This Election Is About School Funding & Democratic Control of Education

Jeff Bryant

If you’re one of those voters who’s been frustrated by the lack of media coverage of serious policy issues in this year’s presidential election, you can look down ballot for meaningful debates on meatier topics in a number of other races.

The news outlet Vox provides a video review of the important down-ballot races highlighting issues in play such as women’s reproductive rights, labor, taxes, government spending, heath care, minimum wages, gun control and marijuana legalization. Its review of state judicial races touches on the impact courts have on critical issues such as marriage equality, green energy, and abortion.

But for some reason, Vox completely ignores education. This is stupid.

Because education is the number one or two spending priority in state budgets, competing with health care, education is often a heated topic in gubernatorial races. Similarly in state legislative races, as many as 18 legislative chambers in 12 states could switch party control, including Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Washington, and Wisconsin. Candidates for these offices are generally expected to make their views about public schools a matter of priority in their platforms.

In state judicial races, which the video puts special emphasis on, Vox chose to completely ignore one of the most contentious races in the nation in Washington state, where proponents of charter schools have spent hundreds of thousands to unseat two incumbent State Supreme Court judges. And perhaps most astonishing, Vox provides a brief overview of ballot referendums across the states and completely ignores the colossal contest in Massachusetts, where a proposal to lift a cap on charter schools in that state has generated at least $50 million in campaign spending.

For a run-down of contests where education matters most, Education Week provides an election guide with an extensive review that includes races at all levels, including state education chiefs and school boards.

In a companion article, the reporters see education issues “getting a relatively large amount of attention in states such as California, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Oklahoma,” and in other states, the outcome of many contests “could have a major impact on approaches lawmakers take” to implement the new federal legislation replacing No Child Left Behind Act.

What you’ll notice, if you happen to drill down into the individual races, is that two recurring themes are 1) Who controls schools, and 2) How to save schools from a persistent funding crisis.

Challenging Privatization

In the case of the two ballot measures in Massachusetts and Washington highlighted above, control over local schools hangs precariously in the balance.

In Massachusetts, ballot measure Question 2 allows the state to approve 12 new charter schools a year and hand control of many more public schools to privately operated boards with virtually no local control. Thirty Massachusetts mayors and over 200 local school committees oppose the measure.

Backed by Republican Governor Charlie Baker, a slew of big money coming from charter proponents outside the Bay State is vastly outspending an opposition led by grassroots parent and pubic school advocacy groups funded by state and national teachers’ unions. Prominent progressives such as the state’s senator Elizabeth Warren have expressed opposition to Question 2, with former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders calling it an attempt by Wall Street to “highjack public education.”

The latest poll shows voters are evenly split with 45 percent of voters in favor of passing and 45 percent opposed.

In Washington, the fight over democratic control of schools pits charter proponents against supporters of public schools as well. In this case, funders of the charter school industry – such as Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen and other major contributors to previous attempts to force charters on the state – have contributed over $500,000 to a campaign to unseat current Supreme Court Judges who upheld lower court decisions ruling the method for funding charters in Washington unconstitutional.

In Georgia, a fight against charter takeovers of public schools in the state is in opposition to a ballot referendum, called Amendment 1, that would install a state agency to take over the lowest performing school districts in the state and hand them over to private management groups. Again, money from charter proponents, such as members of the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and dark money groups, are pouring money into the state to pass Amendment 1 while teachers unions and public school advocacy groups support a local opposition.

The fight for community voice in public schools is affecting congressional and state legislative races too.

In Ohio, US Senate challenger Ted Strickland has accused his incumbent opponent Rob Portman of allowing the state to be “raped by for-profit charter school firms.”

In New York, what may be the “biggest House race of 2016,” according to my colleague Bill Scher, pits Zephyr Teachout, an ally of Bernie Sanders, against her Republican opponent John Faso, who is firmly tied to Wall Street investment firms and the state’s political establishment. Democratic control of schools is an important differential in the race. As reporters from Education Week explain, while Faso has been a big proponent of charter schools, Teachout has maintained her strong support for public education and her opposition to top-down education mandates coming from her state and the federal government.

At the state level, in New York, charter proponents connected to Wall Street investment firms, including hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, have joined with Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton to pump millions into legislative races to elect candidates sympathetic to their cause while public school advocates wage a grassroots campaign to support backers of local schools.

Charter schools have also become a bone of contention among candidates for legislative offices in Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Arizona. In each case, local public school advocates have joined with teachers to contend with big money donors who want to wrestle control of local schools away from democratic rule to hand it over to private management.

As journalist Jon Marcus for online education news outlet TES writes, these fights for local control over increasing privatization “speak to the high stakes for public schools” and the fear of “for-profit education providers, which covet the contracts under which they may be brought in to operate some charter schools. It’s another vestige of the widening ideological divide in the United States.”

Calling For Increased School Funding

When charters and democratic control of schools aren’t points of contention, education funding is equally if not more prominent in down-ballot elections.

In Oklahoma, an effort to pass ballot referendum Question 779 would increase the state’s sales tax from 8 percent to 9 percent in order to provide, among other things, a $5,000 raise for teachers in the coming year. Oklahoma, according to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has cut state general funding per pupil for education deeper than any other state, slashing nearly 27 percent from its budget since 2008.

In Oregon, Measure 97 would impose a 2.5 percent tax on corporate gross sales that exceed $25 million to provide $3 billion worth of revenue to the state. According to the New York Times, passing the measure “would create the biggest tide of new tax revenue in any state in the nation” to benefit public schools, health-care services, and services for senior citizens.

In California, Proposition 51 would authorize $9 billion in bonds for school construction and modernization, including $3 billion for new construction and $3 billion for modernization of public school facilities to relieve school crowding, make schools safer, and upgrade classrooms to modern standards and technology. Although as much as $1 billion generated by the bonds could be diverted to charter schools and vocational education facilities, the measure has drawn support from public school advocates such as the Network for Public Education.

At the federal level, Democrats have a good chance of retaking the majority in the Senate. While education has not been a prominent issue in many Senate races, there are important consequences should the liberal party retake control of the Senate. Imagine, for instance, the possibilities should Bernie Sanders take over leadership of the Senate committee determining education related legislation.

In governors’ races, North Carolina has become not only one of the most contested races in the country but also a race where education funding has played a dominant role in the debate. As state-based media outlets report, the sparring is over issues of funding for teacher pay, school supplies and textbooks, and pre-k programs.

In state legislative races, Colorado is a state where Democrats have a good chance to take control of the state capital, which will likely, in turn, according to a prominent state media outlet, “almost certainly free up more money for schools in the short-term.”

Get Out And Vote

The above review doesn’t take into account the many school board elections across the nation where local leadership of education often hangs in the balance as advocates for privatizing schools spend big bucks to promote their candidates.

But if you’re discouraged about the lack of substance in this year’s presidential race, there are ample opportunities to support candidates and measures down ballot that will determine the course of education policy, and thus affect the well being of children and the future of our nation.

So go vote.

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