Education Issues Underscore Election Stakes at All Levels
From presidential race to state initiatives, voters face policy choices
Education policy and funding—from common standards and college access to the prospect of "doomsday" budget cuts—have been a steady theme in this year's presidential campaign, even as more specific K-12 debates lighted the political landscape in various states.
And with the strategic balance in Congress in play, along with the makeup of 44 state legislatures and the fate of numerous education-related ballot measures, the Nov. 6 elections could have a lasting impact on the direction of precollegiate policy.
While the economy has commanded attention in the televised face-offs between President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, both candidates have emphasized their credentials and records on education, Mr. Obama through his initiatives over the past four years, Mr. Romney through his record as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. Their speeches and debates illuminated sharp differences on the federal role in education.
Education spending, in particular, has emerged as an issue in the presidential race, with Mr. Obama contending that his rival would support big cuts to K-12, higher education, and early-learning programs.
"Cutting our education budget, that's not a smart choice, that will not help us compete with China," Mr. Obama said in his Oct. 22 debate against Mr. Romney in Boca Raton, Fla., which was centered on foreign policy.
The president's criticism stems mainly from a budget blueprint put forth by Mr. Romney's running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Mr. Romney has called the proposal "marvelous," although he did not explicitly endorse every individual aspect of it. That plan would slash domestic discretionary spending—the broad category that includes education—by roughly 20 percent.
For his part, Mr. Romney said during the first debate, held in Denver on Oct. 3, that he would not cut education spending, but he did not offer specifics.
"I don't have any plan to cut education funding and—and grants that go to people going to college. ... I'm not planning on making changes there," Mr. Romney said.
Fiscal issues have also been a major theme of congressional races. Most political prognosticators see little chance that the U.S. House of Representatives will slip from GOP control, although the battle for the Senate is tighter, with Democrats now holding just 51 seats. The balance of power in Congress could help determine how lawmakers handle an issue expected to dominate Washington whoever wins next week: sequestration.
That term refers to a series of looming, across-the-board cuts to military and domestic programs—including education—intended to prompt a long-term deficit-reduction plan. The White House estimates that unless Congress heads off those cuts, education programs would be slashed by 8.2 percent starting early next year. Generally, most school districts would not feel the squeeze until the 2013-14 school year.
Education policy issues have gotten less play on the campaign trail. Mr. Romney has called for turning more than $25 billion in federal school funding over to parents to use at any school of their choice, including private schools. And Mr. Obama has touted his administration's K-12 accomplishments, including encouraging states to raise their academic standards through the Race to the Top program and spurring efforts to turn around low-performing schools.
Key State Questions
At the state level, 44 states are holding elections for their legislatures this year. Republicans appear likely to keep their partisan edge in statehouses—they now control 26, with the Democrats holding 15, eight split between parties, and one nonpartisan legislature. If the status quo holds, measures passed after the 2010 GOP electoral wave that curbed teachers' collective bargaining and increased school choice could stay firmly in place or even expand in some states.
Among individual states, ballot measures are grabbing much of the attention.
Dueling initiatives in California seek to dramatically increase state revenue for public schools, both through income-tax increases, while a separate initiative would prohibit unions from using payroll deductions for political purposes, an idea that has roiled teachers' unions.
Idaho residents will decide whether to uphold or repeal three laws passed in 2011 that, respectively, institute teacher merit pay, limit collective bargaining, and require more technology in schools.
And Washington state voters will decide whether to open the door to charter schools in that state, one of nine that currently don't allow them.
This year's ballots also include 11 gubernatorial contests, four elections for state schools chiefs, and voting for 10 state school boards, along with an advisory public education commission in New Mexico.
Vol. 32, Issue 10, Page 10Published in Print: October 31, 2012, as Education Issues Suffuse Ballots