schools on the ballot

Care about education? On Election Day, watch these races with us

Supporters of Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) with signs that say vote wait for the senator to arrive for a campaign stop at The Royale bar on November 5, 2018 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Education won’t be top of mind for all voters on Tuesday. But in some parts of the country, schools are at the heart of intense political battles.

In Wisconsin, teachers unions are hoping a former educator will oust their longtime foe, Scott Walker. In Arizona, a school voucher program is on the ballot — though school choice advocates aren’t happy about it. And across the country, local school board races, dozens of governors’ elections, and the fight for Congress are all set to shape education policy for years to come.

If you’re focused on education, here are some races worth caring about.

Lots of new governors stand to shape schools

You’ll see the biggest fireworks, when it comes to education policy, in the 36 governors races.

Republican candidates have tended to focus on expanding school choice initiatives, including private-school vouchers. Democrats generally emphasize increasing school funding, though that’s something a number of Republicans have also embraced this year. Keep in mind that some key state issues that aren’t directly related to education, like whether to expand Medicaid, can affect how well kids do in school, too.

A few races we’ll be watching:

  • In Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, appears likely to oust Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Pritzker has pledged to increase school funding, halt charter school growth, and end the tax-credit voucher program that Rauner helped put in place.
  • In Wisconsin, Democrat Tony Evers, a former teacher and the state’s schools chief, also stands a good chance of toppling two-term Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is reviled by unions for his successful efforts to limit union membership. Walker has claimed credit for recent increases in school funding under his watch. Evers has countered that earlier in Walker’s tenure, spending fell.
  • In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has a comfortable lead in the polls over education professor David Garcia, who has tried to ride the wave of teacher activism in the state. Education has been a top issue in the race, and the candidates differ sharply on school vouchers.
  • In Ohio, both candidates have distanced themselves from ECOT, a virtual charter school that shut down in January amid scandal. The race is a toss-up between Democrat Richard Cordray and Republican Mike DeWine, with each claiming the other wasn’t tough enough on the school.
  • In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis are locked in a bitter fight. Gillum has vowed to raise corporate taxes to increase teachers’ starting salaries to $50,000, criticized for-profit charter schools, and said he would end the state’s large tax-credit voucher program. DeSantis has said he supports school choice and that teachers should be paid based on performance.
  • In Georgia, Republican Brian Kemp is facing Democrat Stacey Abrams, who’s hoping to become the first black woman elected governor in one of the country’s most closely watched races. Both say they will “fully fund” public schools. But Kemp has promised to “expand school choice,” while Abrams has said she would “protect [public schools] from privatization.”
  • In Oregon, Democrat Gov. Kate Brown faces a spirited challenge from Republican Knute Buehler, who has criticized Oregon’s low graduation rate. Brown was also criticized for the state’s initial decision to withhold school ratings until after the election, a decision that was eventually reversed.
  • In Connecticut, favored Democrat Ned Lamont has been talking less about his support of controversial education reform policies, including linking teacher evaluations to student test scores, focusing instead on ways to keep teachers in the profession with ideas like student-loan forgiveness. Republican Bob Stefanowski wants to expand charter and magnet schools, and has said that schools should focus on spending existing money better rather than hope for more dollars.

If these heavy favorites win, here’s what it’s likely to mean:

  • In California, Democrat Gavin Newsom is likely to be cooler toward charter schools, but more open to expanded education data systems than his predecessor. You may remember that charter advocates gambled by spending big on Newsom’s primary opponent earlier this year, but fell well short.
  • Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has promised to create a Detroit-specific strategy to improve schools there, including closing down charter schools with poor results. She’s also said she wants to allocate more funding for low-income students and expand pre-kindergarten.
  • In Tennessee, Republican Bill Lee says he wants to reduce the “burden” of state testing. He also wants to create a voucher program, an idea that’s gained little traction in the state.
  • In Colorado, Democrat Jared Polis, a charter school founder, says he will prioritize increasing funding for education.

The schools chief race to watch: California, where it’s become a charter–union proxy battle

One of the most expensive races in the country is the battle to become California’s school superintendent.

The position has limited power, but more than $50 million has been poured into the race, largely from charter advocates backing Marshall Tuck, a former head of Green Dot, a Los Angeles-based charter network. Teachers unions have financed the campaign of Tony Thurmond, a legislator and former social worker.

Nominally, the race is nonpartisan. Both candidates identify as Democrats, and both say they want to increase school funding. But they differ on charter schools: Thurmond has called for halting their expansion until they can be studied more carefully; Tuck opposes that.

Both sides have released misleading attack ads, including an ad from Thurmond implying that Tuck was endorsed by Betsy DeVos. He hasn’t been. Tuck says that although he supports nonprofit charter schools, he doesn’t support vouchers, for-profit charter schools, or DeVos.

The one public poll shows Tuck with a 48 to 36 percent lead, drawing strong support from Republicans and independents.

Six other states — Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming — also have elections for state school chiefs on Tuesday.

Going local: The school board races that could have a big impact

School board elections are often sleepy affairs. But when they draw significant money and attention, it often signals a battle between charter school advocates and supporters of traditional public schools.

Worth watching this year: the three contested seats on the board of Indianapolis Public Schools, a district that has embraced the charter-friendly, autonomy-focused “portfolio model.” Teachers unions have invested substantially in the race, supporting candidates who oppose the model; Stand For Children, a national group that supports it, has endorsed three people running. Candidates are divided over the district’s innovation network, which turns over certain struggling schools to charter operators.

Oakland — a district that is struggling financially and facing fierce debates over the expansion of charter schools — also has three school board seats up for grabs, though only one is contested. One candidate is calling for a moratorium on charter schools, and another is more open to them.

There’s also a local referendum in Newark to determine whether its newly empowered school board will continue to be directly elected or appointed by the city’s mayor.

Many other school board races are also happening, including in Detroit and San Francisco, and state board of education races are taking place in Alabama, Michigan, and Washington, DC.

In Arizona, a ballot initiative with plenty of confusion

Thirteen states will have education-related ballot questions up for a vote, many focusing on school funding. But the most high-profile may be a question in Arizona about whether to expand eligibility for the state’s voucher-like school choice program.

What’s interesting about this one is that neither result would be welcome news for school choice advocates, who are split on how to vote. The ballot initiative would either maintain or repeal a law expanding the types of students eligible for the program. But that law would also make it harder to remove a cap on the total number of students who could qualify.

Polls suggest voters may be confused about what the initiative actually does, leaving the outcome uncertain.

Yes, the race for Congress matters

Political observers will be focused on whether Democrats manage to take control of the U.S. House or Senate. For education issues, the direct implications of the control of Congress are probably limited, particularly because even with unified Republican control, Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have gained virtually zero traction on proposed education budget cuts or federal school choice initiatives. Education just does not seem to be a big priority of Congress, and on budget issues there is a lot of bipartisan agreement.

Still, Democratic control of the House, a likely possibility, could lead to more oversight hearings on how DeVos is implementing the federal education law and civil rights law. A Democratic Senate, which is less likely, would influence who is appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court should a vacancy open up — a body with the power to make critical education decisions.

But although the stakes aren’t particularly high for DeVos, she been a frequent topic on the campaign trail for Democrats — starring, and not in a good way, in many attack ads against Republicans.

In a closely watched Senate race in Texas, Democrat Beto O’Rourke has attacked Republican Ted Cruz for serving as the “deciding vote in putting Betsy DeVos in charge of our children’s public education.” (Technically, all 50 Senators who voted for DeVos were “deciding” votes.)

Jahana Hayes and teachers across the country vie for elected office

Much has been made about teachers running for office this year. Education Week has compiled this list of over 150 current teachers running for state legislature, and they appear particularly common in states — Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — that have seen statewide teacher protests recently.

Still, it doesn’t appear that there has been any increase in the number or share of candidates for state legislature who are current and former teachers.

A particularly notable teacher on the ballot is Jahana Hayes, the national teacher of year in 2016. She’s running as a Democrat in Connecticut and is heavily favored to win.

“I think that for a long time, teachers, we don’t see ourselves as political people,” Hayes told Chalkbeat earlier this year. “I think what’s happening is that many people think that our profession is being threatened.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.