Education's Tenuous Hold on 2016 Ballot

A girl attends a presidential campaign rally at Omaha North High Magnet School in Nebraska. Education has resonated more deeply in some state-level elections than in the contest for the White House this year.
A girl attends a presidential campaign rally at Omaha North High Magnet School in Nebraska. Education has resonated more deeply in some state-level elections than in the contest for the White House this year.
—Andrew Harnik/AP

Muted White House issue, state-level showdowns

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The K-12 community may be grappling with a brand-new education law and a big backlash against standardized testing. But during the presidential campaign, the question of what to do about schools has been overshadowed by much larger and more dramatic discussions about immigration, terrorism, trade, and other topics.

A different dynamic has taken hold at the state level, with education issues getting a relatively large amount of attention in states such as California, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

And among states overall, the upcoming elections could have a major impact on approaches lawmakers take to the Every Student Succeeds Act, which in December replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

A lack of focus on education has allowed Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, to largely sidestep the politically dicey area of K-12 policy and spend most of her time talking about early-childhood education and higher education—which are a lot less divisive in the party.

Differing Approaches

On early-childhood education, specifically, Clinton wants to expand preschool to every 4-year-old over a 10-year period and to double spending on the federal Early Head Start program.

2016 Election

She's also pitched new resources for school construction, including a five-year, $275 billion infrastructure program called Modernize Every School Bonds. And she wants to invest in and modernize the teaching profession, although she hasn't offered details.

Clinton was endorsed early on by both national teachers' unions, even though some of their members were hoping leaders would give more consideration to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, her rival in the Democratic primaries. That's led many experts to speculate that a potential President Clinton would be much more beholden to the unions than her predecessor, President Barack Obama, who pushed through policies that many educators disliked, such as teacher evaluation through student-test scores.

Meanwhile, Republican nominee Donald Trump began his campaign without a significant track record when it comes to education. And with the exception of one plan to dramatically expand school choice, Trump has largely dealt with education only in sound bites that are often light on details.

Trump's position on the federal role in education has been difficult to discern clearly. On the one hand, he's called for a dramatically scaled-down U.S. Department of Education, or no department at all. On the other, he's called education one of the top three priorities for the federal government.

And it's not clear how his signature K-12 proposal, a $20 billion federal program to allow low-income students to attend private, magnet, and public schools of their choice, would work without a federal education department to oversee it. (That money would also leverage additional state investments in choice programs, under Trump's plan.)

Tapping into a key issue for many conservative voters in recent years, Trump has called the Common Core State Standards a "disaster" without saying why. He wants an end to gun-free school zones. And he has said that the United States spends way too much for poor scores on international exams.

At the state level, 12 governor seats, 5,915 legislative seats, and five superintendent positions are up for election this year.

Shaping States' Policy

Those who take office will have a greater say, under ESSA, in shaping teacher evaluations and school accountability systems, two politically volatile issues. In the vast majority of states, candidates on the campaign trail have so far steered clear of those issues. But there are some exceptions.

In some deeply conservative states, such as Indiana and Oklahoma, teachers' unions have fought hard in recent months to oust politicians that supported incorporating student-test scores into school accountability systems and teacher evaluations.

In Indiana, where a teacher shortage has left thousands of students being taught by uncertified teachers, Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Gregg has campaigned to bring back the dignity of the teaching profession and replace the state's decades-old standardized test. His Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, promised during an education-focused debate in September to continue some of the strict accountability measures that current Gov. Mike Pence instituted, including the state's controversial letter-grade school accountability system. (Pence is running as Trump's vice presidential candidate.)

North Carolina gubernatorial candidates Pat McCrory, the incumbent Republican, and Roy Cooper, a Democrat, have sparred over which party has done more to boost that state's teachers' salaries and working conditions.

And in Oklahoma, after staging an electrifying rally in 2014 over teacher pay and other grievances, more than 40 teachers filed to run for office themselves.

Education activists in several other states have decided to skirt altogether the messy legislative process by taking initiatives directly to voters.

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California voters will decide whether to lift the decades-old English-only mandate and to expand bilingual education programs to benefit its growing population of English-language learners.

Teachers' unions in Oregon and Maine have backed "tax the rich" ballot measures that, if passed, could bring millions more dollars to the public school systems there. A ballot measure in Oklahoma would raise the sales tax by a penny to, among other things, provide teachers with a $5,000 raise.

And in one of the nation's most hard-fought policy showdowns, Massachusetts voters will decide whether to lift a cap on the number of charter schools in their state. That race has attracted millions of dollars from teachers' unions and charter proponents alike from across the country and sparked a very public debate over how money influences education policy.

Vol. 36, Issue 11, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: November 2, 2016, as Education's Tenuous Toehold on 2016 Ballot
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