Tuesday Primary Results Make It Clear K-12 Funding Will Be a Wedge Issue This Fall

By Daarel Burnette II — August 15, 2018 4 min read
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One thing to glean from Tuesday’s primaries in Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin is that school funding will continue to be a prime issue of concern this fall when voters decide who should sit in the governor’s seat.

All of the winners from the latest round of gubernatorial primaries took strong stances on how (or whether) to shore up their schools’ coffers, and their messages seem to be resonating with voters.

Though the economy may be surging, public schools in many states are still struggling to provide for basic materials when it comes to K-12, the result of outdated funding formulas, recession-era tax cuts, and still-flat income tax revenue.

Candidates have pitched new tax schemes, pledged to overhaul funding formulas or doubled down on ways to make school spending more efficient.

In Vermont, Christine Hallquist, now the Democratic nominee for that state’s governor who has pledged to improve a hostile relationship between local school board members and the legislature, will have to clarify how she will guide a years-long effort to consolidate that state’s many districts in order to salvage the state’s budget.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott has faced heavy scrutiny for the way the state’s department of education has gone about consolidating districts and cut school spending which is double the nation’s average.

“The reality is we have an incredibly inefficient K-12 system,” he has said on the campaign trail, according to local reports.

Connecticut’s Republican nominee for governor, Bob Stefanowski, says if he wins this fall, he’ll phase out corporate income tax within two years, state income tax within eight years, and enact a taxpayer bill of rights (the same sort of bill of rights that’s led to teacher strikes in Colorado). These sorts of tax cuts would likely have a trickle down effect for that state’s public schools. The state’s supreme court earlier this year said it wasn’t its place to tell the legislature and governor how to spend state tax dollars.

In doing so, it struck down a September 2016 ruling rocked the state’s political system for its sweeping condemnation of the state’s teacher quality standards, special education spending, and the dwindling academic performance of the state’s poor, black, and Hispanic students.

Ned Lamont, the state’s Democratic nominee for governor, has pledged to invest in public schools “at little to no cost to the state.”

At a campaign stop at an elementary school earlier this summer, he said, according to the Connecticut Mirror, “You really have to direct your education dollars based on need and based on distress. That’s something [Democratic Gov. Dannel] Malloy has done.”

Minnesota’s Democratic candidate nominee Tim Walz, a former teacher, said if he wins this fall, he will come up with a way for schools’ budgets to keep up with inflation. He said he wants to audit the state’s school spending and tell residents exactly how much new initiatives will cost them. “The inflationary game has got to stop. That is a gimmick. It is unfair,” said Walz, a former high school teacher in Mankato, according to the Star Tribune.

He’ll be pitted against Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, the Republican nominee who said he wants to “try some things we haven’t been doing,” by expanding school choice and institute a parent-trigger law. Johnson beat former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who suffered tremendously from attacks that school funding declined under his watch as governor during the height of the recession. Pawlenty regularly denied those accusations.

Minnesota’s powerful teachers’ union, animated over district budget cuts and school choice policies, has pledged to come out in force for Walz.

Though its gubernatorial primaries took place last week, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer only last night conceded in a heated race with Secretary of State Kris W. Kobach for the Republican nomination.

A recent Kansas supreme court ruling that the state’s school funding formula is still not adequate served as a major wedge between Republican candidates who are trying to balance anti-tax fervor in the state and strong public school support that the state’s Democrats have exploited.

Kobach was the most hostile toward the court’s decision, regularly referring to the $500 million payment the legislature, under Colyer’s leadership, provided schools this spring as a “ransom.”

“Look, this game is never going to end,” Kobach said during one especially heated debate.

Kobach’s Democratic opponent this fall, Laura Kelly, has pledged to make school funding her number one priority if elected governor. “Our schools will have the resources to provide a great education to all our students—no matter where they live,” she said on her website. “Our kids will get all the support they need to learn and grow. And our teachers will finally get the respect and support they deserve.”

In Wisconsin, Repblican Gov. Scott Walker, as predicted, will be pitted against state schools Superintendent Tony Evers, now the Democratic nominee for governor. The power of the state’s teachers union and the complicated ways the state funds its many rural districts will likely dominate this fall’s debate as both candidates have attacked each other on their education records.

Evers has regularly accused Walker of slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s public schools.

But in a glossy ad circulating around the state, Walker, along with a public school teacher, touts the state’s most recently approved budget, which they say added an extra $200 per pupil in spending.

Walker, notably, gained nationwide attention for his ability in 2011 to turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state, causing statewide teacher protests. He survived a recall effort by that state’s Democrats. He now calls himself the “education governor,” a title Evers has vigorously claimed Walker has no right to.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.