Is it possible that education is the issue that will determine whether results of the upcoming election swing the United States Senate to Republican Party control? Will there be a dramatic change in party control of state governors' offices because of how candidates stand on supporting pubic schools?
As the November contests approach, these are valid questions, according to keen observers and a confluence of new polling data. Education, often thought of as an also-run issue in the political arena, is top of mind to voters approaching the November contests.
Both anecdotal information and empirical data drawn from surveys confirm that voters don’t just value public education; they want candidates who will support classroom teachers and oppose funding cuts to public schools. The evidence is strong that Democrats can make support for public education a winning issue – if they're willing to take the advice.
New Polling Data: Democrats Are In Trouble
Democrats looking to score points with the voting public should talk up public education. At least that's the conclusion that can be drawn from new survey data from pollster Celinda Lake.
Lake's presentation of her findings, "Challenges and a Winning Message for 2014 and Beyond," were delivered in a private meeting brought together by two Washington, DC-based progressive organizations, Campaign for America's Future and the Economic Policy Institute. [disclosure: CAF is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network]
The poll was conducted by Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group from August 24th – August 28th, among 1,000 likely 2014 voters, with a margin of error +/- 3.1%.
The first conclusion Lake drew from her findings is hardly surprising: "Voters are pessimistic about their personal financial situation." The vast majority of Americans feel their own personal economic situations have gotten worse (36 percent) or stayed the same (35 percent) over the past four years.
Other non-surprises are that voters are preoccupied with the economy and the ineffectiveness of their government, and they are increasingly concerned about immigration.
Most voters disapprove of the way President Obama has addressed jobs, the economy, foreign policy, and other issues. In a generic Congressional contest, Democrats lose. And voter disenchantment has led to a stasis in which "they care more about thwarting the other side than supporting their own party's policies," thereby "endorsing gridlock."
Democrats desperately need to turn out the vote from the "rising American electorate" that includes unmarried women, African Americans and Latinos, and voters under 30. These voters want a government that does something to reduce the gap between the rich and everyone else and addresses the problems of the middle class. But these voters are also notoriously difficult to turn out in mid-term elections.
These voters are concerned that a Republican Senate would restrict women’s reproductive health (58 percent), cut access to health care (58 percent), deny equal pay to women (57 percent), and cut funding for Head Start and K-12 education (57 percent).
But what are the positive messages that will get these Democratic Party voters to turn out?
Education Is The Top "Turnout Message"
Education is not often viewed as a hot button issue that will turn out voters. Thus, candidates often mouth virtually identical platitudes about education being "a way out of poverty" and "America's great equalizer." Then after the election, they proceed to cut funding for public schools and saddle classroom teachers with more and more burdensome "accountability."
But 2014 may be different.
According to Lake's research, "The top testing turnout message overall emphasizes education, specifically Republicans’ efforts to cut programs for students while giving tax cuts to the wealthy. This message is the strongest argument for coming out to vote in all of the states except Colorado (where it ranks second, just behind a message focused on how Republicans are working to turn back the clock on women's rights)."
Taking a strong stance for "education and public schools" was far and away the message that most survey responders found "very convincing."
Further, Lake found that the "turnout message" with the greatest "intensity was:
Education & Public Schools
Republicans keep cutting education and attacking public schools, hurting our ability to compete economically and taking away opportunities for our children. Republicans proposed cutting billions in public education, including programs like Head Start, to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. That hurts our children, as good teachers leave, class sizes increase, art and music programs disappear, and schools become less safe. Families are struggling, paying for basic supplies, and seeing their schools decline. Those priorities are just wrong.
Lake's work also examined more closely a potential target of "individuals who shift to higher interest (‘10’) in voting in November." This group is a significant part of the sample (39 percent), which tends to be women (62 percent), married (54 percent), and under the age of 40 (42 percent).
These voters are particularly moved by education messaging. They are concerned that a GOP takeover of the Senate would result in Republicans shutting down the government again (71 percent) and cutting funding for Head Start and K-12 education (71 percent).
"Two messages are particularly strong with this group," Lake found. "A message focusing on the middle class falling behind (73 percent very convincing) and the education message (72 percent)" were "the most effective with these targets."
After hearing messages that include strong support for public schools, 39 percent of these important voters say they are "very interested (rate '10') in voting this November." After being told the election in their state would "determine control of the U.S. Senate, 50 percent say they are very interested in voting."
Education Is Top Tier Election Issue
The discovery that Americans are highly supportive of public schools is nothing new. Recent polling results from the annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Towards the Public Schools show that Americans overwhelmingly support their public schools and respect classroom teachers.
That survey also found that a majority of Americans do not support current public education initiatives – such as new standards and teacher evaluations based on test scores – that most political candidates are touting as "reform." When asked what they think are the biggest problems that public schools in their community deal with, Americans of all political persuasions cite "lack of financial support" number one.
This strong support for public schools is having an impact on upcoming elections. As an experienced education journalist at Education Week recently observed, education is top issue in most important senate races in November.
"In North Carolina, candidates are locking horns over education spending and teacher pay; in Georgia, the Common Core State Standards are taking center stage; and in Iowa, higher education and student loans are the subject of the latest skirmish between Senate hopefuls."
The results of many of the gubernatorial races around the country also hinge on education.
In Georgia, education funding and the role of charter schools in the state's system have come to the fore in the contest between incumbent Republican Nathan Deal and Democratic challenger Jason Carter, a state senator and grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.
In Kansas, widespread voter anger over school closures and funding cuts have imperiled the reelection of Republican Governor Sam Brownback.
In Florida, Republican incumbent Rick Scott's support for new Common Core standards and his cuts in education spending have put him in hot water with a range of voters, from conservative Tea Party activists, to Independents, and Democratic Party voters alike.
In Pennsylvania, voters rank education as the most important issue, and current Republican Governor Tom Corbett has been rated "the most vulnerable governor in America" due in part to his support for severe cuts to education funding.
Whether Democrats can overcome the staggering odds against them this election remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: Democratic candidates in these contests and others need to make support for public education front-and-center of their campaigns.