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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What to Watch for on Election Night: Education Edition

By Rick Hess — November 05, 2012 6 min read
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What does tomorrow hold? For all those educators, scholars, and advocates who don’t have a lot of time to track national politics or wonder about what the results might mean for education, let’s take a quick spin around the block:

First, the conventional wisdom is that President Obama has better than a 70% chance of being reelected. Most scenarios have him winning around 280 or 290 electoral votes (270 are needed for victory.) Obama would win 290 if Romney claims Indiana (a foregone conclusion) and Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia--but plucks nothing else from Obama’s 2008 column. If Obama’s electoral vote total creeps much above 300, you could hear talk of a surprisingly strong victory; alternatively, the narrative could emphasize that Obama would almost assuredly be the first president to fare worse in his reelection bid than in winning his first term. While nobody imagines that education has played much of a role in this fall’s election, the results will have important consequences for K-12 and higher ed: An Obama win would minimize potential cuts for education and ensure that efforts to resuscitate “gainful employment” and to promote NCLB waivers continue to roll forward. At the same time, since both candidates (but especially Obama) have run vague, agenda-less campaigns, it’ll be hard for the winner to claim much of a mandate to do anything particular come January--especially given a sharply divided electorate.

Second, Romney could certainly win. To do so, he’d likely need to claim North Carolina (probable), Florida (he’s the slight favorite), Virginia (a toss-up), Ohio (where Obama seems to be about three points ahead), and one other small state (probably New Hampshire or Colorado). If Romney were to somehow claim Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, or a couple small swing states like Iowa and Nevada, his path would be easier. For some of the implications of a Romney win, see here.

Third, there’s a fair chance that the successful candidate will lose the popular vote while winning the electoral college. If there is such a split (which is probably close to a 50-50 bet in the case of an Obama victory), it’s unlikely that the outcome would have much practical effect. Normally, we might imagine such a split to cause a ruckus or give the winner extra impetus to extend the olive branch to the other side. That might, for instance, be expected to offer an opening for NCLB reauthorization (just as Bush’s efforts to romance key Democrats in 2001 were part of the aggressive push on No Child Left Behind). But, given that the Republicans benefited from this scenario just a decade ago, reaction is likely to be modulated due to the sense that turnabout is fair play. Meanwhile, if it’s Obama facing off against House Republicans (as seems likely), well...

Fourth, we may not know the official winner for days or weeks. The result could easily hinge on a couple swing states where the race currently looks to be razor close. Between recount procedures, provisional ballots, legal challenges, and the rest, some of those states might take days or weeks to sort things out. Depending on who wins, this could impact public attitudes about government, negotiations over sequestration, or even (if Romney wins) the assembly of the next cabinet and Department.

Fifth, surprisingly, it looks like Democrats will keep control of the Senate. As recently as August, it was pretty much assumed that Republicans would capture the Senate--because the Dems are defending a massive number of open and vulnerable seats. Yet, Republicans seem to be blowing their chances in Missouri, Ohio, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Dems appear poised to gain seats in, at least, Massachusetts and Indiana. It now seems likely that Dems (and Dem-allied independents) will hold between 52 and 55 seats in the Senate, giving them powerful sway over a potential Romney agenda. At the same time, the GOP will have at least 45 seats and remain well-positioned to frustrate an Obama agenda. One intriguing twist: If the Democrats hold the Senate, Lamar Alexander will take over for Mike Enzi as the ranking Republican on the Senate education committee. Alexander, the former U.S. Secretary of Education who gave up his high-ranking position in the Senate Republican hierarchy so that he’d be freer to speak his mind, is the most thoughtful and sophisticated Republican in the Senate when it comes to education issues. Having made it clear that he thinks the feds have overreached on education, Alexander’s ascendancy could stir the pot in unexpected ways.

Sixth, it’s almost certain that Republicans will hold the House, while losing perhaps a half-dozen seats. This means that a Speaker Boehner would be positioned to check a second Obama administration just as he has in 2011 and 2012. Now, one thing to keep an eye on is that several Tea Party celebrities from 2010--Daniel Webster, Allen West, and Michele Bachmann among them--are in tight races. If some of these folks lose, combined with an Obama victory and a good night for Dems in the Senate, it could add luster to the Democrats’ night and chasten House Republicans. Such an outcome would fuel talk that Obama has beaten back the Tea Party and regained momentum, and could strengthen his hand in the coming face-off with House Republicans over budget cuts, taxes, and his second term agenda.

Seventh, there are several key education or education-related referenda in the states that are worth keeping an eye on. In Washington state, voters will decide on Initiative 1240 to allow 40 charter schools to open in the next five years. Washington voters previously rejected charter initiatives in 1996, 2000, and 2004. The measure is backed by donors including Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Jeff Bezos, and opposed by the Washington Education Association. In Idaho, three initiatives ask voters to approve of dramatic legislation to phase out tenure, limit collective bargaining, and institute merit pay. In Michigan, the union-backed Proposal 2 would make collective bargaining for public employees a constitutional right. In California, Governor Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 would boost sales and income taxes to close the state’s massive deficit; he’s promised that schools will suffer if Prop 30 goes down. Meanwhile, Proposition 32 would limit the ability of unions to use member contributions to fund political activities. If unions triumph on most of these (especially if California votes to raise taxes), it’ll suggest that the teachers unions are on a roll after their victory in Chicago. If Washington passes charters; the unions lose in Idaho, Michigan, and California; and California voters don’t boost taxes, we could be in for turbulent times ahead. If the verdict is mixed, well, we’ll have to sort through the results to see what it all means.

Bottom line: Given that Dems are likely to hold the Senate (with a modest majority), Republicans are likely to hold the House, and the President is likely to win narrowly, it’s doubtful that the results are going to yield much change in Washington from what we’ve seen during the past two years. For one thing, especially with Congress already eyeing a very full plate and the NCLB waiver process well underway, I’d put the odds of NCLB reauthorization actually happening before 2015 at less than ten percent. Meanwhile, the likelihood that new ideological, uncompromising icons, like Democrat Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts and Republican Ted Cruz from Texas, will be replacing more pragmatic Republicans like Scott Brown and Kay Bailey Hutchison, means that partisan polarization will continue apace. (If you’re trying to souse all this out, you may want to attend or watch the livestream of AEI’s Thursday morning panel “What will the 2012 election mean for education?”)

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.