Will Education Save The Democrats?

Jeff Bryant

When evidence emerged a month ago that education is the top “turnout message” for the Democratic Party in the upcoming election, some candidates may have chosen to act on that information.

Indeed, Democratic-leaning activists have stepped up their ground game to make support for public education a wedge issue in campaigns around the country. And the fate of some Democratic candidates could rely on how they play an education card in their contests.

Should the actions of grassroots public schools supporters help bail out the campaigns of some Democratic candidates, there are lessons to be learned and potentially intriguing shifts in how the Democratic Party treats education policy ahead.

Education Is A Top-Tier Issue

Crack reporter Stephanie Simon at Politico recently explained, “In Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, Republicans are on the defensive about education. It isn’t usually a top-tier concern for voters, but Democrats see issues such as college affordability and K-12 funding as their best chance to motivate the on-again, off-again voters who often sit out midterms.”

Simon quoted from research conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, first reported on the Education Opportunity Network website, showing, “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).”

Simon also cited the work of Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg, who “found that unmarried women in North Carolina and Georgia were particularly swayed by messages about expanding access to early childhood education. In Iowa and Colorado, affordable college loans hit the mark. Combining those issues with an appeal to raise the minimum wage, they wrote, creates a ‘powerful, populist opportunity to shift the vote.'”

In Senate races, where education is less apt to be an issue, among the most contested races, the one where Democrats seemed best positioned to win, Sen. Kay Hagen’s reelection in North Carolina, education has been an especially prominent issue. The Hagan campaign even ran radio ads on the subject specifically targeting African-American voters.

A Wave Of New Democratic State Governors?

The Democratic party is plowing especially promising ground in state gubernatorial races while using education issues a fertilizer.

As journalist Sam Wang recently reported for The New Republic, “Much of the chatter about next month’s midterm election has focused on Republican gains in the Senate, possibly enough to take control of the chamber … But an examination of governors’ races around the country paints a different picture – one that is potentially good for Democrats.”

Wang found evidence of “weakness in the Republican field in five states – Alaska, Pennsylvania, Maine, Illinois, and Rhode Island – and eight states where the candidates are either tied or within 1 percentage point or less of each other.

Voter anger at incumbents and at Republican governors who rejected Medicaid expansion included in the Affordable Care Act may be what has put Republicans in hot water, according to Wang.

But among the states that are either leaning Democratic or are too close to call, according to Wang’s calculations, support for public education could be a deciding issue.

Education has made some Republican incumbents especially vulnerable, Politico’s Simon noted in the article cited above. “Pennsylvania’s Corbett, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker,” Simon said, “all have been forced to spend considerable time – and campaign dollars – knocking back attacks on their education policies.”

In the Florida race, according to a report in Education Week, the candidates, Republican incumbent Scott and Democratic challenger and former Gov. Charlie Crist, are both “attempting to outdo the other with pledges of greater financial support for schools battered by the recent recession.”

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Corbett is far behind in the polls and has even lost the support of a significant percentage of Republicans in part because of how much he cut education funding.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scot Walker, a presidential aspirant, faces a tough challenge from Democrat Mary Burke, a school board member from Madison who has pointedly disagreed with Walker on the issue of school funding.

Early childhood education has risen to prominence in many contests, as Politico recently reported. “Voters in three key election battleground states want to invest more in early childhood education, according to new polls. In Florida, Ohio, and Colorado, voters said one of their top priorities is giving children a strong start at life so they can succeed in school and the workplace.”

Similarly, Education Week reported that polling conducted recently found, “A majority of voters in five battleground states … support expanding early-learning programs such as preschool and home-visiting programs,” adding Georgia and North Carolina to the states Politico cited.

College student loan debt is another voter concern propelling many Democratic candidates’ platforms. A recent analysis at Inside Higher Ed found the issue has gotten prominent attention from Democratic candidates in senate races, particularly due to the numerous appearances of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in campaign rallies.

The analysis stated, “In a handful of competitive races, Democrats are aiming to tie GOP candidates to student aid cuts in the budget proposed by Representative Paul Ryan, a prominent Republican advocate of reducing federal spending, and also pouncing on calls by some Tea Party-backed candidates to shutter the federal Education Department.”

Reporter Michael Stratford found examples of Democratic appeals to voter concerns over student loans in races in Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, South Dakota, and California.

Grassroots Pressure For Education

Democratic-leaning interests groups have added to the pressure for candidates to support public schools. Teachers’ unions in particular are pulling out all the stops this election in their effort to make many of the contests about education.

Another report from Education Week found, “Teachers’ unions, hoping to affect education policy at the state and local levels, are expecting to pour more money into those campaigns in the 2014 midterm elections than ever before,” with record-setting amounts of $60 million in total from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The reporter, Lauren Camera, noted the unions are especially focused on defeating Republican incumbent governors, particularly in in Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

It’s tough to determine how much influence the money from the teachers’ unions will have on the elections.

As the Education Week article noted, influential advocacy groups that generally oppose an agenda to support public schools and classroom teachers – including Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, and StudentsFirst – are throwing large amounts of money into races as well. And as a post at Media Matters reported, right-wing organizations backed by the Koch brothers and Karl Rove are significantly out-spending teachers unions in races, such as the senate contest in North Carolina where their contributions are three times the amount of what the unions have mustered.

Nevertheless, this groundswell of money represents a calculated belief that education has become an electoral issue to an extent it never has before. In fact, environmental groups and women’s groups are also running education spots in some contests.

What This Could Mean

It’s certainly too early to tell what the effects of all this education agitation will produce – in terms of not only the fate of the candidates involved in these races, but also the direction of education policy after the elections are over. Yet there are intriguing potentials to consider.

For one, while education has risen to prominence in many of the midterm races, the way candidates have pitched the issue has a unifying theme regardless of party.

That was the conclusion of two policy analysts from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Frederick M. Hess and Max Eden, who looked at the campaign websites for the 139 major party candidates for governor and U.S. senator.

Their findings, which appeared at The Washington Post, were that the education issues most in vogue in the prevailing policy status quo were absent from the candidates’ platforms. “Topics familiar to education reformers seem foreign to sitting and aspiring governors,” the pair of analysts wrote. Many of the pet projects that policy leaders in the Beltway and state capitals have been so enamored with – “teacher tenure reform … charter schools … choice” – barely appeared.

Even support or opposition to the Common Core – certainly the topic most in the news of late – failed to register as rallying cries, either for or against, in the majority of the candidates’ platforms.

One issue, however, did dominate the agenda: “Just over half the candidates for governor – for whom K-12 and higher education will prove to be the largest budget item – call for increasing education funding.”

So if we are to take these candidates at their word, does that foretell a rush of new funding for schools two years from now?

Another intriguing potential result arising from some races has more to do with the relationship of Democratic candidates and their grassroots base, particularly classroom teachers.

As Politico reported, some of the Democratic candidates the teachers’ unions have buttressed have not always been very reliable supporters of teachers.

In Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn “has done plenty to anger teachers unions, starting with cutting their pension benefits,” yet “teachers, are rushing to his side” with a contribution of more than $5 million” into the fight to re-elect him.

“Similar dynamics are at play in Connecticut,” Politico noted. “Educators were furious with Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy over remarks he made in 2012 suggesting that teachers earned tenure simply by showing up for work … But labor leaders deem Malloy better for unions than his rival, Republican Tom Foley.”

Also in Colorado, teacher unions are “rallying behind” Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who angered teachers with new evaluations based in part on student tests scores. Yet now, “the Colorado Education Association has been warning members that Republican candidate Bob Beauprez would divert public resources to vouchers.”

Should these Democratic candidates prevail, how would teachers’ loyal support affect the entrenched indifference toward classroom teachers that has become so characteristic of the Democratic Party?

Intriguing questions for sure, but one conclusion seems certain either way: Voters’ concerns for public education seem here to stay. Get used to it.

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