In Partnership with 74

EDlection 2022: 16 midterm races to watch that could impact schools, students & learning recovery after COVID

LA School Report | November 8, 2022

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

Getty Images/EDUimages

We’re just now beginning to process how COVID has reshaped our schools — and the state of our education politics.

From historic test score declines to fractured learning recovery efforts, a teen mental health emergency, a high school absenteeism crisis and imploding college enrollment, the foundation of our education system has been rocked. Amid these trends, polls show parents more motivated by education to vote — and willing to cross party lines over school issues.

Over the last several months, we’ve looked ahead to the Nov. 8 midterms and previewed the pivotal races that could reshape schools systems and priorities: New governors that could change course on local policies, new state superintendents that will oversee city and district initiatives, new ballot propositions that will prioritize education funds and potential Congressional shakeups that would affect broader learning recovery and accountability efforts.

With education driving the political debate in a way it hasn’t for a generation, here are 16 key races we’ll be watching Tuesday night through the lens of how it will affect students:

Students from San Pedro High School marched with former Los Angeles schools chief Austin Beutner on Oct. 2 to campaign for the Arts and Music in Schools ballot proposition. (Linda Jacobson/The 74)

Los Angeles’ Arts Education Ballot Prop — As Linda Jacobson writes in her preview: “Parading down a busy street in Los Angeles’ San Pedro neighborhood, students waved signs over their heads and urged passing cars to support their cause. ‘Honk for 28!’ they yelled. ‘Say yes on 28.’ The shouting referred to California’s Proposition 28, a ballot initiative that aims to pump at least $800 million into K-12 arts and music programs, and one that comes with a pleasing selling point: It won’t increase taxes. That’s one reason no one is raising money to defeat the measure — a relief to former Los Angeles schools chief Austin Beutner, who led the effort to get the question on the ballot and donated over $4 million to the cause.” Read the full preview.

Los Angeles School Board — As Rebecca Katz writes: “LAUSD school board president Kelly Gonez is headed to a runoff against teacher Marvin Rodriguez in district 6 — a surprising outcome for the five year board member who was backed by the powerful Los Angeles teachers union. In the other top board race, Maria Brenes and Rocio Rivas are also heading to a runoff for the district 2 seat on the seven-member board. As an LAUSD teacher, Rodriguez has taken votes from Gonez because he had “credibility as someone who knows the system from the inside. Teachers have a lot of sway with the public right now,” said Pedro Noguera, Dean of USC Rossier’s School of Education. Gonez, the board member for the East Valley and the frontrunner heading into the election; has led the board on crucial decisions, including pandemic recovery and expanding school choice. “I have a track record of successfully fighting for our students and delivering for our community,” she said. “I thoroughly understand what the position entails.” Read more about where the LAUSD races stood after the June primary.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond (Getty Images) and Lance Christensen (campaign photo)

California Superintendent — As Kevin Mahnken reports in his preview: “California’s race for state superintendent is in its final days. But according to some local observers, the outcome has been in hand for most of the year. Incumbent Superintendent Tony Thurmond might have avoided campaigning entirely, in fact, if he’d picked up just a few extra points of support in the June primary. Instead, he settled for 46 percent of the vote — just a few points shy of the majority threshold to avoid a runoff — and the mantle of clear favorite heading into the fall. Thurmond’s opponent in the nonpartisan election, education advocate Lance Christensen, finished 34 points and more than two million votes behind him in the last round.” Thurmond was the slight victor over education reformers’ favored candidate in 2018; Christensen is an obscure former Republican staffer in the state assembly who has attacked the teachers’ union and quixotically pushed to bring private school choice to the deep-blue state. “And while the next superintendent will confront significant educational challenges, from pandemic-related learning loss to curricular reforms around math and English, the debate over the future of education policy has largely remained quiet.” Read the full preview.

Gov. DeSantis and the Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist (Getty Images)

Florida Governor — As Kevin Mahnken notes in his race preview: “From Gov. Ron DeSantis’s early battles against mandatory COVID safety measures in schools to this year’s dramatic intervention in local school board races, the pugnacious conservative has embraced fights about what, and where, students learn. If he is known for nothing else in the VFW halls of Iowa and New Hampshire, DeSantis will always be cheered among conservative activists for his efforts to curb what he calls teacher indoctrination on controversial subjects like race, gender, and sexuality. In so doing, he has both locked Democrats into a battle over classroom instruction and redefined what it means to be an education governor in the 2020s.

“If anything, Democrats have been happy to pick up the gauntlet that DeSantis threw this year. Former Gov. Charlie Crist and the state party followed the governor’s lead on school board endorsements, backing a group of their own candidates. The Democratic challenger has also directly attacked the Stop WOKE and Parental Rights in Education laws, unveiling a ‘freedom to learn’ policy platform and vowing to make the state’s commissioner of education an elected office. To top it off, Crist chose as his running mate Karla Hernández-Mats, the head of Miami-Dade’s teacher’s union. The selection distilled an already-polarized debate — between committed education reformers and defenders of traditional public schools — even further. Experts called it an understandable political calculation, though not without potential downsides.” Read the full preview of the race in Florida.

Texas Governor — Education policies and school choice initiatives have factored prominently into the top Texas contest. As the Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek reported earlier this year: “A battle over school vouchers is mounting in the race to be Texas governor, set into motion after Republican incumbent Greg Abbott offered his clearest support yet for the idea in May. His Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, is hammering Abbott over the issue on the campaign trail, especially seeking an advantage in rural Texas, where Democrats badly know they need to do better and where vouchers split Republicans. O’Rourke’s campaign is also running newspaper ads in at least 17 markets, mostly rural, that urge voters to ‘reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan to defund’ public schools. Abbott, meanwhile, is not shying away from the controversy he ignited when he said in May that he supports giving parents ‘the choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student.’” Read more at the Texas Tribune.

Georgia Superintendent — As Linda Jacobson reports in her preview: “Among the six candidates the Georgia Association of Educators endorsed for statewide office, all were Democrats, save one: Republican schools Superintendent Richard Woods. The two-term incumbent’s support of a controversial new ‘divisive concepts’ law that restricts what teachers can say about race and diversity in the classroom was apparently less worrisome to the union than the platform of Alisha Thomas Searcy, his Democratic challenger. ‘His opponent, regrettably, has a long history of advocating for taxpayer funding of private schools that we cannot overlook,’ President Lisa Morgan said when announcing the union’s slate of candidates. Searcy was elected to the state House at just 23 and consistently advocated for school choice legislation during her 12 years in office. She co-authored a law that allows students to transfer to other schools within their district, voted in favor of the state’s tax credit scholarship program and championed a constitutional amendment creating the State Charter Schools Commission. Groups seeking to start a new charter school can apply directly to the commission instead of their local district. Woods also supports charter schools, but expanding choice has not been the focus of his campaign.” Read the full preview of the race in Georgia.

Arizona Governor — As Kevin Mahnken lays out in his race preview: “Amid debates this summer around parental rights, the teaching of controversial subjects, and LGBT issues in schools, Arizona politicians resolved the state’s longest-running education dispute. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and his allies in the state legislature pushed through an expansion of education savings accounts to all of the state’s 1.1 million students. The shift was the latest, and possibly the last, development in a lengthy war over school choice in the state. And as a political event, it may signify more than the hotly contested state elections this fall. Those campaigns are headlined by the gubernatorial bout, viewed as one of the closest in the country. But even though that race will serve as a bellwether on Election Day, delivering a rare battleground verdict on how well Democrats staved off Republicans’ midterm ambitions, its result likely cannot change the trajectory of school policy in Arizona, which will now feature more direct competition between public and private schools. Such sizable growth in ESAs has the potential to reshape the K-12 environment in one of America’s few remaining competitive states. The change was cheered by Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, a charismatic former news anchor who has been dubbed the ‘leading lady of Trumpism’ for her right-wing views and growing national profile. It was reviled by Democratic hopeful Katie Hobbs, who has captured her own national headlines over the last few years as the state’s top elections official. The contest between the two women will decide who leads the way for a newly altered school system.” Read the full preview of the race in Arizona.

Left: Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, the Republican incumbent, spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas in August. (Getty Images) Right: Oklahoma Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, left, the Democratic nominee for governor, met with supporters during a parade on Oct. 1 in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma Governor — As Linda Jacobson writes in her preview: “Don Ford, a veteran Oklahoma educator who leads a rural schools network, initially thought state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister didn’t ‘understand the workings’ of schools outside the state’s major cities. But then Hofmeister, a former teacher and onetime owner of a Tulsa tutoring company, put half a million miles on her car traveling throughout the state. She listened as educators spoke of the challenges facing small-town schools. ‘She was willing to listen and learn by getting out into our districts,’ Ford said. Educational options in those communities are now center stage as voters prepare to choose their next governor. Incumbent Gov. Kevin Stitt is campaigning on a statewide ‘fund-students-not-systems’ platform and promises to ‘support any bills … that would give parents and students more freedom to attend the schools that best fit their learning needs.’ A voucher plan that died in the Senate earlier this year would have opened them to children in families that earn roughly three times what it takes to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, with most awards ranging from $5,900 to about $8,100. Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, a Republican, has pledged to introduce a similar bill if Stitt wins. But Hofmeister, who switched parties to challenge Stitt as a Democrat, has called the proposal a ‘rural schools killer’ because it would pull funding from traditional districts.” Read the full Oklahoma preview.

Wisconsin Governor — As Beth Hawkins reports in her preview: “Like many states, Wisconsin is awash in the newly charged politics over teaching about race and LGBTQ student rights. But the issues at the heart of what has become the most expensive gubernatorial race in the country are decidedly old school. A Democratic incumbent with long ties to traditional public education faces a GOP challenger who promises a dramatic expansion of the state’s private school voucher program, the oldest in the country. As of late September, some $55 million had been spent on advertising, with the race between Democrat Tony Evers and Republican Tim Michels a toss-up. If Evers wins, residents can expect him to continue to push for more funding for the state’s traditional schools — and for the Republican-dominated legislature to push back. Those same lawmakers have already signaled support for Michels’ marquee proposal — making vouchers available to all Wisconsin students — even as it is unclear how they would pay for it.” Read the full snapshot of the race in Wisconsin.

Colorado’s ‘Healthy Meals’ Ballot Proposition — As Linda Jacobson reports: “The Healthy Schools Meals for All program would fully reimburse districts for offering students free breakfast and lunch, regardless of family income. It would also increase pay for school nutrition staff and offer training and equipment to make meals from scratch. To pay for the program, the initiative would cap income tax deductions for those making $300,000 or more. There is no organized opposition to the measure, but one lawmaker who voted against putting it on the ballot said he had a ‘fundamental problem’ with subsidizing meals for students whose parents can afford to pay.” Read more about the Colorado proposal.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Rand Paul (Getty Images)

Senate Education Leadership — As Linda Jacobson reports: Senator Rand Paul would eliminate the Education Department if he could. Senator Bernie Sanders would triple funding for poor students and send them to college for free. Depending on which party controls the Senate after the election, one of these men could be the next leader of the education committee. The other could be the ranking minority leader — setting up a scenario in which some of the most divisive issues in education get frequent airtime. Paul first has to defend his seat in Congress, which he’s expected to do in solidly Republican Kentucky. Sanders would have to give up chairmanship of the budget committee. Both men are next in line to influence legislation that not only governs the nation’s schools, but also health care policy and workforce issues. Read the full story.

Maryland Governor — As Asher Lehrer-Small reports in his preview: “Throughout the Maryland gubernatorial race, GOP candidate Dan Cox has done his best to keep education culture wars issues front and center. The state legislator named a right-wing parent leader as his running mate after her group lobbied to remove a Queen Anne’s County schools superintendent who expressed support for Black Lives Matter. And in his only public debate against Democratic challenger Wes Moore, the Trump-endorsed candidate railed against ‘transgender indoctrination in kindergarten,’ a problem he blamed on books that ‘depict things that I cannot show you on television, it’s so disgusting.’ The approach takes its cue from several recent GOP campaigns, most notably that of Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The Republican’s 2021 win over high-profile Democrat and former governor Terry McAuliffe was propelled largely by controversy over K-12 curricula and COVID school closures … But so far the strategy has not traveled well across state lines. As of late September, Moore led Cox by a 2-to-1 margin with a 32-percentage point advantage, according to a poll of 810 registered voters carried out by the University of Maryland and The Washington Post.

“Democratic candidate Wes Moore is a Rhodes Scholar, combat veteran, anti-poverty advocate and best-selling author. Sporting an endorsement from the state’s largest teachers union, he says he plans to boost educator pay, reduce the number of youth that schools send into the criminal justice system and fund tutoring initiatives to help students recoup learning they missed during COVID.” Read the full preview of the race in Maryland.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is up for re-election, opposes a school-choice initiative that will likely go before the legislature next year. Republican challenger Tudor Dixon supports it. The measure’s passage will depend on the election’s outcome. (Getty Images)

Michigan Governor — As Alina Tugend reports, driving the race between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and GOP challenger Tudor Dixon is a school choice measure few residents have heard about: A proposal that would create one of the country’s largest voucher-like systems, with the potential to give students more than a half-million dollars in public funds to attend private schools. More than 90% of the electorate in a recent statewide poll said they knew little or nothing about the proposal, which has been enthusiastically backed by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her family, who have donated $4 million to the cause. Whitmer and Dixon differ sharply on measure; last year, both houses of the Michigan legislature passed bills that would have created ESAs but Whitmer vetoed them, saying they would “turn private schools into tax shelters for the wealthy.” Read Tugend’s preview of the race in Michigan.

West Virginia’s Amendment 4 — As Linda Jacobson writes in her preview: “The state legislature would get final say on any rules or policies passed by the Board of Education if voters approve Amendment 4. Republicans in the legislature pushed for the measure, arguing that regulations governing schools should be left to those elected by voters, not an appointed board. But opponents, including former state Superintendent Clayton Burch and Miller Hall, former state board president, argue the proposed amendment would subject education to more partisanship and would lead to inconsistency in learning due to changes in the legislature.” Read our full preview.

Pennsylvania Governor — As Jo Napolitano writes in her preview: “The Pennsylvania governor’s race — a face-off between a well-funded ambitious young climber already eyed as a future presidential contender and a radical right-wing election denier whose own GOP party leaders refuse to support — is among the most watched in the nation for its 2024 implications. The winner could wield significant power over how votes are counted in the next presidential election, one in which Donald Trump seeks to elevate an ally like Republican Doug Mastriano, in a key battleground state. Education is a leading issue in political contests across the country with Republicans pushing to remove discussions of race and gender from the classroom while leaning into greater parental control. But the script has flipped somewhat in Pennsylvania, with Mastriano’s stance so extreme he’s mobilized school board opponents to take unusual steps to block him while Democrat Josh Shapiro has embraced a school choice avenue usually reserved for conservatives. Both advocate stronger parent influence in schools.” Read the full preview of the race in Pennsylvania.

New Mexico’s Amendment 1 — As Linda Jacobson notes in her preview: “The amendment would set aside roughly $150 million annually from the state’s Permanent School Fund for early-childhood education and about $100 million for teacher compensation and programs serving students at risk of failure. The fund comes from oil and gas revenues and capital investment returns. The measure seeks to increase the distribution of the fund from 5% to 6.25%. If voters approve it, the measure would need final approval from the U.S. Congress because early-childhood education was not one of the approved uses written into the federal law. There is no organized opposition to the measure, but a Republican lawmaker who voted against placing it on the ballot said withdrawing more from the fund would leave fewer resources for the state’s children.” Read our full preview of the measure.

Other key reporting and analysis on what awaits education-minded voters this Election Day: 

Florida: DeSantis-Backed Candidates Rack Up School Board Wins Across Florida (Read the full story)

School Boards: There Are Just 90 LGBTQ School Board Members. Half Were Threatened, Harassed (Read the full story)

Polling: Survey Shows Majority of Parents Would Cross Party Lines to Vote For Candidates Who Share Education Agenda (Read the full story)

Parent Groups: Moms for Liberty Pays $21,000 to Company Owned by Founding Member’s Husband (Read the full story)

Future of Education: How Do Americans Truly Feel About Public Education, & What Do They Want to See? (Read the full analysis)

Campaign Politics: PACs Get Attention, but Teachers Unions Still Dominate School Board Elections (Read the full analysis)

Civic Engagement: Educator’s View — My Schools Are Helping Parents Become Voters. Yours Should, Too (Read the full essay)

GOP: Heading into Midterms, Republicans Find All School Politics is Local (Read the full article)

Watch: Video Roundtable — School Leaders Debate How Education Politics Will Shape Midterms (Watch the full conversation)

Get the Latest Ed Politics Updates: Sign up for newsletters from The 74 and LA School Report

Read Next