In Year of Strikes, Education Plays a Big Role in Elections

Education has emerged as an issue this fall beyond school board and superintendent races.
by | October 17, 2018
Republican Frank Riggs is running to be Arizona's next superintendent of education. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Schools are a hot issue this election cycle, thanks in large part to this year's teacher strikes in states as far-ranging as Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

In most cases, states are debating increasing teacher salaries and school funding, but charter schools and school choice have also risen to the top of the agenda.

These issues are not only taking center stage in superintendent and school board elections, they are also playing an outsized role in several competitive gubernatorial races and spurring educators to run for office themselves.

In Maine, where Republican Gov. Paul LePage is leaving office, "a partisan switch would likely result in big changes in education priorities, if not policies," says University of Maine political scientist Mark Brewer. These could include a long-delayed full implementation of a 2004 law requiring the state to cover 55 percent of costs for primary and secondary public education.

In Iowa, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Fred Hubbell, has promised greater funding for education at all levels. And if he wins, Democrats are expected to push for limits on the use of public funds for non-public education.

And in Wisconsin, the battle between two-term GOP Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic challenger Tony Evers, who is serving his third term as education superintendent, has focused heavily on education.

If elected, Evers plans to invest substantial state funding in elementary, secondary and higher education, and to cut tuition at technical colleges by half, says University of Wisconsin political scientist Barry Burden. Walker, for his part, has touted his investments in the schools, calling himself the "education governor."

The education debate has also inspired 554 educators to run for state legislative seats this fall, the vast majority of them as Democrats, according to the National Education Association.

Beyond choosing a governor or legislators, eight states will hold elections for seats on their statewide school board: Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas and Utah.

Voters in seven other states will have a direct say on education policy by selecting their state superintendent of education. In six of them, Republicans currently hold the office and, as things stand, have a good shot at continuing to do so after Election Day. In just one state -- California -- the seat is held by a Democrat, although the office is officially nonpartisan.

Below is a rundown of the state of the superintendent races.

 

Arizona

Education will be one of the top issues this fall in Arizona, where teachers staged a six-day walkout over funding.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation following the protests to increase teacher salaries by 20 percent over three years. But Democrats and education advocates worry that the state may not be able to follow through on its promises. They backed a ballot measure that would have raised taxes on wealthy residents and dedicated the new revenue to fund education. Ultimately, though, the measure was removed from the ballot by the state Supreme Court.

Amid this tumult is November's superintendent race, with Republican Frank Riggs against Democrat Kathy Hoffman.

Riggs, who defeated incumbent Republican Diane Douglas in the primary, moved to Arizona in 2002 after representing a California district in Congress. Riggs calls himself "one of the fathers of the charter school movement" and wants to reform charter schools in the state.

Hoffman, a speech therapist and bilingual teacher, is a political novice who touts herself as someone outside the education policy establishment.

With Arizona possibly morphing into a swing state and with it playing host to several high-profile races this fall, the superintendent race is considered competitive.

 

California

Voters in the Golden State will decide between two Democrats in the nonpartisan election for state superintendent next month. But as was the case four years ago, the candidates will represent two wings of the Democratic Party on education policy: "This race will be a test of strength between the teachers' unions and charter school backers," says Garry South, a veteran California political strategist.

Candidate Tony Thurmond has been endorsed by the California Democratic Party and the California Teachers Association. He is a former state assemblyman, a former Richmond City Council member and a onetime school board member.

His opponent, Marshall Tuck, is championed by education reformers and charter school supporters. He previously served as an executive for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools -- a network of charter schools -- and has the endorsement of former Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The winner will succeed Tom Torlakson, who is term-limited. Tuck ran in 2014 but narrowly lost to Torlakson.

Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne, says this year's contest should be very competitive. "Tuck finished ahead in the primary but by less than 90,000 votes," she says. "Thurmond won the Bay Area and heavily Democratic Los Angeles County, which had very low primary turnout. If the teacher unions spend a lot of money and turnout rebounds for the general election, Thurmond may pull out a victory."

South agrees that Thurmond has an edge, pointing to the outcome of the state's gubernatorial primary in which teacher union muscle propelled Gavin Newsom into the general election. "Charter school advocates funded a $23 million independent expenditure campaign on behalf of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa," he says. "[This effort] totally nullified Newsom's once-big resource advantage in the race. But in the end, the charter school forces and their billionaire backers couldn't even propel Villaraigosa into the runoff. He finished a distant third."

Godwin adds that Thurmond and the teachers' unions will do all they can to tie Tuck to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, an advocate for charter schools and school choice.

 

Georgia

In a low-profile race, Richard Woods, the incumbent Republican, faces Democrat Otha Thornton, an Iraq War veteran who has served as president of the National PTA -- the first African-American in that post.

Thornton has the backing of the Georgia Federation of Teachers and is running on fixing the school funding formula, which hasn't been changed in about two decades. He has also called for heightening accountability for charter schools.

Woods, for his part, has challenged increases in standardized testing and has championed "wraparound centers" at schools that provide health services and food pantries for low-income families.

Based on historical voting patterns in Georgia, Woods starts with an edge. However, the competitive governor's race by Democrat Stacey Abrams could draw an unusually young, diverse and Democratic electorate to the polls. If that happens, Thornton's chances increase greatly.

 

Idaho

In Idaho, incumbent Republican Sherri Ybarra, the winner of a close 2014 race, is facing Democrat Cindy Wilson.

While Wilson is a well-regarded educator and has opened up a fundraising edge, any Republican starts out as the frontrunner for statewide office in deep red Idaho. That said, school superintendent is the state office where Democrats have had the best record of winning in recent years, which makes this race somewhat competitive.

 

Oklahoma

Like other solidly red states, Oklahoma has been riven by protests over teacher pay and education funding, including a two-week walkout and rallies at the state Capitol this spring. "It's all about teacher pay and education out here," says Keith Gaddie, a University of Oklahoma political scientist. "There is no other issue."

Six Republican state House members who voted against a tax increase to fund higher teacher pay lost in the June primaries. Many more decided against running for reelection.

Amid the unrest, Republican incumbent superintendent Joy Hofmeister -- who won office in 2014 by ousting fellow Republican Janet Barresi -- was forced into a primary runoff against conservative challenger Linda Murphy. She ultimately prevailed by 57 percent to 43 percent. She now faces John Cox, the 2014 Democratic nominee and a former rural superintendent, in the general election.

Despite the upheaval this year, observers say that Hofmeister has navigated the tricky currents well, particularly compared to Barresi, whose tenure was marked by conflict between the superintendent's office and public education leaders.

In addition, the state's fiscal picture has improved somewhat in recent months, aiding Hofmeister's prospects. "Hofmeister has done a much better job at working with public school leaders than Barresi did," says James Davenport, a political scientist at Rose State College. "Oklahoma remains a solidly Republican state, and I anticipate she'll have a funding and organizational advantage over Cox."

 

South Carolina

As has been the case in recent election cycles, Republican candidates for statewide office in South Carolina this year have an overwhelming advantage in the general election. That pattern should hold in the superintendent race as well, where incumbent Republican Molly Spearman is heavily favored over the little-known Democratic challenger, Israel Romero.

 

Wyoming

Incumbent Jillian Balow -- who in 2014 succeeded fellow Republican Cindy Hill after Hill's rocky tenure -- is running again and has no opponent.