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By the Numbers: Big Stakes for Education in State Races

It’s hard to overstate the potential implications for education in the 2018 elections. The reasons have less to do with the high-profile battle for control of Congress. It’s really about the volume of state-level contests in November.

Consider just a few numbers: Thirty-six states are holding gubernatorial elections. More than 6,000 state legislative seats are on the ballot in 46 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seven states will elect a state schools chief this year. Also, in eight states plus the District of Columbia, state board of education members are on the ballot.

In addition, many local school board races around the country could also reshape district priorities on education.

The turnover of governors — key players in education policy and funding — will be high. At least 17 states are guaranteed to have a fresh face in the governor’s mansion — including California, Florida, and Ohio — because the incumbents are stepping down. 

“This is an extremely important election for states on the future of education and what issues will be prominent in 2019 and beyond,” said Jeremy Anderson, the executive director of the Education Commission of the States. His group, a nonpartisan organization, has created a helpful infographic on the elections, plus an interactive map that analyzes a variety of factors connected with the 2018 elections.

Marty West, an education professor at Harvard University, said “the most consequential elections this cycle for education are very much at the state level.” Even as governors’ races tend to get the lion’s share of news coverage, West said state legislative races should not be overlooked.

“Republicans have established such a dominant position in state legislatures over the past decade that there is little doubt there will be some shift back towards Democratic control,” said West. “The question is how far.”

Currently, 33 governors are Republicans, 16 are Democrats, and one is an Independent. In 32 states, Republicans control both legislative chambers, while Democrats control both in 13 states. (Nebraska has a Republican-controlled unicameral body.)

Around the country, education and political reporters are helping the public make sense of the campaigns and where candidates stand on P-16 issues.

Illinois

Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner sat down last week to talk education with news outlets WBEZ and Chalkbeat Chicago. His Democratic challenger, J.B. Pritzker, did the same in a separate interview the same day.

The discussions revealed plenty of areas of disagreement. Rauner wants to expand a $100 million private school choice program in Illinois to $1 billion. Pritzker wants to phase out the tax-credit scholarships. Rauner would veto a measure restoring an elected school board in Chicago. Pritzker would sign it. There was some common ground, however.

“[P]lowing more money into public education — from early childhood through college — came up as a rare point of agreement in back-to-back candidate conversations,” Cassie Walker Burke explained in a Chalkbeat write-up of the interviews.

Oregon

The Oregonian’s Betsy Hammond recently examined the educational stances of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and her Republican challenger, state Rep. Knute Buehler.

“There’s not much daylight between the two candidates on some key promises to improve public education,” Hammond explains. Both say they would pump more money into schools, including career-technical and anti-dropout programs. Both call for lengthening the school year, and for recruiting more teachers of color to better match the diversity of Oregon students, her story explains.

“But,” Hammond notes, “there also are fundamental differences. Buehler says he would use the power of the office and sway of state funding to hold schools accountable and insist on results. Brown says she would not tie funding to mandates or outcomes.”

In addition, after recent lackluster student test scores were released, Buehler said Brown should hire the state’s governor-appointed state superintendent of public instruction.

Wisconsin

Education is especially important in the Wisconsin gubernatorial race, where the state’s schools chief, Tony Evers, is in a tight race challenging sitting Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The outcome is considered a toss-up by the Cook Political Report.

A recent Education Week story about the race begins with a small-town high school in the Southern Door district that Gov. Walker recently visited.

Reporter Daarel Burnette II writes: “The intricacies of Wisconsin’s school spending and whether districts like Southern Door need more or less money from the state has come to dominate the gubernatorial contest between Walker and Evers, both of whom have made their education records a high-profile piece of their pitch to Wisconsin voters in the November election.”

The candidates have blamed each other for a lack of state progress in improving academic achievement for black children, as Molly Beck reported for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, is hammering away at educational issues in his campaign.

“Tony Evers: As governor, he’ll make sure every kid has a great public school, regardless of their zip code,” a campaign ad states. “Tony raised graduation rates … and advanced career and technical training.”

Gov. Walker has produced his own education-focused messages, such as one that begins: “We have worked hard to improve education. Froze tuition. Put more money in the classroom, and gave schools more control to hire the best and the brightest.”

Marty West of Harvard, a former top education aide to Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tenn., said he’s been struck by the tone some GOP governors have been emphasizing on spending.

“What’s interesting,” he said, “is it seems like Republican candidates, much moreso than in other recent elections, are trying desperately not to appear stingy when it comes to K-12 schools.”

Florida

In the neck-and-neck Florida governor’s race, issues like school spending, charter schools and vouchers are key divides, writes Emily Mahoney for the Tampa Bay Times.

Republican Ron DeSantis rolled out his education agenda last month, highlighting plans to require school districts to spend 80 percent of education dollars “in the classroom” (to cut what he calls “bureaucratic waste”), expand public and private school choice, and “reward high-performing teachers and reduce teacher shortages.”

Democrat Andrew Gillum, in contrast, proposes raising corporate income taxes to boost spending on public education each year by $1 billion, including money for teacher pay raises, school construction, and vocational training. He also wants to set a $50,000 minimum starting salary for teachers.

Gillum also sharply criticized DeSantis’ plans for expanding public and private school choice programs.

“Gillum wants to pump the breaks on sending public funds to charter and private schools, though he has yet to expand on whether the state should scale back on those initiatives or just not create new ones,” Mahoney writes.

Schools Chiefs on Ballot, From Calif. to Georgia

Elected state superintendents are on the November ballot in Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming. In Arizona, the incumbent was defeated in the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Republican state superintendent Jillian Balow is running unopposed in Wyoming.

With the current California schools chief stepping down and the Arizona chief having lost her primary, at least two states will have a fresh face at the helm of the state education agency.

“Candidates in this year’s seven state superintendent races have debated issues including the role of charter schools, how states distribute money among their schools, and teacher recruitment and retention,” Burnette of Education Week reports in a story this month.

In an unusual twist, South Carolina voters will not only choose between incumbent Republican Molly Spearman and her challenger, Israel Romero, a former educator. They also will decide whether the general public or the governor will choose the state superintendent in the future.

A century ago, Burnette notes, voters in 33 states elected the state chief.

The California state chief race between Marshall Tuck and state Assemblyman Tony Thurmond is proving to be hotly contested and expensive, as Nico Savidge at EdSource a nonprofit news source, explains.

“Spending in the campaign for state superintendent of public instruction in California is expected to break records once again this fall, as charter school advocates and labor organizations focus on the race,” he writes in a recent story.

Savidge this week reports more than $31 million raised so far, including direct campaign contributions and money raised by independent committees. Tuck has drawn the lion’s share, nearly $25 million.

Tuck is the former president of Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based charter schools network, and the former CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a district-city initiative that operates 18 district schools. Thurmond is a former social work, school board member, and city council member. Both candidates are Democrats.

In fact, this election even drew the attention of conservative Washington Post commentator George Will, who favors Tuck.

“November’s congressional elections will decide which party will control a narcoleptic institution that is uninterested in performing fundamental functions,” Will wrote in an Aug. 1 opinion piece for the Post. “Here, however, there is a contest that might matter. The choice Californians make for the next superintendent of public instruction could catalyze improvements regarding the education of grades K-12.”



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