Educators Weigh K-12 Impact From an Unpredictable Election

Educators Weigh K-12 Impact From an Unpredictable Election

Even as vote-counting continued in the 2022 midterm elections, teachers and school leaders contacted by Education Week on Wednesday voiced mixed feelings about the results so far on how K-12 issues fared at the polls.

While control of Congress remained unclear Wednesday, many of the most contentious issues involving education, including money matters and control over what can be taught on subjects like race and sexuality, were highly local, leaving educators to parse the results closer to home.

“My main concerns are, I live in Texas, and they’re coming after us,” said Daniel Goodner, a math teacher at Brock High School in Brock, Texas, who said he wanted to vote out the Republican Party on Tuesday. “A lot of our Republican politicians have threatened educators with legal action [over how they teach about race, gender, and sexuality], varying from getting your teaching certificate suspended all the way to criminal prosecution. That’s pretty hostile.”

Amid emotionally charged and sometimes contentious rhetoric in their communities, educators left the election feeling their jobs and the needs of their schools weren’t a top priority for politicians, with many wondering what the outcomes would mean for them.

Among the places where results were final, Republican candidates with conservative education agendas came out on top in states they often dominate. As expected, Republicans Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott both secured victories after making headlines for efforts to limit instruction about so-called divisive topics, like race, gender, and sexuality, and to prevent transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming care.

The wins were sure to excite supporters, who feel that Abbott and DeSantis are helping schools get on the right track through the restrictive curriculum and student rights policies. Robert Tufo, a math teacher in Palm Beach, Fla., had said on Election Day that he thought DeSantis would “do right by all the teachers and parents.”

“He’ll compensate the teachers, he’ll protect the parents, and educate the kids the right way,” Tufo said.

And Republican state superintendent candidates, Debbie Critchfield in Idaho, Ellen Weaver in South Carolina, and Ryan Walters in Oklahoma, won on platforms that promised to ban critical race theory, expand school choice initiatives like vouchers for private schools, and establish conservative parents’ rights policies that allow parents to review, amend, or reject curriculum.

Abbott’s win was disappointing, but not unexpected, for Goodner, who doesn’t identify as a Democrat but voted against the Republican Party because it is, in his view, “anti-education.”

“It’s a beatdown on the one hand,” Goodner said. “On the other hand, it may get ugly for a while, but we’re always going to have public schools.”

In other states, Democratic candidates managed to defeat Republican nominees who threatened school funding, teacher pay, and equity and promised to continue scrutiny over teaching materials and approaches. In Pennsylvania, Democratic nominee for governor Josh Shapiro won against Republican Doug Mastriano, a state senator who helped Donald Trump in his efforts to overturn the results of the 2022 elections.

Mastriano had proposed cutting per-pupil spending by about one-third, a statement that made educators uneasy and prompted over 80 school board members to write a letter in opposition to his candidacy.

“Anytime that your paycheck is determined by politicians on a large scale you get nervous,” said Jeff Miller, principal of Conemaugh Valley High School near Johnstown, Pa., of Mastriano’s budget plan. “What’s he going to cut? Is he cutting people? Is he cutting programs? Is he cutting schools? It’s one of those things that makes election time interesting and also a little bit scary.”

And, in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat and former state schools chief, beat his opponent Republican Tim Michels, who stated he would oppose any increases to funding for public schools.

Other races remained too close to call. In Arizona, candidates in both the governor and state superintendent elections were neck-and-neck. As of Wednesday, Republican nominee for superintendent Tom Horne held a tight lead against Democratic incumbent Kathy Hoffman. Horne intends to put an end to what he calls “political indoctrination” in K-12 schools taught through social-emotional learning and critical race theory. Hoffman denies the latter is being taught in Arizona schools.

Meanwhile, Hoffman has emphasized her intention to improve the state’s teacher recruitment and retention efforts, invest in student mental health supports, and expand social-emotional learning.

Although Goodner, the Texas math teacher, was frustrated with the outcomes on the state level, it was the results of his local elections that made him most disappointed.

Three measures on the Parker County, Texas, ballot asked voters to approve bonds for school facilities, including a new building, an activity center, and improvements to the high school’s football stadium. All the measures failed, according to the Parker County Clerk’s office’s unofficial election results.

“Not only were these hostile officials reelected, but … none of our bonds passed,” he said. “So voters are also not supporting the extra funding we need at the local level.”

Local politics were also of major concern for Miller, who was pleased to see that state Rep. Frank Burns, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania’s 72nd district, won reelection. Miller has worked closely with Burns to improve school finance and facilities.

“To see him win was refreshing in knowing that we can continue that relationship,” he said.

And for Anna Weber, a special education teacher in Marion County, Mich., statewide ballot measures and school board elections held a lot of weight.

Specifically, Weber was pleased to see voters pass Proposal 2, which enshrined a right to vote in the state’s constitution and required specific policies, such as an early voting period, absentee ballot counts on or before Election Day, photo IDs or signed affidavits to verify identities, permanent absentee voter lists, prepaid ballot postage, and access to ballot drop boxes.

Weber hopes the measure will lead to a more informed voter base that can help with growing tensions within school communities and at school board meetings.

“I think having people well-informed about certain issues and not having only the wrong information in their hands is crucial to passing measures that will further our education initiatives,” Weber said.

Educators hope to see more respect from elected officials

While it’s hard to predict what will happen for K-12 schools after the 2022 midterms, educators know what they want to see: a renewed focus on respect for the profession.

Goodner is dismayed by conservative parents’ rights policies that critics say drive a wedge between families and teachers by giving parents the power to reject curriculum that doesn’t sit well with them. He hopes that in the future politicians will step back from those policies and focus on bringing more people into the profession by increasing pay and limiting divisive rhetoric surrounding the profession.

“I would love a raise, that’d be great, but what I really mean by valuing educators is stop attacking us and threatening legal action,” Goodner said. “Recognize that we do actually have to have professional credentials to do what we do.”

Miller, in Pennsylvania, is hopeful that elected officials will use the next few years to invest in quality teachers to combat shortages and improve morale.

“We need to focus back on this as being an important profession and not something that is the cause of a political argument,” he said.

All three of the educators remain steadfast in their belief that it’s important for people who work in schools to stay informed about politics and vote if they can.

For Weber, it’s about setting an example for students and ensuring that she knows how to best meet student needs.

“Understanding where things are headed and what might happen as a result of local elections, being prepared for both outcomes, is crucial to setting our schools up for success,” Weber said.

Images Powered by Shutterstock