Viewpoint: The Election Has Compromised Education Reform

Results across the country show the fragility of the reform agenda

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Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Achievement First Bridgeport Academy Elementary School, a charter school, on July 23, 2012 in Bridgeport, Conn.

The 2012 presidential election sidestepped the issue of school reform. Neither candidate spent much time laying out, let alone talking up, an education policy agenda. But around the country, there were ballot referendums and state and local races with big implications for schools. Teachers’ unions had a good night, but so did charter schools. In other words, Nov. 6 left the country with an education mandate as unclear as the electoral mandate overall. Still, what happened in various states will influence what happens in Washington during President Obama’s second term. Here are four key education issues to watch:

Standards for teachers and students
The biggest omen for the Obama Administration is, ironically, the defeat of a high-profile Republican, Indiana state schools superintendent Tony Bennett. He has been a quiet Obama ally, most notably in the fight to reform teacher evaluations and develop common academic standards in all 50 states. The latter effort didn’t endear him to conservatives, and Bennett’s Democratic opponent said she’d pull the state out of the standards initiative. Bennett also angered teachers’ unions with his blunt talk and his support for one of the toughest teacher-evaluation laws in the country. This left-right convergence led to Bennett’s losing on the same night that a conservative Republican won the governorship, and that doesn’t bode well for Obama’s centrist approach to education reform. Or for that matter, for GOP leaders on these issues, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has championed many of the initiatives that got trounced on Tuesday night.

(MORE: Why Romney’s Big School Voucher Idea Was Really Pretty Puny)

In other Republican-on-Republican violence, Idaho schools chief Tom Luna wasn’t on the ballot, but all three of his big education-reform measures were roundly defeated by voters in this solidly red state. Luna, who is a Republican and also the president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the national organization representing state education agencies, had pushed hard for initiatives that would have instituted merit pay for teachers, weakened collective bargaining and mandated more online education and use of laptops in public schools. All bombed at the ballot box, despite an influx of donations to support them from out-of-state donors including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Meanwhile, South Dakota voters rejected a new state law that would have incorporated test-score data into teacher evaluations, added merit pay and weakened teacher tenure. The bill had passed the state’s legislature by just one vote, and defeating it was a top priority of teachers’ unions.

Unions didn’t win everywhere, however. In Michigan, which Obama carried, voters rejected a measure that would have expanded collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other workers. Bottom line: Just as we saw in Wisconsin last year, organized labor is not viewed sympathetically by many voters from either party, but teachers’ unions can still pack a punch when their back is against the wall. No one wants to be perceived as offending teachers. And that message won’t be lost on state and local elected officials — who will all be on the ballot in the next few years — as they debate how much risk they’re willing to take to carry out the President’s agenda.

(MORE: Won’t Back Down: Why This Education Movie Matters)

Charter schools
Publicly funded charter schools were the night’s big education winner, scoring two hard-fought victories on opposite sides of the country. In Georgia, after the state supreme court struck down a charter-school law as unconstitutional, reformers took their case directly to voters, who by a decisive 58% to 41% margin approved a modification to the state’s constitution that will enable a special commission to authorize charter schools. In Washington, voters narrowly approved a referendum allowing the creation of charter schools, after rejecting similar initiatives in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Charter-school supporters like me see these wins as a sign that giving families more choices in education is no longer a question of if but of when and how.

Immigration reform
Maryland voters passed a state version of the controversial DREAM Act, granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants at public colleges and universities, provided they meet certain conditions. Long stalled in Congress, the measure sailed through on the ballot, with 59% of Maryland voters in favor of it and 41% opposed. That lopsided result, along with the growing importance of Latino voters in national politics, should embolden skittish politicians elsewhere in the country to help Obama tackle the issue of comprehensive immigration reform.

(MORE: Should Teachers Be Allowed to Sell Their Lesson Plans?)

Education spending
The other big issue, in addition to immigration reform, that the President will face early in his second term is the deficit. In California, the prospect of additional education budget cuts helped prompt voters to pass a temporary increase in sales and income taxes. Fiscally, California is running on fumes, but the difficulty of doing something about it previews the coming debate in Washington over balancing spending cuts and tax increases to get the federal budget under control.

The fiscal cliff will now dominate politics in Washington. But the real education story of the 2012 election is the fragility of the reform consensus and the high-wire act the President and Republican reformers have ahead of them.