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.”