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Education — and Betsy DeVos — are issues in key political races this November

Education Secretary Betsy DeVosAndrew Harrer/Bloomberg News/File

In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker, in office since 2011, is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Tony Evers, the state’s superintendent of schools — and education is a key issue.

Evers said at a state Democratic Party convention in the summer that he was running because he is ‘‘goddamn sick and tired of Scott Walker gutting our public schools, insulting our hard-working educators, and destroying higher education in Wisconsin.’’ Walker called him ‘‘pathetic’’ for cursing. Evers is ahead in the polls.

In Arizona, where thousands of teachers protested poor pay and insufficient funding of schools earlier this year, the first debate between incumbent Republican Governor Doug Ducey and his Democratic challenger, David Garcia, was dominated last month by education issues. Garcia accused Ducey of not investing enough in public schools; Ducey accused Garcia of not having an education policy.


While it may not top the list of issues motivating voters to go to the polls, education is a key factor in some big races. (Depending on age, location, political affiliation, or time of survey, other matters may come out on top, including the economy, immigration, or health care.) And while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos isn’t on the ballot anywhere, her priorities are.

Americans have long cited education as a key concern when asked by pollsters to list issues important to them, but it has never been seen as one that could affect their vote. But for a combination of reasons, including the inevitable swing of the political pendulum, things seem different this year.

Hundreds of teachers and retired educators — an unprecedented number — are running for political office on the local, state, and federal levels. There are hundreds of teachers — most of them Democrats — running for state legislative seats alone.

The Associated Press quoted Mara Sloan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, as saying that in at least two states, Maine and Minnesota, teacher candidates could help flip control of state legislatures to the Democrats.


Years of what educators perceive as attacks on their profession by policymakers have taken a toll, and educators say they are sick and tired of being paid too little, working in schools lacking resources, and watching other people make education policy that doesn’t comport with reality.

That discontent was seen this year when a #RedforEd movement exploded with teacher strikes and protests in mostly Republican, nonunionized states, including West Virginia, Colorado, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. While teacher strikes do not always garner strong sympathy, these did.

In Connecticut, Jahana Hayes, the National Teacher of the Year in 2016, won the Democratic primary to compete for a seat in Congress this November. Improving public education is a big issue for Hayes, an outspoken member of the National Education Association, the largest teacher union in the country.

Hayes recently came out in opposition to the Trump administration’s decision to allow federal money to be used by schools to buy weapons for teachers. The Connecticut Mirror quoted her as saying:

‘‘I have spent more time in the classroom than either President Trump or Secretary DeVos, and I can tell you without a doubt that guns in a classroom do not ‘improve school conditions’ as the department is prepared to argue.’’

DeVos has been a leader for decades in the movement seeking to promote alternatives to traditional public schools, called ‘‘school choice.’’ Having said in 2015 that traditional public education is ‘‘a dead end,’’ she advocates using public money for private and religious school education. Her critics say she is determined to privatize public education; she denies it.


Georgia is an example of where DeVos’s agenda is a campaign issue in the race for governor. Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, who would become the first black female governor in the United States, said she wants to end a state-funded tax credit school ‘‘scholarship’’ program — the kind that DeVos supports.

Tax credits offer individuals and corporations tax benefits for donating to organizations that provide ‘‘scholarship’’ money for students to attend private and religious schools. They were created as a way around direct state funding of religious school tuition. Abrams calls the program a ‘‘backdoor voucher’’ that harms public schools. Her opponent, Republican Brian Kemp, supports it.

In Florida, the state Supreme Court knocked off the ballot a controversial initiative that would have allowed easy expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. DeVos is a big supporter of charter schools. The court supported an opinion from a lower court judge that the measure was written to deliberately mislead the public about its purpose.

Education has already been front and center in some races this year.

In Kentucky, House majority leader Jonathan Shell was ousted in a Republican primary by Travis Brenda, a high school teacher who credited support from fellow educators for his win after protests at the state Capitol over low pay and other issues.


And in Pennsylvania this past spring, Democrat Conor Lamb won a US House seat in a special election in a Republican stronghold, and education was a key issue. In fact, Lamb, a Marine, talked a lot about his brother and sister, who are teachers and don’t get the recognition he does for his service. It bothers him, he said.