A Not-So-Great Night for Education Reform

The results are in (well, most of them anyway) and our non-partisan candidate, Ed Reform, had a mixed performance. Let’s see how the seven key races and referenda turned out:

1. Tony Bennett lost his re-election bid. There’s no sugar-coating it: This one hurts. Bad. As I wrote yesterday (and told the Associated Press), this was a referendum on the most aggressive reform agenda in the country. Despite being massively outspent, the unions managed to get one of their own elected to this critical post. We’ll have to wait for more data to determine the degree to which conservatives also punished Bennett for his support of the Common Core. If that was the deciding factor, it will go down as one of the stupidest moves in the annals of education policy history. Bennett will be fine (I suspect he’s already getting calls from Florida, Ohio, and other states looking for a hard-charging state supe). But a union-backed state superintendent is going to wreak all kinds of havoc in the state’s new voucher program and much else. (Just ask choice supporters in Wisconsin, where state superintendent Tony Evers has made life hard on choice schools for years.) Bad, bad, sad.

2. The Washington State charter initiative is ahead. They are still counting the votes; it’s going to be a squeaker. But a victory is a victory, and it looks like charter schools are coming to Seattle.

3. Idaho’s “Luna Laws” went down. This bad but not surprising, reminiscent of the repeal of Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 reforms in 2010. Once again, the unions were well organized and determined to overturn measures (supported by GOP state supe Tom Luna) related to collective bargaining, teacher evaluations, and technology. A similar reform package wasdefeated in South Dakota, too. Remember when we told you (last week) that it’s not just the teacher unions on the coasts and in the industrial Midwest that are powerful? Yup.

4. Reformers won on collective bargaining in Michigan. On the other hand, Michigan’s powerful teachers union lost its bid to enshrine expansive collective bargaining rights in the state constitution. The status quo—which is still pretty darn union-friendly—remains in place.

5. Georgia voters approved a statewide charter school authorizer. Put another win in the reform column; this should allow charter schooling in the Peach State to flourish, as schools won’t have to rely on approval from their competition (local school districts).

6. Wisconsin Republicans regained the state senate. This means that Scott Walker’s collective bargaining reforms, and the recent expansion of the state’s voucher program, are safe (for now). (Unless the courts intervene, that is.)

7. Republicans kept their supermajority in Indiana’s General Assembly—and a reformist GOP governor will take Mitch Daniels’s chair. This seems to indicate that, while Tony Bennett paid for his far-sighted reform agenda, Republicans who enacted it did not. It also provides further evidence that Bennett may have been punished for his support of the Common Core.

So yes, for those of you keeping score, that’s five wins for Ed Reform (assuming charter schools prevail in Washington state) versus two losses. But in my book, the Bennett defeat looms so large that there’s little reason to celebrate.

What does this mixed pattern mean for school reform? It’s hard to say. Did Tony Bennett and Tom Luna push too far, too fast with their suite of reforms? Maybe. Or did they simply not raise enough money to fend off challenges? (Is it finally time for Republicans for Education Reform—a DFER equivalent that could come to the aid of bold conservative reformers?)

One thing is for sure: Indiana is going to be a fascinating place to watch, as a Republican governor and  strongly Republican legislature do battle with a union-backed Democratic state superintendent.

No victories are permanent. Neither are defeats. The fight goes on.

– Mike Petrilli

This blog entry first appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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