Election 2012: Progress for public education, but challenges remain
By Amanda Litvinov and Colleen Flaherty
A recent poll shows that in addition to the economy and jobs, education was a top concern on voters’ minds when they headed to the polls on Tuesday.
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America re-elected a president who has fought for the middle class and public schools. In the end, the millions of dollars outside groups poured into deceptive advertising could not defeat grassroots activism, and students and working families won over corporate interests.
That said, the election results still present challenges for all who care about public schools and kids. As Congress goes back to work in the coming weeks, public education advocates will assert “Kids Not Cuts!” as they urge lawmakers to protect children and families and keep our schools thriving.
Americans favor investment, not cuts
Americans across the country voted in favor of making investments that count—in kids and education. In California, voters overwhelming passed of Proposition 30, which will stop $6 billion in midyear cuts to state schools and colleges.
“Tuesday’s vote signaled that Californians believe in the value of public education and investing in our students and schools. They want to see funding restored to our schools and colleges. They want to see our schools flourish and our students succeed,” said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association.
There were many Senate victories for candidates who emphasized the need for investing in education, despite being outspent by opponents in many races. Sherrod Brown, who has been an advocate for higher education and college affordability, defeated opponent Josh Mandel in the battleground state of Ohio.
“Mandel had big money donors, and he couldn’t buy his way into office. The hard-working people of Ohio saw that Sherrod Brown cares about the middle class, and they showed the country that at the polls and in the voting booths,” said Traci Arway, Ohio educator and activist.
In Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has famously attacked teachers’ unions and slashed education funding, the people fought back and elected Rep. Tammy Baldwin to the open Senate seat to become the country’s first openly gay senator.
“Baldwin voted for emergency K-12 funding in the Recovery Act to save hundreds of thousands of jobs in public schools. She also supported student loan reform to make college more accessible and affordable so that more students can get the skills and training they need to succeed,” said a statement issued from the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Voters were not fooled by anti-education legislation labeled “reform”
This election pulled back the curtain on so-called “education reform” that would have hindered our public schools and made life more difficult for quality teachers. In Indiana, Tony Bennett, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, was defeated in his reelection bid. Bennett led a reform group backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called “Chiefs for Change” all while refusing to speak with teachers’ unions about any reform measures.
Bennett’s challenger, Glenda Ritz, was named Teacher of the Year in two different school districts in Indiana, has received National Board Certification, established a strong literacy program and has been president of the Washington Township Education Association for 15 years.
“I have always been a strong advocate for students and educators,” said Ritz.
In South Dakota, a referendum was defeated that would have attacked teacher’s benefits in the name of “reform.”
“We just feel strongly that it doesn’t do what we all would like it to do, which is to improve student achievement,” said South Dakota Education Association President Sandy Arseneault.
In Florida, an amendment proposing “religious freedom” would have taken away money from public schools and given them to private religious institutions through vouchers while blurring the separation of church and state provision currently in the Florida and the U.S. Constitution.
“This amendment would have stripped away current religious freedom protections by allowing public tax dollars to go to religious programs with no oversight and accountability,” said Andy Ford, President of the Florida Education Association. Luckily, the amendment was defeated.
Workers’ rights were protected at the polls
Several ballot measures to infringe on workers’ rights were defeated on Tuesday. Idaho had three propositions voted down, which would have limited collective bargaining rights, implemented merit pay and shifted funding to provide laptops to every student.
“These laws would have replaced teachers with laptops, rewarded teachers for ‘teaching to the test’ and muted the voices of Idaho’s most valuable education asset, teachers, in discussions with school districts,” said the Idaho Education Association.
California voters defeated Proposition 32, an initiative that aimed to limit the political participation of unions in the name of campaign finance “reform.” According to National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, the proposition “was an outright attack on workers’ rights and organized labor.”
Illinois residents voted down a proposed amendment that would have required three-fifths approval by the General Assembly, city councils and school districts that wish to increase the pension benefits of public workers.
Supporters claimed it was aimed at reforming the state’s pension system, which is more than $200 billion in debt. However, while limiting the power of state workers, “the amendment, in reality, would do nothing to solve, let alone address Illinois’ pension crisis,” according to the Illinois Policy Institute.
Collective bargaining compromised
Though the polls show broad support for workers’ rights, not all efforts to protect collective bargaining succeeded. In Michigan, there was a proposed amendment to the constitution to protect the rights of union workers.
According to the Bureau of labor Statistics, Michigan has the fifth-highest level of union membership in 2011 with 18.3 percent of the state’s workforce belonging to a union. However, there was massive outside funding with opponents raising $25.9 million to defeat the amendment, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Not all states protected funding for public schools
Millions of dollars from outside organizations funded and succeeded in passing a Georgia amendment that will create a private state commission that will directly license charter schools with very little oversight.
“The passage of this amendment will direct taxpayer dollars into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies whose schools perform no better than traditional public schools and locally approved charter schools, and worse, in some cases,” said Georgia State Superintendent Dr. John Barge.
Meanwhile, South Dakota was proposing a modest sales and use tax increase for additional K-12 public education and Medicaid funding. The increase was also defeated Tuesday.
“At current funding levels, South Dakota school districts cannot continue to provide students with a quality education. As a result of recent funding cuts, many schools have already had to increase class sizes, eliminate or limit student opportunities and cut classroom staff.” South Dakota Education Association.
Education gained enemies and lost friends in the legislature
A few extremist leaders retained positions of power in the House of Representatives, while some legislators who worked to defend education were defeated.
In Wisconsin, the defeated vice presidential candidate, Republican Paul Ryan, won his bid for reelection. In his time as chairman of the Budget Committee, Ryan’s budget proposals included massive cuts to education. He is also a longtime supporter of school vouchers and for-profit colleges.
Michelle Bachmann narrowly won her congressional seat in Minnesota, despite running in a severely conservative district. Bachmann has compared assaults on teachers’ unions to President Reagan’s efforts against the USSR and Abraham Lincoln’s fight against the Confederacy. She has also pushed to get rid of the Department of Education and routinely opposes anti-bullying legislation.
“I think for all of us, our experience in public schools is there have always been bullies. Always have been, always will be,” Bachmann said in an address to the Minnesota State Legislature. “I don’t know how we’re ever going to get to the point of zero tolerance. What does it mean? Will we be expecting boys to be girls?”
As for loses, Republican Judy Biggert was defeated in her reelection campaign. In her time on several congressional education subcommittees and as a former school board president, she time and time again supported education funding, focused on developing STEM programs and has been named a Champion for Children by First Focus Campaign for Children.
Former First Lady of Iowa Christie Vilsack lost in her congressional race to incumbent Steve King. Vilsack is a former teacher and librarian who fought for Iowa literacy and championed early education.
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