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Education Politics in Betsy DeVos' Home State Are Very Polarized. Is It an Outlier?


The last two decades have seen big changes in the way states and interest groups handle education policy—and some of these shifts defy the growing homogeneity of national politics. 

That's one big conclusion from a new working paper that uses 145,000 campaign contributions over 57,000 state elections in all 50 states to analyze the impact of new laws promoting private school choice and "right-to-work" laws (which ban individuals from being compelled to pay for union representation) on state political coalitions. The research does show an increasing alignment between teachers' unions and Democrats, but not to the extent many might expect. And the impact of these policies on political donations may not always have the impact lawmakers intend.

"Shifting Alliances in State Political Parties: The Case of Education Interest Groups" also finds that education politics in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' home state of Michigan, for example, have become highly polarized along party lines as measured by new policies impacting K-12 and how political donations have shifted from 2000 to 2017. But that's not the same neat and tidy story everywhere. 

Another finding with potentially significant long-term implications? The number of candidates for state office getting donations from teachers' unions has dropped significantly in recent years. In 2000, for example, 25 percent of those candidates got donations from teachers' unions, but in 2016, that figure had dropped to 20 percent. (The paper doesn't look at whether the total amount of those contributions has risen or fallen.) 

The working paper, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, was authored by Leslie K. Finger, a lecturer on government and social studies at Harvard University, and Sarah Reckhow, an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. It breaks down the source of donations into two basic camps: teachers' unions, and "education reform" groups that advocate for school choice of different kinds and for accountability-oriented policies (although the authors note that not all of these reform groups advocate for all the same policies). It then tracks whether those donations went to Democrats or Republicans. It also highlights more-detailed data from Michigan, Tennessee, and Washington states. 

So what about Michigan? To illustrate how education politics in DeVos' home state (which passed a right to work law in 2011 but doesn't have a private school choice law on the books) has polarized, Finger and Reckhow compared union and education reform groups' donations to major-party candidates in 2000 with those in 2016. You can see the result for yourself below; unions are denoted by circles with black outlines and the letter "U" on the inside; education reform groups are marked by circles with gray outlines and the letter "R" on the inside; Democrats are denoted by black circles, Republicans by gray circles, and the arrows from groups to candidates represent those donations.


You don't need to go far to find an example of Michigan's polarized environment, although the one we have in mind involves public and not private school choice. Late last year, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office in 2019, vetoed a funding increase for charter schools as part of a broad budget fight with Republicans who control the state legislature—she did not hold up a separate spending boost for traditional public schools. Whitmer eventually signed off on the increase for charters, but not before recriminations from the state's school choice community. (The paper doesn't get into detail about donations to Whitmer specifically.) 

But the picture is more complex elsewhere. In Washington state, for example, the study looked at 12 Democratic candidates who've had long careers in office, and found that eight of them shifted from getting only teachers' union donations but no education reform donations in 2000, to getting only education reform group donations and no teachers' union donations in 2016. 

"I thought we were going to see this polarization story everywhere through the whole time period. That's really not the case. There's variation across states," said Finger in an interview.

Part of the story as well is the simple growth in education reform groups as a counterveiling force in education politics, since they were a very small presence in 2000 compared to their position now, Finger noted. And teachers' unions still contribute to Republicans at the state level despite how things have changed over the last two decades, defying what many who focus on national politics might think. 

Elsewhere, the passage of right-to-work laws correlates with a subsequently higher number of donations from teachers' unions to candidates, "suggesting a defensive response where teachers' unions are doubling down and rallying in the wake of these laws," Finger said in the interview, adding that this finding surprised her. And those laws are associated with a lower number of donations from education reform groups. 

However, private school choice policies do the opposite. The paper finds that they lead to a higher number of donations from reform groups and a lower number of donations from teachers' unions. 

For additional perspective on this issue, see our piece from late last year on separate research on education policy and polarization in states

Read the working paper from Finger and Reckhow below:

Image: Getty

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