It’s increasingly clear that if the November midterm elections are to produce a “Blue Wave” for the Democratic Party, then many of the wins will need to come in Midwestern states that Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election. But what’s less well understood is that an issue helping Democratic candidates compete in the region is education. In the stomping ground of U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos — including her home state of Michigan as well as the surrounding states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois and nearby Minnesota — Democratic candidates are getting an edge by sharply opposing the DeVos agenda of privatizing public schools.
Up and down the ballots in state contests in the Midwest, Democratic candidates call for an end to school voucher programs that use public taxpayer funds to pay for tuitions at private schools, they propose tougher regulations of privately managed charter schools funded by the public, and they pledge to direct public money for education to public schools. Should Democrats retake the Rust Belt, it may not only snuff out the DeVos legacy but also change the course of education policy in the nation.
Why the midwest matters
The need for Democrats to prevail in the Midwest is acute. Trump won Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin in 2016 and came close in Minnesota. But a perhaps more important trend in these states is the Republican dominance down ballot where Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature and governors and most of the U.S. House seats in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio.
So far, most Democratic candidates running in state governor races in these states are well ahead or very competitive, and at least 35 seats in state legislatures in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are considered “flippable” by party advocates. Republican candidates are in danger of losing governor elections in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa, and elections could give Democrats the upper hand in state legislatures previously controlled by Republicans in Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
According to Politico, “Democrats are poised to chip away at Republican statehouse dominance in next month’s midterm elections, with wins appearing likely in some of the biggest states in the industrial Midwest.”
"Making education central"
Even before the primaries were over, the Democratic National Committee declared that education would be “on the ballot” in the midterm elections, according to Education Week. The EdWeek reporter quotes a DNC source saying that Democratic candidates are “running and winning by making education central to their campaigns.” Subsequent stories in more mainstream media corroborate that “education is a top issue in the midterms.”
Some of the prominence education is getting in the upcoming elections is due to the unpopularity of Secretary DeVos. “While Education Secretary Betsy DeVos isn’t on the ballot anywhere, her priorities are,” writes a reporter for the Boston Globe, in large part because much of what Republican lawmakers have done reflects her determination to privatize public education with charters, vouchers, and other “school choice” schemes.
An analysis of Democratic candidates’ campaign platforms and advertising conducted by Education Week in September found “more than three-dozen instances of DeVos’ name surfacing in races for Congress, governorships, and state attorneys general.” The intent is to “paint their GOP opponents as anti-public education” using DeVos as a “symbol” of what’s been wrong with education policy leadership under Republican rule.
In 2017, when the U.S. Department of Education announced $253 million in grants for charter schools around the country, two of the grant awardees were Midwest states Wisconsin and Indiana. This year’s awardees included a potential $47 million-plus for Michigan and over $38 million for Minnesota.
In this year’s electoral contests across the Midwest, DeVos’ name may not always appear in Democratic candidates’ attacks on their opponents, but the opposition to her privatizing agenda is unmistakable.
Ending the DeVos legacy in Michigan
The legacy of DeVos’ privatization agenda has been most harmful in Michigan, her home state, where the race for governor pits former state Democratic Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer against Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette.
DeVos and her family have been one of the biggest supporters of charter schools in the state, donating an estimated $14 million to mostly Republican lawmakers and their campaigns and conservative political organizations. “Within Michigan, the education secretary’s name is essentially synonymous with the wide-ranging agenda of school choice that she and her family have spent years (and untold millions of dollars) promoting,” says The 74, a pro-charter online media outlet. “A big night for Democrats on Nov. 6 would imperil much of what she has accomplished.”
But her political legacy has had disastrous consequences for Michigan children. After decades of unlimited charter growth — dominated by for-profit charters — the state ranks dead last in the nation in growth of academic achievement as measured by standardized test scores and is in the bottom 10 states in key measures of academic achievement. Whereas Michigan ranked 28th in 2003 results on the National Assessment of Education Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” the state now ranks 35th in the latest measure, which is better than its 41st ranking in 2015. But much of the improvement is due to other states dropping. Also, Michigan ranks at the bottom of the Midwest on the NAEP.
Whitmer is “committed to dismantling the privatization of education put forward by DeVos,” according to the National Education Association, calling for greater investments into the public education, ending for-profit charter schools, and enacting more accountability for nonprofit charters. Her opposition to the DeVos agenda has hardly hurt, as throughout the race, she “has maintained a significant lead,” reports Politico.
A number of down-ballot Democrats poised to flip Michigan state house and senate seats to their party would likely support Whitmer’s agenda. Alberta Griffin, running for the Mitten State’s 61st State House District, has campaigned on tightening regulations on charter schools, saying, “They shouldn’t be run by for-profit companies” and “should exist under the same rules as the public school system.”
Mari Manoogian, running in State House District 40 (Detroit Metro), and Julia Pulver, in State Senate District 15 (Detroit Metro), oppose for-profit charters. Angela Witwer, running in State House District 71 (Lansing Metro), and Padma Kuppa, in State House District 41 (Detroit Metro), have called for more financial transparency and accountability for for-profit charters.
Charter failure is campaign fodder in Ohio
In Ohio, Democrats are determined to pin the blame on Republicans for a failed statewide online charter school that abruptly closed midyear, sending more than 12,000 students and their families scrambling to find new schools.
The school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), had abysmal academic performance and owed the state nearly $80 million for inflating its enrollment numbers and overcharging the state for thousands of students who never attended full-time. The failed charter, which operated for 16 years, likely cost the state over a billion dollars, according to reliable estimates.
In this election, Democratic candidates up and down the ballot are framing the fraudulent charter as “the biggest political scandal in Ohio in more than a decade,” according to a state news outlet, “a colossal waste of taxpayer money and a failure for families.”
As proof of the role Republican officials played in the scandal, Democrats point to $2.5 million in political donations made by the school’s founder Bill Lager to Republicans over the past two decades. When revelations of the school’s scandalous operations were being reported in the press, Republicans, including outgoing governor and former presidential candidate John Kasich, were in charge.
In this year’s race for governor, Democratic nominee Richard Cordray blames his Republican opponent Mike DeWine — the state attorney general throughout the breaking news about the charter scandal — for allowing the charter to bilk taxpayers and for being too soft on the school once the fraud became widely reported. No one, in fact, has been arrested or gone to jail for the scandal.
Attack ads against DeWine funded by Cordray supporters accuse DeWine of failing to “protect” taxpayers and choosing “donors over kids,” noting DeWine took over $40,000 in campaign donations from Lager and his associates.
A website created with funds from the state teachers’ associations calls attention to widespread charter school corruption in the state beyond the ECOT scandal. Under DeWine’s watch, “Ohio’s oversight of taxpayer money became a national joke and a national embarrassment,” the teachers say. “Even as the FBI was raiding charter schools in Ohio and charter operators held records back from the public, DeWine did nothing, covering up massive problems and looking the other way.”
Polls are rating the race a toss-up.
Education may determine the winners in Wisconsin
In Wisconsin’s close race for governor, school privatization is “a central dynamic of the race,” a local news outlet reports. The contest pitting incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker against Democratic challenger and longtime state schools chief Tony Evers, “might be decided by education,” according to the Atlantic.
In a state where charter schools are not as prevalent as they are in neighboring Michigan, the privatization issue dividing the candidates is school vouchers.
In 2013, Walker used the state budget process to expand the state’s oldest voucher program in Milwaukee to open it up from strictly low-income families to middle and upper-middle class families. Then in 2015, he announced plans to lift the cap entirely to take the voucher program statewide, despite extensive research studies showing voucher programs have negative impacts on student learning and the public education system. Other state voucher programs backed by Walker have opened eligibility beyond income to other factors, including students with disabilities.
Evers has pledged to freeze enrollment in the state’s voucher programs and phase them out over time unless the state lawmakers agree to require private schools getting voucher money to hire certified teachers, ban the schools from discriminating against LGBT and other marginalized students, and disclosing to taxpayers how much local funding goes to school vouchers.
Conservatives backing Walker have declared Evers a “real threat” to school choice due to this commitment to making state voucher programs more accountable and transparent.
Wisconsin voters have rated education a top issue in the election, with 40 percent saying it’s a first or second priority, second only to the economy at 41 percent. Perhaps for that reason, polls consistently show Evers ahead in the race, sometimes with a double-digit advantage.
In down-ballot contests in the Badger State, Democrats have a real chance to flip the state Senate as Republicans have a mere three-seat advantage. One candidate the party is counting on is Lee Snodgrass, running for the 19th Senate District. Should she win, her pledge to “increase voucher school accountability” would align with the Evers agenda for education.
A Blue Wave would remake education in the Great Lakes region
Rounding out the Great Lakes region, in Minnesota and Illinois governor races, school privatization has been a top concern of voters and a wedge issue separating the parties.
In the race for Illinois governor, school privatization is at the “heart of gubernatorial candidate differences,” declares a state-based news outlet, with Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker “on opposite sides of key education issues, particularly those involving charter school expansion and private school funding.”
Last year, Rauner refused to sign off on an education budget with much-needed funding increases for schools unless it included a $75 million tax credit scholarship program for low-income students. Tax credit programs are another voucher-like arrangement that redirects taxpayer money for education to private schools.
The programs operate like a money-laundering scheme, where a third party — often called a school tuition organization (STO)—is set up as a nonprofit by the state or by financial groups connected to school privatization advocacy groups to accept donations. The donations earn wealthy taxpayers and corporations tax credits on their state returns, sometimes for as much as 100 percent of the donation, and charitable donations on their federal returns. Then the money from the STO is distributed to selected parents to use for private school tuition.
The programs reduce tax revenues that feed public schools while providing tax benefits to wealthy businesses and individuals, who sometimes can make a profit on their “donations.”
Pritzker says he’ll end the tax credit scheme, calling it a program that takes “money from public schools” when the real need is for the state to provide better funding for public schools, while Rauner continues to call the program a way for low-income students to escape “failed” public schools even though in most of these programs there is no tracking of whether or not the scholarships go to students living in poverty and there is no data to demonstrate the positive or negative impact of the programs on student achievement.
Recent polls have Pritzker comfortably ahead of Rauner.
Similarly in Minnesota, the Democratic front-runner in the race for governor, Tim Walz, finds himself ahead with a sizable advantage in every poll.
Walz, a former public high school geography teacher and football coach, who during his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives authored the Forever GI Bill to expand veterans’ education benefits and voted against a school voucher program the federal government funds in Washington, D.C., has made support for public schools a cornerstone of his campaign.
His opponent Jeff Johnson couldn’t be more different in his education proposals, saying that what Minnesota families need is a voucher program like Michigan’s or Wisconsin’s that would direct public education funds to private schools. Walz has pledged to block any proposed voucher programs.
Should the “Blue Wave” succeed in the Midwest, it could not only vault Democrats into commanding positions in states that have been key to presidential elections and national trends in public policy; it could overturn the DeVos machine that has spent millions on electing Republicans over decades.
Jeff Bryant is director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy.