Education played a much smaller role than expected in Tuesday’s midterm elections following teacher strikes this year. Activists hoped a pro-education wave would wash over state capitols and, in some cases, governors’ mansions. But the advocacy championed by teachers unions had mixed results.
They scored their biggest win in Wisconsin, where Democratic education chief Tony Evers ousted incumbent Republican Gov. Scott Walker, whose right-to-work policies made him enemy No. 1 for the unions. Educators also helped influence the gubernatorial race in Kansas, where they favored Democrat Laura Kelly, who won out over Republican Kris Kobach. Education policy analyst Rick Hess with the American Enterprise Institute called those two victories significant for teacher unions and activists.
But states that saw the most teacher-related activism last spring didn’t see a so-called “education wave.” In Oklahoma, where teachers lobbied for and got an increase in education funding, Republican Kevin Stitt defeated Democrat Drew Edmondson, who promised to raise taxes to increase teacher pay. Teachers unions also failed to oust Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who became a foil for activist teachers during that state’s strikes. Ducey eventually backed raises for teachers, but opponents said he should have done more to advocate for education funding. Teachers unions backed Ducey’s Democratic opponent, professor and education policy analyst David Garcia.
While a majority of Arizona voters opted to support Ducey’s plan to increase education funding while cutting taxes—a seemingly difficult task—they struck down a school choice measure he supported. Public school advocates challenged a legislature-approved plan to expand education savings accounts to all students, collecting enough signatures earlier this year to get a repeal initiative on Tuesday’s ballot. The measure would have created the most expansive school choice program in the country.
Colorado teachers also rallied this spring, shutting down some of the state’s largest districts for several days to protest low classroom funding. They insisted the state needed to raise taxes on the wealthy to generate more money for education. Tuesday’s ballot included a referendum that would have done just that, raising an estimated $1.6 billion. Colorado voters rejected it.
“Education matters the most when both parties are trying to play to the middle,” Hess said during a Wednesday morning post-election forum. “And this was not an election about running to the center. It was about energizing the base.”
When it comes to national education policy, the new House-Senate party divide in Washington could result in two years of lawmaking gridlock. But Lanae Erickson, a policy analyst with the left-leaning think tank Third Way, said Republicans and Democrats might find some common ground on higher education reforms. Issues like accountability for colleges and universities and student loan reforms have enough universal appeal that they could at least unite moderates from both parties.
“A bunch of different kinds of groups have interests here,” she said. “It’s a Rubik’s cube you might be able to move around.”
Other reforms championed by President Donald Trump, including Title IX regulations involving campus sexual assaults and gender identity, along with any kind of federal school choice initiative, are likely dead on arrival.
Erickson predicted news reports over the next two years will most often refer to the Education Department as “embattled,” with Secretary Betsy DeVos getting called to Capitol Hill more often than during her first two years on the job.
At the state level, Aaliyah Samuel with the National Governors Association said post-election policy reforms likely will focus on the intersection of education, workforce, and the economy: “Bipartisan areas of agreement are a good place to start with governors.”