What a Democratic Wave Election Would Mean for Education Reform

If the latest polls are to be believed, Hillary Clinton may be heading toward a landslide victory, especially as far as the Electoral College is concerned. If that happens, it will likely reverberate through down-ballot races—for the Senate and House of Representatives but also for gubernatorial and state legislative offices, too. The conventional wisdom is that disaffected moderate Republican voters may stay home, hurting GOP chances across the board.

ednext-oct2016-blog-petrilli-wave-electionWhat if this scenario comes to pass? What would it mean for education reform?

In short: It ain’t good.

The reason, in my view, is that the politicians most likely to stand up for smart, robust education reforms—expanding charter schools but also holding them accountable, for example, or setting high standards and empowering educators to meet them as they see fit—are mainstream conservative Republicans. These are the folks who have led the push for expanded parental choice, who held the line on the Common Core when the going got tough, and are willing to make investments in education as long as they are tied to results.

And these are precisely the sorts of Republicans likely to succumb to a wave election, representing, as they do, swingy suburban districts chock full of GOP voters who are fed up with Donald Trump. If they lose, it will leave Republican caucuses at the state and federal levels even more dominated by Tea Party conservatives and populists, and tilt power in the direction of the teachers unions to boot.

In Washington, a wave election will return control of the Senate to the Democrats, which could make it harder for charter school advocates to fight to increase essential charter start-up funds. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, in particular, has been a strong supporter of charter schools, and may lose his close race if voters in suburban St. Louis and Kansas City stay home. On the other hand, uber-Democrat for Education Reform Michael Bennet, the Senator from Colorado and former superintendent of Denver, will likely be aided by a Democratic surge. (For more on the federal ramifications, see this smart and sobering piece by Rick Hess, or this excellent overview from Politics K–12.)

A big Democratic win would also have significant implications in at least a handful of states. Colorado is at the top of the list, where Democrats could find themselves in control of the House, Senate, and governor’s office—potentially giving the Colorado Education Association a lot more running room to wreck the state’s excellent reform record. (The PARCC test could be particularly vulnerable.) The same outcome is possible in Washington State, where the Senate might land in Democratic hands, and where the teachers union would surely love to strangle charter schools in the crib. In other blue states, especially along the coasts, Democrats may find themselves with super-majorities, wreaking havoc on reform writ large.

Then there are marque ballot initiatives. Question 2 in Massachusetts—to lift the cap on charter schools—is already struggling in the polls. Moderate Republicans staying home would be the final nail in the coffin. And in Georgia, Amendment 1—to create a Tennessee-style achievement school district—is also taking on water, and could be drowned by a Democratic wave.

It’s not all bad news though. In several states it’s possible that chambers will go from complete Republican control to divided government—which can be helpful for defending high standards and charter accountability efforts, considering the hard Right’s willingness to throw these efforts overboard. That may be the outcome in Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

Keep in mind that very few of these races have hinged on education reform; yet education reform will be significantly impacted nonetheless. If that feels unfair, don’t forget the Republican wave election of 2010, which ushered in the Year of School Choice. What goes around comes around, and reformers should be ready for a rocky 2017, whether we deserve it or not.

– Mike Petrilli

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next. This first appeared on Flypaper.

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