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2014 Midterm Elections and School Choice: Q and A With Advocates

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The 2014 midterm elections were a big win for Republicans, but how did they shake out for school choice? I reached out to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools' state policy wiz Todd Ziebarth and the head of the Center for Education Reform, Kara Kerwin, to see how these two school choice advocates and organizations are reading the results. 

What was the biggest win for charters and vouchers this election?

TZ: (on charters) We've been poring over the results, and the biggest thing that strikes us is that, on the whole, the political environment is friendlier for charters across the country. Using the gubernatorial races as an example: we count several states where there are new people coming into office that are charter supporters and have the potential to push for changes. Bruce Rauner in Illinois who beat the [incumbent] Democrat Pat Quinn [...] you now have a veto threat to any anti-charter legislation and someone who might push for charters.
Charlie Baker in Massachusetts might push for a cap lift there.

Larry Hogan in Maryland [a Republican], who's been vocal in his support for charters, and it's a state with the weakest charter school law in the country. Now you have a change in the dynamic of the office there. (He still has to deal with a legislature that's not necessarily pro-charter.)

Lastly, it's worth mentioning Nebraska. Pete Ricketts [a Republican] won there. It's still a question of how hard he will push for charters or ed-reform in his first year, but it is a change.

The other thing that jumps out at me, if you look at the supportive governors [of charter schools] that ran and were reelected, it is an interesting bi-partisan mix of folks: Jerry Brown [in California], Andrew Cuomo [of New York]—you have some notable Democrats who have been supportive in office and some Republicans who have been supportive and won like Rick Snyder [in Michigan], and Scott Walker [of Wisconsin].

KK: (on vouchers and tax-credit scholarships) I think the Wisconsin governor's race sent huge signals that the families of Wisconsin really do support expanding choice programs there.

I feel since 2010 there's been an uptick in the number of states that have school choice programs. Wisconsin expanded, we've now got Louisiana and Florida. There are some really bold outspoken state executives that have pushed for school choice and got elected.

What was the biggest loss for school choice?

TZ: I think for us the biggest disappointment was in Kentucky where we were hopeful we would see a change in the House [Democrats maintained control of the House] where we would see a pro-charter majority. I think the prospect of moving charter legislation in 2015 has dimmed significantly. Now we'll have to wait for the gubernatorial elections in 2015. The current governor is neutral on charters. If Kentucky elects a charter school supporter as a governor—Democrat or Republican—and you combine with a [state] Senate that is pro-charter, that could get a law passed there.

What was the biggest surprise of the night?

KK: I'd say the election of Bruce Rauner, [Illinois' new governor] because again, he's been a very vocal champion of educational choice and not discriminating in what modality that is: charters, vouchers, online learning ... And everybody thought he was going to lose, but he swept last night.

TZ: One of the other surprises was in West Virginia. We'd had it on our radar that like Kentucky, maybe Republicans will take control of the House there. Looking at the results this morning, we were shocked to see that not only did they take control, they did so by a pretty considerable amount. [...] And in the [state] Senate there are some pretty supportive Democrats for charters. It appears that the environment definitely changed and in a way that is friendly to charter schools.

What are some other ways the election affected school choice?

TZ: In the no-charter-law states, we talked about Kentucky and Nebraska. In Alabama, I think right after we talked [referring to this Oct. story I wrote on which states were most likely to adopt charter laws post midterms], the Speaker of the House [and charter supporter] was indicted. [...] So we'll have to see where that goes. But, I think there are probably stronger pro-charter majorities in the House and more notably the Senate after the elections.

Will this election lead to more states adopting private school choice laws, like vouchers or tax-credit scholarships, and if so, which states?

KK: I definitely think Illinois is one to watch. I think we'll see expansion in Florida and expansion in Wisconsin. In New York, [...] maybe now that it's not an election year, maybe we'll see a different tone [from Gov. Cuomo].  

Was their stance on school choice policy what helped some of the victors win?

KK: I think in Florida [where Republican incumbent Rick Scott beat challenger and former Gov. Charlie Crist, a recently converted Democrat], in particular, yes. And I would say Wisconsin too.

TZ: I think in some states like Arizona where Doug Ducey won the gubernatorial race, school choice is an important part of the education environment out there—there's such a significant number of charters—it probably helped him. And then I think in places like Florida [...] and potentially in Wisconsin as well. I think in a few of these places it was an issue that may have helped push some of these folks over the finish line.

Related: Did Teachers' Union Political Spending Pay Off? Early Answer: No

Related: Tom Torlakson Declares Victory in Calif. Chief's Election

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