Democrats Can Win if They Lead on Education

Jeff Bryant

While progressives lament their recent failure in an Illinois primary to knock out Dan Lipinski – a conservative, anti-abortion, Congressional Democrat who voted against the Affordable Care Act – they mostly fail to note where and how they won elsewhere in the state.

Zaid Jiani reports for The Intercept that there were numerous progressive “upstart candidates” further down the ballot in Illinois who beat more established Democrats, including Aaron Ortiz in a State House race, Fritz Kaegi for Cook County Assessor, and Brandon Johnson in a Cook County Commissioner contest. Delia Ramirez also won running as a progressive in a State House primary without an incumbent.

These victors had a number of things in common, including endorsements from labor unions and progressive advocacy organizations. But another startling commonality among at least three of the four candidates was a strong support for public schools – Ortiz, Ramirez, and Johnson all made increased funding for public schools key stances in their races. Ortiz and Johnson are public school teachers, and Ramirez pledged to “protect our public-school system from corporate interests which attack teachers and students to destabilize public neighborhood schools and profit from privatizing education.”

Contrast the victors’ strong stances for public schools to Lipinski’s failed challenger, Marie Newman, whose education platform was about “education that leads to real jobs” – a position suitable for a Republican candidate to run on.

Education First

These examples from Illinois align with electoral contests around the country.

In high-profile Democratic party primaries, education has become a significant issue that progressive candidates are using to challenge more conservative, establishment Democrats. There’s also ample evidence education could be a key issue for Democrats to use against their Republican opponents in midterm general elections in November.

But getting the education issue right – something Democrats have not been very good at – will be key.

Education is definitely on voters’ minds. According to a recent survey by Pew Research, 72 percent of the American public rank education as a top priority for the country, behind only one other issue, terrorism, and ahead of the economy and healthcare.

Further, with the ascension of the deeply unpopular Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to President Trump’s cabinet, Democrats are making her an issue in state and local elections and invoking her name in fundraising emails to whip up opposition to centrist Democrats and Republicans.

Virginia, New York and California

Education is already a key issue in Virginia where Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam beat former Congressional Representative Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary in part because Northam has been strongly committed to funding public schools while Perriello has courted the charter school industry.

With education as Virginia voters’ “top concern,” according to at least one poll, Northam went on to win the governor’s race against a Republican opponent tagged as a “clone of Betsy DeVos.”

Education is also a prominent issue in Democratic contests for governor in New York and California.

In the Empire State, actress and public school advocate Cynthia Nixon is challenging sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic party primary. So far, she has aimed her attacks on Cuomo mostly at the chronic under-funding of public schools that has taken place under his regime and his cooperation with state Republican senators who are now pushing to fund school safety measures that include more armed guards in schools rather than counselors and other student supports.

In the primary contest for governor of California, education could be the deciding factor among the three top candidates, former Los Angles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and State Treasurer John Chiang – all Democrats (California’s primary elections have a top-two design that virtually ensures no Republicans will be in the general election).

Big money interests that back the state’s charter school industry have coalesced behind Villaraigosa while Newsom and Chiang have called for more charter school accountability.

The power of education to be a determining factor in primary contests also holds true for elections where Democrats face Republicans.

A Way to Beat Republicans

Democrats, and even many Republicans, are expecting 2018 to be a wave election favoring blue candidates

Democrats can indeed deliver a beating to Republicans in the 2018 mid-term: since the Civil War, the President’s party, with the exception of two years, has lost seats in both the House and the Senate in midterm elections.

At the state level, this could also be a year of big changes. Of the ninety-nine state chambers in the U.S., eighty-seven are in play. The total number of potential contested seats is 6,066—about 82 percent of the nation’s state legislative seats, over 100 more than were contested in 2016. And thirty-six gubernatorial seats will be up for grabs—there were only 11 in 2016.

Republicans have made themselves especially vulnerable on the issue of school funding by imposing years of financial austerity on schools. Aware of this vulnerability, Republican governors in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere are already flipping their austerity scripts to highlight what budget increases they have pushed in their states, even though these increases still haven’t brought education funding up to pre-recession levels of 2008.

A good indicator of an oncoming blue wave continues to be the number of special elections where Democratic candidates have flipped a Republican seat to their party’s side – at least 39 state legislative races so far.

in a much-publicized upset win for a Democratic candidate in a Wisconsin special election to replace an incumbent Republican State Senator in a strong pro-Trump district, former school board member Patty Schachtner made education her top issue, campaigning to “restore funding for our local schools” and “maintain curriculum, services, and extracurricular opportunities for our kids.”

In another example of a Democrat flipping a traditionally GOP-held office, Margaret Good triumphed over her Republican opponent for a Florida State House seat in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 13,000. Good made support for education a top issue, with pledges to “ensure that our public schools are fully funded … to provide wrap-around services at local schools,” and to oppose “taxpayer dollars to fund for-profit charter schools.”

In a Kentucky House special election, former teacher Linda Belcher flipped the seat from Republican to Democratic in part by pledging to secure more funding for local public schools and infrastructure. The district had gone for Trump over Hillary Clinton by 72 percent to 23 percent.

in Conor Lamb’s winning campaign to upset a Republican in a Congressional special election in a deeply conservative Pennsylvania district he used an ad in which he talked about his brother and sister serving as school teachers but not getting the respect that he got for being in the military.

A Winning Issue If …

Education is the Democratic party’s “winning issue hiding in plain sight,” writes New York Times columnist David Leonhardt.

Leonhardt points to the Senate special election in Alabama where Democratic upstart Doug Jones beat Trump-backed conservative firebrand Roy Moore. He cites the effectiveness of an ad run by the Jones campaign that appealed to voters’ high priority for education.

But Leonhardt demonstrates his consistently poor grasp of education issues when he recommends, based on his observations of the Jones campaign, that Democrats pledge their support for “big, ambitious ideas” such as “universal preschool” and “universal tuition-free community college.”

However, the ad he lauds clearly doesn’t confine education to the early and post-secondary years. And what, pray tell, should Democrats propose for the 13 years in between pre-K and college?

Similarly, the Center for American Progress, in anticipation of a Democratic sweep in the 2018 elections, recently outlined “7 great education policy ideas for progressives in 2018” that are mostly reflective of lefty pundits and policy makers rather than what’s percolating from the ground up from voters and the campaigns run by progressive Democrats.

For instance, CAP’s proposals for paying teachers more, fixing decaying school buildings, and creating safe and healthy school environments seem in line with grassroots education advocates, but curiously absent from CAP’s “great ideas” are proposals to adequately and equitably fund schools across the board, create more community schools with wraparound services for disadvantaged kids, and resist the creeping privatization of public education through the charter school industry and school voucher programs.

Grassroots progressive Democrats are telling the party’s establishment how it can lead and win on education issues. What’s not clear is if the party’s pundit and policy apparatus is willing to listen.

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