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How Did Education Fare at the Ballot Box in 2018?

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What was the big takeaway for education in the 2018 elections? Sorry if this disappoints, but there just doesn’t appear to be a clear, simple story to tell. It was an election of seeming contradictions.

This was especially true in gubernatorial races, which matter a lot, given the key role state leaders play in education.

In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers, the state schools chief who enjoyed strong backing from teachers’ unions, narrowly defeated two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker. But in Arizona, where widespread teacher walkouts last spring made national news, Republican incumbent Doug Ducey cruised to victory over education professor David Garcia, his Democratic challenger. (At the same time, a ballot measure to expand a private school choice initiative in the Grand Canyon State was resoundingly defeated.)

In Minnesota, Democrat Tim Walz, who for many years taught high school civics, won on a platform that included calls to “fully and equitably fund our schools,” “support and listen to educators,” and work intentionally to close the “opportunity gap” for all children. (Estimated voter turnout in Minnesota was the highest of any state, according to the United States Elections Project.)

But in Florida, Republican Ron DeSantis narrowly defeated Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, whose agenda embraced big spending increases for education, including for teacher pay, and criticism of school choice. DeSantis said he wants to expand school choice and spend more money “in the classroom” by cutting “bureaucratic waste and administrative inefficiency.”

In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly had an upset victory in the heavily Republican state over Kris Kobach, the current secretary of state. A key part of her gubernatorial platform was to fully fund the state’s public schools. But in Oklahoma, another state that drew national attention last year for widespread teacher walkouts protesting low pay an inadequate state education funding, conservative Republican Kevin Stitt won the governorship. And, even as more than 60 teachers in the state ran for state legislative seats, most of them ultimately lost. (More on that below.)

Come January, 20 states will have a new governor. In 18 of those states, the current governor was term limited or chose not to run again. (Alaska Gov. Bill Walker unexpectedly dropped his reelection bid in October.) Although Republicans still hold the majority of governorships, Democrats gained at least seven seats.

Meanwhile, five state legislative chambers flipped from Republican to Democratic control, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in Connecticut, the tied state Senate tipped to Democrats.

How Will a Democratic House Impact DeVos Agenda?

Of course, the biggest national story this election year was the outcome for the U.S. Congress, where Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives, while Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate.

Over at Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog, Andrew Ujifusa provides insights to what might be in store on the federal policy front now that the Democrats have taken control of the House. Among the possibilities: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her aides could be called more often to testify and defend President Trump’s recent shifts in policy and priorities, including scaling back the scope of the federal Office for Civil Rights.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) sent a letter Wednesday to his party colleagues asking for their support as he seeks the chairmanship of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, after serving four years as ranking member. Scott, who is of African-American and Filipino descent, would be the first lawmaker of color to chair the committee since 1983.

There was no shortage of educators on Tuesday’s ballots, but a lot of them lost their races. Writing for Politico, Caitlin Emma looked at how teacher unrest in several states failed to translate into big wins at the ballot boxes.

Education Week, which has tracked the issue closely, finds that of the 177 current teachers who ran for state legislative seats this year, 24 percent ultimately prevailed in the general election.

EWA took a closer look at the Education Week database for four states — Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — where teacher activism was especially high over the past year, given teacher strikes.

Oklahoma had the largest number of teacher-candidates by far, with 66 in all. More than half lost in the primaries and ultimately, only six won their general election bids. (Madeline Will wrote about the “highs and lows” for educators in that state.)

Here’s the rundown for the other three states:

  • Kentucky: Of 20 teacher-candidates, three won in the general election.
  • Arizona: Of seven teacher-candidates, just one prevailed.
  • West Virginia: Of 10 teacher-candidates, three won.

‘An Incredibly Mixed Night’

“In some of these states where we saw kind of the biggest explosions of activism, we didn’t necessarily see that translate to big results at the polls,” said Alyson Klein of Education Week during a post-election forum at the American Enterprise Institute this week.

“This was just an incredibly mixed night,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “Trying to distill a macro narrative that … teachers came up empty is just wrong. But the idea that there was some kind of boomlet of teacher influence either in statehouses or select races, I think is a big overstatement.”

Like Hess, education blogger Alexander Russo pushed back on the oft-cited statistic that a “record” number of teachers were on the ballot in 2018, arguing for greater journalistic skepticism.

For her part, Lily Eskelsen García of the NEA, argued that the election vindicated teachers’ unions. “Lawmakers learned an important lesson tonight: You can either work with educators to address the needs of students and public education, or they will work to elect someone who will,” she in a statement.

‘A Veteran and a Teacher’

In Minnesota, the Star Tribune newspaper reports that the education credentials of the incoming Democratic governor, Tim Walz, was an attractive feature for some voters.

“Voters interviewed Tuesday by the Star Tribune said they connected with Walz’s life story, which includes 24 years in the National Guard and more than 20 years teaching and coaching high school before he was elected to Congress in 2006,” wrote J. Patrick Coolican.

The story quotes one Democratic voter as saying: “Walz is a veteran and teacher, and I have a lot of respect for that,” he said.

And while it’s not unusual for teachers to serve in Congress, among the high-profile candidates winning on Tuesday included Jahana Hayes, Connecticut’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and the first black woman elected to Congress from the Nutmeg State.

News Roundup From Coast to Coast

Here’s a roundup of some of the other excellent coverage from EWA journalist members around the country.

For The Atlantic, Adam Harris looked at the widening gulf between U.S. voters with college degrees and those without.

In the nation’s fourth-largest school district, Miami voters approved an increase in their property taxes to fund teacher pay raises, and to hire school police, reports Colleen Wright for the Miami Herald.

For The Oregonian, Betsy Hammond served up “five takeaways” from the state and local elections, including support for local ballot measures to boost school funding.

Voters in some Texas communities approved more money for schools in the Dallas, Richardson, and Frisco school districts, according to a story by Eva-Marie Ayala and Nanette Light of The Dallas Morning News. Dallas, for instance, plans to “use nearly $126 million raised by the increase each year to pay for employee raises, prekindergarten, specialty school programs and efforts to address racial equity,” the story says.

In Wisconsin, “taxpayers voted to pour at least $1.3 billion into their local public schools,” reports Annysa Johnson for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Over at Idaho Education News, Kevin Richert examined “what happened and what it means for 2019 and beyond.”

The 74 has its Edlection Cheat Sheet, with recaps from 68 key races nationwide. That includes Tennessee’s new Republican governor, who will take the reins of the state’s long-standing — and bipartisan — push to overhaul public schools.

Chalkbeat also has produced extensive election coverage, including stories about the top education issues Illinois’ next governor, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, will face, and how school district tax proposals fared in Colorado (“wins, losses, and split decisions”).