through Maya Pottiger
A week after the midterm elections, all races have not yet been called, but we are beginning to see how key issues in the K-12 space will unfold amid new leadership and politics.
With at least seven Heads of State and 51 State Council seats up for election, the stakes were high.
In mid-October, a few weeks before the midterm election, a Pew Research Center poll found that education was among the top 3 issues for voters, with 66% of Democrat supporters, 60% of Republican supporters, and 64% of all voters. A Washington Post and ABC News poll found similar results: 59% of voters said education was a “very important” issue for whom they are voting in Congress, and 18% called it “one of the most important single issues.”
dr John B. King Jr., president of The Education Trust and former Secretary of Education under President Obama, says the number one education issue that still keeps him up at night is public school equity. He says our economy and democracy depend on addressing education.
“A majority of children in the nation’s public schools are children of color, a majority of children in the nation’s public schools attend free and discounted lunchtime programs,” says King. “Unless we get much better — very quickly — at providing educational opportunities for low-income and students of color, we have no future as a country.”
But teachers are what give him hope. He says classrooms and teachers across the country continue to save children’s lives — just as they did his. After his parents died when he was 8 and 12, King credits New York City public school teachers with saving his life and making the school a safe, supportive, and engaging place.
“As tough as COVID has been for children and families, there are stories in every community of teachers who have done whatever it takes to help their children academically, but also to help them get food and figure out how to cope with the trauma of the virus Dealing with losing a loved one,” says King. “The beauty of what teachers do for children every day across America gives me a lot of hope.”
Let’s take a look at how educational problems evolved during the midterms.
It’s a long battle over censorship in schools
In recent years there have been many attempts at censorship in the classroom, whether by banning books, restricting discussions of gender and sexuality, or blocking the teaching of the truth about racism and other forms of prejudice – what opponents mistakenly call “critical” of race theory. And it looks like those battles are going nowhere anytime soon.
Election-tracking website Ballotpedia analyzed 361 school board races and their analysis found that 36% of candidates opposed to diversity initiatives and gender-neutral learning materials won their races, compared to 28% of winners who supported those policies.
“The midterms are taking place almost everywhere in the country against the background of intensive censorship activities,” says Dr. Chris Finan, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. He cited the landslide re-election of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has spearheaded efforts to ban books, particularly those dealing with race and racism, slavery and LGBTQ+ issues. “There’s a lot of anger, and some of that anger, directed against this book, and many aspiring politicians have taken up the issue to help them increase their support and their candidacy for office.”
A Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half (46%) of Republican parents don’t think students should be taught about gender identity in school, compared to just 28% of Democratic parents.
While relatively none of the respondents agreed that slavery should not be taught in schools, the way they wanted their children to be taught about slavery differed drastically between Republican and Democratic parents.
On the Republican side, 66% of respondents said they would prefer their children to be taught that “slavery is part of American history but does not affect the position of black people in American society today.”
On the other hand, 70% of Democratic parents said they would like their children to be taught that the legacy of slavery still affects the position of black people in American society. Looking at all parents surveyed, 49% voted that slavery still has an impact today, compared to 42% who voted that it did not.
This isn’t the first time censorship — particularly book bans — has been a nationwide problem. After Ronald Reagan was elected President in the 1980s, there was a widespread effort to ban books that lasted for almost a decade. So with that in mind, we’re “very early in the cycle,” says Finan.
“I don’t think the problem is solved,” says Finan. “I won’t be surprised when we hear from new school board members — school board members across the country who are supporting and joining this censorship campaign.”
The Road to Academic Recovery
After years of virtual learning and devastating NAEP results, academic recovery is a top issue in the minds of candidates across the political spectrum.
“They have the potential for bipartisan advances in providing resources for things like tutoring and summer learning initiatives, addressing the teacher shortage, so that’s encouraging,” King says. “Most places are forward looking and asking what are we doing now to address the impact of COVID and address the underlying injustices that COVID has exacerbated?”
The fight for LGBTQ rights
Though there’s a lot that keeps her up at night, Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, chief executive of GLSEN, says Gen Z’s involvement in this election has given her real hope – especially when it comes to making sure schools more inclusive and affirmative spaces for LGBTQ+ are people.
“This is a generation that took to the streets in the summer of 2020. It wasn’t just the colored kids of this generation, it was the white kids of this generation. It wasn’t just the young LGBTQ+ people in this generation, it was also the straight and cissexual people in this generation who stood up for and with each other,” says Willingham-Jaggers. “The wonderful thing about young people in general, and what’s particularly lovely and wonderful about Gen Z, is that they are deeply sensitive and see the world for what it is.”
But that is both a blessing and a curse. As young people — the tallest, most multiracial, most queer generation of all time — work to make their progressive voices heard, their opposition seeks to silence them and “make the world a smaller place for the kids that are emerging behind them ‘ says Willingham-Jaggers.
“These young people are at the heart of this turning point. We must fight for equality, education, truth and democracy,” says Willingham-Jaggers. “And they know it, and that’s a heavy backpack to carry.”
They still have to fight for inclusive curricula – like truthful history of the country and positive and accurate representations of diverse communities in our society, including LGBTQ+ people and people of color.
While the midterms proved to be a “rainbow wave,” there are still states like Georgia, Texas, and Florida that continue to be an uphill battle and are at the center of our “deeply divided political climate.”
“It’s unfortunate because this opposition is really using LGBTQ+ people as a key issue. They will continue to attack education, and that’s worrying,” says Willingham-Jaggers. “LGBTQ+ youth, particularly trans and non-binary children, continue to be exploited as political pawns and it is time to call it what it is and stand up to these extremists.”
The school safety climate
The generation of students who grew up with active marksmanship in schools is old enough to vote.
“You know how broken our gun laws are in this country and how much change is needed,” King says. “Young people across the country, in poll after poll, say they are deeply concerned about guns and strongly believe we should do more to achieve common sense gun reform.”
School safety was the top priority for voters in an Oct. 6 poll conducted by High Point University of North Carolina adults. It topped the list with 74% of respondents saying it was “very important”, followed by overall education and inflation at 73%.
But it wasn’t universal. In Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed in a shooting earlier this year, “there was no accountability for elected officials who encouraged essentially unregulated access to weapons of war,” says King.
But, particularly given the large turnout among young voters, King hopes this election is proof that “politicians across the political spectrum will realize they need to have a more sensible message about common sense if they’re going to appeal to people about reform.”
A great benefit for art and music funding
California’s Proposition 28, which will pump around $1 billion into music and arts education each year, passed by a large majority, winning 61.5% of the vote.
It’s the first bill of its kind, and this is “the largest investment in arts that has taken place in this country,” says Robert Manwaring, senior policy and tax adviser at California-based organization Children Now, who also helped formulate the bill helped .
“This is really exciting because there are dramatic differences between schools and districts across the state in who has access to the arts and who doesn’t,” says Manwaring.
Both in California and nationally, arts education is more accessible to whiter and more affluent counties. In its 2019 National Arts Education Status Report, the Arts Education Data Project found that 7% of Black-majority schools had no access to arts education, compared to 3% of White-majority schools and 2% of Asian-majority schools.
And schools with high eligibility for free or discounted lunches were twice as likely not to have access to arts education as schools with low eligibility.
The bulk of the funding will go to hiring music and arts teachers, and about a third will go to schools with a high proportion of low-income students.
Now the challenge for the state is figuring out how to recruit teachers for these new jobs, whether by expanding training programs or finding otherwise qualified individuals in the arts to pursue teacher certification.
“The funding is there, but the art teachers aren’t,” says Manwaring. “There’s going to be some serious work that needs to be done there to fill all those slots.”