By Amanda Litvinov
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The midterm elections are less than two weeks away. Are you ready?
Here are just five examples of how elected officials at every level shape our schools and why it’s so important that education voters head to the polls prepared to vote all the way down the ballot.
No one knows better than Wisconsinites how much a governor can affect public education.
“My students are absolutely not better off since Governor Walker took office. My kindergartners are participating in standardized tests, class sizes are increasing, teachers, counselors, social workers, and librarians have been eliminated due to catastrophic budget cuts.” said Rachel Swick, a South Milwaukee kindergarten teacher.
Gov. Walker and his allies in the state legislature cut $1.6 billion from public education — the largest cuts to education spending in Wisconsin history — to offset their sweeping tax cuts and a $300 million voucher scheme to send students to unaccountable private schools.
When you head to the polls, keep in mind that a governor:
- Can change education policies and programs and create new ones via executive orders, executive budgets, and legislative proposals.
- May veto bills, or sign them into law, and appoint state officers (in some states that includes the attorney general and superintendent of instruction).
- Influences public understanding of critical education issues such as vouchers, school privatization and education spending, and can play defense for schools if legislators pass potentially damaging legislation.
- A governor who doesn’t value public education can push an agenda that strips away resources, punishing struggling schools.
2. State Legislator
We know we need the right governor in office to support students and schools. But what happens when the majority of a state’s legislators are not friends of public education?
“We lost too many moderate Republicans in our state Senate in 2012. These were people we relied on to seek the bipartisan compromises that protected public education,” says veteran Kansas teacher Barb Casey.
Since then, the state legislature has been dominated by those who support Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda to offer handsome tax cuts to the state’s wealthiest citizens and businesses, paid for with slashes to education funding. They also enacted a voucher program that gives tax breaks to corporations in exchange for donations to private schools (which need not be accredited); stole due process rights from educators (who can now be fired at will); and removed licensure requirements for math and science teachers. There were no public hearings on these matters.
A few more thoughts on state legislators:
- Write and vote on laws affecting every aspect of public schools, from funding to standardized testing to educators’ rights to organize and advocate for students.
- Votes are supposed to be informed by constituents, not special interest groups from outside the state, like the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
- A good legislator is accessible to educators and parents.
3. State Attorney General
State attorneys general, often described as “the people’s lawyer,” ensure that state laws are carried out fairly. There’s a lot they can do to help protect taxpayers’ investments in public education:
- Advise state legislatures and agencies, including a state’s Department of Education, Board of Education, and institutions of higher education.
- Investigate for-profit colleges that engage in predatory practices or inflate job placement rates
- Assemble task forces to examine school safety, bullying, and the overuse of standardized tests.
Example: Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum came to the rescue last year when she put an end to a shady charter school outfit that mishandled $17 million in state funds.
The operators of EdChoices and umbrella organization AllPrep Academies manipulated struggling school districts to sign on, then took more state money by blatantly disregarding residency rules and adding students to their rosters who were never enrolled full-time.
The Oregon Education Association lobbied the state Department of Education to investigate, and the agency found violations of state and federal law that included the improper protection of confidential student information,the illegal transfer of money between schools, and operating charter schools without a valid license.
Attorney General Rosenblum headed up the state’s case, which was recently settled. The web academy founder and one of his associates agreed to repay nearly half a million dollars and refrain from education-related business for four years. They are also banned from consulting work for state-funded charters.
4. School Board Member
Well-functioning school boards make decisions on what’s best for students based on research and input from educators and the community. They are generally responsible for:
- Decisions about day-to-day operations of a school district, including hiring and firing administrators
- Key budget decisions such as setting salaries and purchasing textbooks and technology.
In recent years, the operators of corporate charter schools and other for-profit interests have begun funding their own school board candidates who, if elected, attempt to ram through votes to adopt their supporters’ services and further boost their profits.
Take Rocketship, a national charter chain that focuses on its profit margin more than providing students with a quality education. Gordon Lafer, a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute, says Rocketship is “a low-budget operation that relies on young and inexperienced teachers rather than more veteran and expensive faculty, that reduces curriculum to a near-exclusive focus on reading and math, and that replaces teachers with online learning and digital applications for a significant portion of the day.”
While technically a nonprofit, Rocketship uses a licensed software company called DreamBox — supplied by for-profit vendors — whose investors happen to sit on Rocketship’s board. “The more Rocketship expands, the greater Dreambox’s profits,” said Lafer. “It’s not about what’s best for students.”
School boards in California and Texas have rejected the chain, so those who stand to profit from dismantling public education are now trying to take over school boards by supporting their own candidates.
Americans for Prosperity, funded by the infamous billionaire Koch brothers, are attempting to use their vast resources to influence school board races. Last year — in places such as Los Angeles, Douglas County, Colo., Wake County, N.C., and Elizabeth, N.J. — they backed candidates who promote for-profit charters and private school vouchers, while ignoring the voices of parents and educators in the community. This year — in school districts such as Kenosha, Wis., and Buffalo, N.Y. — the story is the same.
5. Member of U.S. Congress
It’s essential that education voters elect Senators and Representatives who can work across party lines, listen to educators, make public education a priority, and develop real solutions that support students. These are the folks who:
- Set national standards for public schools
- Determine education spending through critical federal programs such as Title I and IDEA, meant to decrease inequities in public education.
- Serves on committees that draft and negotiate legislation, sponsor bills and cast votes, resulting in laws that can change the face of public schools entirely (think No Child Left Behind).
Just look at the contrast in the education records of the two candidates running for a U.S. Senate seat in Iowa:
School funding: Bruce Braley fought for over $10 billion for public education–including $97.9 million for Iowa schools–that saved educator jobs and kept class sizes under control during the worst of the economic recession. As a state senator, Ernst voted four times against reducing class sizes.
College affordability: Bruce Braley voted for the largest investment in student aid since the GI Bill and fought to keep student loan rates low. Joni Ernst has advocated for abolishing federal loans for college, even though she funded her own college education in part on federal loans.
Commitment to public schools: Braley strongly opposes voucher schemes that drain taxpayer dollars from public schools and has used his vote to fight them. Meanwhile, Ernst co-sponsored a bill to launch a voucher scheme in Iowa.
Braley has been praised by the Iowa State Education Association not only for his voting record, but also for his open door policy that allows educators to express their concerns and advocate for students.
Meanwhile, Ernst appears to be taking her cues from the network of donors and dark money groups established by the radical conservative Koch Brothers, and has publicly thanked them for supporting her.