Policy & Politics

The 2022 Midterms: Why Educators Should Care What Happens

By Libby Stanford — November 07, 2022 6 min read
New Yorkers in Queens come out to vote early on Nov. 5, 2022, before Tuesday's final Election Day.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Regardless of who prevails in Tuesday’s midterm elections, the results could mean big changes for K-12 schools, with ripple effects on everything from school funding and early-childhood programs to policy on heated cultural issues like how race and sexuality are discussed in the classroom.

Those issues resonate differently around the country in gubernatorial, state superintendent, state legislative, and school board races in a highly polarized political climate.

But even in places where education isn’t a major political talking point, the outcome in one state could end up affecting future education policies in another.

“The old saying is ‘all politics are local,’” said Steve Barnett, a professor of education economics and policy at Rutgers University. “But it is also true that states and local governments learn from each other.”

Potential impact down to the most-local level

Voters in 36 states will decide on a governor, who has the power to enact state laws, set the state’s education budget, and sometimes to decide who leads the state’s department of education. Voters in seven states will also decide on a schools superintendent. And in nine states, they will choose who sits in 51 state board of education seats with broad policy implications.

Those races are in addition to at least 373 local school board elections this election cycle nationally, 271 of which will take place in November or December.

But outside of the races that are likely to directly impact education are contests for other positions that could affect local, state, and even federal politics, said Bruce Baker, an education funding and policy professor at the University of Miami. For example, newly elected judges in numerous states and localities could make decisions on cases surrounding school funding, Baker said.

“Courts are a big deal in how well, how equitably, schools are funded and run, and, for that matter, upholding certain other rights and policies and regulations around the governance of schools and rights of kids,” Baker said. “These down-ballot elections matter. That’s why people should care.”

The state legislative context matters

Over 6,000 state legislative seats in 46 states are up for election this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A number of states have led the charge in passing bills limiting how schools can approach race, gender identity, and sexuality in the classroom. Seventeen states have passed laws aimed at preventing teachers from discussing what they call divisive concepts like race, gender, and sexuality.

Nearly a third of teachers who have chosen not to address those topics in the classroom worry about professional or legal consequences, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of teachers.

“Things that public schools focus on, in terms of teaching students about various issues and making sure students are protected, all of those hallmarks of public education are being attacked,” said Preston Green, an education leadership and law professor at the University of Connecticut. “Depending on how the Republicans do, you may see more of it.”

Indeed, more states could see similar policies passed, depending on the results of the election. On campaign websites, nine of the 36 Republican nominees for governor explicitly say they’d like to ban critical race theory—an academic theory generally taught at the college level—and six say they aim to restrict transgender students’ participation in sports that align with their gender identity.

What about the federal government?

Democrats currently hold Congress with 224 members in the House of Representatives and 48 Democrats, plus two independents, who both caucus with the Democrats, in the Senate, according to the Congressional Research Service. But many political analysts expect the House to flip to Republican control, which would mean a divided Congress.

Congress has the power to pass laws that can impact school funding and federal education policy.

In September, for example, House Republicans introduced the “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act,” a bill that critics claim is a national copy of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law. The bill is unlikely to gain traction in the current Congress but could make headway if Republicans were to take the House or the Senate.

If passed, it would “prohibit the use of federal funds to develop, implement, facilitate, or fund any sexually-oriented program, event, or literature for children under the age of 10,” according to the bill. If Republicans were to take Congress, Green expects lawmakers to propose more bills like the “Stop the Sexualization of Children Act,” that may not pass but could set the stage for action should a Republican president be elected in 2024.

“The sorts of things being proposed at the statewide level you could see being proposed at the national level to try and garner more support,” he said.

At the same time, certain other education policies could find it harder to gain ground in a Republican-led Congress, said Barnett at Rutgers. For example, Barnett wouldn’t expect his area of expertise, early-childhood education, to be a major action point in a Republican-controlled Congress.

Ambitious early-childhood proposals from President Joe Biden, such as the $400 billion for child care and prekindergarten that he tried and failed to pass in last year’s Build Back Better initiative, would be unlikely to move forward, Barnett said. In addition, Head Start, the federal early-childhood-education program, “is long overdue for reauthorization, and I can’t see that happening in a divided Congress or when Congress and the president are different parties,” he said.

There is also likely to be little change to education funding in a Republican-controlled or a divided Congress. Most education policymakers are still focused on district and state spending under the American Rescue Plan and ESSER funding, which together funneled $190 billion into local and state education systems to help with the impacts of the pandemic.

Barnett sees it as unlikely that Congress, regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, will pass another wave of funds at that magnitude.

But Baker said the baseline for annual federal K-12 spending could actually be a bit higher than before the pandemic.

“I would actually expect in the post-COVID period that the new equilibrium of federal funding might find its way to be slightly or somewhat above the pre-COVID equilibrium,” Baker said. “Because we’ve had a few years of getting used to spending a bit more.”

Why should educators care about elections in states where they don’t live?

Education-related policies and campaigns in one state are likely to influence education policy trends elsewhere because politicians follow what works, Barnett said.

The 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election demonstrated that. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, won in a campaign in which he emphasized a conservative parents’ rights agenda. Before then, parents’ rights as a campaign talking point wasn’t nearly as widespread.

Youngkin appealed to parent frustration with how schools handled the COVID-19 pandemic and went on to establish a parent hotline, offering a channel for parents’ to voice concerns over critical race theory and fears of political indoctrination and LGBTQ issues being taught in the classroom.

Eleven of the 36 conservative candidates for governor in this year’s election cycle mentioned parents’ rights policies on their campaign websites.

“What happens in one state does influence policy in another,” Barnett said. “Whether it’s because politicians see that an issue was effective in attracting support or simply because legislators are looking for something to do.”

Education policy experts see that as a reason why educators should pay attention to both the potential impact of both their local elections and what’s happening across the country.

"[Republicans] have made it clear that the sorts of things they want to do, they’ll be emboldened to do them,” Green said. “So [the election] could have an impact even for people in states that don’t think they could be touched.”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

States Is Bipartisan Education Policy Still Possible?
It's still possible to forge cross-party education policy coalitions, advocates said.
5 min read
Image of a small U.S. flag in a pencil case.
iStock/Getty
School Choice & Charters Opinion Does School Choice 'Work'?
Ultimately, the “how” of educational choice may matter more than the “what.”
10 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Law & Courts Supreme Court Turns Down Case Challenging School District's Transgender Policies
The case involves a policy allowing information to be withheld from parents considered not supportive of a gender-transitioning child.
3 min read
This Oct. 4, 2018, photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court at sunset in Washington. The Supreme Court has declined to take up an appeal from parents in Oregon who want to prevent transgender students from using locker rooms and bathrooms of the gender with which they identify, rather than their sex assigned at birth.
This Oct. 4, 2018, photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court at sunset in Washington. The court has declined to take up an appeal from parents in Maryland challenging a school district's policy on gender-support plans for students.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
School Choice & Charters Opinion 'Control Freaks' Are 'Losing Their Grip' on Education
"School choice evangelist" says new laws are a response to unions, bureaucracies, and K-12 ideologues.
12 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty