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Published in Print: September 10, 2014, as Education Issues Loom Large in Pivotal U.S. Senate Races

Education Looms Large in Pivotal U.S. Senate Races

Policy differences stark in handful of tight contests

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Education policy issues are at the heart of a handful of highly competitive U.S. Senate races that could help determine which party controls the chamber next year.

In North Carolina, candidates are locking horns over education spending and teacher pay; in Georgia, the Common Core State Standards are taking center stage; and in Iowa, higher education and student loans are the subject of the latest skirmish between Senate hopefuls.

But while education is adding heat to some key contests as Republicans nationally push to take the Senate from Democrats—the current split is 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans, and two Independents—it may not play such a pivotal role in elections nationwide.

Battleground Issue

Education policy has been a heated topic in a handful of pivotal U.S. Senate races that could help determine partisan control of that chamber, currently held by Democrats.

North Carolina

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis have been debating each other’s education agenda through dueling TV ads that focus on spending, school choice, and teacher pay.


In the race for an open U.S. Senate seat, Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue are butting heads over the Common Core State Standards.


Higher education and student loans are taking center stage as Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst battle for the state’s open Senate seat.

"In general, I don't think education issues are at the top tier of what's going on in this election," said Curt Anderson, founding partner of OnMessage Inc., a political consulting firm that is working with Republican candidates, including the GOP hopeful in North Carolina. "They're close, but it's always seemed to me what happens is when you have an economically distressed time, … that always takes the number-one spot."

In select contests, however, education policy has fueled fierce attack ads and detailed exchanges at candidate debates and forums.

N.C.'s Money Showdown

Republicans have been eager to unseat North Carolina freshman Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan since she was elected to serve the traditionally conservative state in 2008. And the race in which Sen. Hagan is attempting to fend off GOP nominee Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, is the most competitive and most expensive senatorial contest in the country at this point.

Last week, the National Education Association launched a seven-figure TV ad campaign that slammed Mr. Tillis' education record, including his role in pushing through state budgets that directed $500 million less to education than the state appropriators estimated would be needed to maintain the status quo. In August, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $9.1 million doing the same.

Before that, two major advertising campaigns also criticized Mr. Tillis for his role in education funding cuts. One, paid for by Senate Majority PAC, says that Mr. Tillis' budget—which no Democrat voted for—prevented pay raises for teachers, forced teachers to pay for classroom supplies themselves, and resulted in the elimination of 9,000 classroom jobs. Another, from EMILY's List, a PAC that supports pro-abortion-rights Democratic candidates and weighs in on other social issues, claims the cuts caused crowded classrooms.

Mr. Tillis, for his part, called the ads "shamelessly false," and the issues highlighted were at center stage during the first candidates' debate, held last week in Durham.

During the debate, Mr. Tillis touted a 7 percent teacher pay hike included in the most recent budget he ushered through the state legislature. Most of his comments, however, underscored his view that the biggest obstacle teachers face is the federal government and that Ms. Hagan is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Obama administration.

"They're forcing tests, they're forcing reports, they're taking freedom out of the classroom and preventing teachers from being able to innovate," he said. "We need to pay our teachers top salaries, and we're working on that, but we also need to get the federal government out of the way."

Sen. Hagan spent her debate time working to debunk the teacher pay raise that Mr. Tillis initially plugged.

Under the new pay system, the state's 37-step schedule for paying teachers will be condensed to just six steps, with pay boosts for teachers coming every five years, rather than annually. But the amounts will vary depending on how much a teacher was previously earning. Actual raises would range from less than 1 percent, for a 30-year veteran, to more than 18 percent for teachers entering their fifth and sixth years in the classroom.

"We have seen an exodus of teachers in North Carolina under Speaker Tillis' tenure," Ms. Hagan said.

Teachers' salaries in North Carolina, which have been essentially frozen since 2008, have fallen to 46th in the nation as of 2012-13, according to National Education Association tables, prompting worries about attrition.

Mr. Tillis said Ms. Hagan had her math wrong, alluding to the fact that he hadn't actually presided over a $500 million cut to education spending—lawmakers just didn't fund education to the extent budget experts said it needed to be funded in order to prevent any decrease in services.

Mr. Tillis, who hasn't made education a core part of his platform, favors eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. Sen. Hagan, meanwhile, serves on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and has a long résumé of crafting education policy.

Georgia's Common-Core Spat

As Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss prepares to retire in Georgia, the candidates battling to replace him in a race that pollsters have deemed a tossup are highlighting the larger national debate over the common-core standards.

Democrat Michelle Nunn, president of the largest volunteer service organization in the country and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, and Republican David Perdue, a successful businessman and a cousin of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, have butted heads repeatedly over the standards, which the Peach State adopted in 2010.

Notably, Sonny Perdue, a Republican, led the National Governors Association's effort to develop the common-core standards alongside the Council of Chief State School Officers, and remains an ardent supporter of them. But Senate hopeful David Perdue has a different opinion, calling the common core "an unnecessary federal bureaucracy," and centering his education agenda on repealing the standards.

At a forum hosted by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce in August, where the two candidates squared off for the first time in an unofficial debate, Mr. Perdue capitalized on growing public sentiment that the standards are a federal initiative and part of what Republican critics see as the larger Obama administration trend of overstepping its legal authority.

"If you like what's going on in Washington, then vote for my opponent, because you know she'll be nothing more than a proxy for Harry Reid and Barack Obama and nothing will change," Mr. Perdue said.

The Chamber of Commerce, it should be noted, publicly supports the common core and has urged Republican candidates to do the same for the sake of ensuring the country's competitiveness.

Ms. Nunn took an aggressive tack during the chamber forum, attacking her opponent for opposing the common core.

"If you look at [Mr. Perdue's] issues, you have support for the government shutdown, against the common core—something the chamber has worked hard around … and the refusal to work around comprehensive immigration reform," Ms. Nunn said. "That sounds a lot like Washington as usual to me, and I know we can do better."

Iowa and Student Loans

In Iowa, where the Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, is battling Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, higher education and student loans are in the spotlight.

Mr. Braley, who has been a major player in Democratic efforts to keep student-loan interest rates low, recently wrapped up a college tour. He visited four schools across Iowa as part of a campaign strategy to reach out to younger voters and highlight one of his biggest campaign platforms—increasing access and affordability in higher education.

Higher education issues—student loans in particular—typically play well with younger and often more liberal voters, as highlighted by President Obama's 2012 campaign, in which he toured college campuses promising easier access to college and lower loan-repayment interest rates.

Mr. Braley also used the campus visits as an opportunity to go on the offensive against Ms. Ernst. He argued that, if elected, his competitor would threaten students' access to the Pell Grant program, which provides tuition assistance for middle- and low-income families, and that she would shift the government-run federal student-loan program to private lenders.

Related Blog

Stephanie Turner, chairwoman of Students for Joni, batted away the assertions, noting that Ms. Ernst went to Iowa State University on government-backed student loans. She said that the biggest problem with higher education is not necessarily keeping student loans low, but shrinking costs on the front end.

It's fitting that the Iowa candidates are locking horns over higher education since the seat one of them will fill is that of Sen. Harkin—the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, who has dedicated most of his 40-year tenure in Congress to education issues.

In his last major education policy push, Sen. Harkin is drafting a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which he hopes to unveil this fall.

Vol. 34, Issue 03, Pages 18,20

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