Ten Things To Know About The 2014 Elections

There’s a wonderfully apt saying about why debates in the U.S. Senate last so long: “Everything’s been said but not everyone has said it yet.”  In that spirit, I offer my admittedly late thoughts on last night’s results. (It was a late night, so you may want to triangulate the real story by also reading the reactions from Eduwonk, Rick Hess, Eduflack, and Mike Petrilli.)

1. The Uncertain Edu-meaning of the GOP Triumph: It was obviously a gigantic night for Republicans. They won just about every race imaginable. But it’s not clear what views, if any, all of these new office-holders share. Some are pro-Common Core; some aren’t. Some love choice and charters; some are more traditional. So we’ll have to stay tuned to see how this landslide settles.
2. End of the Obama-Duncan Era: We’ll have to wait and see what the new reform era holds, but it feels more and more like the heady days of Race to the Top, ARRA, etc., are behind us. Secretary Duncan’s team still has work to do, on waivers in particular, but Maryland Avenue will no longer be the reform world’s center of gravity. The fundamental legacy question will be: How much of the Obama-Duncan reform agenda has become part of the consensus reform agenda?
3. Lots of Union Spending, Meager Results: Were I a dues-paying teachers’ union member, I’d be angry. Piles of money were spent, and unions lost just about everywhere—WI, OH, IL, RI, NC, MD, MA, and on and on (their only union bright spots being PA’s governor race and CA’s state superintendent race). What’s remarkable, though, is that the unions’ leadership, finding itself in a hole, is committing to continue the digging. Months ago, I suggested that the Vergara ruling provided an opportunity for union soul searching. That opportunity was, shall we say, left unexplored. On this Wednesday morning, I have to wonder if there are any union leaders expressing misgivings internally about the current defend-all-old-priorities strategy. How many court cases and national elections can you lose before your credibility and membership suffer grievously?
4. The New De Facto Secretary of Education: It was a terrific night for Senator Lamar Alexander. He won reelection, he’s going to claim the chairmanship of the education committee, and, as noted by Rick Hess, there’s an edu-vacuum in DC that he is perfectly suited to fill. Alexander’s vision for a scaled back federal presence in K–12 seems to resonate widely, and his credentials are unrivaled. He may shape education policy in significant ways over the next couple years: He’ll likely lead a strong ESEA-reauthorization push, he’ll have the chance to pass the GOP edu-baton to a 2016 presidential aspirant, and he’s my dark-horse candidate to reprise his role as Secretary of Education should the Republicans take the White House in two years
5. Three Totally Unexpected Gubernatorial Wins: Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts are blue through and through. But each elected a Republican governor last night. Watch these states. In MA, is there a renewed fight to lift the charter cap? In IL, is there a push for more school choice and a reinvigorated Chicago reform effort? Will MD consider changes to its charter law, tenure, and more?
6. A Sad Night for Philly: Democrats’ only major win last night was wresting the governor’s seat away from the GOP’s highly ineffective, highly disappointing incumbent Tom Corbett. The greatest shame of his tenure was his inability to bring meaningful systemic reform to Philadelphia’s schools. Instead, the failed district continues to dominate the landscape, serving as tragically low-performing operator and sole (and inept) charter authorizer. I’m sad to say the Philly-schools discussion over the next four years is likely to focus only on funding, contracts, and pensions. While I see glimmers of hope in persistently underperforming cities like Detroit and Cleveland, I don’t see the same for Philadelphia, which may now, sadly, have the most distressing American urban system of schools.
7. Chiefs for Continued Change: Reform-oriented chiefs, like NM’s Skandera and TN’s Huffman, may have the chance to build on their first-term progress. Their bosses were handily reelected last night. The GOP win in MI will probably help the state bring change in Detroit. Also keep your eye on possible chief-related developments in FL and NY.
8. Rhode Island and Gist: Many in the reform community are excited by last night’s results in Little Rhody. The new governor and lieutenant governor have reform résumés. The bigger story, though, might relate to the state’s superb chief, Deborah Gist. Despite very tough political conditions, Gist has led very ably, though without the fanfare of some other states. Rhode Island is lucky to have her; if she’s willing to stay, the more hospitable political conditions will enable her to do even more over the next four years.
9. Deteriorating Dem Edu-bench for 2016: Many in the Democratic Party are ready to nominate Hillary Clinton by acclamation. But for those looking for an alternative, last night had to be depressing. In two super-blue states with reputations for strong schools, MA and MD, term-limited Democratic governors must hand their seats to Republicans. O’Malley and Patrick would have a hard time taking much credit for their states’ education successes anyway, and last night’s results certainly took some shine off of their West Wing hopes. Another White House hopeful, Cuomo in NY, had to win without union support and CO’s Hickenlooper and VA’s Warner limped to victories. Is there a credible, ed reform-oriented challenger for the Democratic nomination?
10. Growing GOP Edu-bench for 2016: Prior to last night, Republicans already had a number of strong 2016 contenders eager to tout their edu-credentials, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal. Last night had the effect of swelling the ranks of this top tier. Big victories by Kasich, Walker, Haley, Martinez, Haslam, Snyder, Brandstad, Sandoval, and others—many of whom could make K–12 reform a key part of their pitches to voters—promise to make the coming GOP primary contest compelling.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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