COVID-19’s Turmoil Could Make Schools a Potent Election Issue

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 20, 2020 11 min read
Doug Milks disinfects voting booths after their use in Madison, Wis., as voters cast ballots in the state's presidential primary election earlier this spring. School closures, K-12 funding, and other issues stemming from the coronavirus pandemic may force education to the forefront as a topic in this November’s elections nationally.
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Often pushed into the shadows on the national political scene, education could become a significant election issue this year in a way that was virtually unthinkable at the start of 2020, taking center stage due to the massive disruption of the nation’s schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Donald Trump and others already are arguing forcefully for schools, which play a key role in the economy, to reopen as soon as possible, while Democrats are previewing a strategy of pinning a potentially tumultuous school reopening on the Trump administration.

Teachers’ unions in particular are strategizing about how to influence the political landscape and highlight the needs of their members as well as schools, without overreaching and squandering leverage. With advocates calling for billions of dollars in additional aid to cover new virus-related costs next year, education funding, or the lack of it, could become front-page news in an unprecedented way.

And just as pleas for additional support from health-care workers in the earliest stages of the pandemic resonated with many members of the public, frustrations among educators on the ground could carry weight in election contests later this year.

All these and broader circumstances, like whether some schools reopen only to close again if the coronavirus has a resurgence, could factor into voters’ desires and fears when they head to the polls.

See Also: Map: Coronavirus and School Closures

In blunter terms—echoing Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical test for the 1980 presidential election—will voters decide they’re better off than they were a few years ago if they’re unable to send their children to school, or if schools have quite literally become a remote part of students’ lives?

Yet there’s no guarantee that that such newfound political attention to schools would lead to major changes for issues of equity in education, such as the vast gulf in internet access between rich and poor students that’s become especially prominent during the pandemic.

“Those people who are mainly affected by those things are weak in our political system,” said Paul Manna, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary, who studies education policy and politics. “Maybe the country will learn these things about the way these systems work.”

Pointing Fingers Amid Turmoil

The state of the economy could easily dominate voters’ minds this fall. But there’s at least a little evidence that education could play a role too.

In a nationwide survey this spring by the parent-advocacy group Learning Heroes of more than 3,600 public school parents, “School closures/changes will have a negative impact on your child’s education” or “Too much screen-time for your child” were cited as concerns more often than “Being able to pay the bills.” Whether these parents will turn up at the polls or mounting unpaid bills override other worries, remains to be seen.

No matter what Washington does, state and local officials will still have most of the financial and legal power over whether schools reopen and how they operate. Governors have been the ones who have shut down schools to try to contain the pandemic, and they’ll be the ones who will shut them down again if another coronavirus wave hits the country.

But by one measure, the impact of school disruptions on elections may not be as big as it might have been in a different election cycle. That’s because there are just 11 gubernatorial elections this November, compared with the 36 that took place in 2018.

And there are no gubernatorial elections in some of the states hit hardest by the pandemic like Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. In Washington state, arguably the first that faced a prominent and significant outbreak of the coronavirus, schools are shut for the rest of the academic year. But those developments still may not spell the end for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s seeking reelection to an office Democrats have held since 1985.

Still, the 2020 presidential election promises to overshadow many races and influence a host of down ballot contests. Trump has repeatedly pushed schools to reopen and stressed his view that children are relatively immune from COVID-19’s effects, although he’s also encouraged older teachers to stay home even when school buildings reopen. By contrast, the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, in March called for additional money to help schools provide remote learning and other services.

The political prominence of education in the presidential election also is likely to be affected by how much money the federal government provides to schools, many of which are on the brink of massive cuts in state aid.

Schools will need a $70 billion infusion from the federal government in each of the next three years to avoid major cuts that involve moves like laying off teachers, according to one projection published last month by the Learning Policy Institute, an education research and policy group. That cumulative figure of $210 billion would be more than double the amount K-12 and higher education received in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

If Washington’s education relief turns out to be relatively meager, “You can bet that Biden will point that out,” said Douglas N. Harris, professor and chair of economics at Tulane University. “You can bet they will hang that over their heads when the cuts start in places like Wisconsin and Michigan. … Republicans are going to realize that this would be disastrous for them, not just in the presidential election but in the down-ballot elections as well.”

So far, Congress has directed roughly $13 billion in direct aid for local school districts and state education departments, with another $3 billion provided to governors for K-12 and higher education.

Yet the Trump administration is far from alone in pushing for schools to be relatively aggressive about reopening; Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, recently said he expects schools to open their doors in the fall, although he has also underscored the need for testing to be broadly available to help make that happen.

So what’s the political strategy for Trump and other Republicans if that doesn’t occur or falters?

For Derrell Bradford, the executive vice president for the education advocacy group 50CAN, the answer is pretty straightforward: “The first thing you would do is blame the governors. … You lay it right at the governor’s feet.” That could be a particularly appealing option for Trump since the governors of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are all Democrats; Trump has already made headlines for his war of words with Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

What might be most effective for many politicians is to cast themselves as champions of a “return to what we knew” and make a resumption of normal school operations and activities part of their pitch to anxious voters, Bradford said. From presidential candidates to local school board candidates, he said, there will also be tremendous power in appealing to how important teachers in particular are in a political context.

One of the two national teachers’ unions is test-driving its own pandemic-themed message that draws on this sentiment, although for now it doesn’t have a sharp political edge.

The National Education Association, which is America’s largest labor union and endorsed Biden in March, launched a nationwide ad campaign called “School is Where the Heart is” that is slated to run through the end of May. It focuses on the importance of public schools and of educators, and how the latter “need our support more than ever before.”

This public-relations push technically is focused on a coronavirus relief bill from House Democrats—not any candidate or election—that includes nearly $1 billion in aid for state and local governments and close to $60 billion specifically for school districts.

However, four of the five cities where the ads are slated to run—Phoenix, Denver, Augusta, Me., and Raleigh, N.C.—are in presidential swing states, feature tight U.S. Senate campaigns, or both. (The NEA ad campaign is also running in Washington, D.C.)

‘Abject Failure’ to Help Schools

It’s also easy to find more-aggressive political messages that focus on disruptions to schools, including in presidential swing states.

In a virtual conference in early May focused on Trump, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and how their decisions about the pandemic were hurting Michigan’s schools, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said the president—not governors or leaders lower down the ladder— should take the blame if schools remain closed or struggle to resume normal operations due to a lack of testing and aggressive tracing of the disease.

“That’s how we get back to school faster,” Perez said. “This president has exacerbated the crisis.”

Perez made sure to praise Republican as well as Democratic governors for their response to the pandemic. But in response to a reporter’s question, he dismissed the idea that “if we are unable to open up our schools again, it’s somehow a failure locally when you’ve had this abject failure of the federal government to lead.”

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are keen to point out what they see as an excess of caution at the state level.

In a May 5 interview with a Pittsburgh affiliate of CBS, Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican, blasted state Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera (who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf) for saying that there was uncertainty about a return to in-person instruction on a normal schedule next year.

Turzai called such comments “outrageous” and said that they created “anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.”

“His attitude is a ‘can’t-do’ attitude. It needs to be a ‘can-do’ attitude,” Turzai said, highlighting several ways he said schools can open safely while relying on social distancing. “We have to open the schools safely by Labor Day, period.” (About a week after Turzai’s comments, Rivera said that “we fully expect to come back to school in the fall,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.)

Leverage and Caution

Meanwhile, education issues that only occasionally breached the surface of presidential politics in the past, such as charter schools, could quickly fall off the horizon. Some of them never gained any traction this election cycle. And Manna argued that unlike in previous years when demands grew for officials to dump the No Child Left Behind Act, for example, there’s not a lot of “pent-up demand” for aggressive policy solutions that don’t involve focusing on urgent needs related to COVID-19.

Yet that doesn’t rule out political implications for the current system long term, said David Winston, a Republican pollster and policy analyst. That’s because, he said, the struggles many schools faced in transitioning to nontraditional instruction during a pandemic “also shows a fundamental weakness that existed within the education system.” As a comparison, it’s unclear to what extent education will be able to shift models the way health professionals have with telemedicine, he noted.

“The larger the social disruption, the more willingness there is among some individuals to create a positive change,” Winston said. “If other people don’t have answers, then those solutions potentially become the change.”

And voters are going to be skeptical of answers that have an explicit political cast, he added: “Parents are not going to want to hear, ‘Look at how the other side is wrong.’ They want to hear what it is you have in mind in terms of making it work.”

These are potentially difficult waters for teachers’ unions to navigate.

On the one hand, Bradford said, they have “enormous leverage at the bargaining table, and enormous political leverage” because of their ability to demand more safety measures before educators come back to work.

On the other hand, if unions try to use that leverage too forcefully while police and health-care workers go out every day and put themselves more directly at risk, Bradford said, “There could be blowback.”

So how to handle that kind of political balancing act?

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said her union focused on getting a reopening strategy published early, and is now working on making it a reality. Doing that hard work and occupying the political ground where most people are—seeking a safe reopening of the economy—will in turn create helpful political capital for her union, she said.

“In some ways, I thank the right wing for making us prepare for Janus,” Weingarten said, referring to the landmark 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 that represented a significant blow for unions and their finances. “We learned something really important. We learned how to reconnect in a broad way with our members and our community.”

Labor actions like strikes driven by concerns about COVID-19 should only be considered in this context, Weingarten added, if proper safety measures aren’t implemented after long-term efforts to put them in place.

Connecting With Voters

For education and other groups doing political work this year, Manna said, the daily and small-scale activities that can define politicians’ careers are going to change or diminish, right down to backyard barbecues where candidates can press the flesh.

“Think about all the events candidates hold to raise money,” he said. “They’re just not going to be able to do that” in the same way.

Not all the lifeblood for campaigns will dry up, he said. One traditional method of voter outreach (phone banking) will take up some of the burden, Manna noted, along with a more-modern approach (social media).

And despite major shifts in the normal cycle of politics, such as the AFT’s decision to make its annual convention in July a virtual one, Weingarten said her union is confident more-traditional methods of political outreach will survive even if flashier events don’t.

“People will be able to knock on doors with masks on,” Weingarten said. “I find that type of connection is more important than big rallies anyway. … Any kind of one-to-one communication is really more important and more effective.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2020 edition of Education Week as COVID-19’s Turmoil Could Make Education a Top-Tier Issue in the 2020 Election


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