While the biggest news from the 2018 midterms elections was Democrats’ takeover of the House of Representatives, the results painted another picture for education experts: Ed policy is no longer centered on the U.S. Department of Education and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Instead, Education Week reporter Daarel Burnette said, “policy debates have moved out of Washington, D.C. … and into state capitals.”
“The D.C.-centric days of education policymaking are over with,” Burnette said at a Friday panel event in Washington. “Ideas on improving schools are now being exchanged between states instead of being handed down from the secretary of education.”
In the aftermath of the midterms, Congress is once again divided, many states have chosen new leaders, and educators have won seats in elected office at the federal, state and local level. And while education wasn’t a top issue for voters at the polls, the outcomes of these elections and the country’s shifting political landscape stand to affect education policy, as well as schools and students, nationwide.
Burnette, who moderated the Education Writers Association event, was joined by National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García, National Governors Association (NGA) Executive Director and CEO Scott Pattison and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Education Policy Studies Director Rick Hess to unpack the election results and what they mean for P-12 policy.
Here are some of their biggest takeaways.
Education has stronger ties to other major topics
According to Pattison, the word used most often by gubernatorial candidates during their campaigns was "education." The second-most-used word, he said: jobs.
"Twenty-some years ago, every governor was the 'education governor.' Recently, they were the 'jobs governor,'" Pattison said. "Now, they've really put those together, and they talk a lot about education, but they also are tying that all to workforce and jobs. So there are a lot of implications of that."
The third-most-used word, Pattison said, was "healthcare," and the fourth-most-used word by gubernatorial candidates was "opioids." Some political hopefuls, like Ohio Attorney General and now Governor-elect Mike DeWine, ran on a platform that connected these topics to education – DeWine's plan to address the opioid crisis starts with implementing drug prevention education programs in every K-12 school.
"It means their focus is a little bit different than just straight education policy," he said.
Educators and activists drove the conversation — and it’s not over
Across the country, an unprecedented number of educators were political candidates. In states like Oklahoma, dozens of educators said they’d run for office. Even in districts where an educator knew they wouldn’t win, they saw events like teacher walkouts and strikes and decided to put their name on the ballot anyway, García said.
“They were so moved by what they saw … they put their names on the ballot. They went, ‘We know we’re not going to win, but we’re going to make them talk about education.’”
A small portion of those who placed campaign bids won in the general election, but this year’s wave of activism — which, in turn, led to greater support for public school teachers — led to more candidates, Republicans and Democrats, discussing how to better serve their public schools, García said.
So, regardless of the small number of winners, the NEA president said “educators had a good night on election night.”
“They see this as their moment,” she said. “And I believe it is.”
Rhetoric is important, but it isn’t everything
The energy and passion of educators and advocates was significant, but to Hess, it’s unlikely education played a big role at the polls, and it didn’t translate to a win for those on either side of the spectrum. Many gubernatorial candidates avoided addressing hot-button issues like testing, accountability and teacher evaluations, instead grabbing voters with “easy-to-like plans” on topics including social-emotional learning, he said.
“A lot of people were saying nice things about public education, but you actually didn’t see much success by people who were putting forth specific agendas,” he said. “The real test is going to be whether all these folks … are going to follow through.”
He added that while some educators did get elected to major offices, these first-term members’ will likely need time to adjust before getting started on their agendas.
“My rule is it’s good to always be skeptical until you actually see those dollars show up at the end of a budget cycle,” he said.”