Of the many surprises this election season, one surely was the number of times the issue of "education" came up in President Obama and Governor Romney's third debate - a debate ostensibly about foreign policy.
It shouldn't be such a shocker, though. Education issues are vital to our nation's future and competitiveness. And when it comes to education, lot could hinge on Tuesday's election outcome. It's not just in the race for the White House, though there are differences between the candidates on K-12 education issues. The outcome of a number of Senate and gubernatorial races could also mean a sea change in education policy in the coming years.
So, education policy-watchers, if you're wondering what Tuesday's results might mean for education reform, here are some races to look out for:
The White House: The Obama Administration and its Education Secretary Arne Duncan deserve significant credit for reminding the nation of our serious problems with K-12 education, and for working energetically to spread the word and seek change. They have not stuck their heads in the sand, by any stretch of the imagination. But states and districts have learned they can earn federal dollars just by promising to pursue various initiatives. Results? Not so important. We believe we would see more results in a Romney Administration. Governor Romney has promised, in essence, to let a thousand flowers bloom. Rather than Washington dictating how money is spent, federal dollars will follow success. For ed reformers, therefore, the top of the ticket is worth watching.
Senate: We could see four extremely pro-education reform candidates elected to the U.S Senate. They are:
- Former Governor Tommy Thompson (R-Wisc.) the very first Governor to sign a voucher program into existence;
- U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), the author of Arizona's pioneering charter school law;
- Former Governor George Allen (R-Va.), who as Governor was a first-in-the-nation champion of standards; and
- Former TX Solicitor General Ted Cruz, part of the Texas "School Choice Mafia" (and we mean that in the nicest possible sense of the word.).
These four Senators could tip the balance of power in the Senate toward ensuring federal education dollars follow kids, and a federal government that tips back toward its proper role: support for effective state and local efforts, not regulation from on high.
Governors: We've seen the sort of rebalancing we mention above in recent gubernatorial elections, which have ushered in pro-education reform governors and leadership. It's a new era of reform not unlike what we saw in the mid-1990s. There are several gubernatorial candidates in the race this year who if elected would further enhance the pro-reform landscape. Perhaps most importantly, all these gubernatorial candidates are likely to stand up to teachers unions. So which states are we watching?
Indiana may remain the "reformiest" state in the country if Congressman Mike Pence is elected Governor. Pence is an avid education reformer, and will build on the groundwork laid by Governor Daniels. Ovide Lamontagne (R-N.H.) was an ed reformer before ed reform was cool. As a New Hampshire State Board of Education member, he was an inaugural member of our organization's Education Leader's Council which brought together reform-minded school chiefs and state board members. If he is elected Governor, it will bring an end to moratoriums on charters in New Hampshire, as well as an end to teacher tenure. New Hampshire will finally see some real progress after years of poor results and educational and economic unrest. Another state where reform has been under siege is North Carolina. Union backed Governor Bev Perdue has been an iron fist for the unions, but a Governor Pat McGrory would bring real reform.
The Year of the Think Tank?: This could be the year that fresh ideas come roaring back in fashion! Several prominent candidates have ties to pro-education reform state think tanks. Ted Cruz was connected with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Jeff Flake with the Goldwater Institute and Mike Pence with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, of which he was Director.
Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, there has been an irreversible change in American opinion about education issues. Parents have awakened to the fact that, despite an explosion in spending, too many children are stuck in failing schools. They have grown weary of the same, tired excuses. The question is not whether the status quo will finally collapse, but when. That said we're still hoping Tuesday's results will hasten its demise.