A not-so-great night for education reform

The results are in and Ed Reform, our non-partisan candidate, had a mixed performance. Let’s see how eight key races and referenda turned out:

    Tony Bennett
    Ed Reform Idol Tony Bennett's loss was an unexpected blow.
    Photo by Joe Portnoy.
  • Tony Bennett lost his re-election bid. There’s no sugar-coating it: This one hurts. Bad. As I wrote on Tuesday (and profanely explained to the Huffington Post), this was a referendum on the most aggressive reform agenda in the country. Despite being massively outspent, the unions managed to get one of their own elected to this critical post. We’ll have to wait for more data to determine the degree to which conservatives also punished Bennett for his support of the Common Core (perhaps inadvertently egged on by Arne Duncan’s tone-deaf cheerleading). But it’s no secret that some of them are gleeful. If they were the deciding factor, it will go down as one of the stupidest moves in the annals of education-policy history. Bennett will be fine (I suspect he’s already getting calls from Florida, Ohio, and other states looking for a hard-charging education leader). But a union-backed state superintendent is going to do her best to wreak havoc on the state’s new voucher program and much else. (Just ask choice supporters in Wisconsin, where state superintendent Tony Evers has made life hard on choice schools for years.) Bad, bad, sad.
  • And then there were nine. They were still counting the votes in Washington through this morning—and it looks to be a squeaker—but the most populous of the ten states that lacked charter-school laws before Tuesday will finally get a taste of school choice. A victory is a victory, and charter schools are on their way to Washington.
  • Idaho’s “Luna Laws” went down. This is bad but not surprising, reminiscent of the repeal of Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 reforms in 2011. Once again, the unions were well organized and determined to overturn measures (supported by GOP state supe Tom Luna) related to collective bargaining, teacher evaluations, and technology. A similar reform package was defeated in South Dakota, too. Remember when we told you (last week) that it’s not just the teacher unions on the coasts and in the industrial Midwest that are powerful? We weren’t kidding.
  • Reformers won on collective bargaining in Michigan. On the other hand, Michigan’s powerful teacher union lost its bid to enshrine expansive collective-bargaining rights in the state constitution. The status quo—which is still pretty darn union-friendly—remains in place.
  • Georgia voters approved a statewide charter-school authorizer. Put another win in the reform column; this should allow charter schooling in the Peach State to flourish, as schools won’t have to rely on approval from their competition (local school districts).
  • Wisconsin Republicans regained the state senate. This means that Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining reforms and the recent expansion of the state’s voucher program are safe for now. (Unless the courts intervene, that is.)
  • Republicans kept their supermajority in Indiana’s General Assembly—and a reformist GOP governor will take Mitch Daniels’s chair. This seems to indicate that while Tony Bennett paid for his far-sighted reform agenda, Republicans who enacted it did not. It also provides further evidence that Bennett may have been punished for his support of the Common Core.
  • The Cleveland Plan moves towards reality. A program as ambitious as the one developed on the shores of Lake Erie over the past year is bound to have its share of drama, from hard-fought statehouse battles to outside critics parachuting in to throttle it. Tuesday’s vote to fund Mayor Frank Jackson’s vision, a Cleveland education system that focuses on school quality over politics and refuses to discriminate against charters (or give a free pass to bad ones), was relatively mundane in comparison. But it was the first school levy to win the support of Cleveland voters since 1996—and it was a big one. Here’s hoping the next dramatic act will be the progress that city schools see once the plan is implemented.

So yes, for those of you keeping score, that’s six wins for Ed Reform and two losses (although plenty of other issues decided on Tuesday hold important implications for local schooling). In my book, however, the Bennett defeat looms so large as to crush any celebration.

What does this mixed pattern mean for school reform? It’s hard to say. Did Bennett and Luna push too far, too fast with their suite of reforms? Maybe. Or did they simply not raise enough money to fend off challenges? (Is it finally time for Republicans for Education Reform—a DFER equivalent that could come to the aid of bold conservative reformers?)

One thing is for sure: Indiana is going to be a fascinating place to watch, as a Republican governor and strongly Republican legislature do battle with a union-backed Democratic state superintendent.

No victories are permanent. But neither are defeats. The fight goes on.

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