GOP Solidifies Hold on State-Level Leadership

By Daarel Burnette II — November 11, 2016 5 min read
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Republicans at the state level stockpiled more legislative, governors’, and state schools superintendent seats in this week’s election, dealing a blow to teachers’ union hopes and strengthening the hand of GOP policymakers in state capitals as they write sweeping K-12 education agendas early next year under the umbrella of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The winners include Gov.-elect Doug Burgum, in North Dakota, a Republican who during his campaign referred to public schools as “government” schools, expendable in that state’s looming budget cuts.

The losers include Superintendents Glenda Ritz in Indiana and June Atkinson of North Carolina, both Democrats who attempted to shield public school teachers from an onslaught of school accountability legislation passed by their Republican-controlled legislatures. Both lost in Republican-dominated states.

States will have plenty more say in the coming years over issues such as school accountability and teacher evaluations as ESSA goes into full effect in the 2017-18 school year, shrinking the federal government’s regulatory role in K-12 and putting more flexibility—and responsibility—in the hands of state leaders.

And with the Republican Donald Trump now headed to the White House and both houses of Congress remaining in GOP hands, federal policymakers could begin dismantling the regulations crafted by President Barack Obama’s Department of Education. That would give state leaders broader say in areas such as how they appropriate federal dollars and how they set about boosting academic outcomes.

State policymakers next year may decide to punt some of that power back to local school boards, widening testing options, loosening accountability systems, and more equitably redistributing federal dollars and close the achievement gap, or they may take on the politically volatile and increasingly complex task themselves.

Republicans will now hold at least 31 governors’ seats, and Democrats will hold at least 18. (North Carolina’s race was still too close to call at week’s end.)

And in at least 32 states with partisan control, Republicans will have control of both legislative chambers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Democrats will have such control in at least 13 states, and three states are split. New York was still undecided as of the end of this week.)

In addition, four chambers will flip from Republican to Democratic control, and three chambers will flip from Republican to Democratic control.

That includes Kentucky’s state Senate, where a blustery fight over charter schools has been long brewing. The state is one of only a few that hasn’t allowed charter schools, though Matt Bevin, the state’s recently appointed Republican governor, has pledged to change that next session.

In a political environment where swaths of states are controlled by one party or another, states are likely to take very different approaches in areas such as standards, testing, and accountability, said Jeffrey Henig, a political science professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Such differences have been lessened in the past by a strong federal role. “That’s not what you’re going to see under ESSA and Trump, at least now, I predict.”

Front and Center

K-12 education was front and center in a number of state-level elections this year, in contrast to its mostly muted profile in the presidential campaign. In several states, in fact, teachers’ unions attempted to bypass the state legislatures and take directly to the voters ballot measures that, if passed, would raise taxes to provide districts with plenty more money.

The results were mixed.

In Maine, voters approved Question 2, a ballot measure that will add a 3 percent surcharge to the portion of household income over $200,000 to provide for more school funding. The measure is estimated to boost annual education funding by $157 million a year. The state spends about $1 billion a year.

But in Oklahoma, voters rejected Question 779, a measure that would have given teachers raises of more than $5,000 in the coming year. The Sooner State has suffered from a series of dramatic budget cuts in recent years after oil prices tanked. The state’s teachers are some of the lowest paid in the country, and several districts there now hold classes only four days a week.

After an electrifying 2014 rally over education budget cuts at the state capitol, dozens of Oklahoma teachers decided to run in the 2016 race for legislative seats. The group, known by the local press as the “teachers caucus,” did not fare well, though. Only five of the 25 who made it onto this month’s ballot were elected.

A ballot measure in Oregon and two ballot measures in California both passed overwhelmingly and are set to bring millions of dollars to those states’ school districts in the coming years.

School choice advocates took blows in Georgia and Massachusetts, where two expensive campaigns to increase the presence of charter schools failed. Voters rejected a ballot measure in Massachusetts to lift a cap on that state’s charter school presence. And, in Georgia, voters rejected a measure to allow the state to take over its worst-performing schools and hand them over to charter operators.

Pre-K initiatives in several places had mixed results. Voters in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, approved tax increases to expand prekindergarten services. A quarter of a percent tax increase in Daton will raise an estimated $11 million for pre-K services over the next eight years. And Cincinnati’s voters approved a measure to raise its property tax to serve 6,000 preschool students a year. A similar ballot measure in Missouri failed.

Showdown States

In the quest to add to their tally of governors’ seats, Republican candidates won gubernatorial races in Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont, and Utah, three of which were previously held by Democrats.

Democrats won gubernatorial mansions in Delaware, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, none of which was previously held by Republicans.

As of Nov. 11, North Carolina’s governor’s race between Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and Democratic candidate Roy Cooper was too close to call. The governors there debated whether the Republican-controlled legislature had in fact raised teacher pay or if their accountability movement had run scores of teachers away from the profession. That debate mostly overshadowed the state superintendent’s race, which resulted in Atkinson, the nation’s longest-serving superintendent, losing her position.

In Indiana, where testing and school accountability have roiled its political body for years, that state’s already weakened Democratic Party took a double blow. Republican Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb beat John Gregg, the Democrat, for governor, and Democratic incumbent Ritz was ousted by Republican Jennifer McCarthy.

Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as GOP Solidifies Hold on State-Level Leadership


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