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2018's Education Upheaval Doesn't Translate to Superintendent Elections

Despite all the teacher strikes and walkouts, voters largely stuck to partisan lines at the ballot box.

tony-thurmond-california
Tony Thurmond is narrowly trailing his opponent in the California school superintendent contest.
(AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Last Updated Nov. 19 at 4:24 p.m.

It has been a year of unrest over education policy and funding. Teachers launched several statewide strikes, some lasting weeks, and inspired walkouts and protests in many other states.

Still, most states voting for state superintendent stuck to their partisan leanings on Election Day. 

The biggest shift came in Arizona, where Democrat Kathy Hoffman, a speech therapist, bilingual teacher and first-time statewide candidate, pulled off an upset over former U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs, a Republican. Hoffman won with 51.5 percent of the vote, compared to 48.5 percent for Riggs. This marks the first time a Democrat has occupied the office since the mid-1990s.

Other states offered less surprising results.

In California's officially nonpartisan contest between two Democrats, Tony Thurmond, who had the backing of the California Teachers Association, narrowly defeated charter school advocate Marshall Tuck, who along with his allies outspent Thurmond by a 2-to-1 margin. Tuck conceded to Thurmond, who will succeed the term-limited Tom Torlakson, who was also endorsed by teachers' unions.

In two Republican-leaning states, Democratic superintendent candidates made surprisingly strong showings, but ultimately fell short. Incumbent Republican Sherri Ybarra defeated Democrat Cindy Wilson in Idaho by 52 percent to 48 percent, a significantly closer contest than in the open-seat gubernatorial race.

And in Georgia, Richard Woods, the incumbent Republican, defeated Democrat Otha Thornton, an Iraq War veteran who has served as president of the National PTA, by 53 percent to 47 percent. Thornton, who had the backing of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, would have been the first African-American in that post.

Other races were not as competitive.

In Wyoming, incumbent Republican Jillian Balow ran unopposed, and in Oklahoma -- a state rocked by teacher protests earlier this year -- Republican incumbent Joy Hofmeister easily defeated Democrat John Cox.

In South Carolina, the biggest news about the education superintendent wasn't that incumbent Republican Molly Spearman easily defeated her little-known Democratic challenger, Israel Romero. Rather, it was that voters decisively rejected a ballot measure that would have made the position a gubernatorial appointment in the future. The idea has been pushed by Republicans for 15 years. Yet, it failed by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.

Finally, in Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers demonstrated that holding a superintendent job can push one's career upward. He defeated Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Walker's bid for a third term. The campaign focused heavily on education policy.

Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.
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