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By Amanda Litvinov, Felix Perez, and Brian Washington
Election 2016 disappointed many public education activists. In far too many races, the candidate who was clearly the better choice for students and schools was not the one elected.
But across the country there were hard-fought, significant wins for students and educators that should give hope to public school students, parents, and educators.
Historic U.S. Senate wins—all by women—that matter for education
While we didn’t elect the woman at the top of the ticket, in a promising sign, the U.S. Senate will soon have four new female members who support public education.
After winning a tight race, Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Hispanic woman elected to the U.S. Senate. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from college, Cortez Masto has served as the Nevada Attorney General for eight years.
Cortez Masto opposed Nevada’s universal school voucher program (which was eventually ruled unconstitutional), and advocated to reduce high-stakes standardized testing—values that will serve students well when she heads to the Senate.
In Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, a member of Congress and a decorated Iraq War veteran, handily defeated an incumbent to claim the seat once held by President Barack Obama. She was endorsed by the Illinois Education Association because of her support for childhood education and her co-sponsorship of a bill to prevent student loans from doubling.
Duckworth also sponsored the Career and Technical Education Opportunity Act to enable students to use federal student aid on career and technical education programs. She also sponsored the In The Red Act to allow student loan borrowers to refinance at lower interest rates and increase PELL Grant funding.
In another history-making election, California Attorney General Kamala Harris won the state’s open Senate seat. The California Teachers Association credits Harris with understanding the need “to foster more respect and involvement for teachers, rather than imposing mandates without their input, and to invest more in our public schools.” During her tenure as attorney general, the California Department of Justice has worked with school districts to help lower elementary school truancy.
Harris’ mother emigrated from India; her father, from Jamaica. Her win makes her the first Indian American to serve in the U.S. Senate, and just the second Black woman.
In another tight race, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan ousted incumbent Kelly Ayotte.
NEA-New Hampshire has a whole list of reasons for supporting Hassan, who as governor fought to protect K-12 funding and make college more affordable. Under Hassan, New Hampshire froze in-state tuition at its universities for the first time in 25 years and reduced tuition at community colleges. She also led efforts to reduce standardized testing in favor of more locally managed assessments.
Hassan’s husband and daughter are both educators, along with both of her parents.
Students and families can count on these governors
Educators and families in a handful of states will rest easier knowing they gained or kept a public school advocate in the governor’s mansion.
In North Carolina, voters ended the disastrous reign of Gov. Pat McCrory and elected State Attorney General Roy Cooper, who as a state legislator fought to raise teacher pay to the national average, reduce class sizes, and expand an early learning program. Cooper also wrote North Carolina’s first children’s health insurance initiative.
Having an education advocate in charge will be a welcome change for North Carolina students and families. Gov. McCrory cut 3,000 teaching assistant positions and set aside $34.8 million to pay for private and religious school vouchers, intending to raise the amount $10 million per year through 2028.
In Montana, Governor Steve Bullock secured a second term by defeating Greg Gianforte, a software entrepreneur who promotes creationism.
Bullock presided over the largest increase in public school funding in Montana history; worked with the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers to protect the retirement plans of educators and public service employees; and vetoed bills supported by the Koch brothers that would have diverted millions of taxpayer dollars from public school to unaccountable religious and for-profit private schools.
He is also credited with securing a freeze on college tuition and leading the push for state funding of voluntary early childhood education.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert won a third term, promising on election night to “make (education) the number one issue over the next four years.”
The Utah Education Association said public education experienced “amazing successes at the Utah Legislature the past few years,” noting that Gov. Herbert has recommended substantial increases in public school funding and sought educator opinions on important issues.
In other noteworthy gubernatorial races:
- In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown won a two-year term and will finish what would have been the last two years of the governor who resigned last year. Brown took significant steps to curb excessive standardized testing in Oregon schools, and has worked to increase school funding.
- West Virginia businessman Jim Justice won his race. Justice opposes charter schools, wants education standards to be determined by educators, is critical of over-testing, and will repeal the state’s right-to-work law.
- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee won a second term. He reduced tuition at public colleges and universities during his tenure, and helped raise the state’s minimum wage to $13.50 an hour.
Educators and parents triumphed with ballot measures to protect and grow public education
Voters in Maine, California, and Washoe County, Nevada, passed ballot measures to raise revenues they will invest in their public schools.
Maine voters approved Question 2, a measure that counteracts some of Gov. LePage’s tax cuts for the wealthy and restores resources for public education.
Although the surcharge voters approved will only affect roughly 2 percent of all Maine households, it will generate an estimated $157 million per year–a significant boost for education.
Educators and parents across the state worked together through the Stand Up for Students coalition to collect more than 95,000 signatures to qualify the initiative and to educate voters.
California voters passed Proposition 55, which preserves roughly $4 billion in annual education funding.
The measure extends for 12 years a surtax on the top 2 percent of earners—individuals with annual incomes over $250,000 and couples with annual incomes over $500,000. The surtax was first approved by voters in 2012, and the steady funding it provided quickly stabilized disastrous conditions in some schools caused by massive educator layoffs and severe overcrowding.
Educators helped gather more than 275,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, and educated voters and inspired their support at the polls.
Voters in the greater Reno area approved a half-cent sales tax to fix some serious long-standing issues with school facilities that range from overcrowding to leaky roofs to unfinished asbestos abatement.
In time, the district will wheel away its 225 portable classrooms, some of which have been in use for nearly two decades. The district can also scrap plans to institute a double-session schedule, in which students attend school in two shifts, with some waiting at bus stops at 4:30 a.m. and others returning home from classes as late as 7 p.m.
The measure was backed by SOS Washoe, a coalition of businesses and community groups as well as the local and state education associations.
Voters in Massachusetts and Georgia spoke up loudly in favor of public schools over charter schools.
Massachusetts voters defeated Question 2, which sought to lift the cap on the creation of new charter schools in the state. The measure would have taken millions of dollars away from public schools, which are already underfunded about a $1 billion per year.
Educators teamed up with parents, students, civil rights leaders, labor and faith-based groups, and other community organizations, to form the Save Our Public Schools campaign. They defeated hedge fund managers, dark money donors, and the governor to protect their schools.
Meanwhile, Georgia voters overwhelmingly defeated Amendment 1 and Governor Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District proposal, which would have opened the door to the proliferation of charter schools in the state.
The measure aimed to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow the state to wrestle control of schools away from parents and local communities. Once under state control, under-performing public schools could then be converted to charter schools under the guise of “education reform.”
The Georgia Association of Educators advocates instead for a community-centered approach to assisting struggling schools. Community schools bring together the academic, health and social services, and other services lacking in the in order to remove obstacles that prevent children from these communities from succeeding in school.