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.”

ready for prime time

Four ways Amazon’s arrival in New York City could impact public schools

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
John Schoettler, Amazon's vice president of global real estate and facilities, (left) sits with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference about Amazon's announcement to open part of its new headquarters in Long Island City.

After months of speculation, Amazon announced Tuesday that it picked Long Island City for one of its two new headquarters.

Details about the new Queens hub are still emerging, and some of the particulars are already raising eyebrows — including billions in incentives Amazon was offered to locate here. The deal, which officials claim will create as many as 40,000 jobs over 10 to 15 years, will undoubtedly affect New York City’s public school system.

The formal agreement between Amazon and New York City lays out several direct ways that the deal could impact city schools. The company agreed to house a 600-seat intermediate school on or near its Long Island City campus, replacing a school that had already been planned in a residential building nearby. Amazon also plans to offer “career exploration activities” and internship opportunities to high school students. And there is a proposal to relocate some Department of Education offices in Long Island City to make way for the tech giant.

If Amazon’s impact on Seattle, its primary headquarters, is any guide, there could be reverberations felt in New York City classrooms, especially those districts in or adjacent to Long Island City. Still, given New York City’s size and economy, Amazon’s arrival may not create the same sweeping changes — and officials are already trying to reassure New Yorkers.

“The city and state are working closely together to make sure Amazon’s expansion is planned smartly, and to ensure this fast growing neighborhood has the transportation, schools, and infrastructure it needs,” de Blasio said in an Amazon blog post announcing the move.

Here are four potential issues to look out for.

Overcrowded schools

Amazon has pledged to donate space for a new middle school — space that parents say is desperately needed. De Blasio said Tuesday that the school will replace another that had been proposed for the area. “There is no loss of school seats,” he said.

But Meghan Cirrito, a member of the Gantry Parent Association, an education advocacy group in Long Island City, is skeptical that the school will ease the crunch for classrooms. Queens parents have long fought for more school space in the borough. In the Long Island City neighborhood, schools that serve grades K-8 are already at 102 percent capacity.

“It will absolutely not relieve the overcrowding. They will keep up with their own development,” she said. “We’re already behind school seats.”

Deborah Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, which includes Long Island City, echoed that the school plan feels like “a pittance.”

“We’re still playing catch up for the city’s lack of infrastructure in Long Island City,” she said.

The need for more classrooms could also have consequences for de Blasio’s push to make pre-K available to all the city’s 3-year-olds, an effort the city is rolling out slowly in part because of existing space constraints.

But even if thousands of students arrive with new Amazon employees, they will still represent only a drop in the bucket of the city’s 1.1 million public school students. De Blasio cautioned at Tuesday’s press conference that while some employees will live in the neighborhood, not all will move to Long Island City and some may commute from other areas. Still, the neighborhoods around Queens are some of the most crowded school districts in the city.

Concerns about the city’s record student homelessness

Seattle has struggled to address a surge in homelessness as home prices have soared more rapidly in the city than anywhere else in the country — an increase that many have attributed to its booming tech sector.

As the number of high-earners there has shot up, so has student homelessness, which has increased threefold between 2011 and 2017. But when the city tried to pass a new tax dedicated to boosting services for the homeless, Amazon led a campaign against the measure, which eventually died.

Amazon is promising to pay an average salary of $150,000 in New York City. In the school district that will host the tech giant’s new hub, about 72 percent of students come from low-income families.

In New York City, the number of homeless students is already at an all-time high. More than 114,000 students here lack permanent housing, which poses challenges for schools that may struggle to meet the needs of children who often lag behind their peers on academic measures.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently announced the education department would hire 100 new employees to help schools with high concentrations of homeless students.  

De Blasio said the arrival of large companies such as Amazon could exacerbate homelessness in other cities that “don’t have substantial affordable housing, are not building a lot of new affordable housing,” specifically calling out San Francisco.

But, he said, the impact of tax revenue from Amazon’s move will be “central” for supporting existing affordable housing in New York City.

Other changes in student demographics

School leaders in Seattle say the number of students who are learning English as a new language has jumped with Amazon’s growth, opening the need for teachers and curriculum to serve those students.

New York City has rapidly expanded its language programs under de Blasio, which are often seen as a tool to help spur more diverse schools. But the education department has also historically struggled to serve English language learners well.

Amazon’s move could have other effects on school diversity at a time when advocates have put increasing pressure on the the city to step up integration efforts. New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country, an issue that Carranza has pledged to tackle.

But with more higher-income families potentially lured to Queens by Amazon jobs, Cirrito worries about gentrification in a borough and neighborhood known for its diversity, and the effect that could have on classrooms.

“How can we say we welcome new Americans here if they can’t afford to live in Long Island City and they can’t afford to live in neighborhoods where their kids have good schools?” she asked. “At the time we have a chancellor in place calling for the desegregation of schools, this seems to be a move that will completely undermine his efforts.”

Even if low-income families live side-by-side with Amazon’s workers, it’s not at all clear their children will learn together. Long Island City is home to the New York’s largest housing project, and whether high-earners would opt into schools where many students are poor is an open question.

A philanthropic boost?

New York’s agreement with Amazon doesn’t offer many details about how the company will interact with the nation’s largest school system, but it does include a promise to create internships and “work-based learning opportunities” — including activities such as career days and mock interviews.

What that will look like, and whether a bigger stream of philanthropic support could follow, is unclear. Amazon has offered some support for public education in Seattle, including supplies for needy students. And its founder, Jeff Bezos, recently announced a $2 billion investment to launch a network of preschools in low-income communities.

Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City, which serves as the business community’s lobbying group, said she hopes Amazon’s presence helps fuel career and technical programs in city schools.

“The frustration has been a lack of employer engagement in opportunity for [career and technical education] and workplace opportunities,” Wylde said. “Obviously this is a bonanza in providing those opportunities.”

She added that Amazon could support schools similar to Brooklyn’s P-Tech, a high school that partners with IBM to offer students opportunities in the tech sector. (Wylde said there were no concrete plans in place yet for Amazon to participate in such a partnership.)

Others were less optimistic.

Alexander, the co-president of Community Education Council 30, said she hopes the city would partner “as much as possible” to harness any investments Amazon is willing to make in public schools.

Still, she added, “It sticks a little in my craw —  the richest person in the world getting billions of dollars in money from New York State when New York State owes schools so much money.”

“It’s hard to see what internship or guest speakers or whatever could make that balance.”

Chalkbeat live

Education for all? Let’s talk about that, Chicago.

Since Chalkbeat Chicago launched in June, we’ve convened small gatherings of parents, educators, school council members, and community leaders to talk about city schools.

On December 12, we’re hosting our biggest public forum to date — with pie! — on the topic of Chicago’s next mayor and the future of schools in the city.

  • Which items should top the next mayor’s schools agenda?
  • How do we build on successes like the district’s record-high graduation rates?
  • And how do we grapple with persistent challenges such as declining enrollment and equity gaps in performance and resources?

We are inviting educators, students, advocates, policy makers, and more to join us for this critical conversation. Taking part in the centerpiece panel will be Chicagoans with experience in and around schools including:

  • Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, founder of the Little Village Community Development Corporation and newly elected congressman from the 4th District
  • Elizabeth Swanson, vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First, which produced a new report that examines school access and capacity on the city’s South and West sides
  • Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance

Guests will be encouraged to record a message to the city’s next mayor in our storybooth and to network with other people who care about public education and Chicago youth. The evening also will feature student performances and a coffee-and-pie reception with treats from Justice of the Pies and Dark Matter Coffee.

The event is free and open to all ages, but space is limited and registration is required. RSVP here.