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How Election Results Will Shake Up State Education Policy

Turnover in Governors, Lawmakers May Affect Policy and Personnel
By Daarel Burnette II — November 26, 2018 6 min read
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There will be a new cast of characters overseeing state education policy in 2019—and many of them will be looking to shake things up to deliver on the many promises they made on the campaign trail in this year’s midterm elections.

New governors—many of them Democrats—are expected to propose ambitious budgets with new ways of funding their K-12 systems. The fresh crop of governors and state board members is likely to lead to big turnover of state schools superintendents in places where they’re appointed.

And states where one party or the other has new control of both the legislature and governorship, such as Democrats in Colorado, may use that momentum to push school accountability and other changes at a time when the Every Student Succeeds Act gives them greater policy authority.

“States are going to be more important than ever before,” said Kristen Amundson, the president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education. “There is less likelihood that there will be a single message from the feds to states. But state by state, you’ll see important education policy decisions being made next year.”

Democratic Gains

Democrats picked up seven governors’ seats and seven legislative chambers in this year’s elections. In January, 23 states will have Democratic governors and 27 states will have Republican governors. Eighteen states’ legislatures will be completely controlled by Democrats, 30 state legislatures will be controlled by Republicans, and only one state legislature—Minnesota’s—will be split. (Nebraska’s legislature is nonpartisan.)

Amundson predicted there will be almost two dozen new appointed and elected state education chiefs taking charge in the next six months.

Already in recent weeks, winners of the 2018 election were preparing for the new year when the legislature gets into full swing. Budgets were being crafted, staff hired, and many senior legislators were jockeying to be placed on high-profile education committees.

The biggest changes, following the many strikes this past spring over teachers’ pay and working conditions, will likely come in the ways that schools are funded.

While the economy is thriving overall, schools in some states are still financially struggling, the result of ballooning pension costs, outdated school funding formulas, and limited revenues.

Kansas’ Gov.-elect Laura Kelly told local media shortly after her upset victory over Republican Kris Kobach, the secretary of state, that she will push to reinstate teachers’ rights to due process before getting fired, a measure former Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, eliminated in 2014. She will also be tasked with coming up with as much as $100 million to answer a state supreme court decision that the state’s K-12 spending leaves its schools inadequately funded. (The state is predicting a $300 million increase in revenue next year.)

Taking the Reins

Wisconsin’s governor-elect, Tony Evers, will be looking to pass a $1.4 billion budget that provides tens of millions more for that state’s public school districts, many of which are losing hundreds of students a year. Evers said shortly after being elected that he will wait until the last minute to resign his post as state superintendent so that he will be able to appoint his own predecessor.

In Colorado, Jared Polis, a Democratic congressman who just won that state’s gubernatorial election, received some heat from several teachers in the state after he appointed Jen Walmer, director of Democrats for Education Reform, to his transition team. The group was denounced during the state Democratic Party’s convention this year for its full-throated support of charter schools. Colorado’s teachers’ union backed his opponent in the primary, specifically for Polis’ previous support for charter schools and vouchers.

During this year’s election season, Polis also refused to take a stance on controversial Amendment 73, which—had it passed—would have raised the state’s income tax on some residents in order to bring $1.6 billion annually to the state’s public schools. In his victory speech, he said he will work to find a solution to the public school systems’ chronic funding crisis. That will be made easier now that the state is fully controlled by Democrats (the state’s legislature has been divided since 2010), though any new revenue stream will have to be approved by voters.

Other states could also attempt to exploit new single-party control of their state legislature. Education policy saw some of its most sweeping changes in 2016 when Republicans in 32 states had full control of both chambers and the governor’s seat.

In New York, for example, many are predicting the state’s legislature, which as of January will be fully controlled by Democrats for the first time in several years, will attempt to reign in that state’s charter school growth.

Legislative Control

In other states, Democrats could use legislative control in order to change their state’s accountability system.

New Mexico’s teachers have long pushed to make fundamental changes to their evaluation and school accountability systems, but were stymied by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her appointed secretary of education, Hanna Skandera, who pushed for rapid change in the way the state holds schools accountable.

Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democrat who won this year’s election for governor, promised on the campaign trail to make wholesale changes to the way that state funds schools and holds them accountable.

“Gone are the days where anyone talks about New Mexico not being in first place—gone,” Lujan Grisham said in a rousing acceptance speech, according to local reports. “We’re going to transform our public education system.”

In other states, though party control won’t change, legislatures will look to make change because of agitated teachers and district superintendents.

Texas’ district superintendents over the last two years have been complaining about a letter-grade accountability system that they say oversimplifies school quality in the state. The legislature could finally put that debate to rest during its 2019 biennial session.

And Tennessee’s district superintendents have been complaining for years about the state’s botched testing system, which its teacher evaluation and school ranking systems rely on.

Bill Lee, the Republican who just won the state’s gubernatorial election, said he will use feedback given to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam’s statewide listening tour in order to find a replacement testing system next year.

Not there to oversee whatever the state legislature decides will be Candice McQueen, who resigned her post as education commissioner shortly after the election.

McQueen is likely to be one of the first of several high-profile education chief turnovers in the coming months.

In Arizona, Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat last week eked out a win against Republican candidate Frank Riggs. While Hoffman will have to report to a governor-appointed board, her stance on accountability, standards, and teacher accountability will differ dramatically from her predecessor Diane Douglas, a Republican.

And in California, Tony Thurmond, a Democratic state assembly member backed heavily by the state’s teachers’ union, declared victory over charter school-backed Marshall Tuck in that state’s hotly contested state superintendent race. Thurmond will immediately be tasked with redesigning that state’s report card, which got heavy push back from data transparency advocates for being incomprehensible.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2018 edition of Education Week as Shakeups Loom in Post-Election State Landscape


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