Elections brought mostly good news for education

Last week’s election results were mostly positive for education. Not entirely – there were definitely a few missed opportunities. But the news was more good than bad.

Close to home, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved a referendum to raise property taxes and increase school funding by $272 million over eight years. Most of the money will go to operating expenses, including long-overdue teacher raises; some will fund building improvements.

This is a big deal. IPS has struggled for years with declining enrollment and reduced state funding. Officials were reluctant to try to raise property taxes for fear voters would shoot down the measure. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce first called for a smaller increase, then got on board.

Around the state, eight school funding referendums were approved and four were turned down. That’s a worse success rate than schools have achieved in recent years, as officials have become more cautious and savvy in asking for tax increases. In May, voters approved 12 of 12 referendums.

We can celebrate when voters agree to increase funding for their local schools. The problem is, there are a lot of school districts in Indiana where there isn’t enough of a tax base to provide adequate support. Affluent areas can boost taxes to fund the schools; poor districts are at the mercy of the state.

In IPS school board elections, candidates who were critical of the district’s recent embrace of charter schools and “innovation network schools” won two of three open seats. There are no easy answers to the challenges facing that high-poverty and mostly nonwhite urban district, but I think the district will benefit from having a couple of school-choice skeptics on the board.

In Indiana’s political races, Democrats gained a couple of state legislative seats but Republicans held their supermajorities in both the House and Senate. That means it’s unlikely that public school supporters can check the state’s support for charter schools and private-school vouchers.

Around the country, probably the best news was the election of Democratic governors who promised to increase school funding and oppose school privatization. Regardless of whether they campaigned on education, governors play the most important role of any elected officials in education policy.

In Wisconsin, Democratic schools chief Tony Evers ousted Gov. Scott Walker, the scourge of teachers’ unions. In Illinois, Democrat J.B. Pritzker, who backed more pre-K funding, defeated Gov. Bruce Rauner, a school voucher supporter. Democrats also flipped governor’s offices from red to blue in Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada and Maine. And votes are still being counted in Georgia and Florida.

Arizona voters re-elected a pro-school-choice Republican governor but voted down an expansion of the state’s voucher program, a victory for the activists with Save Our Schools Arizona.

And Democrats won control of the U.S. House. At the very least, they should be able to put pressure on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and limit her ability to implement anti-public school policies.

There were disappointments too. Only a handful of the scores of educators who ran for state legislative seats were able to win, including in states like Oklahoma and West Virginia, where teacher walkouts last spring seemed to have significant support. I had high hopes for Kentucky, with its history of progressive education policies, but the GOP there held its supermajorities in the House and Senate.

But challengers rarely win elections on their first try, and most of the educators who ran for office last week were facing uphill fights against incumbents. Politics is a long game, and even the work that went into losing campaigns could pay off in the long run. Overall, it was a good election.

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