The results of the 2022 midterm elections are poised to impact the nation’s education politics, especially at the state and local levels, with K-12 at the heart of some of the most contentious issues on voters’ minds and in candidates’ platforms.
From Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s push for parental rights in Florida to Wisconsin Democrat Gov. Tony Evers’s background as a champion of public education, the candidates elected on Tuesday represented stark divides in education policy.
This year, debates over schools’ role in teaching students about gender, sexuality, and race fueled the campaigns of candidates across the country in contests for governor, state superintendent, state boards of education, and local school boards.
For candidates on the conservative side, that often meant promoting their conception of parents’ rights, along with school choice, and restrictions on how issues including race, gender, and sexuality are taught and approached in schools. Candidates on the more-liberal side, by contrast, were apt to champion issues such as teacher pay increases, greater mental health supports for students, and support for LGBTQ students.
“We are continuing to see the culture wars playing out” around K-12 education, said Sarah Hill, a political science professor and education policy expert at California State University, Fullerton. “In general, how are we going to talk about race? How are we going to talk about gender and sexual orientation? … What books are appropriate? What should be taught in sex ed? How much control do parents have?”
Many Republican candidates in governor and state superintendent races proposed expanding school choice with vouchers and scholarship accounts that would give public dollars to families hoping to enroll in private schools, and pushed parent “bill of rights” proposals that would allow parents to formally review and approve or reject curriculum, learning materials, and books.
COVID and the mass switch to remote schooling “lit the spark” on parents’ rights movements, leading to a philosophical debate for school leaders and policymakers, Hill said. While most people can agree that parent involvement in education is important in many ways, schools are ultimately institutions that serve a larger purpose of preparing students for society, she said.
“It creates this really interesting tension of what parents want versus a more democratic, social need for schools and a purpose they have there,” Hill said. “And it’s playing out in really interesting ways.”
Local school boards, especially, have become the target for parents’ rights and other cultural issues. In states dominated at the congressional and state level by one political party or another, political activists often can find more success with elections like the school board, Hill said.
But if local leaders aren’t in agreement with state lawmakers it can lead to more divisions surrounding school issues, with state lawmakers proposing mandates to enact greater control over what’s happening in local classrooms, Hill said.
“We’re down a dangerous path,” she said. “Where do we turn to make this better, how do we stop these culture wars? I don’t have a good answer there. That’s what’s concerning.”
To help educators and school leaders understand what the 2022 midterms mean for K-12 policy, this Education Week election guide highlights issues that resonated across multiple states and districts, as well as selected campaign battles that are bound to affect K-12 schools..
Voters across the country cast their ballots for governor, state superintendent, school board, and ballot measures that will impact K-12 education policy. Here are some specific contests, ballot proposals to watch, and context on the races as the 2022 midterm elections make their impact.
Click on a topic below to explore races by category.
Voters in Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming chose who would represent the state’s top education job—state superintendent—Tuesday.
State superintendents are tasked with leading state education departments, which develop policies and programs for local schools, manage federal and state funding allocations, help local schools navigate emergency response, and advocate for the state education system’s needs.
While some state superintendents are appointed by governors or state boards of education, a handful are able to run for the position in either partisan or nonpartisan elections.
Some of the races were more contentious than others. Here are the states where the results are poised to have the greatest impact on K-12 schools.
Results of the Arizona superintendent race were neck-and-neck as of Wednesday afternoon. Republican candidate Tom Horne was in the lead with 50.2 percent of the vote to Democratic incumbent Kathy Hoffman’s 49.8 percent, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s unofficial election results.
Read about the candidates, who represent a stark divide on education policy, below.
Republican nominee Debbie Critchfield secured the victory for Idaho’s superintendent of public instruction Tuesday with 69.67 percent of the vote, according to the unofficial election results provided by the Idaho Department of Education. Her Democratic opponent, Terry Gilbert, trailed behind with 30.3 percent of the vote.
Read about Critchfield’s education policy below.
Ellen Weaver, the CEO of a conservative think tank, won South Carolina’s state superintendent election Tuesday night with 55.57 percent of the vote to her Democratic opponent Lisa Ellis’s 42.7 percent of the vote, according to the South Carolina unofficial election results.
Weaver made headlines after winning the Republican primary for the state superintendent position because she lacked a master’s degree, one of the state’s qualifications for the position. She earned her degree from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., in October.
Read more about Weaver’s plans for South Carolina education and how she compared to Ellis below.
Education was a point of contention in the 36 races for governor this year. From establishing a Parents Bill of Rights and banning transgender student participation in sports to raising teacher pay and spending public funds on mental health resources, candidates across all races pushed to win over educators and parents.
In many cases, priorities fell along party lines. Republicans on the most extreme end of the spectrum hoped to ban critical race theory, give parents more control over school curriculum and “put God back into our schools,” as Jim Pillen, the Republican governor-elect in Nebraska, put it in the priorities listed on his website.
Democrats, meanwhile, focused their attention on pandemic recovery efforts, often calling for more funds to hire social workers and counselors, pushing for “grow your own” and apprenticeship programs to solve teacher pipeline concerns, and establishing equitable funding for schools with higher populations of students of color.
Governors in 15 states have the job of appointing the superintendent or education commissioner, and all governors have the ability to veto or sign state education bills into law. Here are the races expected to impact education in a major way:
DeSantis drew attention for his parents’ rights, anti-critical race theory, and anti-LGBTQ policies that have caused a ripple effect in conservative circles across the country. Read more about his Crist’s plans for education policy below.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis secured his second term in Florida on Tuesday with 59.4 percent of the vote. His opponent, former governor, Charlie Crist, a Democrat, secured 39.96 percent of the vote.
Democrat Josh Shapiro secured the win for The Pennsylvania governor on Tuesday with 55.82 percent of the vote to his opponent Republican Doug Mastriano’s 42.4 percent, according to the Pennsylvania unofficial election results.
Shapiro’s win was also a win for proponents of public education funding as Mastriano stated that he would have cut school funding by one-third if elected.
As governor, Shapiro will have the power to nominate a secretary of education for approval by the state Senate. Read more about Shapiro and Mastriano’s plans for the position below.
State Boards of Education
Candidates competed for 51 state board of education seats across nine states in November.
According to the Education Commission of the States, governors in 24 states appoint all members of the board of education. The remaining state boards are either partially appointed by the governor, appointed by the state legislature, or elected.
This year, Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, Utah, and the District of Columbia all held elections for state boards of education. Most states had four or five seats open, while Utah had eight seats and Texas had all 15 up for election.
Board of education powers vary from state to state with states like Alabama giving them “general supervision of the public schools” and states like Colorado assigning more specific duties, such as ensuring graduation requirements align with workforce and postsecondary education readiness and appointing a state commissioner of education, according to the ECS.
Local School Boards
At least 373 school districts had or will have elections in 2022, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit dedicated to providing an encyclopedia of elections in the U.S. The organization tracks school board elections by looking at districts in the 100 largest cities by population and the 200 largest districts by student enrollment. Of those 373 elections, 271 will happen in November or December.
With the pandemic causing major disruptions to education, it appears that more parents and community members are putting themselves up for school board, said John Heim, the executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, who did not quantify the trend.
“One of the things that came out of the pandemic was a lot of school boards started televising, or Zooming, their board meetings,” Heim said. “It became a lot easier for parents and community members to get engaged and learn a lot more about what school boards were doing.”
Voters chose to support ballot initiatives that meant more funding for public schools on Election Day.
Ballot initiativestend to ask voters to approve changes to taxes to increase school funding. Here is how the results of the ballot initiatives shook out:
- California (Passed ✔️): Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 28, the Art and Music K-12 Education Funding Initiative, with 61.6 percent of voters casting ballots in favor of the initiative, according to the California Secretary of State. The measure asked California voters to approve annual minimum funding of 1 percent of required state and local funds for schools to go toward arts and music education. The measure is expected to increase the number of arts and music educators in California classrooms by more than 50 percent, according to the proposition.
- Colorado (Passed ✔️): Proposition FF, the Reduce Income Tax Deduction Caps to Fund School Meals Program Measure, passed with 55 percent of the vote in favor, according to the Colorado Secretary of State. The measure creates and funds the state’s Healthy School Meals for All Program by reducing income tax deduction capacity limits. The program allows all students to eat for free regardless of financial status.
- Idaho (Passed ✔️): A question on the Idaho ballot received overwhelming support with 79.8 percent of the vote on Tuesday. The question asked voters to approve House Bill 1, which would generate $410 million in sales tax revenue for the state’s public school income and in-demand careers funds by changing income and corporate tax rates to a flat 5.8 percent. The ballot measure replaced an earlier measure, which would have increased the income tax rate for individuals who make above $250,000 a year to fund K-12 schools.
- Massachusetts (Passed ✔️): Question 1 on the Massachusetts ballot asked votersto create a 4 percent tax on incomes exceeding $1 million to fund education and transportation. The question passed on Wednesday with 52 percent of the vote in favor.
- New Mexico (Both measures passed ✔️): Both of New Mexico’s two ballot measures passed on Tuesday. The first, a proposed constitutional amendment that would appropriate funds from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to support early-childhood education programs, passed with 70 percent of the vote in favor. The second, which would issue nearly $216 million in bonds for public higher education institutions, special public schools, and tribal schools, passed with 61 percent of the vote.
- West Virginia (Rejected ❌): Fifty-eight percent of West Virginia voters voted against a measure that would require the state’s board of education to submit any proposed rules to the state legislature for approval.
From critical race theory to student mental health, candidates confronted divisive and sensitive education issues as they sought to win over voters, especially parents.
Click on a topic below to jump to that section.
Critical race theory
Critical race theory, an academic concept that argues race is a social construct embedded in legal systems and policies, remained a top concern for conservative political candidates, many of whom argued it is leading to political indoctrination.
Four of the six Republican nominees for state superintendent explicitly mention preventing critical race theory from being taught in schools on their campaign websites, and nine gubernatorial nominees, all of them Republicans, have stated that preventing critical race theory is a top priority.
The fear over the potential implications of curriculum based on critical race theory have led to a slew of state laws limiting conversations about race in the classroom, but there has been little evidence the academy theory is being taught in K-12 schools.
While Republican candidates used the topic as a major campaign tool, Democrats decided not to touch it. Instead, many Democrat candidates made more-vague promises to prevent “politically-motivated punishment” for teachers, as Lisa Ellis, the Democrat Candidate for South Carolina’s Superintendent Race, said on her website.
Debates over LGTBQ students’ rights and curriculum seeped into the November general election.
Over the past two years, state lawmakers have proposed or passed at least 30 bills limiting discussions of gender identity and sexuality in the classroom, preventing transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, and not allowing students to go by their chosen pronouns or names.
Candidates reflected the fervor over LGBTQ students’ rights in their campaigns. Eight Democrat governor nominees, including Jared Polis in Colorado, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Beto O’Rouke in Texas, specifically mentioned protecting LGBTQ people, especially youth, on campaign websites. Two state superintendent nominees, Democrats Lisa Ellis in South Carolina and Kathy Hoffman in Arizona, pledged to support LGBTQ students and ensure their safety in schools.
Meanwhile, six Republican nominees for governor, including Jim Pillen in Nebraska, Ron DeSantis in Florida, and Kristi Noem in South Dakota, stated plans to prevent transgender students from using restrooms, locker rooms, or playing sports consistent with their gender identity.
On Sept. 20, Tudor Dixon, the Republican nominee for governor in Michigan, called for the resignation of Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice, after the state’s Department of Education provided training to teachers that said educators aren’t required to inform parents about their children’s sexuality or preferred pronouns, according to reporting from MLive.
“Somewhere along the way radical political activists decided that our schools are laboratories for their social experiments and our children are their lab rats,” Dixon said during a Sept. 20 press conference. Dixon lost to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday.
School choice remained a top concern for candidates on both ends of the political spectrum with Republicans advocating for scholarships and vouchers for private schools, and Democrats arguing public school funds should remain in public schools.
Nineteen gubernatorial nominees, all Republicans, expressed plans on their websites to expand school choice. They specifically mentioned implementing a voucher program that would redirect public funds into scholarships for private schools.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia already have school voucher programs, while six states have Education Spending Account programs, and 19 states offer scholarship tax credits, according to the ECS.
In states like Arizona, where students already have access school choice programs like the Empowerment Scholarship Account, Republicans planned to take school choice a step further. If elected, the Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake would implement a program to allow students to mix courses from multiple schools, giving students the power to attend one school for competitive athletics and take courses at another school with more rigorous academics. The Arizona governor election remained too close to call on Wednesday.
A handful of Democrats in both governor and state superintendent races explicitly mentioned preventing school choice measures like vouchers. Georgia governor nominee Stacey Abrams stated on her campaign website that she opposes private school vouchers, arguing that “public dollars should go to public schools.” And Idaho state superintendent nominee Terry Gilbert promised on his website that he will “never give into the Voucher Vultures and their for-profit school scheme.” Both Abrams and Gilbert lost their elections.
Candidates on all sides of the political spectrum expressed concerns about the pandemic’s impact on student learning, but their strategies to address those issues varied.
Math and reading scores among 9-year-olds plummeted in 2022, the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Long-Term Trend test data show. Many candidates used academic declines to bolster their arguments for policies such as school vouchers, increased funding, and curriculum changes.
Republican candidates hoped to address that issue by promoting school choice offerings, which they argued will unlock greater opportunities for students, and blaming Democrats for closing schools to in-person learning during the pandemic.
Democrats promised to expand early-childhood education and create more opportunities for after-school and summer learning.
School funding has historically been a point of contention in elections with Democrats pushing to increase funding for schools and Republicans often arguing that schools aren’t spending money effectively.
This year’s election is no different, as 25 governor nominees and seven contenders for state superintendent argued for increased funding for schools on campaign websites. Of the governor nominees, 20 are Democrats, who often advocate for increases to state per-pupil funds. Five of the seven superintendent nominees are Democrats as well.
While a handful of Republicans, five Democratic nominees, and two state superintendent nominees, argued for increased funding for public schools, the vast majority hoped to evaluate school funding practices and redirect funds to support school choice initiatives.
After the pandemic drove an increased interest in how schools operate, parents have landed at the center of political campaign strategies.
Eleven Republican governor nominees and three Republican state superintendent nominees vowed to protect parents’ rights in schools. For some of the candidates, including Idaho state superintendent nominee Debbie Critchfield and Minnesota gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen, that means establishing a “Parents Bill of Rights,” giving parents the power to review and express opinions on curriculum, learning materials, and books used in school.
While they aren’t going so far as to recommend parents’ rights policies, Democrats have placed some focus on building parent and family partnerships in schools and bridging political divides between teachers and families.
The focus on parental rights extends a theme that factored heavily in the election of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2021. The Republican used parental anger over schools’ handling of the pandemic to his advantage, stoking divisions between educators and parents, his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, said at the time.
School safety and security was a topic of intense concern in communities around the country, especially in the wake of the May 24 school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers. An Education Week review of campaign websites showed that 14 of the gubernatorial nominees and four state superintendent nominees mentioned increasing school safety. Ten of the 14 governor nominees are Republicans while three of the four superintendent nominees are Democrats.
Solutions for school safety issues tend to vary and aren’t often falling along political lines. For example, Richard Woods, the Republican incumbent nominee for state superintendent in Georgia, plans to increase the presence of school resource officers and mental health resources in schools, while also securing school buildings and providing more safety training to school officials. Woods’ opponent Alisha Searcy, a Democrat, also wants to provide resources to hire SROs, secure school facilities, and provide mental health and trauma support to students.
Sarah Hill, an education policy and political science expert with California State University, Fullerton, said she’s surprised that school safety hasn’t played a larger part in this election cycle.
“Nobody is against school safety, of course, everybody wants school safety, but there is a disagreement on how to achieve that and what it means,” Hill said. “I find it interesting that after Uvalde I’m not seeing more of that. It’s there a little bit, for sure, but I’m surprised it’s not a bigger issue.”
While Republicans are focusing much of their campaign efforts on parents, Democrats made teachers and their issues central in their campaigns.
Twenty-three nominees for governor and seven state superintendent nominees argued for raising teacher pay on their websites. Most of those —18 of them for governor and four for state superintendent candidates—are Democrats, who also widely support efforts to improve the teacher pipeline and address shortages in their communities.
Outside of raising teacher pay, some of the solutions Democrats and some Republicans proposed included establishing statewide “grow your own” and apprenticeship programs, recruiting teachers from rural areas, and partnering with colleges and universities to create more robust teacher preparation programs.
Democrats also expressed support for teacher unions, while Republicans hoped to limit teachers’ union powers through legislation.
Student mental health, community schools, and social-emotional learning have all become popular solutions to education problems since the start of the pandemic.
Both Republicans and Democrats expressed desires to improve student mental health. Sixteen governor nominees—11 Democrats and five Republicans —mentioned supporting mental health on their campaign websites. Six state superintendent candidates—including four Democrats, one Republican, and a nonpartisan candidate—expressed the same.
Democrats’ solutions for student well-being typically involve expanding the pipeline of mental health professionals, social workers, and school nurses. Meanwhile, Republicans aim to address mental health as a solution for school safety and school shooting prevention. Democrats also advocated for programs that promote social-emotional learning, an effort to build skills such as resilience, compassion, and goal-setting for students. The term social-emotional learning has become caught up in anti-CRT controversy.
Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Election Guide 2022: K-12 Issues and Candidates Shaping the Midterms