Education reform can help candidates win an election

Education reform can help candidates win an election
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The red-hot energy that fueled teachers’ strikes across the United States this year has resurfaced, and now voters are channeling that energy into the upcoming midterm elections. As a result, the need for new education policy is turning some seemingly predictable races on their heads. What we’re witnessing is proof that a candidate’s stance on education policy has the power to make or break his or her chances, especially among swing voters.

Last month, Time reported that when Drew Edmondson, the Democratic candidate for governor of deep-red Oklahoma, was asked to account for his slight lead over his Republican opponent, he pointed to failed education policies in his state and voters’ eagerness to see them fixed. In many other parts of the country, too, education has moved to the fore in this election season.

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A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that in the state’s gubernatorial primaries, 64 percent of likely voters said that candidates’ positions on K-12 public education were very important to them. Idaho’s gubernatorial candidates also have been pressed to name education as their top priority, reflecting their would-be constituents’ top-of-mind concern.

In other words, when candidates take bold positions in support of public education, it could be a boon for the candidates — and for our country’s public school students. Candidates should be trumpeting policies that will mean stronger accountability metrics for schools; support for schools as they attend to the all-encompassing needs of their students; and better incentives for teachers. Swing voters across the United States — especially in states where public education is suffering — have made clear that, in this election, they have little patience for more of the same when it comes to education policy.

Various state and federal policies in recent years, starting with No Child Left Behind, have placed a premium on standardized test results, leading to class curricula focused on “teaching to the test.” As our country’s public education history shows us, it doesn’t need to be this way. New policies could steer teachers and schools away from reliance on standardized testing as a metric of success and toward curricula and classroom activities designed to provide a more holistic preparation for life. Policies that untangle the direct connection between test results and school and teacher evaluations would be a great first step.

What’s more, a largely testing-oriented public education smacks of single-focus college prep, rather than life prep, which is what today’s students need. In light of a student debt crisis that continues to spin out of control, burdening young people for half their lives, it’s irresponsible to promote higher education as the best choice for everyone. States can do a better job of funding and touting vocational schools and other smart alternatives to high-cost colleges for some students. 

Candidates who are strong on education policy understand the importance of better equipping schools to meet the all-encompassing needs of students. In many parts of the country, students are bearing the brunt of poverty, homelessness and a raging opioid epidemic. For example, the New York Times reports a record 1 in 10 public school students in New York City were homeless last school year. Schools are pleading for a sufficient number of social workers, nurses and counselors to help address students’ basic needs. Free breakfast and lunch programs also should be available to students who need them; it’s next to impossible to learn on an empty stomach.  

Another crucial pillar of the education policy discussion must involve finding a way to entice and retain teachers with better incentives. Many teaching jobs go unfilled, and the Learning Policy Institute reports teacher shortages in many states. Fewer college students are choosing to major in education; enrollment in the major dropped by 35 percent between 2009 and 2013. The institute recommends student loan-forgiveness incentives for teachers, mentoring programs for new hires, and — not surprisingly — more competitive compensation.

No candidate can treat education policy as a one-size-fits-all solution. Successful candidates will be those who know their communities’ and their constituents’ challenges thoroughly, and who make that knowledge clear when they talk about solutions. Problems fester when we ignore school districts’ differences and instead issue funding and mandates as though all school districts are the same. One way candidates can make clear that they respect these differences is by supporting flexible-spending policies, which give districts the freedom to allocate money in the way that makes most sense for them.

In tight races at the end of this election season, it will behoove candidates to zero in on high-visibility issues that touch every one of the voters they’re trying to reach — and education is one such issue. The need to improve public education is one of the rare demands on which people across the political spectrum can agree. If candidates are smart, they’ll recognize this is about to make its mark on our elections.  

Jim Mahoney is the executive in residence at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs and the former executive director at Battelle for Kids, a nonprofit organization that aims to advance educational equity and opportunity.