Voters Care Less About Education This Year Than Reports Suggest

On the cusp of next week’s midterms, a slew of media outlets have suggested that education will play an outsized role in determining the results. “Education is a top issue in midterms,” an NPR headline announced recently. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss noted that while education has never been voters’ top priority, “things seem different this year.” A Time magazine article asserted that “All across America, public anger over education funding has scrambled the political map for November” and that education issues have “changed the face of the midterm elections.”

This hype is understandable, given the attention generated by this spring’s teacher strikes. The only problem? There’s little, other than journalists’ understandable enthusiasm for a fresh angle, to suggest that education will drive voter decisions — especially in a polarized election cycle dominated by anti-Trump sentiment, a humming economy, and the Kavanaugh aftermath. Indeed, the October 2018 Gallup poll found that voters ranked education as their 12th-most important issue, with just 2 percent naming education as the most important problem facing the country today.

Those numbers ought not to surprise; they’re par for the course. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, no more than 5 percent of voters identified education as the most important issue. In 2012, the figure was 4 percent, in 2008, 1 percent, and in 2004, 2 percent. Similarly, education’s ranking during that time period remained reasonably constant, hovering between the ninth and 15th most important issues to voters. If anything, in 2018, interest in education looks to be on the average-to-low side.

Look, these numbers make sense. People care deeply about their schools, but when choosing statewide officeholders or thinking about national issues, it turns out their votes are shaped more by debates over jobs, health care, and social value questions than by school spending levels. Now, it’s a safe bet that education will play a significant role in some gubernatorial and local races, but that’s a long ways from it “chang[ing] the face of the midterm elections.”

— Frederick Hess and RJ Martin

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next. RJ Martin is a research assistant in education policy studies at AEI.

This post originally appeared in AEIdeas.

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