States

K-12 and the Midterms: What to Watch For

By Libby Stanford — November 08, 2022 6 min read
Aidan Lau-Struck, 6, helps his mom Stephanie Lau feed her ballot into the machine at the Brighton Green Community Association voting precinct in North Chesterfield, Va., on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
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Educators across the country flocked to the polls on Tuesday to cast their votes for candidates who will have the power to shape K-12 policy over the next few years, from the congressional level down to governorships and local school boards.

And while issues like the economy and abortion have dominated many 2022 campaigns, they sometimes squeezed out attention to matters that more directly affect educators’ day-to-day jobs like teacher shortages, declines in academic achievement, and low pay.

“There hasn’t been as much talk about [education] as there needs to be, which means everything is at stake,” said Ashley Penney, a middle school social studies teacher in Texas, who voted Tuesday afternoon. “If you’re going to sit here and demean something that everybody decided during the pandemic was a must-have institution, and you’re going to continue to underfund it … and you’re not going to pay people appropriately, we’re going to hit a tipping point.”

Penney and others like her voted this year with anxieties about the future of education and, in some cases, with concerns about democracy itself on their minds.

David Dillon, a teacher at the Riverside Unified district in Riverside, Calif., said it was imperative for teachers to participate in the election. Dillon, who teaches social studies and is also an education professor at the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif., is worried about the future of democracy and the lack of trust in elections.

“Part of the problem with teachers in the education system is they don’t want to get into the political arena, but education is the political arena,” Dillon said. “You have these groups around the country trying to take over school boards, tell teachers what to teach, how to teach, and what they can’t teach. That just exacerbates all of the issues we have going on.”

Waiting for the tallies to land

At every level, candidates this year have floated a range of education ideas including plans to raise teacher pay, give parents the ability to change curriculum, limit discussions about race and racism, increase funding, and expand school choice.

Election results were expected to trickle in through Wednesday morning or even beyond. Education Week will be providing updates to its Election Guide and follow-ups on the results. As for the issues, here’s what we know so far about how the midterms could impact K-12 schools.

Hazel Westfall, 6, dressed festive for Election Day as she waits for her parents to cast their votes at Northern Middle School Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022 in Hagerstown, Md.

Education was a top priority in gubernatorial campaigns

When it comes to education, political divisions among candidates for governor have been stark, with conservative nominees pushing for what they term parents’ rights policies that would mean restrictions on teaching and lessons surrounding race and sexuality, and more-liberal nominees arguing for major funding increases and efforts to curb teacher shortages.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, led the way in passing restrictive education policies through the “Parents Rights in Education” Act, which critics refer to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, that prohibits classroom instruction related to gender identity and sexuality for students in 3rd grade or younger.

He touted that bill alongside efforts to expand school choice, prevent transgender girls from participating in sports, and ban educators from teaching critical race theory, in his campaign against former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat who won the support of the state’s teachers’ unions. Crist pledged to focus his energy on solving teacher shortages, raising teacher pay, and giving local school boards the power to make decisions about curriculum.

Robert Tufo, a math teacher in Palm Beach, Fla., was hoping DeSantis would win because of his policies to limit how gender identity, sexuality, and race are discussed in the classroom.

“I think he’ll do right by all the teachers and parents and especially the students by putting in the correct curriculums and leaving out the perverse ones,” Tufo said.

The Texas gubernatorial race was in many ways similar to the race in Florida, with Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott pushing to expand school choice and touting a track record for policies restricting transgender children’s access to gender-affirming care. As with Crist in Florida, Abbott’s opponent, Democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke focused on raising teacher pay, increasing school funding, and tackling teacher shortages.

In the Wisconsin and Pennsylvania gubernatorial races, voters were deciding whether to maintain or disrupt the education status quo. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a former state schools chief, has been a major proponent for large increases to education funding. His opponent, Tim Michels, made it clear he is opposed to any increases in funding for public schools.

Pennsylvania represented the starkest divide on school funding, where Republican nominee Doug Mastriano stated he would cut state education funding by one-third. His opponent Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, would increase funding and said he would make it more equitable.

A poll worker talks with people in line to vote in the midterm election at the John F. Kennedy Library, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Hialeah, Fla.

Races for state superintendent bring education issues to the forefront

Battles over school choice, curriculum, and equity defined campaigns for state superintendent in Arizona, South Carolina, and Oklahoma, three of the seven states with the top education job of superintendent up for grabs.

In Arizona, former superintendent Tom Horne would put an end to “political indoctrination” into schools and bring back his former policies that banned bilingual education for English learners. His opponent, incumbent Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, campaigned on concerns about teacher shortages and student mental health, and on support for social-emotional learning.

Meanwhile, school choice was the primary campaign issue in the South Carolina race for superintendent with education outsider Ellen Weaver, the CEO of a conservative think tank, promoting vouchers and other policies that would allow parents to choose between public, private, and charter schools. This week, Weaver told reporters that South Carolina schools should consider rejecting $1 billion in federal funding because of proposed changes to Title IX that would add protections for LGBTQ students, according to reporting from The Post and Courier.

Weaver’s opponent, Lisa Ellis, a Democrat, has been a leader in the state’s teacher rights movement and pledged to use the position to help the state combat a teacher shortage.

A similar battle shook out in Oklahoma, where two former teachers vied for the state superintendent spot. On the conservative side: Republican Ryan Walters, the state’s current secretary of education, who stands against what he calls indoctrination in schools and in favor of expanding school choice. His opponent, Democrat Jena Nelson, staunchly opposed school vouchers and other school choice policies.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots in the midterm election in Rydal, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.

Ballot issues focused on funding for public schools

Ballot issues in Colorado, California, and West Virginia presented voters with major changes to those statewide education systems.

Colorado’s Proposition FF focused on free school meals for all students regardless of their family income by establishing income tax deduction caps. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont already offer free meals to all students after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s waivers that allowed for universal free meals during the pandemic expired earlier this summer.

In California, celebrities, including Barbra Streisand, Katy Perry, Dr. Dre, and Sheryl Lee Ralph from “Abbott Elementary,” threw their support behind Proposition 28 to expand funding by $1 billion for music and arts programs at public schools throughout the state.

West Virginia lawmakers aimed to gain more oversight of the state’s board of education through a proposed constitutional amendment allowing the state legislature to approve, amend, or reject policies passed by the board of education.

The importance of voting

Regardless of the results of Tuesday’s election, educators have made it clear that voting should be a priority.

“Kids look up to you,” said Chris Stevens, a 5th grade teacher in Allegan County, Mich. “I never talk about what I vote for or who I vote for to my kids, but I always let them know that I voted and that I did my part.”

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