At first glance, the 2012 elections didn’t seem to have much bearing on education policies. After all, the fundamental debates around schools—whether to increase the role of testing, merit pay, charter schools, and school choice—are, for the most part, outside the realm of partisan politics. Among both Democratic and Republican leadership, there’s a fair amount of consensus in the self-proclaimed reform agenda, which seeks to make schools more like a marketplace and relies on testing to offer metrics for success. It’s the one area where the parties seem to agree. Heck, Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, is delivering a keynote speech at Jeb Bush’s Excellence in Education summit at the end of the month.
But while the politicians might agree, this year’s election turned out to offer a surprising message: Many still support the idea of charter schools, but a whole lot of teachers and parents aren’t so pleased with the elevation of testing, the new regimented days with little time for creative work and the blames and burdens teachers are now made to bear. And much like support for reform, those opposing it live across the political spectrum.
"The public is way ahead of the policymakers," Diane Ravitch, one of the leaders of the anti-reform efforts, told me Friday. She called the Election Day results' "absolutely, staggeringly important."
The big electoral moments happened in down-ballot races, but the victories were no less dramatic. In Indiana, voters kicked out Tony Bennett, the state’s superintendent of public instruction. The state has been a leader in implementing the reform agenda, increasing the role of testing in determining teacher evaluations and expanding a voucher program to allow students to go to private schools paid for with public dollars. When the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) put out its “Report Card On American Education” in January, recommending states do more to privatize education, the organization asked Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to write the introduction.
Glenda Ritz, a library science media specialist and one of only 155 National Board-certified teachers in the state, decided to run a long-shot campaign against Bennett. While she was the president of one of the biggest local unions in the state, she was a political neophyte. Bennett outraised her by more than $1.25 million, much of it from out of state. Ritz didn’t just eke out a victory. She got more votes than even Mike Pence, the Republican who the gubernatorial race.
Indiana wasn’t the only place where voters seemed to reject key reform ideas. In Idaho, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna pushed a package of laws he called “Students Come First.” (Those who weren’t convinced of the policies’ virtues called them Luna Laws.) There were three laws in the set: Proposition 1 restricted collective-bargaining rights and eliminated a variety of teachers’ contract protections. Proposition 2 instituted a merit-pay system for teachers based largely on their students’ standardized test scores. Proposition 3, perhaps the more egregious, drastically expanded the role of online education, guaranteeing a laptop for every student and requiring all high school students to take two courses online to graduate. Many suspected the latter was a gift to the technology companies that supported Luna.
All three lost by big margins—the biggest being the 67 percent of voters who rejected the laptop measure. The victory wasn’t cheap. The National Education Association put $2.8 million into the fight against the laws. Meanwhile, a variety of out-of-state reformers, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee’s group Students First each put in six-figure donations to support the laws. In total, opponents outspent proponents $3.6 million to $2.8 million.
There were other victories as well. Voters rejected South Dakota’s reform package, which ended teacher tenure and introduced a merit-pay system. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, voters rejected a much-watched local measure that would have given the mayor control over the city’s school board. Seemingly in opposition, two major charter-school expansion measures also passed: a measure to bring charters to Washington state and another, more controversial constitutional amendment in Georgia that allows the state to approve charter schools after the local districts have rejected them.
While support for charters and testing often get lumped together, it seems increasingly like there’s different constituencies for each. Idaho and South Dakota, mostly conservative-leaning states, rejected test-based reforms. In Texas—hardly a liberal bastion—there’s been an open revolt against standardized tests that has prompted even high-ranking Republicans to openly question the system. It's not clear what specific policies brought Ritz to power in Indiana, but certainly her role as a committed teacher who values the profession must have played a major role.
Conservatives, and especially Tea Partiers, aren’t fans of government control—and that includes control of the classroom. Let’s not forget, before he said “oops,” Rick Perry remembered that he wanted to get rid of the Department of Education. Meanwhile, for those in rural areas, conservative or liberal, the public schools often serve as the lifeblood of the community. Risks to a school's well-being concern everyone.
Most progressives come to the issue from a different angle. Ravitch, who's been among the most vocal critics of the reform movement, was in Chicago to honor three teachers receiving the Kohl Education Prize, given to teachers based solely on peer recognition, rather than test scores. Ravitch pointed to the prize as a way to encourage teachers, as opposed to current mainstream policies, which she says punish them. Unlike most Tea Party supporters, Ravitch and her ilk argue for investing more money in public schools and creating more safety-net services to help poor and struggling students succeed.
But when it comes to testing, increasingly, it appears there may be some surprising common ground. After all, if the Obama administration and Jeb Bush agree to reforms, it seems just as reasonable that progressives and Tea Partiers could push back.