars on local schools – or not. This year’s contests are not an exception.
“Education is a top issue in the midterms,” declares a headline of an article in TIME that reports on the close contest for governor in Oklahoma, where the Democratic candidate Drew Edmondson is up by a point over his Republican opponent, according to recent polling. The reason for the uncharacteristic advantage the Democratic candidate may have in a deeply red state is “public anger over education funding,” the article contends.
The reporter traces the surprising political turnabout in the Sooner State to “the wave of wildcat teacher strikes” that occurred earlier this year in a number of red-leaning states, including Oklahoma, and finds “a similar dynamic is playing out in” electoral contests elsewhere.
For years, Democrats have more often than not been somewhat agreeable with their Republican opponents on most education issues. But this election season is shaping up quite differently. And how and whether Democratic candidates take advantage of the changing politics of education may make a difference in whether a blue wave happens at all.
Educators Are Running – And Winning
Indeed, school walkouts earlier this year have propelled many of the protesting teachers into the electoral ring, and so far, many of the teachers are winning, according to Education Week, which tallies 101 of the 158 current classroom teachers running for state legislature moving on to the general election.
But the number of educators running for office is actually much larger than what Education Week calculates when you add in former and retired teachers (like former teacher-of-the-year Jahana Hayes who won the Democratic primary in Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District and could become the first African-American Democrat in the state to serve in Congress), school administrators, and other school-related personnel.
In all, “some 550 educators will be on election ballots this fall, according to the National Education Association,” says US News & World Report, “running for everything from local school board to governor … from Maine to Alaska.”
The other national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, has a separate count of its own members running for office that is “just shy of 300,” reports HuffPost. A list of those educator-candidates by state is on the AFT website.
Hot button education issues vary from state to state. To see what’s firing up educators to run for office, NEA has a state-by-state analysis of the key education issues. AFT also has an interactive map of work life, school funding, legislative, and election issues in each state .
But a “common theme” among the candidates, according to the US News reporter, is “the neglect in state K-12 education budgets,” and although not all the candidates are Democrats, those who are, point to their Republican opponents as chief perpetrators of the neglect. That accusation is being wielded to great effect by Democratic candidates vying to flip governor seats in traditionally Republican-dominated states.
Education Boosts Garcia in Arizona
In Arizona, where education professor David Garcia is the Democratic nominee taking on incumbent Republican Governor Doug Ducey, “Democrats see education as Ducey’s greatest vulnerability,” according to Governing magazine. Similarly, AP reports, “Education is one of the top issues in Arizona’s gubernatorial race.”
Arizona is another teacher walkout state where Republicans have cut education spending more severely, arguably, than any other state, and voters want that turned around.
In the first debate between the two candidates, “education dominated the discussion,” according to the Arizona Republic. “Garcia used the massive #RedForEd teacher walkout this spring, as well as the contentious decision to remove the #InvestinEd income-tax measure from the November ballot, to criticize the governor for the state’s ongoing ‘education crisis,'” the newspaper reports.
Garcia has also criticized Ducey for signing legislation to expand a state school voucher program that had been limited to only students with special needs.
Garcia’s criticism of Ducey’s education record is likely boosting his campaign. In a state where Trump beat Hilary Clinton by over 90,000 votes, Garcia is running nearly even with the incumbent, according to recent polls, and appears to have the potential to turn out the rising electorate represented by the state’s growing population of young voters, Latino citizens, and women.
Education May Take Down Walker in Wisconsin
A similar theme recurs in Wisconsin where a Democratic challenger is punishing his incumbent Republican rival in that state’s gubernatorial contest.
According to Education Week, Issues of school funding and privatization have “come to dominate” the contest pitting Republican Governor Scott Walker against his Democratic challenger, long-time state schools chief Tony Evers.
“Evers generally is strongly supported by people connected to advocacy for public schools and Walker generally is strongly supported by people connected to advocacy for charter schools and private schools involved in the state’s voucher programs,” says an ope-ed writer for a Milwaukee news outlet.
Under Walker’s leadership, the state has slashed education spending to levels below what they were in 2008 and redirected millions in education funds to private alternatives such as charter schools and voucher-funded private schools, yet he astonishingly claims he is the “education candidate” in the election.
In contrast, Evers calls for a double-digit increase in school spending and says he would put limits on the state’s voucher programs and increase their financial transparency.
Evers’s attacks on Walker’s education record appear to be working. According to a recent poll, he holds a 13 point advantage.
Can Education Win Back the Midwest?
Across the Midwest, “Democrats are surging,” says Politico, “led by a class of candidates for governor that have Republicans on their heels.”
That analysis points to recent decisions by the Republican Governors Association to pull back funds from gubernatorial contests in Minnesota and Michigan as evidence of an anticipated defeat for their candidates in those states.
In Minnesota, the Democratic front-runner in the contest for governor is Tim Walz a former public high school geography teacher and football coach, who during his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives authored the Forever GI Bill to expand veterans’ education benefits, co-sponsored the bill to make Congress pay its full share of funding for students with disabilities, and voted against a school voucher program the federal government funds in Washington DC.
In Michigan, where the race for governor pits former state Democratic Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer against Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, the candidates are sharply divided on issues of education funding and charter schools, with the Democrat Whitmer calling for greater investments into the public education and more accountability for charter schools.
In Ohio, the race for governor between Democrat Richard Cordray and Republican Mike DeWine is “one of the most competitive races in the country,” according to Politico.
Polls show Cordray either ahead or tied with the better known DeWine, and the candidates are using education as a potent wedge. Particularly at issue is the recent failure of a low-performing statewide online charter school that closed midyear, abandoning over 12,000 students and their families and sticking the state with millions in wasted costs.
Cordray accuses DeWine, the Buckeye State’s attorney general, of doing “nothing” while the school “stole $189 million from taxpayers.” Since the school’s closing, DeWine filed a lawsuit to recover at least $80 million, but Corday says, “That’s not a protect-Ohio lawsuit. That’s a I’m-running-for-governor lawsuit.”
Abrams Challenges ‘School Choice’ in Georgia
In Georgia, progressive Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, who would be – if elected, the first black woman to serve as Georgia’s governor – has made a point to differentiate herself from Republican Brian Kemp on education issues.
An issue they’re completely divided on is the state’s tax credit scholarship program, a school voucher-like program that redirects public revenues to unaccountable private schools and rewards investors with a profit at taxpayers’ expense. While Kemp would double the current cap on the program to $200 million, Abrams wants to put that money into already under-resources schools instead to help them with add wrap-around services like a healthcare and nutrition, after-school programs, and counseling.
For this reason, “Georgia school choice backers worry about governor’s race,” according to Politico. “Republican support for Georgia’s school choice program isn’t universal. Rural Republicans in particular have questioned how it would benefit their constituents.”
Polling for the race shows candidates are in a dead heat.
Pro-Public Education Boosts Gillum in Florida
In Florida’s tightly fought contest for governor, progressive star and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum is taking on a Tea Party favorite and Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis. Again, sharp differences over how to pay for schools and oversee an expansive industry of charter schools and voucher-supported private schools help define the candidates.
Gillum has called for raising corporate tax rates to boost teacher pay, increase early childhood education, and provide vocational and technical training for students not entering college. He also maintains the state must stop “siphoning off public money into privately run schools” through its current voucher programs.
DeSantis responds with the typical Republican bromides to find more money for schools by cutting “administrative costs” and to expand more “school choice” as a way to alleviate huge inequities in the system.
Gillum’s strong stand for public schools must be helping. A recent poll has him nine points up.
(Photo credit: Dimmerswitch, Flickr Creative Commons)