In President Obama’s stunningly convincing reelection, only part of his education policies got reaffirmed — the part he talked about most of the time during the campaign.
Meanwhile, the president’s policies known to align with what is commonly called “education reform” — which closely adheres to Beltway conventional wisdom and the druthers of rich folks — appear to have little support on the ground.
His return to office is undoubtedly due, in part, to most Americans agreeing with his assertion that education is an essential “investment” in the future of our country.
Certainly, the President’s support for spending on public education was a hit with minorities, single moms, and young voters — communities tending to value education — who showed up big for the president.
This is not to say that support for Obama’s spending on investing in education is something that unifies the country. Also on the ballot in many states on Election Day were a number of state initiatives related to education funding that experienced mixed fates with voters.
For instance, California’s Proposition 30, which provides new funding that prevents “massive” cuts to education programs, passed with a comfortable, 54 percent, margin.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, voters rejected an extension of a sales tax increase that would have provided millions in additional money for public schools.
While voters in Portland, Oregon agreed to tax themselves to help pay for arts education, voters in South Dakota voted down a one-percent sales tax increase that would have given schools approximately $725 more per student annually.
But make no mistake about it — the issue of funding public education mostly falls along the red state vs. blue state divide. And with the nation’s demographics on the whole clearly trending toward a blue state profile, the future of public education funding seems to be mostly a matter of getting politicians to act on the will of the people. Tough to do, for sure, but pretty clear-cut.
However, the other part of Obama’s education policy — the part he didn’t talk about very much during the campaign — didn’t fare so well on Election Day.
That part — his agenda of standardization, test-driven outcomes, and alternatives to traditional public schools — mostly took a beating. And unlike the coalition that backed public education spending, opposition to top-down mandates imposed on local schools is anything but predictable. In fact, the forces are exceedingly diverse, grassroots, and “purple” — rather than sharply red or blue — in their make up. And their presence and force is growing and spreading.
What Happened In Indiana
This opposition was particularly potent in Indiana, where the state’s voters, in rejecting Obama, also rejected his education policy as well, even though, in this case, to do so meant to split their tickets and cross the party line to vote for a Democratic candidate.
The Republican was Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett, who had been on the frontline of implementing education policies very similar to Obama’s education policies, most notably Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards.
Bennett’s Democratic opponent Glenda Ritz, on the other hand, “campaigned on halting those reforms, saying they were misguided and pushed through too quickly.”
A county-by-county analysis reveals that Bennett, whose campaign raised four times as much money as Ritz’s, was beaten in places where conservative Republicans split their tickets and joined members of the state teachers union, parent activists, and public school supporters in opposition to Bennett.
Indiana NPR attributed these results to Hoosiers’ preference for “local control” of their schools.
Another observer on the ground, journalism professor John Krull, concluded, “People voted against Bennett because no one had explained to them in any sort of detail how giving grades to schools or creating a voucher program without testing it really would help their children and grandchildren.”
Indeed, when did Obama’s reelection campaign ever explain exactly how Race to the Top will help children and grandchildren?
But back to the election, Indiana wasn’t the only red state to vote purple on education.
What Happened Elsewhere
In Idaho, Republicans again crossed party lines to join teachers unions and public school advocates to vote down propositions that favored what’s come to be called “education reform.”
As Diane Ravitch explained on her blog, these propositions would have “imposed a mandate for online courses for high school graduates (a favorite of candidates funded by technology companies), made test scores the measure of teacher quality, provided bonuses for teachers whose students got higher scores, removed all teacher rights, eliminated anything resembling tenure or seniority, turned teachers into at-will employees, and squashed the teachers’ unions.”
But despite, more likely because, of their “reforminess,” these measure went down.
Similar to the Idaho referendum that would erode teachers’ job security and working conditions, a state ballot measure in South Dakota that would have reduced teacher job security and given bonuses to teachers based on student test scores also went down in flames.
Reform enthusiasts, in their defense, are going to point to the passage of charter school ballot measures in Georgia and Washington as proof that their agenda is prevailing. Charter schools indeed have been heavily promoted by the Obama administration.
But let’s be clear-eyed about the election results of charter school initiatives. In Georgia, although voters decided, with 58 percent in favor, to create a new state agency to approve charter schools that are rejected by their local school boards and by the state board of education, the ballot language “was deceptive, confusing, and misleading to Georgia voters” and will likely be challenged in court.
In Washington, the vote remained a “cliffhanger” until the very end and exemplified that charters may be “the most controversial issue of the 2012 vote.”
The Great Education Divide
Many observers, including journalists at The Wall Street Journal, have accurately surmised that the American public is currently deeply divided on education policy. But that analysis barely scratches the surface.
Go much deeper and you find that the “new liberal consensus” that Adam Serwer wrote about in Mother Jones, which propelled Obama into a second term, believes in funding the nation’s public schools but has little to no allegiance to Obama’s education reform policies.
Outside of the elite circles of the Beltway and the very rich, who continue to be the main proponents of these education policies, it is getting harder and harder to discern who exactly is the constituency being served by Obama’s reform agenda.
Most Americans do not understand where there is any evidence that punitive measures aimed at their local schools are in any way beneficial to their children and grand children. In fact, there’s some reasonable doubt whether the president himself understands it.
In Obama’s victory speech, he spoke about listening and learning from the people who have voted for him. He also spoke, again, of being president not just for the blue states or the red states but for the United States.
So maybe now he will hear this: With the exception of your support for education funding, your education policies are generally not backed by the people of the United States. Period.