Even This Year, Some Politics Is Still Local

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- National issues are getting most of the attention in the run-up to Tuesday's midterm election, including health care, immigration and President Donald Trump.

Yet from Arizona to Kentucky to Wisconsin, politics also remains fiercely local. Especially in states that cut school budgets as a result of the 2008 recession and Republican-sponsored tax cuts, public school funding has become a hot-button issue in many state legislative and gubernatorial races, often scrambling party loyalties. Six years after the Great Recession, most states were still spending less on schools than they were before 2008, according to a 2016 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Teachers in several Republican-dominated states led a political groundswell earlier this year, with walkouts that closed schools. Over 300 teachers are running for political office in the midterms, more than double the number that did so in 2014. While many of the teacher candidates are Democrats hoping to unseat Republicans who cut school funding and promoted privatization in the form of charter schools and private-school voucher programs, educational activism cuts across party lines.

In Arizona, a small group of mothers and teachers organized to oppose a 2017 law that expanded the state’s voucher program, which steers taxpayer dollars from the state’s public schools to private and religious schools. More than 100,000 people signed a petition to put their referendum on the ballot, provoking a counterattack from Americans for Prosperity, an organization backed by the conservative activists David and Charles Koch. It sued, unsuccessfully, to have it taken off of the ballot. Both sides have identified the referendum on the voucher law as a top priority.

In Kentucky, education activists won a battle against a new charter-school authorization law passed by a Republican legislature and signed by a Republican governor. Under pressure from voters, the legislature failed to fund the measure it had passed just a year earlier. "We've never seen a state enact a law one year and come back the next year and stall funding," said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in an interview with the Louisville Courier Journal.

The Republican legislature also faced a backlash when it tacked a measure onto sewer legislation that would change the state’s public pension system, one of the most underfunded in the country with $43 billion in liabilities. The plan would give future teachers and other state employees retirement accounts similar to 401-K programs instead of the previous system’s defined-benefit plans. A lawsuit challenging the law is before the state supreme court.

Harnessing bipartisan anger over the pension bill, a math teacher, Travis Brenda, defeated Jonathan Shell, the House majority leader who helped introduce the bill, in the Republican primary.

“In Kentucky, there’s a hyper focus on local and state politics, especially after what happened in Frankfort with the attack on pensions” and the charter-school law, said state Representative Attica Scott, a Democrat who is running for re-election.

Sharp cuts to public school funding and an expanded school voucher program have energized communities and school boards in Wisconsin, too. An October Marquette Law School poll found that the state's voters prefer increasing school spending to tax cuts by a margin of 57 percent to 37 percent. (Five years ago, by contrast, Wisconsin voters said they preferred lower taxes to higher school spending by a 49 percent to 46 percent margin.)

In Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, the school board commissioned a survey to gauge the community’s appetite for raising taxes to boost school spending. The result: a $124.9 million referendum on Tuesday’s ballot, the second-highest in the state, earmarked for school construction and infrastructure. If all the 2018 school-funding ballot measures are approved in Wisconsin, it will mean over $1.75 billion for schools this year. In 2011, Walker and the Republican state legislature passed ACT 10, which cut close to $600 in per-pupil funding, in addition to stripping public-sector unions of most of their collective bargaining rights.

The Wauwatosa school board also recently created a legislative advocacy committee that, among other things, organizes school breakfasts and tours for state and Federal legislators. The committee includes local community members because “legislators listen to residents and voters much more than they would a school board official or a superintendent,” said Shawn Rolland, president of the local school board.

The new K-12 activism is likely to restore some public school funding, but won't necessarily translate into ballot-box upsets of candidates whose policies have hurt public schools. In Wisconsin, for example, the governor’s race is a tossup between Walker and his challenger, Democrat Tony Evers, according to the Marquette Law School poll. One reason may be that Walker has appropriated Evers’s pro-public-school policies, and sought to rebrand himself as the “education governor.”

Another reason is that Walker’s campaign is benefiting from lavish campaign spending by the Koch brothers’ organization. Other big-money backers of school privatization are supporting both Republican and Democratic candidates, including Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor in California, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.

In California, the Anaheim Union High School District is trying to inoculate itself against the kind of education-reform effort mounted by billionaire entrepreneur Eli Broad, who has set out a $490 million strategy to turn more than half of Los Angeles’s schools into charters. Michael Matsuda, the school superintendent in Anaheim’s high school district, is building alliances among local political leaders, the teachers union and local parents. One sign the strategy may be working: Tom Tait, Anaheim’s outgoing Republican mayor, endorsed a school board member, Al Jabbar, for re-election on Tuesday in a three-way race that includes a pro-charter candidate.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."

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