Education and the 2020 Elections


Education and the 2020 Elections

The stakes are high for education in 2020. Not only is the White House in play this election season, but also control of the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures, plus 11 gubernatorial seats. In addition, voters will decide a host of local contests, including school board elections, that could shift educational priorities.

The stakes are high for education in 2020. Not only is the White House in play this election season, but also control of the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures, plus 11 gubernatorial seats. In addition, voters will decide a host of local contests, including school board elections, that could shift educational priorities.

Federal races

The leading Democratic contenders for the White House in 2020 bring stark differences with President Donald Trump on education, from federal spending (they want more, he wants less) to policy preferences and even enforcement priorities at the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. They also have singled out U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for criticism, and have vowed to replace her with a very different kind of department chief. 

Most of the Democrats have rolled out detailed education agendas. Popular talking points include tripling (or more) funding for the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students, introducing variations on “free college” initiatives, increasing teacher pay, reducing school segregation, and funding universal preschool. To be sure, the candidates are not aligned on all issues. Take charter schools: Some candidates, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (elected in Vermont as an Independent) and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have been sharply critical and are seeking to curtail charter growth, and even end the federal charter schools program.

For more on the candidates and their agendas, check out this special section by Education Week.

The Trump re-election website emphasizes school choice, efforts to “empower states” with increased flexibility under federal K-12 law, and improving the student loan process to “improve the customer experience,” among other things. The president has repeatedly sought to cut funding for the U.S. Department of Education, including (in early 2019) requesting a 10 percent reduction.

Democrats need a net gain of three seats to win control of the U.S. Senate in 2020, as Politico explains. By most accounts, they face an uphill battle: Even if a Democrat wins the White House, a new president could face significant obstacles to accomplishing his or her education agenda, especially on items with large price tags attached. Meanwhile, most analysts suggest Democrats are likely to retain their House majority in 2020.

State and local races

For all the media attention trained on the presidential election, state and local governments are far bigger players when it comes to policy, funding, and practice. (For some perspective, only about 8 percent of K-12 revenue comes from the federal government, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.)

The 11 states with gubernatorial elections in 2020 are Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia, according to Ballotpedia. In Vermont, for instance, a leading Democratic candidate is Rebecca Holcombe, a former state secretary of education in the Green Mountain State. (The incumbent is Republican Phil Scott.) And in North Carolina, the current state superintendent of public instruction, Mark Johnson, is running for lieutenant governor.

In addition, efforts to shift the balance of power in state legislatures will be fierce in 2020. The Washington Post reports that Democratic leaders and activists groups are aiming to flip control of at least seven legislative chambers, for example. Shifts of party control could have significant implications for funding and policy matters in education. Also, in four states — Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Washington — state superintendents will be on the ballot in 2020, according to the Education Commission of the States. In addition, nine states (plus the District of Columbia) will hold elections for state boards of education.

At the local level, reporters will want to keep an eye on school board elections in their communities. Ballotpedia will be tracking elections in the 200 largest school districts, plus many others that overlap with the 100 largest cities.

Look back at the role education played in the 2018 elections here.

EWA intern Sarah Johnson contributed to this Topics page.

Updated Dec. 20, 2019

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