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Milwaukee public school teachers, parents, students and supporters stage a picket line in Milwaukee on April 24, 2018. (Photo: Charles Edward Miller, Flickr cc)

Midterm Elections Proved Americans Overwhelmingly Support Public Education

Republican candidates for governor thought they had the winning education playbook, but voters had other ideas.

Glenn Daigon

 by The Progressive

In an election in which pundits and reporters predicted education would be a major factor in a much-anticipated "red wave," Republican gubernatorial candidates were said to be following a "playbook" of school choice and so-called parents rights that Glenn Youngkin used in winning the Virginia governor race in 2021. 

Where voters had the opportunity to vote directly on education issues, they were unanimous in their support for public schools.

To the extent that conservative candidates followed that script, voters differed widely in their response. Although Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida, both harsh critics of public schools and proponents of school vouchers, won their reelections handily, Democratic incumbents Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan successfully defended their seats with strong, pro-public education platforms.

Where voters had the opportunity to vote directly on education issues, however, they were unanimous in their support for public schools. State ballot initiatives strengthening public education passed in all regions of the country.

One of the most ambitious ballot initiatives was Colorado's Proposition FF. The measure proposed reducing income tax deduction amounts for those earning $300,000 or more and allocating the revenue saved to fund free meals to all students in Colorado public schools. The measure also increased wages for school employees who prepare and serve food.

"Voters understand the importance of making sure Colorado kids can continue to get the meals they need for improved health, better grades, higher attendance, and increased graduation rates," said Marc Jacobson, CEO of Hunger Free Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Conservatives disagreed.

"This is a really stupid idea," Jon Caldera, president of the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank, commented when interviewed by PBS. "This proposal is, 'Hey, let's get the rich guys to buy our kids' lunch.'" 

But Colorado voters voted for free school lunch: as of this writing, with 97 percent of the vote counted, almost 56 percent voted in favor. 

Massachusetts Question 1, another progressive ballot measure, proposed an additional tax of 4 percent for incomes over $1 million, dedicating this new revenue toward public education, roads and bridges, and public transportation.

It had the support of top Democrats like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, as well as Governor-elect Maura Healey.

"Long before the pandemic, Massachusetts needed new investments in our transportation and public education systems," spokespersons for Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of community organizations, told the Fall River Reporter. "These investments are needed now more than ever to lift up our economy for everyone and to ensure Massachusetts remains a great place to live, work, and raise a family."

Question 1 passed, garnering 52 percent of the vote.

Two ballot proposals went before New Mexico voters. Constitutional Amendment 1 proposed to increase state spending on early childhood education and public schools from oil and gas revenues. It was estimated that the measure, if passed, would provide hundreds of millions in additional funding for public schools.

"New Mexico has a unique opportunity to lead the country by demonstrating how states can provide permanent revenue streams for early childhood education without raising taxes," said Kimberly Robson, COO of the Save The Children Action Network.

New Mexico citizens also voted on Bond Question 3. This measure would issue up to almost $216 million in general obligation bonds to make capital improvements for higher education, special schools, and tribal schools.

Voters approved both ballot measures by wide margins.

Also on the ballot was West Virginia Amendment 4. It would have amended the West Virginia Constitution to require rules and policies adopted by the West Virginia Board of Education to be submitted to the legislature for review, approval, amendment, or rejection.

Supporters asserted it would hold the board, and the public education system it oversees, accountable to the people of West Virginia through their elected officials. Others had a different take. Conservative backers also saw the board as being too passive in addressing how race was taught in classrooms and lacking enthusiam for "school choice" programs.

"It could change the direction of public education every two years, when you have a new legislature coming in; that's not what you want," said Dale Lee, President of the West Virginia Education Association. "In a public school system, you want continuity, you want to have experts making decisions about public education, and the experts or the educators in the field, not the legislators who are coming in at all different aspects of life."

Voters supported Lee's position, voting down the amendment by a fourteen point margin.

Other public education ballot initiatives voted on included:

  • California Proposition 28. This initiative required increased spending on art and music education for all K-12 California public schools funded through the general fund. Supporters argued that only one in five schools have dedicated teachers for arts and music programs. This easily passed by a more than three-to-two margin.
  • A statewide, nonbinding, "advisory question" on the Idaho ballot asked voters if they "approved" of the state legislature directing more than $410 million annually to public education and career training. The referendum passed by an almost four-to-one margin.

While it's far from clear that the results of the midterm elections will persuade Republican candidates to try a different playbook for education, there was little confusion about where voters stood.

© 2021 The Progressive

Glenn Daigon

Glenn Daigon is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter. He has worked in the labor movement for over twenty-four years as an opposition researcher and is a graduate of Oberlin College. Glenn’s writings specialize in ongoing social issues.

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