Coming to a Democratic primary near you: a clash over education issues.
In several big states, governors who have supported charter schools are on their way out or facing a re-election fight in 2018. And while the party is united in its distaste for President Donald Trump, candidates vying for state leadership from California to Georgia are split on key education issues.
To simplify: In one camp are those who favor charter schools and accountability policies based in part on test scores, exemplified by the group Democrats for Education Reform. In the other camp are those — most prominently teachers unions — who emphasize greater investment in schools and are skeptical of solutions that focus on charters and choice.
Those tensions are growing, as the current president and his unpopular Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos make education reform a tougher sell than it was under President Obama, who supported charter schools.
“I do expect this fight to play out to some degree in Democratic primaries up and down the ballot,” said Shavar Jeffries, the DFER president. “The old-line forces see an opportunity to use the historically toxic Trump-DeVos brand to reverse progress we’ve made under Presidents Clinton and Obama.”
The National Education Association did not respond to a request for comment and a spokesperson for the American Federation for Teachers declined to comment on Democratic primaries.
So far, few candidates are publicly hashing out differences on education, and Jeffries said it’s too early to discuss specific races. But candidates’ past records and recent statements suggest that education will play an important role, particularly in the jockeying for endorsements from monied players like DFER and local unions. Meanwhile, Democratic supporters of charter schools are increasingly being linked to DeVos.
Here are five upcoming governors’ races where education could be a key issue in the Democratic primary.
Colorado candidates tote hefty education résumés
In John Hickenlooper, Democratic advocates of charter schools have had a staunch ally in the Denver statehouse. They’re hoping to keep it that way, as Hickenlooper exits and a number of prominent Democrats, all with extensive education backgrounds, vie to replace him.
The field includes two long-time supporters of charter schools.
One is Jared Polis, a congressman who helped start a network of charter schools (and who once got into a Twitter spat with education reform critic Diane Ravitch). Then there’s Michael Johnston, a former state senator and school principal who authored the state’s controversial teacher evaluation law, which relies heavily on student test scores. Johnston, who spearheaded a failed statewide ballot initiative to increase school spending, has already drawn significant support from the education reform world, inside and outside Colorado.
Neither has emphasized traditional education reform issues so far, though: Polis has focused on expanding pre-K; Johnston has emphasized tuition-free college.
Another prominent Democrat, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, also seems likely to focus on education issues besides charter schools, including increasing teacher pay and reducing the number of standardized tests.
“I want all our kids to be thinkers and creative problem-solvers, not just good test-takers,” said Kennedy, who wrote a 2000 state constitutional amendment that required regular education funding increases.
Lt. Governor Donna Lynne is also considering jumping in, and businessman Noel Ginsburg, who founded a youth apprenticeship organization, is running.
Whoever wins will likely face a hard-fought general election in this perennial swing state.
In California, Newsom knocks Villaraigosa on schools
It’s southern versus northern California: former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is facing former San Francisco Mayor (and current lieutenant governor) Gavin Newsom in the race for governor of the country’s most populous state.
Villaraigosa has been a staunch supporter of charter schools and a frequent critic of teachers unions. Newsom has less of a record on education, but has hinted at differences between the two.
“I believe in public education and will fight like mad for our public schools,” Newsom said earlier this year. “This is not the case of every Democrat running for governor.”
California’s unusual primary system — in which all candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ticket and the top two vote-getters face each other in the general election — means it’s possible Villaraigosa and Newsom will face each other in the November 2018 general election.
California state treasurer John Chiang and former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin are also running for the Democrats, though they trail in recent polls.
The next governor will replace Jerry Brown, who had started two charters of his own before taking office and has been a strong supporter of the privately managed, publicly funded schools. Brown even recently vetoed a bill to ban for-profit charters, though many charter school advocates have supported such a change.
Georgia candidate linked to DeVos at progressive conference
Term limits mean that Georgia’s Republican Governor Nathan Deal, a big charter-school supporter, will leave office next year. Two Democrats are running to replace him: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, both state representatives.
Evans recently came in for criticism at a progressive conference for her support of charter schools and a tax-credit scholarship program, which functions like a school voucher program. Some attendees held up signs that read “Evans = DeVos.”
Abrams, who is vying to be the nation’s first black female governor, responded with an implicit jab. “Activists in Atlanta peacefully protested this morning on the critical issue of preserving public education for every family in our state,” she said.
The nominee will likely face an uphill battle in this red state.
New York’s Cuomo under pressure on charters, education funding
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is planning to run for a third term, but his record on education has left some progressives wary.
He has been a key ally of the state’s charter lobby, put in place teacher evaluations based heavily on student test scores (a stance he has since backed away from), and supported school-spending increases substantially lower than what funding advocacy groups like the Alliance for Quality Education have called for.
Cynthia Nixon, the prominent actress and long-time spokesperson for the union-backed Alliance, has said she’s considering a run. She has said her campaign would focus on education issues, particularly school funding. Cuomo also risks a challenge from a more conventional candidate: Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, who has polled within striking distance of the incumbent.
That said, a primary against the powerful and well-financed Cuomo is far from guaranteed and if it happens, is likely a long shot.
Tennessee candidates may differ on charters
Tennessee Democrats haven’t won a statewide office in over a decade, but that hasn’t deterred two Democrats from running for the state’s top office.
One is Karl Dean, who pushed to expand charter schools as the mayor of Nashville. But local charter advocates have faced a number of setbacks, including the defeat of several favored school board candidates. Dean has said charter schools will not be the centerpiece of his education agenda, though his record on education has already come under criticism from charter school critics.
Opposing Dean in the primary will be Craig Fitzhugh, the minority leader in the Tennessee house of representatives. He has generally been more skeptical of charter schools and drawn more support from unions than Dean.
The winner will likely be an underdog in the general election battle to replace Bill Haslam, the current Republican governor, who has strongly backed the expansion of charter schools.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.