The results of today’s midterm elections—which are expected to reflect voters’ frustration with the protracted economic downturn and wariness in many quarters about the role of government—could have major implications for the direction of federal education policy, the implementation of key state K-12 initiatives, and education spending at all levels.
Education is rarely a deciding issue in elections, aside from specialized offices such as state and local school boards and superintendents. But this year, K-12 policy got more attention than usual because it was linked to the still-struggling economy, said David Winston, the president of the Winston Group, a Washington polling firm that works for Republican candidates.
“Increased concern about education is directly related to the workforce,” he said. Business owners and voters are anxious that the country’s schools aren’t preparing students for the new, service-oriented economy, he said.
Still, there remains a “constant tension between people wanting education to be purely a local issue, versus this national concern about how we’re doing vis-à-vis other countries,” he added.
At the congressional level, most analysts expect that Republicans will win enough seats to gain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, where all members are up for re-election, and significantly bolster their margins in the Senate, where 37 seats are up for grabs.
Thirty-seven governors’ races will also be decided on election day, as will seven state schools superintendents’ contests. Eleven states, plus the District of Columbia, are also hosting board of education races.
The winners of those contests will also be working with state legislative chambers that have gone through a significant churn: 6,115 legislative seats are on the ballot in regular elections in 46 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan research group in Denver. Sixty state legislative chambers are currently controlled by Democrats, 36 are held by Republicans, and two are evenly split.
As at the federal level, the GOP is widely expected to make gains in governors’ and state legislative races.
Historically speaking, partisan turnover is not unusual in midterm elections. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the party controlling the White House has lost state legislative seats in all but two, according to the NCSL. One of those anomalies came during 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was promoting the New Deal in an attempt to pull the nation out of the Great Depression. The other occurred in 2002, during George W. Bush’s presidency, the year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Spending was a major issue this election season in both state and federal contests. Republican congressional candidates have attacked Democratic incumbents for supporting the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the federal economic-stimulus program, which provided some $100 billion for education.
In a “Pledge to America” outlining their governance plan, House GOP leaders said they would like to return federal spending to fiscal 2008 levels, the year before Congress approved the stimulus and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a rescue package for Wall Street.
And while the pledge doesn’t specifically reference education, many GOP congressional candidates have emphasized local control in their K-12 platforms.
Several Senate candidates, backed by the tea party movement—which is independent but has been supportive of many fiscally, and in some cases, socially conservative Republicans—have gone much further, proposing to scrap the U.S. Department of Education entirely.
Such candidates include Ken Buck, a lawyer and the Republican nominee in Colorado. Mr. Buck is challenging Sen. Michael Bennet, the former Denver schools chief and a key ally of the Obama administration on K-12 policy. Mr. Bennet has backed such policies as incentive pay for teachers and charter schools.
Other GOP candidates who would like to get rid of the department include Nevada’s Sharron Angle, who is running against Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader; and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, a physician who is expected to win his race against Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee and state attorney general.
During a debate last month, Mr. Paul said he thinks his education stance, including his opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act, will help him win over teachers, who he says typically back Democratic candidates.
“No Child Left Behind was a huge mistake,” Mr. Paul said, referring to the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which significantly beefed up the federal role in school accountability. “Interestingly, teachers hate it ... Many teachers will hear that I’m opposed to No Child Left Behind, and I’m opposed to Washington dictating what you do in your classrooms, and I think we’ll actually get quite a bit of the teacher vote this time around.”
Meanwhile, some Democratic senators with long records on education issues are also locked in tough races, including Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a champion of education funding who has introduced a comprehensive literacy bill; and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who has been a prominent critic of the NCLB law.
A handful of Democratic incumbents on the House Education and Labor Committee also face tough re-election bids, including Rep. Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire, who has called the NCLB law “a large unfunded mandate [with] some unreasonable requirements”; Rep. Phil Hare of Illinois, who has helped look out for the needs of rural schools; and Rep. Tim Bishop of New York, a former college president with expertise on postsecondary issues. If the GOP does take the House, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, would likely become chairman of the panel.
Rep. Kline has expressed skepticism about core elements of President Barack Obama’s education agenda. For instance, he said in an interview this fall that he wouldn’t favor extending for an additional year the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, which rewards states for making progress on education redesign goals.
And he said that he wants to make sure that a portion of the stimulus-funded Race to the Top program that provided $350 million to 44 states to create more uniform, richer academic assessments doesn’t lead to a “national test.”
But Mr. Kline also said he and the administration see eye to eye on important issues, including the need to encourage the proliferation of high-quality charter schools and identify ways to reward effective teachers, and remove those that are ineffective.
The election is also expected to produce major political turnover at the state level, where much school policy is decided.
In recent weeks, candidates for governor and state superintendent have sought to separate themselves from their opponents on education and other issues through a flood of campaign advertisements and person-to-person debates.
In Florida, the two gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott, have taken very different positions on Senate Bill 6, legislation that would have tied teacher pay to student test scores, among other policies. That measure passed the state’s legislature this year, only to die with a stroke of Gov. Charlie Crist’s veto pen.
While Ms. Sink has publicly backed merit pay, she has blasted Senate Bill 6, saying that it would have weakened the authority of local governments over hiring decisions.
“If you look at the details and what the parents and the superintendents and the school board members actually knew that it was, it was a takeover by Tallahassee politicians and bureaucrats of local school-making decisions,” the Democrat said during an Oct. 25 debate with Mr. Scott. “Those decisions ought to be made locally. That was rightfully vetoed.”
But Mr. Scott, a former health-care executive who has vowed to push for school choice and charter school expansion, says he would have signed Senate Bill 6. He described it as an important tool for holding educators accountable for improving student achievement.
“We need to come up with a measuring program that’s fair to teachers,” he said at a public forum last month. “It’s got to be tied to how you move a child, an individual child, from this level to the next level. So it has to be achievement-based.”
In California, the gubernatorial race between former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman has drawn national attention. Ms. Whitman, a one-time chief executive officer of eBay who has poured at least $140 million of her own money into her campaign, has vowed to slash spending in the state, which has faced a series of budget crises over the years. Teachers’ unions fear she will cut K-12 budgets, and they have endorsed Mr. Brown.
The California ballot also includes an intriguing superintendent’s race, which pits Tom Torlakson, a Democratic state assemblyman, against Larry Aceves, a former teacher, principal, and school superintendent. Mr. Torlakson is backed by the state affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, while Mr. Aceves has the support of the Association of California School Administrators.
Mr. Aceves has said that school districts need to have more power to remove ineffective educators, recalling during a radio forum last week that when he was working as an administrator, it took him “over two years and $100,000 to fire one teacher.” But he also says principals should be held accountable for being “good instructional leaders” who can “build teams around them.”
“When I talk about accountability and evaluation, it is about all [employees]. It is about teachers, about principals, about superintendents, and about boards. The system isn’t just on the back of teachers,” said Mr. Aceves, who added: “There are too many teachers that ought not to be teaching, there are too many principals that we really need to either retrain or get rid of.”
Mr. Torlakson said he agreed that ineffective educators don’t belong in classrooms. But he also said principals and teachers need to work together in creating a fair system for evaluating teachers. Most principals can typically tell which teachers have the skills to get the job done, he said. The state needs to use that knowledge and observation and “get everybody at the table and hammer out a new accountability system,” he said.
Spending on the Ballot
Voters will also be considering a variety of state ballot initiatives. In past years, the initiative process gave voters a chance to weigh policy questions, such as whether their state should implement a voucher program. But this year, most of the initiatives center on spending.
Some are meant to generate revenue for K-12 in tough fiscal times. For instance, an initiative in Washington state seeks to raise taxes on the wealthiest individuals, lower other taxes, and direct any increased revenue to education and health.
But others would attempt to crack down on state spending, including a trio of Colorado initiatives that aim to significantly curtail state and local governments’ ability to borrow money and to collect revenue from property and income taxes, as well as fees.
And an initiative in Arizona would redirect funding set aside for early-childhood health and education services to the state’s general fund.
The initiative states that the money would be used for health and human-services programs for children, but opponents point out that there is no accountability mechanism to ensure that state lawmakers follow through on that.
Oklahoma voters, meanwhile, face a pair of dueling initiatives that could affect education funding. One would require the state’s per-pupil spending to match the average of other states in the region, including Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Texas.
A competing initiative, however, would put language in the state constitution explicitly stating that lawmakers can’t be required to spend a specified amount of money on a particular program or make spending decisions based on actions in other states.
And in Florida, voters are considering a ballot measure that would loosen a 2002 constitutional amendment dealing with class-size reduction. The new initiative, which state lawmakers put on the ballot and Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Association of School Administrators back, would raise the current law’s class-size caps and give schools more flexibility in implementing the law.
Opponents, including the state’s teachers’ union, argue it’s just a way to cut funding for schools.
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Election Stakes High for Education Policy, Spending