Washington observers describe the 2018 midterm elections as a watershed moment for public school education.
Throughout 2018, a general frustration with public school funding sparked protests while teachers nationwide went on strike. Former teachers and principals took to the campaign trail and, in some cases, bested incumbents to win legislative and gubernatorial seats.
More than 1,800 educators ran for office this cycle, including 177 teachers running for state legislator. Nearly a quarter of these candidates won their races in last November’s elections.
“They were so moved and put their names on the ballot,” Lily Eskelsen GarcÁa, president of the National Education Association, said at a postelection event held by the Education Writers Association (EWA). “We know that it changed the policy conversation completely.”
Wisconsin’s new Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the state’s former superintendent of public instruction, pledged to raise state funding for districts that provide pre-K schooling for 4-year-olds.
In Rhode Island, re-elected Democratic Gov. Gina M. Raimondo established a workforce board that will partner with K12 systems to improve access to career readiness programs.
The implications of the midterm elections for key issues, such as school finance, teacher pay, testing and accountability, and school choice, are not yet clear. But some inside-the-Beltway experts agree that the results represent a shift in decision-making authority—from the federal government to state and local levels.
“The D.C.-centric days of education policymaking are over,” said Scott Pattison, executive director and CEO of the National Governors Association, who advises governors on matters facing states, including K12 education.
Both at the federal and state levels, Democrats have held little power in the past several years. But Democrats reclaimed nearly 40 seats to take over the U.S. House of Representatives, and flipped more than 300 state legislative seats. As the balance of power shifts in state houses, 20 newly elected governors, seven of whom are Democrats, will take office in January. Many will appoint new board of education members early in their terms. Two states will welcome new education chiefs.
“This year’s election made clear that policy debates will move out of Washington, D.C., and out of state boards, and into state capitols,” said Caroline Hendrie, EWA’s executive director.
The following are some reflections on what the results may mean for K12 education and policy for the new year.
K12 state spending
Similar to past elections, education funding was a top issue among statewide ballot measures. In Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah, voters struck down proposals to increase state education funding by raising taxes. Georgia voters passed an amendment allowing school districts to call for a sales tax referendum. Meanwhile, Maryland voters greenlighted a measure allocating increased gambling revenues to public education. State education bond measures succeeded in New Jersey, New Mexico and Rhode Island.
School finance was a topic much discussed in 2018. States are facing increased pressures to ensure adequate and equitable funding formulas. The Every Student Succeeds Act requirement that states must disclose money spent on individual schools takes effect in 2019. This will bring greater scrutiny of overhead costs, administrator and teacher pay, and other investments in teaching and learning.
Ballot measures that were approved in Idaho, Utah and Nebraska proposed to expand Medicaid coverage, which includes the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP provides health coverage to 9 million kids whose families earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but too little to afford private insurance. These results will likely impact provider participation.
Congressional Democrats may push for an infrastructure bill in 2019. It could allocate money to local school districts to modernize facilities. The question will be how much, since transportation, information technology and broadband will likely be included in a package.
Opioids emerged as a major issue in the midterm elections, and it was the fourth most-discussed topic among gubernatorial candidates. Some proposed expanding anti-opioid education programs in schools.
Increased federal oversight
With the House under Democratic control, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to face more scrutiny in 2019. Department officials may get called to testify before Congress on issues related to ESSA. Civil rights groups, for instance, have urged lawmakers to increase oversight on whether states are adhering to the law’s requirement to hold schools accountable to students’ success, particularly minorities, low-income populations, students with disabilities, and English language learners. This, and other issues, may come under investigation.