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COVID-19 Crisis Raises K-12 Stakes for State Elections Nationwide

By Evie Blad — October 29, 2020 6 min read
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While the top of the ballot dominates national conversations, educators around the country have their eyes on state-level races Nov. 3 that could have significant consequences for their schools.

Education is always on the ballot in state races, but this year’s elections have even more significance: Governors and state education leaders will have a far more central role than federal officials in steering schools schools through the public health and economic crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They will set public health policies that could determine whether schools operate remotely or in-person. They will direct federal aid for education and related issues, like virus testing. And they will chart a course on issues like accountability as schools work to get students back on track following unprecedented interruptions.

With most state legislatures on the ballot, along with nearly a dozen governorships, and a scattering of state schools chiefs, here are some state-level races to watch:

Governor’s Races and Education

Eleven states have governors’ contests this year: Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. In two of those states, Montana and Utah, the current governor is not on the ballot, guaranteeing a new administration.

When forecasting party control in governors’ seats, pollsters see Montana, currently led by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, as one of the only possible tossups. There are currently 26 Republican governors and 24 Democrats.

The relationships between governors and federal officials are key at times of national crises, and that’s been especially true as schools navigate the pandemic. Governors, and their appointees, have coordinated requests for federal resources. President Donald Trump’s administration has given them discretion over the use of 100 million rapid coronavirus tests meant to help reopen schools. They’ve also been the target of pushback from Trump over their decisions to shutdown schools and a point of contact for federal health officials.

State leaders were also given control over about $3 billion in coronavirus relief aid for education provided through the CARES Act. Many governors directed that funding to priorities like internet access for low-income students and protective equipment for teachers. Governors in Oklahoma and South Carolina drew both praise and criticism when they used a portion of that aid to support private school scholarships.

Why does this matter going forward? Congress and the White House have tried and failed to negotiate an additional relief package for months. The stalled talks have frustrated education advocates, but most agree more aid will come at some point. Governors will help oversee any additional funds directed toward schools, and they may have a hand in steering more general state aid toward education priorities.

States will also have a big hand in quickly administering millions of doses of a coronavirus vaccine when one wins federal approval. The current federal plan, which suggests educators and school employees may be among the first to receive the vaccine, puts states in charge of many logistical concerns with transporting, storing, and administering the injections.

In many states, governors also appoint state school board members and schools chiefs, which will play a big role in helping schools recover from rolling closures.

To watch:

  • In Montana, nominees for the open governor’s seat differ on how to control the spread of the virus. The Republican, Congressman Greg Gianforte, said in a recent debate that he would emphasize “personal responsibility” over state-level restrictions. His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, has said the state should “follow the science” on the issue.
  • Because of a change in state law, Indiana’s governor will have new power to appoint the state’s school chief. Raising teacher pay has also been a concern following teacher activism in the state in recent years, the Indianapolis Star reports.
  • In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has sparred with his challenger, Republican Lt. Gov. Governor Dan Forest, over COVID mitigation strategies, including masks and closures of schools and businesses, WECT News reports.

Legislatures and Education Funding

Control of state legislatures mattered greatly for schools well before the pandemic. In recent years, they’ve shaped responses to waves of teacher activism over pay, pensions, and school resources.

Now, they will be asked to make hard choices about education spending, and possible additional future cuts, if state revenues don’t rebound. Forty-four states have legislative races this year.

Nationally, Republicans currently control 58 state legislative chambers, while Democrats control 40 chambers, according to the Cook Political Report. That count doesn’t include Nebraska, which has a nonpartisan unicameral legislature. In the case of a “genuine blue wave,” bolstered by interest at the top of the ticket, Democrats could net control of six states, Cook forecasts. That may shape their states’ responses to the pandemic.

To watch: The 74 has a roundup of teachers running for state legislative seats.

State Education Chiefs and Boards

Four states have state school superintendent seats on the ballot: Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Washington. Those races all coincide with governors’ races in those states.

A tour of local news coverage shows states’ virus response strategies have played a key role in those contests. For example:

  • In Washington, challenger Maia Espinoza has criticized incumbent Chris Reykdal and called for looser recommendations on reopening schools.
  • In Montana, incumbent Elsie Arntzen has said schools need stable leadership and that it would be a mistake to change leaders in the middle of a crisis, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports. Challenger Melissa Romano has criticized her for a lack of leadership.

Nine states and Washington, D.C., also have races for state board members this year, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Ballot Issues

Voters in three states will consider big education-related ballot questions:

  • In Arizona, voters will consider raising income taxes for the highest earners to boost school funding. As Education Week reported this week, debate over the issue has paralleled national discussions about income inequality and how to best support schools.
  • In Washington, voters will consider a ballot measure that would make comprehensive sex education mandatory in all schools, giving families the choice of opting their students out. As we reported recently, states operate under a patchwork of varying policies related to sex education.
  • In California, voters will consider a measure that would restore affirmative action in the state, “meaning universities and government offices could factor in someone’s race, gender or ethnicity in making hiring, spending and admissions decisions,” Cal Matters reports. Proposition 16 would repeal Proposition 209, another measure that was approved by voters in 1996, which created a state-level constitutional ban on affirmative action.

Photo: Finley Vong, 3, is held up by her mother, Tiffany Anderson, so the child can drop her mother’s ballot into a drop box Wednesday in Seattle. --Elaine Thompson/AP

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