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K-12 Election Watch: 7 Big Questions for Schools and Education

By Evie Blad — November 02, 2020 7 min read
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Opa-Locka Executive Airport in Opa-Locka, Fla. on Nov. 1.
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There’s a lot more for educators to watch on election night than what’s happening at the top of the ticket nationally.

From local school board races and state legislatures to what party controls the U.S. Congress, many of the decisions voters make Tuesday will have big stakes for schools on everything from the immediate COVID-19 crisis to long-term education policy.

And, of course, the presidential election matters, too. The nominees—President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden—have offered competing visions for the direction of the federal pandemic response, additional relief aid, and a host of other K-12 issues.

Here are some education storylines to follow on election night.

Will young, first-time voters make history?

Growing interest among high school students and others in youth-oriented political movements like March for Our Lives and protests against racial inequity has sparked new hopes in recent years that younger voters will buck a years-long trend of low youth turnout in elections. 

As Education Week wrote in October, COVID-19 has thrown new hurdles in front of high school voter engagement efforts.  But teenagers, some too young to vote themselves, are making big pushes to get their peers to the polls. They’ve piloted social media outreach strategies, held drive-thru registration days, and encouraged interest in down-ballot races.

There are some early signs their efforts may pay off. The Center for Information on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University reports that, in a majority of states, the number of 18- and 19-year-olds who registered to vote in 2020 topped 2016 numbers.

Will this be a pivot point for federal education priorities?

A Biden win could mean a big shift in the way the U.S. Department of Education approaches some issues. A second Trump term could mean an acceleration of already stated priorities. 

You can check out where both candidates stand on a range of issues in our interactive tracker: Education in the 2020 Presidential Race. Here are a few major differences:

  • Charters and choice. Trump has frequently included school choice in a list of wins while making his closing pitch to voters. For all his talk about the issue, his administration has failed to win congressional approval of a plan that would provide tax credits to pay for private school tuition and educational services.
    Biden has said he will prioritize “neighborhood public schools.” He opposes using public funds to support private education, and he’s criticized U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for her support of such measures. The Biden-backed Democratic party platform also calls for an end to federal funding to “for-profit charter schools” and additional accountability for the sector.
  • Civil rights. Trump’s Education Department said the Obama administration had overreached by issuing volumes of civil rights guidance. It also changed the way it processed civil rights investigations, speeding up the process on individual complaints rather than looking for broader systemic issues.
    Biden has committed to expanding the department’s office for civil rights. He wants to provide grants for voluntary school integration efforts, and he wants to reinstate guidance the Trump administration has either rewritten or rescinded on issues like transgender student rights, sexual assault in schools, and racial disparities in school discipline.
  • Coronavirus response. Trump has left many of the biggest decisions related to the coronavirus mitigation to states, and he’s made an aggressive push for schools to reopen for in-person learning. Biden’s plan calls for clearer federal guidance about when schools should offer remote or in-person learning, and he’s called for more federal funding to help them confront the pandemic.
  • Who will control Congress? And what will it mean for COVID-19 relief for schools?

    In recent months, stalled negotiations about additional coronavirus aid for schools have frustrated educators and advocates alike. As our Politics K-12 blog wrote in October, Election Day could be the “turning point in coronavirus relief negotiations.”

    If the GOP retains control of the Senate, the odds will be slimmer for a larger relief package favored by Democrats. If Biden wins the White House and Democrats take both chambers of Congress, advocates may get the bold bill they’ve been waiting for, although it would come much later than they’d hoped. 

    Another question to ask the old Magic 8 Ball: If there’s a shift in party control in either branch of government, would any movement happen in the lame duck period before a new team takes office in January?

    How will the effects of the coronavirus on schools shape state elections?

    The pandemic has made politics even more personal for parents, educators, and ordinary people who value their school systems.

    Elected officials at all levels have affected virus mitigation efforts, like mask mandates, and they’ve set policies that have driven school reopening decisions. Those decisions have become a subject of debate in races for governor and for state legislatures around the country.

    And these races—11 governors seats and spots in 44 states’ legislatures—will have consequences for schools. States may have to make some tough decisions about education budgets as revenues decline. And governors will play a key role in distributing federal aid and guiding efforts to test for the virus and administer an eventual vaccine.

    How will big education ballot issues fare?

    Voters around the country will consider education-related ballot issues:

    • An Arizona ballot question would raise income taxes for the highest earners to boost school funding. As Education Week reported last month, debate over the issue mirrors national discussions about income inequality and how to best support schools.
    • A Washington ballot question would make comprehensive sex education mandatory in all schools, giving families the choice of opting their students out.
    • If passed, a California ballot issue would repeal Proposition 209, a 1996 voter-approved measure that created a state-level constitutional ban on affirmative action.
    • California voters will also consider a measure that would change the way commercial properties are taxed to provide additional funds for K-12 schools and community colleges. Commercial properties would be taxed based on their current market value, rather than their purchase price.

    Will there be new attention to often-overlooked school board races?

    School board races often receive less attention than other issues on the ballot, but current conditions have driven home their importance for many voters.

    Districts around the country have navigated a patchwork of widely varying state reopening directives and shifting federal guidance to decide when and how to return students to school buildings. Some parents have argued that politics have played too big a role in those decisions, while others say limited data on the virus makes it difficult to feel confident in any plan.

    And, oh yeah, school boards make a lot of everyday, non-pandemic decisions that have big effects in the classroom, too. They steer policies related to school discipline, facilities, and teacher pay.

    “The pandemic has proven that leadership at every level of education matters, whether that’s in the White House or on your local school board,” National School Boards Association President Charlie Wilson wrote in a recent Education Week opinion piece. “And yes, this leadership is crucial during tumultuous times, like global pandemics and economic recessions, but it’s also vital in the everyday, regular work of educating our nation’s more than 50 million public school students.”

    One to watch: Education Week’s Benjamin Herold recently explored how shifting demographics and concerns about racial equity have shaped the school board race in Gwinnett County, Ga.

    How will the election, and its aftermath, unfold in America’s classrooms?

    The presidential race, and the accompanying rhetoric, have been especially divisive this year. For teachers, that can create a complicated teachable moment that fuses civics lessons with efforts to help students engage in debates in a respectful way.

    “Teaching the election in the past has always been a joyful thing. I always looked forward to it,” a New York teacher told Education Week last month. “I just find in a more hyper-partisan world that now it’s become something where I’m more worried about hurt feelings, or somebody getting the wrong takeaway.” 

    And concerns about a delayed vote count, Election Day snafus, and legal challenges to tight results could provide fuel for classroom conversations in the coming weeks.

    We spoke to civics teachers about teaching the election, and what comes next, in this Education Week video.

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