State Election Cheat Sheet: Education Issues to Watch

Public school funding, teacher pay, and improving academic outcomes in the Every Student Succeeds Act era have fueled midterm-election debate in many states. Here's some key issues and states to watch.

State Election Cheat Sheet: Education Issues to Watch

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By Daarel Burnette II

Public education has fueled the midterm-election debate in many states, with candidates sparring over how—or whether—to give school districts more money, changes to teachers’ working conditions, and pay, and how to improve academic outcomes.

Thirty-six governorships are up for election in November, along with more than three-fourths of state legislative seats in 46 states. And under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which went into full effect this fall, state officials have more say over how they spend their money and where they place their academic priorities. In addition, many state legislatures have begun the arduous and politically combative process of replacing decades-old school spending formulas. Those fights could soon come to a head in the 2019 legislative sessions.

Here are some of the top issues resonating in this year’s state-level midterm elections, along with some key state examples.

During this past spring’s many statewide teacher strikes, teachers promised to carry their concerns over pay and school funding straight to the polls this fall. In several states, they’ve delivered on that promise. According to an Education Week survey, more than 150 teachers have filed to run for state legislative office. Of those teachers, 126 filed as Democrats and 29 as Republicans. Three filed as independents.

Many teachers said they are tired of depending on their teachers’ union or legislative representative to advocate their issues. That strategy, they say, has been ineffective. They’ve asked voters: Why not have actual practitioners in the room when legislators are making decisions about the future of their public school system?

Arizona: Arizona’s teacher strikes led to a promise by Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican running for re-election, to provide teachers a 20 percent pay raise by 2020, but teachers said that wasn’t enough. Several dozen teachers have filed to run for state office there, and the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor, David Garcia, is an education professor who said, if elected, he would raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest 1 percent to bring education funding back to pre-recession levels.

Oklahoma: Several dozen teachers ran for the state legislature in 2016, but many lost their primaries as a result of poor messaging and the lack of campaign money. After this year’s teacher walkouts, which lasted for almost two weeks of school, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, signed a bill that resulted in a $6,000 raise. Teachers said that wasn’t enough. That bolstered teachers’ spirits, and more than 40 ran for office this year.

Kentucky: Kentucky’s teachers saw an early victory when high school math teacher Travis Brenda, a Republican, prevailed in the primary over Rep. Jonathan Shell, who had backed several bills that sought to weaken teachers’ retirement benefits.

While the economy has roared back to life in recent years, public schools in large swaths of the country are still starved for money. In many states, sales-tax revenue has flattened as more people shop online and, while unemployment is at historic lows, earnings have not rebounded to pre-recession levels.

That’s left incumbent governors defending their school spending records and their opponents proposing new ways to boost funding.

Kansas: A yearslong court battle over how much the state spends on education and how the money is distributed among districts reached a head this year when the state supreme court gave the legislature until the end of the next legislative session to boost spending or risk having public schools shut down by the court. Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach said he would fight the court’s decision and look to make even more tax cuts that could ultimately decrease school spending amounts, while Democratic nominee Laura Kelly said she would comply with the court’s demands and seek new revenue sources for public schools.

Maryland: Incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has spent the past several months touting both his tax cuts and his school spending record. He’s also attempted to hold schools more accountable for the ways that they spend money. His opponent, Ben Jealous, a Democrat and a former president and CEO of the national NAACP, has promised to raise more money for schools through a tax on recreational marijuana.

Last spring’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., sparked a youth-led movement nationally to press for more gun control and make schools safer. Students from Stoneman Douglas have toured the country in recent months promoting candidates who they say will make schools safer. And they’re also pushing for teenagers to show up to the polls this year.

Florida: Nowhere has the fight over gun control been more intense than in the Sunshine State. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is not up for re-election and is running for the U.S. Senate, signed several gun-control measures during the last legislative session, but many constituents say he didn’t go far enough. Republican gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis said he will reverse some of those measures, while Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum has said he will strengthen the state’s gun-control laws.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that public employees cannot be compelled to pay union dues. That ruling, many predicted, would harm local unions’ budgets and, ultimately, their ability to lobby state leaders.

Despite that fact, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers this year have promised to pour millions of dollars into state races. They have also rallied thousands of their members to go door-to-door with candidates who they have called “pro-public education.”

In 2016, the NEA spent more than $21.9 million on state-level campaigns. The AFT spent around $10 million.

States are making changes to their accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Many of those changes are now taking effect. Many governorships are up for election, and freshly minted governors are likely to appoint new state board members and state schools superintendents.

In many states, where governors didn’t sign off on their ESSA plans, or where there’s been sharp disagreements between parties over how to improve schools, those newly appointed state officials could look to scrap their states’ existing plans.

Tennessee: After several technical glitches, gubernatorial and legislative candidates in Tennessee have all weighed in on the future of that state’s testing system and whether to replace the test with a new one or reduce the weight it has on teacher evaluations and school rankings. The state is also at odds over the role the state has in improving its worst-performing schools.

Arizona: A series of Republican-led tax cuts in Arizona have resulted in severe funding shortages for some districts. Teachers earlier this year rallied for days at the state capital and, when the governor didn’t concede to their demands for $1 billion in more funding, held a one-week strike. (He ultimately promised to raise salaries by 20 percent by 2020.) Separately, the state’s supreme court knocked off the ballot a question that, if approved, would have taxed the state’s wealthiest citizens to raise $690 million for its schools. The judges said it was confusing. That supercharged the Democrats’ message that they are best fit to save the state’s public schools. Republicans argue that if Democrats are in control, they’ll raise taxes and run off emerging businesses in the state.

Wisconsin: Since 2011, when the state’s Republican-controlled legislature and governor approved a series of tax cuts and, in the process, made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, Democrats, public employee unions, and especially teachers have been gunning to unseat Republican Gov. Scott Walker from office. This year, the state’s Democrats placed Tony Evers, the state’s longtime elected superintendent, on the ballot to challenge Walker’s bid for a third term. That’s placed front and center for voters the question of whether or not schools have improved under Walker’s and Evers’ watch, or if the state’s schools have received more or less money since the end of the Great Recession.

Related Stories:

Candidates in Midterms Spar Over School Funding vs. Taxes
Did #RedForEd Just Capture Its First Midterm Victory?
Over 150 Teachers Are Running for State Office. Here’s What We Know About Them

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of Education Week as State Election Watch