Money the Top Education Theme in State Midterm Elections

Voters wait in line to get ballots at Brunswick Junior High School in Brunswick, Maine. Money for schools and teacher pay took center stage on the list of education related issues in many states.
Voters wait in line to get ballots at Brunswick Junior High School in Brunswick, Maine. Money for schools and teacher pay took center stage on the list of education related issues in many states.
—Robert F. Bukaty/AP
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Funding was the prime education theme in this year's state midterm elections, fueling debates over teacher pay and more money for local schools, as well as testing voters' appetite for tax hikes to raise that money.

Now comes a reckoning for a new crop of governors who face political and structural hurdles in delivering on their promises of more school aid, as well as for teacher and other activists whose efforts to push through revenue increases fell short in several states.

Brutal legislative battles are likely in store for Democrats Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Laura Kelly in Kansas, two governors-elect who scored upsets after campaigning hard on the prospect of millions more for schools.

Similarly, public school activists in Arizona, Colorado, and Hawaii will have to go back to the drawing board after measures they backed to tax wealthy residents in order to shore up their financially strapped public schools were either knocked off the ballot by the courts or soundly defeated on Election Day.

Michael Leachman, the senior director of state fiscal research for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, pointed out that governors in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections ran—and won—on platforms to eliminate income taxes, which schools are heavily dependent on. The tenor in conversation has definitely changed, said Leachman, whose group focuses on how budget issues affect low-income populations.

"I think the momentum is there. We had, in several states, teacher protests that really resonated in bipartisan ways," he said. "Of course, it's always hard to raise taxes. ... It or may not happen, but it's pretty clear [school funding will] be a big part of the conversation."

Much was at stake last week for district K-12 leaders and the students they serve. States have more say over school accountability than they have in years, due to the Every Student Succeeds Act, and many candidates ran on a platform to change the status quo.

Democrats picked up seven more governors' seats and seven more legislative chambers in last week's elections. In January, at least 23 states will have Democratic governors and 25 states will have a Republican governor. (The Georgia and Florida governor's races hadn't been decided as of late last week.) Eighteen states' legislatures will be completely controlled by Democrats, 30 state legislatures will be controlled by Republicans and only one state legislature—Minnesota's—will be split. (Nebraska's legislature is nonpartisan.)

Dominant Issue

While the economy is booming, and unemployment rates are at historic lows, school districts in large swaths of the country for a variety of regional and local reasons, are still strapped for cash. Public schools continue to compete with rising health care and pension costs, and property tax revenue has been slow to rebound from the Great Recession.

After a series of teacher strikes this past spring in states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, both Republican and Democratic candidates across the country promised to raise teacher pay and restore school funding to pre-recession levels. Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Florida, Maryland, and Oklahoma went so far as to tell voters they'd raise taxes for schools. (None of those candidates won their races.)

Wisconsin Democratic Governor-Elect Tony Evers, left, and Lieutenant Governor-Elect Mandela Barnes celebrate after unseating Republican Gov. Scott Walker in last week’s midterm election.
Wisconsin Democratic Governor-Elect Tony Evers, left, and Lieutenant Governor-Elect Mandela Barnes celebrate after unseating Republican Gov. Scott Walker in last week’s midterm election.
—John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP

In Wisconsin, Evers, the state school superintendent who prevailed in the race for governor, pummeled incumbent Gov. Scott Walker on the campaign trail for his school spending record. Last month, Evers, in his role as state superintendent, released a proposal to provide $1.4 billion more for the state's public schools.

In order for Evers to get his budget passed as governor, he'll have to find a way to pay for the extra spending and convince the state's Republican-dominated legislature to make changes to its state funding formula.

"I will be focused on solving problems, not on picking political fights," Evers said in his victory speech.

In Kansas, gubernatorial candidates clashed over a state supreme court order that the state spend even more on public schools—and the question of how to do it has yet to be answered as a Democrat takes the governor's seat.

The court has ordered that the state provide its public schools more than $364 million by next summer to comply with a constitutional mandate that the legislature provide public school students with an adequate education.

When Democrat Laura Kelly takes the reins from the current Republican governor, she will face a legislature still controlled by Republicans. She will have the benefit of a projected $317 million surplus. But she will also have to decide whether to spend all of that on schools or split it with other departments that also suffered cuts after former Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, slashed the state's taxes in 2012.

Ballot Measures Wither

In many states, school funding activists attempted to bypass the legislative process and get voters to approve statewide ballot initiatives on their own, with little success.

Hawaii's state supreme court knocked a measure off the ballot at the last minute for being confusing. The measure would have allowed the state legislature to collect property taxes for the first time in order to pay for schools.

"This is the beginning," Corey Rosenlee, the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said at a press conference last month, according to local media. "This is a problem that we must solve. ... We still have 1,000 classrooms without qualified teachers. This must be our moral imperative. At the end of the day, this is about one thing. This is about our keiki (children)."

And in Colorado, a ballot measure to annually bring in close to $1.6 billion for schools through raised income taxes on some households failed with only 45 percent in favor. That's despite polls suggesting it would pass and a surge of support from the state's teachers who last spring protested stagnant wages and years of budget cuts at the state capitol.

Gov.-elect Jared Polis, a Democrat, who refused to take a stance on the ballot measure, has promised to find a way to provide more funding for schools and replace the decades-old school funding formula. But, because of a long-standing Taxpayers Bill of Rights law, any new taxes on Colorado residents must be approved by voters, an extraordinarily high bar. Polis may be assisted by the fact that the legislature flipped from Republican to Democratic control in last week's election.

Both the pain and the perseverence of those seeking to boost school funding were on display in Arizona.

The state was the epicenter of the #RedforEd movement, which fought for more money for schools. But the state's supreme court struck from the ballot a question that would've brought $690 million more for schools. And the favored candidate of many teacher activists, Democrat David Garcia, a professor of education at Arizona State University, lost to incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey, who initially pushed back hard on teacher pay raises and clashed with the union over the issue.

The fiscal reality of the state's schools has not changed. At a Democratic watch party in Phoenix on election night, educators described tattered textbooks, overcrowded classrooms, and a growing number of teachers running for better paying jobs in other states.

These problems, they said, will continue to burden the state and hurt its economy. But they vowed to keep pressing their case, encouraged by the activism shown by teachers this year and the swell of public support.

"We will take this fight to the next election," said Courtney Kemp, an AP teacher at Chandler High School. "This taught us that we have a voice. We can make a change."

Vol. 38, Issue 13, Pages 1, 23

Published in Print: November 14, 2018, as K-12 Funding Put to Acid Test at Ballot Box
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