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What Are the K-12 Policy Stakes in N.J. and Virginia Elections?

Only two states—New Jersey and Virginia—have elections for governor and legislature this year, and education has taken up just a slice of the debate in both places.  

But education policy analysts are closely watching both states to see just how much K-12 resonates with the Democratic and Republican bases and whether that could be a bellweather for what's to come elsewhere next year, when more than 38 governors and four-fifths of state legislators are up for election.  

States under the  Every Student Succeeds Act  have plenty more options when it comes to K-12 education policy and, while all of the states have turned in their ESSA plans, Virginia and New Jersey's governors appoint their superintendents and a new superintendent could provide for a new direction for the states. 

In Virginia, a Christopher Newport University poll found that education is the issue of most concern for voters. On the campaign trail, however, it's been overshadowed by spats over Confederate monuments, tax cuts, and immigration, according to the Washington Post.  

Still, there's plenty to debate. Virginia's politicians have long been at odds over the state's accreditation system, which was heavily modified under the state' ESSA plan (it has not been approved yet). Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, a businessman and former Republican National Committee chair, wants a much heavier hand from the state when it comes to improving low-performing schools. Medical doctor and Democrat candidate Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who has received $445,000 from the Virginia Education Association, the state's teachers union, has asked for a more comprehensive accountability system that takes into account factors, but has not been specific about what an ideal accountability system looks like.   

Gillespie also wants to expand charter schools and vouchers in the state, which has one of the most restrictive school choice laws in the nation.

This has provided an opening for the state's Democrats to tie Gillespie's name with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, whose family has donated more than $100,000 to Gillespie's campaign, according to the Washington Post. On numerous occasions, the local Democrats have placed his picture next to hers on campaign fliers and accused him of trying to localize DeVos' push for vouchers and charter schools .

New Jersey's teachers unions have fought for years with current Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who has reached his term-limit, as well as with his appointed state superintendents. If Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy,  a former business executive and diplomat, wins, there will be plenty of things he will be looking to change in the state's federally approved ESSA plan, including the use of the PARCC assessment for accountability purposes, state takeover of underperforming districts, and teacher quality.  

Gov. Christie, has fought with the state's Democratically-controlled legislature the last year over whether to change its K-12 funding formula to reduce home property tax rates.

Murphy wants to add a seperate statewide tax to restore and fully fund the state's controversial funding formula, while Republican candidate Kim Guadagno said she wants to overhaul the entire formula and cap how much homeowners pay in property taxes by subsidizing schools by cutting spending in other state departments. 

In a twist, the state's teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association which typically backs Democrats, has spent at least $4 million on a campaign to defeat Democratic state Sen. Steve Sweeney, who serves as the state's Senate president. Sweeney and the union have fallen out over, among other things, how the state should pay down pension funds. The union is, instead, supporting Republican Fran Grenier, a city councilman who backed U.S. President Donald Trump in the presidential race. 


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