Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama spent much time discussing education during their campaigns, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a concern for voters. Across the country, education was on many ballots, and the results are a message for education reformers, including the Obama administration.
‘Reforms’ not winning
Two high-profile players in the education reform movement saw significant defeats. In Indiana, Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Bennett was ousted by Glenda Ritz, a two-time teacher of the year. As superintendent, Bennett had implemented such education reforms as establishing the nation’s largest school voucher program; turning over school management of certain schools to for-profit consultants; putting in motion a teacher evaluation program that includes a heavy emphasis on standardized testing scores; and changing the way schools are assessed and reported, giving them scores of A through F.
The other well-known education reformer who lost big on Tuesday was Tom Luna, State Superintendent in Idaho. In the past two years, the state legislature passed three of his reforms. The first took money from school funding and earmarked it to increase technology in the schools. The second was a measure that limited collective bargaining for teachers. The third instituted merit pay for teachers. All three were repealed by a large margin in a referendum.
In other states, school reforms were also dealt a blow. In South Dakota, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard tried to eliminate teacher tenure and replace it with a pay scale based on student performance – 68 percent of the voters rejected that idea.
In Bridgeport, Connecticut, voters rejected a bill that would have changed school boards from elected positions to seats appointed by the mayor, a move supported by reformers such as Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee.
At least one state passed a bill that education reformers supported. In Georgia, voters approved a charter school bill that the Republican State Superintendent argued would hurt funding of traditional public schools.
Not surprising during economic hard times, money for education was also an issue in several states. Voters in Arizona ended a temporary 1-cent sales tax that was helping fund K12 schools, and in Missouri, voters rejected a tobacco tax increase that would have gone to the schools.
However, Californians supported a proposition that raises taxes on the wealthy to increase K12 spending. Voters in Portland, Oregon, voted an annual per person tax of $35 for arts education to hire art and music teachers for elementary schools.
Voters in Maryland upheld a law passed earlier by state legislators granting in-state two- and four-year tuition to undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements.
In another bill dealing with money, Floridians rejected a proposal that would have allowed publicly-funded vouchers to be used at religious schools.
What happens now? The biggest issue facing public education is the looming “fiscal cliff” of sequestration. Like most federal agencies, the U.S. Department of Education faces an 8.2 percent funding cut. While most of those cuts won’t affect this school year, funding for programs for disadvantaged students and special education would lose more than a billion dollars each on Jan. 2.
The federal government also has to deal with funding that affects higher education, including budget gaps in Pell Grants and increases in student loan interest rates.
And Congress still hasn’t reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or No Child Left Behind. Desperately in need of revision, NCLB has forced states to ask for waivers from compliance. The Obama administration granted waivers to states that agreed to abide by measures supported by the corporate reformers and opposed by many researchers and educators in the field. For example, the states have to include student test scores in teacher evaluations, something that continues to be unreliable and highly controversial.
Critics need to be heard
So far the Obama administration has been indifferent or dismissive of education reform critics. In 2009 education blogger Anthony Cody led a movement called Teachers’ Letters to Obama and received a phone call from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It was an overture that went nowhere, unfortunately, and the corporate reformers continue to push their agendas unopposed in both parties.
In October Cody made another pitch for letters from people concerned about the current trends in American education. Recently he sent a bound copy of 400 letters from concerned stakeholders to the White House. In an interview with CNN, Cody said that teachers are even more frustrated than they were three years ago – but their optimism makes them try to have their voices heard.
“Perhaps a second Obama term will be a chance to appraise the path we have taken and make some changes. We hope so,” he said.
If the administration does the necessary soul-searching of the education election results, there could be some hope and change after all.