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Every Student Succeeds Act

As ESSA Shifts Influence to States, the Map Favors GOP Power Players

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 26, 2016 4 min read
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You may have read over and over that the Every Student Succeeds Act shifts more power over education policy to states. But what you may be less familiar with is the overall political landscape in the states. It sounds like a simple issue, but it could have a profound effect on how states decide to approach the new federal education law. So let’s ask the question of states: Who’s in charge here?

Relying partially on information from the National Conference of State Legislatures as of April 20, we’ve put together a map that shows not just the partisan control of state legislatures and governorships, but also, where applicable, the party of state schools chiefs and how that compares to the partisan control of state government. (There are nine states in which superintendents are elected as members of a political party.) Check it out:

Partisan Control - Politics K-12
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How did that map end up tilting towards the GOP? Here’s part of the answer: From 2009 through last November’s state elections, Republicans have taken about 900 seats in state legislatures away from Democrats. The GOP now controls about 56 percent of state legislative seats. Incidentally, it’s something President Barack Obama is now working to reverse.

Let’s run through a few of the numbers that are shown on and related to the map:

  • NCSL reports that Republicans have a “trifecta” (or control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship) in 22 states, while Democrats can say the same in only seven states. Twenty are divided in some fashion. Don’t forget that Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is nonpartisan.
  • More specifically for the purposes of K-12 policy, there are six states (Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming) where the GOP not only has the traditional partisan trifecta, but also has a party member as the state schools chief. Let’s call that a quadruple play for Republicans and a “golden sombrero” for Democrats.
  • Democrats serve as state chiefs in two states, Indiana and North Carolina, where the Republicans otherwise have the trifecta in state government. Both June Atkinson (North Carolina) and Glenda Ritz (Indiana) are up for re-election this year.

  • Not a single state has both a Democratic trifecta for state government as well as a state schools superintendent who is an elected Democrat. Montana chief Denise Juneau, who is running for Congress, is the only elected Democratic superintendent to serve in a state with split control of state government.
  • The GOP controls 30 legislatures and 31 governorships, compared to 11 legislatures and 18 governorships run by Democrats. Seven legislatures have divided control.

Why does this information matter? State education agencies are about to take on a bigger role as they figure out their approaches to ESSA, but many of them have been hampered by stagnant, inadequate staffing levels and resources since the Great Recession, as my coworker Daarel Burnette II recently reported. State budget decisions driven by party politics could significantly impact that work. And state legislatures are moving at various speeds, and with various policy ideas in mind, to retool their accountability systems to match (or sometimes not to match) ESSA. Both state education departments and state lawmakers will have a lot more to say before the shift to ESSA is complete.

And let’s drill down briefly, but a little bit deeper, into local district school board elections. After all, districts will also have a new, more important role to play under ESSA. According to Ballotpedia, which tracks federal, state, and local election information, 642 of the nation’s largest school boards are holding elections for 2,019 seats.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics from 2013-14 school year data, those boards oversee education for a little more than 16.9 million students, roughly one-third of all students enrolled in American K-12. (The majority of the nation’s largest school boards are nonpartisan.) Among the largest district boards holding elections this year are Dallas; Miami-Dade County in Florida; Montgomery County in Maryland.; and Wake County in North Carolina.

Here are a few other points:

  • The transition to ESSA in 2016 is happening when the slate of state elections is not as large as it sometimes is. For example, there are just 12 gubernatorial races this year, compared to the 36 that took place in 2014. And besides Indiana and North Carolina, only two other states, North Dakota and Washington state, feature elections for schools chief this year. The majority of states, however, are holding elections for at least one chamber in their state legislatures.
  • Party ID doesn’t tell you everything you need to know in these situations. For example, elected California Superintendent Tom Torlakson is nonpartisan, and has generally been on the same page as Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. Meanwhile, Wisconsin chief Tony Evers is also elected and nonpartisan, but has disagreed with GOP Gov. Scott Walker on key K-12 policy issues.
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