School choice motivated midterm voters in superintendent races. What that means for students
Pandemic-related school closures at neighborhood public schools led parents to wonder what other options they had. Many voted for the people they hope will give them more choices as they chose state superintendents on their midterm ballots this month.
The big picture, however, shows Americans are still divided on school choice, and that was reflected in their votes last week, when seven states chose a state superintendent. States with robust school choice programs, including Arizona, voted in candidates who support school choice. Other places, such as Oklahoma, ushered in new leaders who they believe could give them more school voucher options for the first time.
Oklahoma's incoming state Superintendent Ryan Walters, a Republican, campaigned on giving parents that option to decide where their kids go to school, and to take public money along with them to a private school, religious school or homeschooling program, if that's their choice. Walters is one of a small number of state superintendents elected last week who is an advocate for school choice and who had the backing of powerful national groups and politicians: Some are calling it a school choice wave.
School choice backers in South Carolina and Wyoming were elected, too. Yet they lost their elections in California and Georgia.
A recent national survey on parents' views of education regarding pandemic-related school closures found that a majority of parents "want candidates who support educational freedom." The study was conducted by survey research provider WPA Intelligence and commissioned by the National Coalition for Public School Options.
The survey found that more parents with kids in nonpublic schools were satisfied with their education than those whose children were enrolled in public schools. And they were likely to take those views with them when deciding on whom to vote for. A majority of all voters, except for Democratic men, said they would be more likely to support a candidate who supports education freedom with expanded options and money following the student, the survey found.
And other recent surveys show many parents who were critical of their neighborhood schools during the pandemic either already left or are looking for other options.
In most states, the top education post is not an elected position. But some would-be superintendents who were on the ballot in states where they are elected were backed by national groups that advocate or lobby for private school vouchers. The winners, according to largely on complete but unofficial results, will play a crucial role in promoting education-related legislation, including laws related to school vouchers.
They also will oversee their respective state departments of education and bring attention to critical issues in state schools coming out of pandemic, though their power often depends on how well they work and align with the state governor and the legislature.
We looked at the results of the races, state by state.
In some states where pro-school choice supporters were elected in the midterms, school voucher programs are already in place. That's not the case in Oklahoma. Walters' win is particularly momentous because it signifies an incoming tide shift for Oklahoma schools. A failed bill supported by the state's Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt earlier this year would have created a universal school voucher program in Oklahoma. (The state does have a limited school choice scholarship program for students with special needs who are enrolled in public schools and choose to attend private schools.)
In an interview with U.S. TODAY, Walters said he's working alongside the governor and the legislature to move a similar bill forward "as soon as possible." He wants Oklahoma to be the leading state in the country on empowering parents to exercise their education options. It's a reversal from Joy Hofmeister, the state's current head of state schools, who has been outspoken about how vouchers are wrong for Oklahoma kids.
"Gov. Stitt's voucher scheme is a rural school killer that will decimate funding for all children in public schools and will negatively affect every public school student across the state," wrote Hofmeister, who this year became a Democrat in her failed bid against Stitt, in February.
Kirk Hartzler, superintendent of Oklahoma's Union Public Schools, which includes Tulsa, said he's concerned about how a voucher program would affect his district financially if parents choose to move their students to other places in waves, and argued that statewide school voucher programs could harm low-income students, increase segregation and impact the "collective good of society."
Oklahoma's fourth and eighth graders had the highest math score declines during the pandemic in the nation, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. He is calling on the new state superintendent and the governor to conduct deep analysis on how a voucher program would be structured and the potential impacts on long term academic achievement and the economy.
"It concerns me when a state promotes a program that has the potential to further divide us as a state," Hartzler said.
It's unclear whether a future school voucher program would emerge in Idaho under the newly elected superintendent. Voters elected Republican Debbie Critchfield over opponent of school vouchers Democrat Terri Gilbert by a wide margin for the open seat. The position is now held by Republican Sherri Ybarra.
Unlike more ferocious advocates for school choice, Critchfield said in an October debate with Gilbert that she's willing to hear parents out on their desires for school choice and wouldn't implement one that comes at the cost to public schools, according to Idaho Ed News. At the debate, Gilbert called school voucher programs a threat to public schools.
In a contentious race in Arizona, former two-time state superintendent and pro-voucher advocate Republican Tom Horne was projected to be the winner over his Democratic opponent Kathy Hoffman with 50.2% of the vote, with nearly all ballots tallied statewide as of Thursday afternoon. Hoffman conceded Thursday morning.
Horne has stirred controversy with his plans to create a hotline for people to report suspicions about educators teaching about critical race theory, which examines how racism permeates institutions, isn't traditionally taught in K-12 public schools and ending bilingual education, among other goals.
Horne, however, will have to work with Democratic Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs, an outspoken opponent of legislation that created an expansive school voucher program signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in July, moving forward. The American Federation of Teachers declared Hobbs' victory a win.
"Gov.-elect Hobbs is a strong public school proponent who ran on investing in education, boosting teacher pay and keeping culture wars out of the classroom—unlike her far-right opponent, Kari Lake, who ran—and lost—on attacking public schools, teachers and children," Andrew Crook, a spokesperson for the teachers' union, said.
South Carolina and Wyoming
In South Carolina, voters elected Republican Ellen Weaver, who called for "education freedom" by a wide margin over Democrat Lisa Ellis. And voters backed a state superintendent who supports school choice in Wyoming. They elected school choice champion and Republican Megan Degenfelder over Democratic opponent Sergio Maldonado.
What's the potential effect on students?
The unions, among others, are concerned about potential voucher programs and the overarching impact they could have on the public school system. Simply put, fewer students equals fewer dollars and fewer resources, though voucher advocates argue that fewer students mean school expenses decrease.
If states move forward with legislation to implement new school voucher programs or expand existing ones, it generally means parents can decide to take a large portion of the money that would have been spent on their child in public schools to use for private school, or in some cases, homeschooling.
Schools nationwide are already concerned about declining enrollment due to the varying options in school choice, and declines in birth rates. All of that translates into less money for public schools. Teachers' unions in particular are worried that public school kids will be left behind, and they spent a lot of money backing anti-voucher candidates in the midterms.
Equity, segregation and student achievement are also concerns. One study from the University of Kansas suggests that kids in high poverty neighborhoods and from less educated families are more likely to compromise on their school of choice.
"The commonsense view seems to be that if you provide choice, people who choose their school will be happier with what they get. One thing that has always bugged me about that is the question: 'Are people really able to act on their true preferences and to what degree?'" said Argun Saatcioglu, the study's lead author and a professor of educational leadership & policy studies and sociology at the University of Kansas.
Georgia and California
School choice advocates didn't succeed everywhere. Democratic proponent of school choice Alisha Thomas Searcy lost to Republican incumbent Richard Woods in Georgia.
And Republican Lance Christensen, a pro-school choice candidate in California, never really made inroads in his campaign to unseat Democrat Tony Thurmond, an outspoken opponent of school choice. The American Federation of Teachers lauded Thurmond's win as a success for public education.
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