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3 states to watch: Midterm races where education is central

In this year’s midterm elections, with Congressional control up for grabs and the President said that democracy itself is at stake, how important are issues of education really? A little, it turns out.

The economy, abortion and crime top of the list concerns of voters, but schools are important too. In a Pew Research Center survey last month, 64% of registered voters said education was very important to their vote in congressional elections, while other polls show that education is a key factor in local and national elections.

Republicans have also taken over schools as a way focus on burning issues involving race and sexuality, which they believe will mobilize their base and attract swing voters. But some Democrats say the other party overplayed his handdiscouraging moderates who care more about school quality and student safety.

The biggest drama unfolded in statewide races, where education tends to play a bigger role than in federal elections, but national issues still shape the debate. Education featured prominently in three battleground states with extremely tight races for governor: Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin.

In each, the central educational themes of this election cycle were fully exposed, including ideological clashes over the curriculum and parental rights as well as long-running debates over funding and school choice. And, in what may be the defining trend of this moment, these three races of governors illustrate just how much the country’s divisive politics have infused education policyreplacing occasional bipartisanship with fierce tribalism.

“Overall, K-12 education issues are increasingly polarized by partisanship,” said Sarah Reckhow, a political science professor at Michigan State University who studies the politics of the United States. education.

“Only 10 or 15 years ago,” she added, “partisan differences in education weren’t so stark.”

Arizona: Culture Wars

Nowhere is the partisan split over schools wider than in Arizona’s closely watched gubernatorial race, where a mainstream liberal candidate is running against a far-right firebrand.

Kari Lake, the Republican candidate, has delighted conservatives with her Trump-style populism. And, like former Florida President and Governor Ron DeSantis, Lake has leaned heavily into the school culture wars.

In his educational projectshe denounces mandatory face masks and COVID vaccines, accuses schools of fueling ‘race-based animosity’ by teaching critical race theoryand claims that some educators want to convert students into “progressive activists” and push “their sexuality or personal sexual preferences on little children.”

If the Democratic nominee is elected, “your kindergarten child would not learn the Pledge of Allegiance, but your precious 5-year-old would learn about sex,” said Lake, a former local news anchor, in a misleading campaign video.

Lake’s opponent, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, avoided burning education issues. Instead, she has focused on traditional Democratic priorities, such as universal preschool education, teacher salary increases and fixing school buildings.

“What I hear most from people is that they want us to fund our public schools,” she said. told his supporters.

Polls suggest Hobbs’ platform reflects the concerns of most Arizona voters. In May survey commissioned by the nonpartisan group Education Forward Arizona, two-thirds of likely voters said funding for schools was too low, while only a third said they strongly supported a ban on teaching critical theory of race, or CRT.

The Arizona poll is consistent with national surveys that show most Americans Support universal salaries for preschool and higher education teachers, to worry about the underfunding of public schools, and to oppose book ban. The audience is much more divided about what students should learn about race, but voters tend to agree that politicians from both parties focus too much on how race and gender are taught in schools.

In a month of September notethe Republican National Committee warned candidates not to alienate moderate voters, saying “CRT and masks” might energize their base, “but parental rights and quality education push independents.”

Michael Petrilli, president of the right-wing Fordham Institute, said it was interesting that candidates like Lake chose not to tone down their message in the general election.

But if she wins, he added, “then her strategy of playing on these culture war issues, in education and elsewhere, will be validated.”

Michigan: School Choice

When Tudor Dixon, a Trump-backed Republican running to become Michigan’s next governor, talks about “parents’ rights,” it’s usually in the context of school culture war.

But she also campaigned on a more traditional conservative approach to parental rights: the prerogative to choose the best school for your child. She supports giving parents state-funded scholarships to help them pay for private school.

School choice has often been overshadowed in this election cycle by clashes over race and gender in schools, but it remains a staple of Conservative candidate platforms. According an analysis by Andy SmarickSenior Research Fellow at the Manhattan Institute Curator.

One of the reasons for the question’s continued popularity among candidates is that most republicans Support charter schools and, to a lesser extent, private school vouchers. But just as important to the candidates is the enthusiasm for choosing the school among the party’s biggest donors.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Michigan, where Betsy DeVos, one of the nation’s most prominent and polarizing champions in school choice, and her family have paid millions of dollars in a group supporting Dixon’s campaign. For his part, Dixon endorsed DeVos’ strategy private school choice planwhich critics say undermines the public school system.

“It’s time to fund the students, not the systems”, Dixon said at a campaign event last month, echoing a phrase used by DeVos and other choice advocates.

Other Republican candidates have also embraced the idea of ​​using taxpayer dollars to cover the cost of private school, homeschooling or whatever option families choose. Lake Kari in Arizona says she wants to “fund the students, not the systems”; Governor Greg Abbott, who is running for re-election in Texas, says he supports “State funding according to the student”; and Tim Michels, the Republican candidate for governor of Wisconsin, called to “Universal School Choice.”

While popular with some voters, this message also poses risks. Democrats in each of those races have accused their opponents of seeking to defund public schools, which remain popular among parents.

“The most important rule in education policy is that most children go to traditional public schools and their families love those schools,” said Petrilli of the Fordham Institute. “If you’re portrayed as someone who’s against public education, that’s a real problem.”

Wisconsin: School Funding

While Republicans tackle burning education issues, Democrats stick to the basics: more resources for public schools and students.

Rising school spending is a constant concern for Democrats and their powerful allies, the national teachers’ unions. But, contend the candidates, there is an urgent need for more resources now as schools respond to the continued fallout from the pandemic – including staffing shortages, mental health issues and academic setbacks.

More money for schools was the most common education priority on Democratic gubernatorial candidate websites, according to Smarick.

Exhibit A is Wisconsin, where Governor Tony Evers has staked his bid for a second term largely on the issue of school funding. He bragged historic increases in state education spending during his tenure. In August he unveiled a plan providing schools with an additional $90 million in federal aid to help with teacher hiring and mental health services. And in September he asked the state legislature increase spending on education by about $2 billion in its next budget.

“Children need support and resources now more than ever,” said Evers, who previously served as the state’s chief education officer and a public school teacher.

Pointing to the $190 billion record that Congress has provided schools during the pandemic, Republicans argue that money isn’t the problem. Schools are struggling, they argue, because Democrats have pushed for extended school closures during the pandemic.

“Evers wants his big checks to make up for his big failures” said Evers’ Republican opponent, Tim Michels.

But Democratic strategists say their candidates’ priorities reflect the will of most voters. National polls show that likely voters favor increased funding for schools and mental health services for students. In Wisconsin, a recent Marquette Law School Survey found that when given the choice of increasing state support for public or private schools, more than 60% of voters chose public schools while just under 30% chose private.

But Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, cautioned against reading too much of opinion polls.

“People have positions on political issues,” she said, “and, given the hyper partisanship of our time, those things are largely irrelevant to their choice of vote.”

Patrick Wall is a senior journalist covering national education issues. Contact him at [email protected]

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