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Who “Won” the 2014 Midterm Elections: Reformers, Teachers Unions, or Conservatives?

None of them, actually.
By Alexander Russo

Did so-called school reformers (pro-charter, pro-Common Core Democrats, mostly) win the November 4 midterm elections, did the teachers unions, or did anti-Common Core advocates (most of them conservative Republicans)?

A casual observer could be forgiven for not quite understanding the national education implications of this year’s just-ended election season. That’s because the dominant media narrative has shifted in the days following the midterms, and it remains somewhat unsettled now, more than two weeks later. 

Most of the attention focused on the battle between pro-reform Democrats and long-standing Democratic Party supporters in the labor movement.

The first wave of news coverage and commentary suggested strongly that the midterms were a big win for reformers. But the second wave of coverage and commentary suggested that the midterms may really have been a big loss for Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party as a whole but not specifically teachers unions.

So who’s right? What’s the real storyline? 

The reality is that the midterm outcomes were inconclusive and mixed for reformers and teachers unions and Common Core opponents. Of course, that hasn’t kept the different sides from doing their best to make it look like they prevailed.

To take the reformers’ side, there is some accuracy to the notion that they had a good election, and the focus on reform wins and union losses was strong in the days immediately after the elections were held. Unions spent on and lost big races in seven states: Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts. This was all the more embarrassing given that three of those states—Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts—are thoroughly Democratic. New York's pro-charter, pro-Common Core governor Andrew Cuomo easily won re-election without support from the powerful state teachers union, as did pro-reform senator Cory Booker (D-NJ).

Immediately following the elections, media outlets such as Politico, Education Week, and others wrote about how well the reform wing of the Democratic Party had done in 2014. The Washington Post followed suit with the headline “Teachers unions spent $60 million for the midterms but still lost many elections.” Pro-reform advocacy group StudentsFirst (until recently run by Michelle Rhee) claimed that its efforts prevailed in more than 80 percent of the 104 races it got involved in. And the education advisor for Mike Bloomberg’s pro-reform Independence USA PAC trumpeted victories in five gubernatorial races, including for incumbents Dan Malloy (D-CT), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), and Rick Snyder (R-Michigan), as well as challengers Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Gina Raimondo (D-RI).

“I have to wonder if there are any union leaders expressing misgivings internally about the current ‘defend-all-old-priorities’ strategy,” wrote Andy Smarick, who works for the moderately conservative Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.   

At first, there wasn’t much disagreement about how badly things had gone for the unions. The AFT cancelled a scheduled press call the morning after the results came in. Reform critic Diane Ravitch’s blog post the morning after the midterms was titled simply “Bad News.”  

However, most of the elections didn’t seem to turn on education issues and didn’t feature head-to-head matchups between pro-reform and pro-union candidates.

Much if not most of the money the teachers unions spent was designed to try to help the Democratic Party keep control of the Senate—an uphill battle that few expected to win. The unions were just taking one on the chin for the DNC. 

And so, a day or two later in the week, the media storyline began to change. While the midterms may have been a horror show for Democrats, the teachers unions began to push back against the notion that they’d lost on education issues. Teachers unions had “several victories to celebrate,” noted the Education Writers Association’s public editor, Emily Richmond. “Teachers Unions Say Midterm Losses Don’t Reflect on Them,” ran the title of a Huffington Post article featuring an interview with AFT head Randi Weingarten. “It’s hard for me to understand … what the business types and the testing types of this education debate think they won here,” she said. 

The unions won big with the election of Democratic Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf over incumbent Republican Tom Corbett, a race that turned in part on education cuts made in recent years. And the most closely watched and expensive race that pitted reformers and teachers unions against one another, for state superintendent of education in California, went narrowly to the teachers, with incumbent Tom Torlakson defeating challenger Marshall Tuck. It was closer than many expected, given the advantages of incumbency and the strengths of the teachers union in California, but it was still a win for the union side.

“It’s hard to believe a huge outpouring to defeat Obama—arguably the most powerful force ever to push for “education reform”—is somehow a resounding call for more education reform,” noted reform critic Jeff Bryant.

Understanding the meaning of the 2014 midterms isn’t just important on a factual level (i.e., knowing which side won which races). It’s also important because it shapes how the various parties and organizations think and feel and how fast and far they might try and push their agendas during the next few months and years. The midterm results are a signal to both sides about how they’re doing, and the simplified narrative that gets told and repeated for the next few months will shape those beliefs.

So where does this leave things for the near future?

The most fundamental issue that reformers and teachers unions face together—and have yet to deal with—is that the Democratic Party doesn’t currently appeal very much to white working-class voters who aren’t union members.

A secondary concern that’s been raised by the 2014 midterms is the prospect of further polarization down the line, creating situations in which education candidates beat each other to a pulp while Republicans or other candidates not necessarily so devoted to public education sneak into office.

Whether it’s congressional races, state governors’ offices, or even the White House in 2016, divisions among Democrats could in theory lead to Republican victories.

While unions have to worry about decreasing influence and the ability to deliver elections to the Democratic Party, reformers have to worry about a bipartisan retreat from annual testing required by all states under NCLB. Another reform worry is the rollout of the Common Core assessments this spring and the results they will provide. More than 30 states will receive scores from the new assessments this spring, and they’re not likely going to be easy to look at.

That’s why there were words of caution from the reform side of education’s civil war, too, in the days following the midterms: “We have one year to strengthen the argument for the core reforms under way all across America before the next set of candidates start locking in their positions,” cautioned Duncan’s former communications guru, Peter Cunningham. “The beach is secure, but the threats are never far away.”

Common Core opponents (most of them conservative Republicans, as well as some liberal Democrats), have to figure out how to strengthen their case, as well. They won state superintendent races in Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina, noted the Wall Street Journal. Arizona also elected an anti-Common Core governor, Republican Doug Ducey. However, pro-Common Core governors won re-election in at least two other states, and pro-Common Core former Florida governor Jeb Bush seems to be inching closer to a run for president in 2016.

Photo (from left): Paul Kitagaki Jr/Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Press; Sacramento Bee/ MCT /LANDOV

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.