Positive Developments for Public Education in Tuesday’s Election

Here are some Tuesday election results which will make a difference for public schools. Look at yesterday’s POLITICO Morning Education for a more complete summary of the election results for candidates who had made public education a priority and for the results of a broad array of education-related ballot issues.

Ballot Issues

Arizona Proposition 305, which would have expanded participation in a controversial Education Savings Account voucher program, failed by a 2:1 margin. The failure of Proposition 305 means that the enrollment cap on Arizona’s controversial neo-vouchers will not be lifted; the program will not be expanding. The Associated Press reports: “Arizona voters have rejected a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher program criticized as a move to drain money from public schools and give it to rich parents to fund their kids’ private school tuition.  Proposition 305 was placed on Tuesday’s ballot after educators collected enough signatures to block the 2017 expansion championed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.”

Proposition 305 was designed to block Governor Ducey’s 2017 expansion of a much smaller program.  Ducey’s plan—blocked when Proposition 305 was defeated—would have made all Arizona students eligible for the education debit-card program, but would have capped participation at 30,000.  Even with the cap, public school supporters explained, the vouchers would have further collapsed an already meager state education budget.

Kudos to Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots coalition of educators and parents who collected enough signatures to get Proposition 305 on the ballot and who beat an Americans for Prosperity-funded court challenge to block the measure. A recent state audit confirmed that the program Ducey was trying to expand has been almost a joke. The state’s education department uncovered that the state has been unable to impose even minimal regulation over the supposed “educational” services parents purchased or tried to purchase with their Education Savings Account debit cards.  The Arizona Republic explains: “The Auditor General found some parents used the ESA cards for transactions at beauty supply retailers, sports apparel shops and computer technical support providers.  Auditors also found repeated attempts by some parents to withdraw cash from the cards, which is not allowed and can result in getting kicked off the program.  The audit also concluded education officials did not properly monitor parents’ spending, even after questionable purchases were denied, including on music albums deemed noneducational, Blu-ray movies, cosmetics, and a transaction at a seasonal haunted house.”

In Maryland, Education Dive reports that voters approved a constitutional amendment to use casino revenue to create a supplemental education fund which is projected to grow to over $500 million by 2023.

In a more discouraging turn of events, however, Education Dive adds that voters in Colorado turned down Initiative 73, which, “would have raised $1.6 billion for a Quality Public Education Fund. The funds would have gone toward teacher salary increases and funding for preschoolers, gifted and talented students, and English learners.”  The measure would have amended the Colorado constitution to increase income taxes for households and corporations.

Education and Governors’ Races

In Wisconsin, after a governor’s race focused on education, the state’s current Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Evers beat incumbent Scott Walker, who cut taxes and the public education budget in 2011 and who passed a public sector right-to-work law in an effort to undermine teachers’ unions. The Madison Capital Times summarizes Evers’ resume: “Before he was elected to head the state Department of Public Instruction, Evers served for eight years as deputy superintendent of schools.  He grew up in Plymouth, and worked as a science teacher, high school principal and district superintendent in Baraboo, Tomah, Oakfield, and Verona.”

For several years, parents and educators have been organizing across Wisconsin to condemn cuts in public education funding and the diversion of state education dollars to the nation’s oldest private school tuition voucher program.  What began in the 1990s as the Milwaukee Voucher Program has now grown statewide. The Wisconsin Public Education Network has been mobilizing citizens and pulling together a mass of local parent and advocacy groups around a unified, pro-public school agenda. The organization’s website displays a map of the Coalition’s partner organizations—at least 39 of them across Wisconsin.  In recent months activists mounted a nonpartisan campaign that plastered the state with signs that said: “I Love My Public Schools… And I Vote.”

Public education loomed as a central issue in a number of other governors’ races.  In Illinois, J.B. Pritzker triumphed over incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner, the driving force behind the lawsuit that launched the Janus case, aimed at undermining the fiscal capacity of public sector unions—including teachers unions—and recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.   Rauner has never been a supporter of fair or adequate funding of public schools. In 2017, he vetoed the state budget only to have his veto overridden by the legislature.  Weeks later, he created a crisis at the beginning of the school year by vetoing the school funding formula, again overridden by the legislature.

In Kansas, Democrat Laura Kelly defeated Kris Kobach, whose education ideas closely match what have been the disastrous tax-cutting, school-starving policies of the previous governor, Sam Brownback.

And in Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, was elected governor. A member of the American Federation of Teachers and a public school parent, Whitmer opposes the DeVos ideology that has dominated Michigan for too long. Her platform is built on undoing the policies of DeVos-funded Republican administrations.

National Teacher of the Year Elected to Congress

Education Week reports that Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, was elected to Congress, representing Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District.  Her district encompasses Newtown, the site of the 2012 school shooting.  Hayes has deplored the idea of arming teachers: “I worked in a high school with 1,300 children.  I would never want the responsibility of securing a firearm in that building.  I would never want to have to explain to a parent that I did not lock my desk… or ‘I’m not sure how your child got ahold of my gun.’ ”  Hayes also understands the needs of school districts serving concentrations of children in poverty.  She was raised by her grandmother in public housing and was herself a teen mother: “Teachers exposed me to a different world by letting me borrow books to read at home and sharing stories about their college experiences… They challenged me to dream bigger and imagine myself in a different set of circumstances.”

What We’ll Need to Watch in Upcoming Months

This post covers only a limited number of major statewide offices.  It will be important to watch what happens across the 50 state legislatures, which were at the center of educators’ efforts to involve themselves in policy making after teachers’ walkouts across several states last spring to protest the collapse of their states’ education budgets. The National Education Association’s Education Votes website reports on the scope of these efforts across state governments: “An analysis by NEA revealed nearly 1,800 current or former teachers and other education professionals ran for state legislative seats, and an additional 100 educators ran for top state or federal seats in Election 2018.  A bulk of educators come from states that experienced historic #RedForEd walkouts this spring: West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina. In fact, Oklahoma led the charge with more than 62 educators who were on the general election ballot… The primary focus of NEA’s electoral efforts this election cycle was on state races because education policy is decided by state legislatures and public education funding is a primary responsibility of the state.”

A Moment When Grassroots Mobilization for Public Education Is Making a Difference—Part 2

I was privileged to participate in the 5th Annual Conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE) in Indianapolis this past weekend.  I am posting some reflections on what I heard and learned at this important meeting.

One of the highlights at NPE’s Conference were presentations on excellent community organizing that is finally making a difference. Yesterday’s post and today’s describe two very different and encouraging initiatives.

What if parents, teachers and community united across an entire state were to insist that the state fund its schools adequately?  Well, advocates in Wisconsin are doing just that.  As a bit of context, remember that Wisconsin has the nation’s oldest and one of the largest voucher programs and that the Bradley Foundation, located in Wisconsin, has historically been among the most lavish funders of the school privatization movement that drains tax dollars out of the public education budget.

Today, however, the Wisconsin Public Education Network has been mobilizing citizens and pulling together a mass of local parent and advocacy groups around a unified, pro-public school agenda across Wisconsin. Executive Director Heather DuBois Bourenane explains: “The Wisconsin Education Coalition is the hub for education advocacy in Wisconsin. We are a project of the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit. Our work is supported by voluntary contributions of our partners around the state… Our partners don’t always agree on every issue or policy, but our common ground is always rooted in our deep commitment to the success of every student in every school.”  The organization’s website displays a map of the Coalition’s partner organizations—at least 39 of them across Wisconsin.

Launched last summer at the Wisconsin Public Education Network’s 4th Annual Summer Summit, the #VotePublic Campaign has invited, “all supporters of public schools to make public education a focus of all elections—local, state and national. Knowing where candidates stand on issues impacting our public schools is essential to electing strong supporters of our students. #VotePublic is also a challenge to hold our elected officials accountable for making votes that benefit our students and public schools once elected.”

The #VotePublic platform demands fixing the school funding formula “to prioritize student needs over property values”; working for funding fairness; restoring funding including the state’s obligation to meet mandated costs for special education; raising standards for licensure of educators and providing hiring incentives; making private and privately-operated schools receiving tax dollars fully accountable; and forcing the state to pledge not to expand the state’s already large private school tuition voucher program.

In Wisconsin, advocates have set out to reframe the political conversation. Besides spreading thousands of yard signs and postcards across Wisconsin announcing the campaign’s theme: “I Love My Public School & I Vote,” the coalition has packed its website with accessible information to educate the state’s supporters of public education. Posted there is toolkit with easily reproduced materials   There are also facts and figures and copies of public speeches and legislative testimony from the organization’s leaders.

And there are explanations and graphs including one that is particularly applicable for the Wisconsin gubernatorial election in two weeks. Governor Scott Walker has been trying to brand himself “the education governor” because the legislature raised school funding this year—a budget he signed. But the urgency of the need for more funding this year also reflects on his leadership, “In 2011-12, lawmakers reduced district budget limits by 5.5%, which resulted in an average decrease of $529 per student to districts’ budgets.”  Even this year’s budget increase won’t bring the state back up to its educational expenditure level before Walker’s cuts. The 2011 spending reduction was unprecedented, as was another Scott Walker priority—Act 10—the 2011 law to destroy public sector collective bargaining in Wisconsin.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Public Education Network is nonpartisan; it does not endorse candidates.  But it seems likely that it’s #VotePublic campaign could be instrumental in swinging the fall election to the other candidate for governor—Tony Evers, a lifetime educator who has, since 2009, served as Wisconsin’s state superintendent of public instruction.

This is an encouraging moment when strong, well-informed local voices are pushing back effectively against the well-funded, multi-pronged attack on our public schools.