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K-12 Education and the Battle for the U.S. Senate: What to Watch

By Alyson Klein — October 15, 2018 6 min read
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Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

It looks like the U.S. House of Representatives stands a good chance of flipping to Democratic control in the fall, but the Senate is much more likely to stay in Republican hands. Still, there are nine Senate match-ups currently rated as “Toss-Ups” by the Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races. Five of those are in seats currently held by Democrats, and four by Republicans. The GOP has a one vote edge in the Senate right now, 51 to 49, but that could tick up after the election if many of the toss-ups go GOP.

So how is education playing out in the battle for the Senate? Here’s a quick guide to where candidates in tough races stand on K-12 policy.

Arizona (Open seat, R held)

U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, a Republican vs. U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat

Both lawmakers voted in favor of the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. As a House member, Sinema sponsored a bill to roll back annual testing in ESSA to just certain grade-spans. She’s also a supporter of the DREAM Act, which would open up a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children. McSally has said she wants to see stronger border control before she can support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, an Obama-era initiative that allowed so-called “Dreamers” to stay in the country temporarily.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

Florida (D held)

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat vs. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican

Scott is running on what he says is a record of boosting academic outcomes in Florida, which this year was the only state to show significant improvement in math in 4th and 8th grade and in 8th grade reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the nation’s report card. Meanwhile, Nelson is attacking Scott for cuts to education funding on his watch. Scott says an ad decrying a $20 million cut to K-12 funding in 2011 and 2012 is misleading because there were declines in general fund revenue and federal education spending at the time. PolitiFact rated the ad as mostly false. And the Florida Education Association, which has endorsed Nelson, dinged Scott for adding to the testing schedule, and for anti-union language in a recent education bill. Meanwhile, Nelson is touting both his endorsements from educators, and his record of pushing for science, technology, engineering, and math programs, or STEM, programs in the Senate.

Indiana (D held)

Former state Rep. Mike Braun, a Republican, vs.Sen. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat

Immigration has been an issue in this race. Braun doesn’t favor any sort of special treatment for Dreamers. As a congressman in 2010, Donnelly voted against the DREAM Act, but he’s been supportive of DACA. Donnelly has also attacked President Donald Trump for separating families trying to enter the country without documentation at the border. Braun, though, says the senator hasn’t proposed another solution for the problem, according to the Indianapolis Star. Donnelly touts funding for early-childhood education and college access on his campaign website. Braun doesn’t have an education section on his site.

Missouri (D held)

Josh Hawley, the state attorney general, a Republican vs. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat

McCaskill touts her support for Head Start, school lunch, and college access programs on her campaign website. Hawley doesn’t list his K-12 views. Meanwhile, the National Education Association, which has endorsed McCaskill, hit Hawley for taking $27,000 in campaign contributions from the family of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Montana (D held)

Matt Rosendale, the state auditor and a Republican vs. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat

Tester, a former school board member, has sponsored a bill in the Senate to roll back annual testing in ESSA to just certain grade-spans. His campaign website said he’s “battling” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, “as she tries to privatize our public schools. Jon knows voucherizing schools might work in downtown Chicago, but it won’t work in Chinook.” Rosendale doesn’t have an education section on his website, but he has told local media that he thinks education decisions are best made at the local level. The National Education Association, which has endorsed Tester, hit Rosendale for his support of school choice.


Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.

Nevada (R held)

Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican vs. Rep. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat.

Heller supported ESSA. And he was one of a handful or Republicans during the debate over ESSA to vote against an amendment sponsored by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., that would have allowed states to funnel federal K-12 to private school choice programs. (Rosen wasn’t in Congress when ESSA passed in 2015). Rosen said she supports more funding for public schools’ STEM initiatives.

North Dakota (D held)

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican vs. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat

Both lawmakers voted in favor of ESSA in 2015. Heitkamp has sponsored legislation offering college loan forgiveness to make it easier for students from rural areas to enter public service professions, like teaching. Meanwhile, Democrats in North Dakota have attacked Cramer for taking campaign money from DeVos’ family. .

Tennessee (R held)

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican vs. former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat

As governor from 2003 to 2011, Bredesen helped lead Tennessee’s successful bid for a slice of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. He pushed through changes to the state’s teacher-evaluation system, making it more reliant on student test scores, and helped raise the state’s charter school cap. He also embraced the Common Core state standards and put in place tougher high school graduation standards. And he helped the state overhaul its education funding formula in 2007 to direct more money to students deemed at risk academically, such as English-language learners. Meanwhile, Blackburn has called for “increasing charter school options, making home schooling easier, and supporting state and local control of education.” She’s also supported the A-plus Act, which would allow states to opt-out of any federal accountability requirements.


Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas

Texas (R held)

Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican vs. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat

Last year, Cruz, a big school choice fan, pushed through language in a major tax overhaul bill allowing parents to use 529 college savings plans for private K-12 schools. He’s also pushed to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and the Common Core State Standards. He co-sponsored the A-plus Act. And he was one of a just handful of senators to vote against a version of ESSA when it came up in the Senate. (He wasn’t around for the final vote on the law.) O’Rourke, meanwhile, voted in favor of ESSA. He’s staunchly against public funding for private schools and wants to hike K-12 spending, according to his website.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz addresses his supporters during a rally, Oct. 13, 2018, at Franklin High School in El Paso, Texas. --Brian Kanof/The El Paso Times via AP

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., speaks during a Democratic Party rally, on Aug. 31, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. --John Raoux/AP

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., speaks during a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Jan. 30, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. --Susan Walsh/AP

Beto O’Rourke speaks during the general session at the Texas Democratic Convention on June 22, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. --Richard W. Rodriguez/AP


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