Two months ago—was that really two months ago?—the showdown between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel became what AEI Research Fellow Andrew Kelly called the “Super Bowl of School Reform.” At the strike’s close, it appeared that the union had prevailed. Was this the canary in the coal mine for education reform? After the results of last night’s elections, we have a slightly better idea.
For the most part, unions looked victorious.
Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett, a “national darling child of the school reform movement”, lost his bid for reelection to Glenda Ritz (D), a union supporter and outspoken critic of Bennett’s policies. She rallied harsh disapproval from the left for Bennett’s stance on the big issues: Vouchers, charter schools, and teacher evaluation. And Bennett’s support of the Common Core State Standards aligns him with President Obama in a way that doesn’t sit well with many right-leaning Indiana voters. (For more on this, I recommend Rick Hess’s recent post.) With both sides questioning his credentials—unions to the left of him, anti-Common Core conservatives to the right—Bennett was stuck in the middle without victory.
Idaho, a state whose voters gave Romney 65.3% of the vote*, struck down three education-related propositions—all based on laws passed in 2011 with widespread approval from education reformers eager to usher in a progressive education agenda. The defeat protected tenure and collective bargaining, overthrew a merit pay proposal, and squelched an effort to require that all high school students take at least two online courses prior to graduation. Voters in South Dakota struck down a similar referendum—Referred Law 16—that would to tie a merit pay initiative to student test scores.
California’s Prop 32 (which, if passed, would ban unions from using members’ annual dues for campaign contributions), was defeated with 56.1% voting against it*. This was the third failed attempt in 14 years, which makes its defeat less surprising. Had the measure passed, it would surely signal a sizeable chink in the union’s armor.
These union victories, however, stopped short of “sweeping.”
For instance, Michigan ballot measure 12-2 (guarantees the right to collective bargaining for labor unions through a constitutional amendment) was defeated with 58.1% of the vote against*. Charter school reforms are no longer a hotly-contested battleground, as seen in Georgia and Washington. Georgia’s charter school amendment, which reestablishes the state’s role as a charter school authorizer, passed with 58.5% of the vote*. (District-only authorization is commonly viewed as a barrier to the expansion of the charter school movement.)
Washington, whose voters have struck down a similar amendment three times prior, is poised to pass Initiative 1240, which approves the establishment of 40 charter schools. Votes are still being counted, but the signs look promising that it will pass by a narrow margin. This progress is, in the end, a loss for the unions who have fought bitterly to slow charter school growth.
Union victories and defeats last night showcase the fact that unions are fighting battles on multiple fronts. What started as a strong win in Chicago is now mired in Republican gubernatorial wins (North Carolina and Indiana), a re-elected president who leans toward the union-skeptical Democrats For Education Reform, and the weakened pieces of bitter state-level fights to stave off threats to the union bottom line (collective bargaining and tenure). But despite lofty talk that the Chicago strike was a tide-turner in public support for teachers unions, last night’s election leaves the deck of cards intact, albeit reshuffled. Indeed, it’s quite possible that those with the most to lose shout the loudest.
* These numbers may not be 100% accurate because final results are still being tabulated at the time of this writing.