What the GOP’s 2014 Midterm Win Means for Education

Nov 7, 2014 by

The midterms weren’t about education, but the GOP’s wave could have a big effect on schools.

By Frederick M. Hess and Mike McShane

The final midterm election results are still being tallied, but we can already discern the outlines of what the results mean for education.

1) Teachers unions had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night: In the 2014 cycle, teachers unions alone spent more than $60 million dollars. For the second time in three years, they painted a neon target on the back of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. (Remember, a few years ago, Walker successfully waged a hugely controversial fight to whittle down the say that union contracts have in Wisconsin’s schools.) The unions also went after Republican Govs. Rick Snyder in Michigan, Sam Brownback in Kansas and Rick Scott in Florida, as well as Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island. (Raimondo took on public sector unions as state treasurer.) Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, went so far as to tell the Washington Post that they “have a score to settle with Scott Walker.” Lily Esklesen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, stumped for Snyder’s opponent on Saturday and Scott’s on Sunday.

The unions lost in each of these expensive, nail-biter races. They did pull out a win in the hugely expensive California superintendent’s race between two Democrats (more on that in a moment). But that was about the only bright spot. What could have been an impressive demonstration of teacher union might instead turned into another suggestion that teacher unions are still in the midst of an ongoing challenge to their influence, struggling to find their footing.


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2) The Common Core dog that didn’t bark: For all the debate it has provoked this year, the Common Core education standards were pretty much invisible in the midterms. Less than one third of Republican gubernatorial candidates — and just three Democratic gubernatorial candidates — even bothered to mention the Common Core in their campaign platforms.

Yes, in Georgia and Arizona, anti-Common Core Republicans knocked off mainstream, pro-Common Core candidates for state superintendent. In Arizona, Republican Diane Douglass focused nearly her entire campaign on opposition to the Common Core. It paid off. She won in a squeaker. In Georgia, Republican Richard Woods rolled his opposition to the Common Core into a broader critique of federal involvement in schools. He tied that overreach to over-testing and called for reducing the weight accorded to testing in teacher evaluations. But these were down-ballot races in red states, and it’d be foolhardy to read too much into these results.

3) The Golden State’s heated school chief contest: In the race for California superintendent of public instruction, more than $30 million was spent by the two candidates, Marshall Tuck and Tom Torlakson. That’s nearly three times what was spent on the California governor’s race! Both Tuck and Torlakson are Democrats. Tuck is a charter school operator with strong “reform” ties and was endorsed by every major newspaper in the state. Torlakson, the incumbent, attracted enormous support from the teacher unions. The bitter contest was regarded as something of a referendum on school reform in the nation’s biggest state, and when all is said and done, Tuck came up short. It was one of very few bright spots for unions.

4) Republican governors in blue states: Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan swept to giant upsets in deep-blue Massachusetts and Maryland, and Bruce Rauner did the same in President Barack Obama’s home state of Illinois. Baker, Hogan and Rauner will face Democratic legislatures that will circumscribe what they might accomplish. But, like Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, they’ll have an opportunity to put a distinctive conservative twist on blue-state policy. One place where they might act is pensions: Maryland’s public sector pensions face a $20.8 billion unfunded liability and Massachusetts’s a larger $28.1 billion. Whether these new governors try to make a mark on education remains to be seen, but it can provide fertile ground for a Republican trying to find common cause with centrist Democrats.


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5) Whither federal policy?: When Republicans captured the U.S. Senate, it meant that Lamar Alexander, former U.S. Secretary of Education and governor of Tennessee, was in line to take the reins of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee. Alexander has made it clear that he’d like to reauthorize the troubled No Child Left Behind Act and put an end to the Obama administration’s efforts to serve as what he’s termed “a national school board.”

In 2011, Alexander introduced a reauthorization bill that would dramatically reduce the federal role in K-12 schooling. Alexander would have prohibited any federal effort to wade into “state standards, assessments” or “teacher and principal evaluation systems.” This would slam the brakes on much of what the Obama administration has sought to do through its Race to the Top program and related efforts. In 2013, the House passed a similar bill, the Student Success Act. With a Republican majority and Alexander at the helm of HELP, it is possible that a bill calling for a drastically more circumscribed role for the Department of Education might move forward.

A surprising beneficiary of Alexander’s efforts might be the Common Core. A major concern for conservative critics has been the Obama administration’s efforts to use federal authority to encourage states to adopt the Common Core. Should Alexander and his House counterparts succeed at clearly reining in the Obama administration, it might help Common Core advocates allay conservative concerns.

Note, though, that Alexander’s committee handles “health” as well as education. You don’t have to be a political junkie to know that the new Republican majority is going to have a lot to say on the subject of Obamacare, which might make it hard for Alexander’s committee to devote as much time and attention to schools and colleges as he might wish.

This was not an election about education. But it should be no surprise that the nation’s schools and colleges, which together constitute the largest piece of state spending, will be front and center when determining what the results mean for the nation’s families.

via What the GOP’s 2014 Midterm Win Means for Education – US News.

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