What Do Would-Be Governors Have to Say About Education?
As seen from Washington over the past few years, the education debate has been dominated by school choice, K–12 accountability, college costs, and free speech on campus. But the real action on education tends to be in the states — which are constitutionally responsible for providing education and where roughly one-third of each year’s budget is typically devoted to funding K–12 and colleges. As the 2018 elections loom, with 36 gubernatorial contests getting underway, it’s worth looking at what would-be governors are talking about and how that relates to the Washington conversation.
So, during the first half of February, we used the National Governors Association website and Ballotpedia to identify the 269 declared gubernatorial candidates and then visited the websites for each. There were 121 candidates who had no website (a tiny handful) or who offered no information regarding their education positions. For the 148 candidates who had something to say on education — including 63 Republicans and 85 Democrats — we examined their sites to see what topics addressed and what they had to say.
What did this exercise reveal?
First, there’s been a marked shift from many of the concerns that predominated 4 or 8 years ago. Candidates devoted little attention to topics like school accountability (mentioned by just nine candidates), teacher evaluation (mentioned by just five), or the Common Core (mentioned by 17). When testing and standards do arise, candidates don’t have many good things to say. For instance, the mentions of academic standards and the Common Core are overwhelmingly negative — with more than 80 percent denouncing them. Similarly, just one candidate makes a positive reference to testing; the other 19 candidates who mention the topic all promise to reduce the number of tests.
Second, the only educational issue that registered support from a majority of candidates was career and technical education (CTE), which received enthusiastic bipartisan backing. More than 60 candidates — including 40 Democrats and 24 Republicans — endorsed expanding CTE.
Third, there is less attention — positive or negative — paid to charter schools, education savings accounts, and school voucher programs than one might anticipate, given the high-profile that school choice has enjoyed since President Trump’s election. Indeed, just 17 Democrats and 16 Republicans mention charter schooling at all. All of the Republicans are positive about charter schools, while two-thirds of the Democrats are negative, with several voicing concerns about for-profit charter schools or the undermining of district schools. Thirty-one Republicans mention school vouchers, and all except one are supportive; 14 Democrats mention vouchers, and all are negative.
Aside from school choice, there are a few other issues where a stark partisan divide is evident. Early childhood education is very popular with Democrats, 43 of whom mention it approvingly. But it is mentioned by just five Republicans. The same is true for school spending. Forty-four Democrats say that schools need more money; just 12 Republican candidates say something along those lines.
On higher education, candidates are silent about free speech on campus. For all the attention this issue has received nationally, especially on the Right, none of the declared Republican gubernatorial candidates mention it. A number of Democrats are focusing on “college affordability,” as are a handful of Republicans. All told, 26 Democrats mention proposals to freeze tuition, provide debt-free college, support dual enrollment, or something similar, as do six Republicans.
A couple of additional wrinkles bear watching.
The same general phrases can be used to mean very different things. For instance, when they refer to “early education,” some governors are talking about programs serving children 0 to 3, while others are talking about universal pre-kindergarten. By “career and technical education,” some mean vocational schools while others mean apprenticeships; some are championing more high school programs while others are thinking about community college systems.
Technology, including computer science, virtual schooling, and improving classroom technology, receives bipartisan but relatively shallow support. While all mentions are positive, just 16 candidates mentioned it — eight Democrats and eight Republicans.
Notably, no candidate made mention of social and emotional learning — a topic that has received substantial attention in educational and popular circles over the past few years.
There seem to be a few clear takeaways:
One, the accountability, standards, and teacher evaluation reforms at the heart of the Bush-Obama agenda have almost no outspoken champions among the nation’s would-be governors.
Two, although education policy has long been described as bipartisan, today the partisan divides appear fairly stark.
And, three, the only proposal that appears to enjoy broad, bipartisan support is career and technical education.
It looks like a new era of school reform may be emerging in the states, but, as yet, it’s far from clear what it will look like.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sofia Gallo is a research assistant at AEI.