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Midterm Election Edu-Winners and Losers

So, what did last night's election returns mean for education? Here are a few initial reactions on winners, losers, and what's next.

Winners

Senator Lamar Alexander just became the most influential person in Washington on education policy. The former U.S. Secretary of Education, Tennessee governor, and University of Tennessee president is now in a position to shape the national education debate leading up to the 2016 election. With a House Speaker eager to tackle middle-class concerns, the retirements of Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman George Miller, and a potent team of personal education staff, Alexander is positioned to dominate the education conversation.

Republican governors had a heck of a night, portending good things for charter schools, possible new efforts to launch or expand voucher programs, and challenging times ahead for teacher unions. Governors Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Rick Snyder claimed surprisingly comfortable victories in the industrial Midwest. Meanwhile, "reform-minded" Republicans claimed the governorships in deep-blue Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois. Republicans entered the night with a 29 to 21 lead in governorships, and it seemed they'd do well to maintain that. Now, it's looking like they'll add a few.

Conservatives thinking seriously about higher education (like my AEI colleague Andrew Kelly) will, for the first time in a decade, have an opportunity to really influence federal policy when it comes to higher education. This means there'll be a real opening to see some alternative thinking on questions like student loans, college transparency, "gainful employment," and more.

Colorado's all-star edu-legislator Mike Johnston, the man behind Colorado's SB191 (the famed teacher evaluation bill), finally has a seat to pursue. The last few years, Johnston has been a talent without a next step, given that the state had a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators. Now, with Governor Hickenlooper getting edged, this talented pol and dynamic edu-thinker may just start thinking about laying the groundwork for a bid against new governor Bob Beauprez. (Since I wrote this post at 2 a.m., Hickenlooper has gone on to take a narrow lead over Beauprez. Though, since Hickenlooper would be term-limited out in 2018 regardless, this now seems like one of my less-inspired insights. The perils of writing at 2 a.m. Either way, Johnston has a path forward in 2018. Thanks to the sharp-eyed Michele McNeil for the heads up on the shifting Hickenlooper-Beauprez numbers.)

Losers

The teacher unions had a really tough night. Scott Walker won in Wisconsin for the third time in four years. Walker has become Lucy pulling away the football, turning the unions into poor Charlie Brown. Each time they think, "This time we're really going to get him," and then he wins comfortably once again, further denting the idea that Republican governors can't afford to take on unions in blue or purple states. And it wasn't just Walker. Republican governors Rick Scott won reelection in Florida and Rick Snyder did so in Michigan. Republican Bruce Rauner ousted Governor Pat Quinn in Illinois. Rhode Island Democrat Gina Raimondo, who'd infuriated the unions by pushing for pension reform as state treasurer, claimed the governor's mansion. And Thom Tillis, who'd earned bitter union enmity for his role in the North Carolina legislature, eked past Kay Hagan to win a Senate seat. The only gubernatorial target that the unions beat was Republican Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, but Corbett was a lackluster candidate whom Republicans had given for dead sometime last summer. The unions also claimed a big victory when Tom Torlakson topped Marshall Tuck in the hugely expensive California superintendent's race, but I imagine that union strategists are probably busy filing even that win in the "too little, too late" category.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama team at the U.S. Department of Education are in for a rough ride. Things had already been bogged down. Having spent the stimulus money, alienated Republicans with NCLB waivers and gainful employment, and encountered a House majority unimpressed by their proposals, department staff just went through a frustrating couple years. Now things are about to get worse for them. We can expect more scrutiny of NCLB waivers, more criticism of administration efforts to regulate higher education, and more aggressive calls to reduce the federal footprint in schooling. Talk of new pre-K spending is dead. An inside-the-beltway parlor game will be watching the trickle of talent out of 400 Maryland Avenue start to turn into a flood.

Washington's triumphant Republicans may suffer for their success. This big GOP win was less a vote for the Republicans than a vote against President Obama. In Iowa, 60% of voters disapproved of Obama, and four in five of those voted for Republican Joni Ernst. In Louisiana, Obama's disapproval rating was 59%, and more than 80% of those votes went to the top two Republican candidates. In Colorado, 55% disapproved of Obama, and more than 80% of those voters went for Republican Cory Gardner. Voters were mostly registering displeasure with Obama, not signing up for a grand agenda. Yet, in recent years, Republicans have developed an unfortunate tendency to overreach. Ted Cruz has already begun pushing the GOP to storm the ramparts, like during the not-so-glorious government shutdown last fall. With a fattened House majority and a strengthened Tea Party caucus in the Senate, the Republicans have a lot of opportunities—and a lot of opportunity for things to blow up. Recent history raises questions about whether Republicans will be able to handle yesterday's success all that successfully.

We'll See

In the midst of a strong Republican performance, Common Core advocates saw their Democratic faves lose high-profile superintendent races in Arizona and Georgia. This certainly complicates the claim that the Common Core is a winner in red states. But these were down-ballot, red state races in an election fueled by frustration with President Obama. I'd be surprised if one voter in ten actually knew the issues in the superintendent race—I suspect most were just pulling the party lever. Meanwhile, there was one possible silver lining for the Common Core set. Senator Lamar Alexander will become chair of the Senate education committee, and he is dead-set on reining in Secretary Duncan (whom Alexander has charged with trying to run a "national school board"). If Alexander succeeds, he may wind up allaying the concerns of some Republican critics and offering a little breathing room for the Common Core.

Also, let's keep in mind that having a majority in the U.S. Senate doesn't mean you can actually do anything. Control of the gavel means Republicans will be able to readily block appointments, launch hearings, and help shape the agenda. But the Dems will continue to control somewhere between 46 and 48 seats, which means the Republicans would need to pick off 6 to 8 votes (minimum) in order to move anything significant. That's going to be a tall order, I suspect.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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