What Do the Midterms Mean for Education?

Yesterday’s midterms will have a profound effect on what happens in Washington and dozens of state capitals over the next two years, with big implications for schools and schooling. To make sense of the results, I thought I’d reach out to my old friend Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether, author of the Eduwonk blog, member of the Virginia board of education, former special assistant to President Bill Clinton for domestic policy, and one of the nation’s most astute observers of education politics and policy. Here’s what he had to say.
— Rick

Rick: So, what happened last night that readers really ought to know? Depending on whether you watched MSNBC or FOX News, you got very different narratives. How would you explain the results to people?

Andy: In a lot of ways this election is a story of the weaknesses of each party. If Democrats had run a more effective campaign on issues like inflation and crime, they would have been able to capitalize more on voter frustration, but it’s not what their base wants to hear about on MSNBC. If Republicans had recruited better candidates and distanced themselves from election deniers, they’d be in a stronger position, but that’s not what their base wants to see on FOX.

It’s also a story about how divided the country is and the lack of appetite for what each party is selling. The good news? Our democracy is generally self-healing. The results seem to indicate that voters recognize January 6th for what it was — an inexcusable political and, in some cases, criminal act. But also recognize it for what it’s not — a monster lurking under everyone’s bed we should obsess about each night. Right or left, election denial seems like a bad strategy — and that’s a good thing.

If you believe in the American people and a pragmatic problem-solving approach to politics, it was a good night.

Rick: What are two or three races that you think are especially significant?

Andy: The biggest significance was a race that wasn’t on the ballot. This was a terrible outcome for Donald Trump. There is no getting around that.

And the Democrats flipping or holding some state legislatures will matter to education. People obsess on the national context and candidates, but those state races matter a great deal — especially to issues like education.

In terms of actual races, obviously DeSantis’ future in Florida bears watching. He put up impressive numbers and was instrumental in making that state more red. Democrats are going to have to parse what he’s been doing to come up with a better strategy than just assuming a majority is against much of what he’s doing with schools. His style certainly seems like an acquired taste but it appears not to have turned off a lot of voters. In this environment, that was an impressive win.

Nationally, JD Vance’s ability to completely reinvent himself shows some political skills and a potential for influence that probably shouldn’t be underestimated. But life in the U.S. Senate is different from campaigns and book tours, so we’ll see how that translates.

On the Democratic side, you suddenly have a slew of governors — exciting new ones like Democrat Wes Moore in Maryland and seasoned ones in a host of other states — who are plausible presidential contenders if President Biden chooses not to run for reelection. Democratic governors like Jared Polis in Colorado are showing you can govern swing states effectively, pragmatically, and voters will reward you for it. Tony Evers, the Democratic governor in Wisconsin, has carved out an interesting profile that obviously works statewide there.

Rick: It doesn’t seem like education was a big driver of last night’s results. The exit polls make it look like voters were more focused on inflation, the economy, and crime. Given that, do the results tell us anything about education? And are they likely to have much impact on education?

Andy: This wasn’t an election about education. But it will have a big impact on education policy. Who controls the purse strings in Washington will matter when school districts start hitting the fiscal cliff. What happens on entitlement reform will impact education long term. And more oversight of the U.S. Department of Education and a set of investigations will have an impact, in addition to just how hard it will be for the Biden Administration to get much done on the Hill.

Education will also be affected by the takeaways of both parties from the election. Ideally, both will realize that the culture-war fixation that is buffeting schools is not helpful, and both parties will get back to an agenda more focused on what counts as “kitchen table” issues in our sector: teaching and learning.

Rick: It looks like Republicans will probably take back the House, though by a pretty thin margin. Meanwhile, the Senate is still up in the air. Practically speaking, what does this mean for Biden initiatives like federally funded pre-K, student-loan forgiveness, or K-12 funding?

Andy: The picture on the Hill is a little uncertain right now. But even a small Republican majority in the House is still an effective majority given how that place works. The Senate on the other hand seems unclear. We are looking at a scenario that’s a nightmare for everyone but political consultants — a runoff in Georgia for control of the Senate.

“Control” of the Senate has always seemed to me like a misnomer given how that body operates, but it’s clear no one will be able to steamroll an agenda through Washington the next two years.

Rick: More broadly, do you think divided government is likely to yield odd-bedfellows lawmaking? If not, where do you expect the administration, on the one hand, and Republican lawmakers, on the other, to focus over the next couple years?

Andy: Honestly, I expect them to focus on 2024. This was a mixed verdict, and, after the dust settles, everyone will be looking ahead to the big contest, control of the White House. In addition, the Democrats should feel good about their performance last night, but the 2024 House and Senate maps will be challenging for them.

Rick: You’re on the state board of education in Virginia. A year ago, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won in a race that featured a lot of debate about the parental role, critical race theory, and gender issues. We didn’t hear as much about these issues in this year’s governor races. Are they still significant? Which party did they help? And what takeaways should partisans of both parties clasp in thinking about these issues?

Andy: Again, you have to pay attention to DeSantis and what he did. Tudor Dixon, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Michigan, tried to leverage these issues, and she lost handily — probably in no small part because she had no touch with the moderate voters who decide elections. Meanwhile, some Democrats are becoming more adept: In Pennsylvania, incoming Democratic governor Josh Shapiro embraced school choice, which is the ultimate parent’s rights issue. In Wisconsin, however, the incumbent Democratic governor, Evers won, and he’s not a big choice or culture-war guy.

A few things to keep in mind. First, a lot of the marquee races were national, not state, so these issues play a smaller role in how people vote. Second, in 2021, Youngkin’s timing was perfect in terms of catching the frustration about school closures and general frustration with the schools — and many Virginia schools were closed longer than anywhere else. Third, Youngkin has an attractive profile with voters. All of that means this is not a “just add water” kind of issue, and, as you’re going to hear a lot about in the next few weeks, candidate quality matters. Youngkin was a quality candidate. That keeps getting overlooked in all the narratives about the Virginia race.

Rick: We’ve all seen the data that students on college campuses say they’re more and more reluctant to share their political opinions. It often feels to me like that same phenomenon has taken root in much of K-12 education, across schools, advocacy groups, associations, and funders. I’m curious if you sense that, too? If, so, what’s going on, and what do you think we can do about it?

Andy: It’s not just college students. If more Republicans were more open about their views on Trump and Trumpism, they would have fielded better candidates in key races. The fear of Trump in that party is remarkable. If Democrats were able to talk about crime — an issue that Black voters “particularly” want them to talk about — they’d be in a stronger position in this issue environment. Their fear of getting dogpiled on Twitter is something else. In general, whether in politics, culture, arts, or science, open expression and a free exchange of ideas is instrumental to progress, and we should worry when there is so much evidence that people are reluctant to say what they think or where the evidence in some cases obviously points.

To the nub of your question: Yes, in education this is a big issue and a big deal. People are more scared of running afoul of orthodoxy than at any other time since I started doing this work. And they’re not wrong to be because there are consequences — often subtle but meaningful ones around funding and opportunities, as well as the high profile public show trials. But it holds us back. Argument, error, learning — those are the tools. But what we have now is a lot of groupthink and a lot of fear. The contentious political environment we’ve been discussing is a part of that but you can’t lay it all on that. People need to take some responsibility and be a little less invertebrate.

This election opens a window to do better, we’ll see who seizes it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.