Seven Key Races That Will Shape Education Debate

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Blake Neff Reporter
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For most voters, Tuesday’s elections are a referendum on President Barack Obama. But they are also an important referendum on education reform, including the Common Core multistate standards.

How will the battle between teachers unions and education reformers, as well as Common Core opponents and supporters, shake out?

Here are some of the races to check on while waiting for the Senate to settle.

California: The Golden State’s contest for superintendent of public instruction is a feud between two Democrats over an office with limited power; but nonetheless, the race has tremendous political ramifications, reflecting a growing split within the Democratic party on education issues.

Incumbent Tom Torlakson embodies the traditional bond between Democrats and organized labor. He is a staunch ally of the state’s immensely powerful teachers union, the California Teachers Association (CTA), and according to critics, he has favored the union’s interests over those of the state’s children. He has sharply opposed the Vergara v. California court ruling that gutted state laws that give teachers rapid tenure and make them tremendously difficult to fire, arguing the decision wrongly blames teachers for larger systemic issues in schools. He also emphasizes his efforts to increase school funding and provide additional job training for teachers.

Challenger Marshall Tuck, on the other hand, represents a reformist streak that has won widespread support from certain wealthy activists and is now gaining traction with voters. A former charter school executive, Tuck supports the Vergara decision, has proposed linking test scores to teacher evaluations, and otherwise has promised to bring accountability and an aggressive mindset to one of the nation’s lowest-performing public school systems. He has fought back against claims he is anti-union, pointing out that every school he has worked in, including charters, has used a unionized work force.

With Gov. Jerry Brown cruising towards an easy re-election, the superintendent battle has surprisingly become both the state’s most notable race– and its most expensive. The CTA has spent over $4.5 million to indirectly support Torlakson’s campaign, while Tuck’s support from business elites in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley has him on track to spend over $2 million himself.

While Torlakson routed Tuck by nearly 20 points in the state’s nonpartisan primary last June, the race has tightened significantly since then. A September poll gave Tuck a slight lead, with over 40 percent of voters undecided.

Georgia: Georgia is one of several states where Common Core is absolutely central to the discussion.

Democrat Valerie Wilson, like most Democrats, backs the use of Common Core in Georgia, and in debates has placed a focus on how it would allow Georgia to compare itself with students in other states. Wilson also says that most teachers have urged her to keep the standards in place. Beyond that, Wilson is a traditional pro-union candidate for the Democrats, who supports increases to funding and opposes both school vouchers and for-profit charter schools.

Republican Richard Woods is one of many Republicans this cycle who built his campaign on opposition to Common Core– a position that carried him to a surprise upset in the party primary last summer over a Core supporter. Woods argues that the state’s old standards were better and that the new ones were imposed without any testing or evaluation beforehand to ensure they would work well. Woods, a retired teacher himself, has also shown strong skepticism for standardized tests in general, suggesting that the state should “personalize, not standardize” education and scrap year-end tests for a battery of lesser tests throughout the year. Should he triumph, he could become a leading figure in a rising national backlash against the alleged over-reliance on standardized testing present in No Child Left Behind and Common Core.

The race, like several others in the Peach State this cycle, is closely contested. Recent polling has shown Woods with only a four-point lead on Wilson– within the margin of error.

Arizona: While the Georgia race has some other issues in play, in Arizona it’s all about Common Core. Republican nominee Diane Douglas vanquished incumbent John Huppenthal in a primary challenge with a campaign revolving almost entirely around repealing the standards, known in the state as Arizona’s College and Career-Ready Standards. That laser-like focus hasn’t waned as she moves into the general, opening her to criticism that she is a single-issue candidate who lacks the necessary knowledge to fulfill her day-to-day responsibilities.

Douglas’s Democratic opponent is David Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State who supports the standards and brings a more technocratic vision to the table. He pledges to preserve Common Core and has also presented a plan to modify school accountability standards so that standardized tests are less critical, and other factors like language education, passage of AP classes, and technical education come into play.

In a Republican-leaning state during a Republican-leaning year, Douglas has an advantage, though no recent polling has been conducted. Garcia’s Common Core support, however, has won him endorsements from traditionally conservative groups, including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, to cause an upset.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma is another state where Common Core is a big factor, but it stands out from other states for two key reason: First, Oklahoma has actually already dumped the standards, doing so decisively in June by banning the use of standards even indirectly tied to the controversial Core. Second, both Democrat John Cox and Republican Joy Hofmeister agree with that decision and say they are glad to see the Core gone.

The Core’s shadow remains, however. Oklahoma’s withdrawal, coupled with slow movement to replace the standards with brand new ones, caused the state to lose its federal No Child Left Behind waiver. The waiver loss is expected to cost the state millions, and may even lead to abrupt layoffs at schools in the state. It’s one of many disasters that has befallen sitting Republican Superintendent Janet Barresi, who is deeply unpopular and suffered a decisive rout by Hofmeister in last summer’s primary.

Barresi’s unpopularity and the abrupt waiver loss have helped to produce a surprisingly tight race. While Gov. Mary Fallin is ahead by double digits in her re-election campaign, polls show the superintendent race to be tied. A party flip in the post of education superintendent could be interpreted as a warning to other states about the potential electoral consequences of a mishandled Common Core withdrawal. With more states expected to take up the anti-Core drumbeat in 2015 legislative cycle, the precedent of Oklahoma will be an important one.

Oregon: In the Beaver State, the key vote is not for any office, but rather for a ballot initiative– the state’s Measure 86. If passed, the measure would amend the state constitution and compel Oregon’s legislature to create a large state investment fund that would essentially act like a university endowment. Profits from the fund would be required to be directed toward offering scholarships for Oregonian students pursuing college degrees. Advocates say the measure would help prevent students from dropping out of programs due to lack of money and would thereby create a better-educated workforce. Critics counter that the law would be expensive for taxpayers while doing nothing to contain rapidly rising college tuition expenses.

The measure’s chances appear strong, as the bill to put it on the fall ballot passed with significant bipartisan support in the state legislature.

Washington: In Oregon’s northern neighbor, another ballot measure is under consideration that would mandate the state reduce average class sizes in the state. Currently, Washington’s average class sizes are among the naton’s highest. Initiative 1351, which is fervently backed by the Washington Education Association, would cap kindergarten through third grade classes at 17 students, while classes from the 4th grade on up could have no more than 25 students.

Opposition to the measure is more significant than to the one in Oregon, as opponents argue it would exacerbate a strained budget situation by forcing the state into a multi-billion dollar spending spree to hire about 25,000 new teachers and other school personnel. The initiative itself does not raise taxes or otherwise provide funding in any way, meaning that the Washington legislature, which currently has one chamber controlled by each party, would have to agree on a major tax hike or draconian cuts elsewhere. Complicating the situation is a recent Washington Supreme Court ruling that has ordered the state to significantly increase general education funding in order to comply with the state constitution. It is unclear whether Initiative 1351 would help fulfill this court order, or merely exacerbate a situation that is already straining the state’s budget.

Missouri: The most ambitious ballot measure of the 2014 cycle is also the least likely to pass, but warrants mention nonetheless. Initiative 1351 would mandate the establishment of an extensive standardized testing system, the results of which would have to be used as the primary driver for how pay and retention decisions are made for Missouri teachers. Teachers would be prohibited in engaging in collective bargaining on the nature of this new evaluation system. The Amendment would also cap union contracts at three years in length.

While the amendment is a favorite of certain conservative education reformers, opposition to Amendment 3 from teachers unions has been intense, and the law has failed to gain much traction. A victory has been deemed so unlikely that the pro-Amendment 3 campaign actually shut down last month, saying it was the wrong time to pursue it. While failure is almost certain, the final vote may provide a useful measure for how strong public sentiment is for demanding more accountability of teachers while weakening teachers unions.

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