What Gubernatorial Candidates Say About Schools and Education
Their campaign materials avoid specifics.
Thirty-six states choose chief executives on November 8. To understand better how major-party gubernatorial candidates are running on education issues, and what we might expect from the winners, I’ve been reviewing campaign websites. From these, we can learn a great deal about the state of education politics and policy. Candidates’ words reveal information about the most-discussed issues nationwide, the issues that aren’t getting the attention we might expect, and the differences and similarities between Republicans and Democrats.
Incumbents’ websites often contain surprisingly little information on their education plans. Perhaps it is increasingly seen as politically savvy to lean on the advantages of incumbency rather than lay out a specific vision. A few incumbents have no dedicated “issues” or “agenda” page, or just a few vague sentences on policy topics: see Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, Alaska’s Mike Dunleavey, South Carolina’s Henry McMaster, California’s Gavin Newsom, or Kansas’s Laura Kelly. These campaign websites function mostly to introduce the candidate, share news clips, and raise money.
In other cases, the websites discuss only what the incumbents prioritized in their first term—so they might have an “accomplishments” page (Connecticut’s Ned Lamont, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu). Again, perhaps it’s safer to publicize popular things you’ve already done rather than float new ideas. This look-backward approach, though disappointing, at least gives us a sense of the issues the candidates care about. Of course, these incumbents could be talking about the future of education in television ads or stump speeches; campaign websites are not the only means of advancing a message. But it’s striking that their websites—where voters, donors, and journalists would first go for information—are so bare, agenda-wise.
Among Democratic candidates, the two top issues are school funding (22 of 36 candidate websites I reviewed discuss it) and early-childhood education (18). These are not among Republican candidates’ top issues; eight and four GOP candidate websites, respectively, discuss them. Other top Democratic issues not prioritized by Republican candidates include higher teacher pay, smaller class sizes, expanded or free community college, and student mental health.
Among Republican candidates, the top two issues are school choice (23 of the 36 GOP websites) and parents’ bill of rights/anti-CRT proposals (19). The only Democrat I could find with an explicit statement supporting either issue was Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, who supports some school choice. (Six Democratic candidates, however, had strong anti-choice statements.) School safety measures (ten), reading-improvement programs (eight), and protecting women’s sports (four) are the other issues that Republicans discussed significantly more often than Democrats.
Several issues cross party lines. The most prominent example is career and technical education to prepare students for work without a four-year college degree: 30 candidates (15 from each party) highlighted it. Similarly, six Republicans and six Democrats discussed measures to combat Covid learning loss (e.g., tutoring), and six Republicans and seven Democrats talked up efforts to strengthen state university systems.
Two findings surprised me. Much has been written over the last year about the supposed nationwide teacher shortage, but gubernatorial candidates seldom mention it. Though many candidates discuss ways to support teachers like pay and benefits (including four Democrats who explicitly mention strengthening unions or collective bargaining), only three candidates (all Democrats) made mention of this teacher-shortage “emergency” (Florida’s Charlie Crist) or “crisis” (South Carolina’s Joe Cunningham).
The other surprise is that, while the overall numbers are small, three Democrats mentioned the importance of local control of schools, to only one Republican. This appears to be a response to efforts in Republican-leaning states to address curricular and cultural issues. Indeed, the three Democrats (Crist, Cunningham, and South Dakota’s Jamie Smith) are all running in red states. Appealing to local control—a traditionally Republican talking point—might be seen as the best strategy here.
These results are even more notable in the context of recent history. Democrats’ priorities—more funding, higher teacher pay, smaller class sizes, more Pre-K programming—would have fit comfortably in their gubernatorial campaigns ten or 15 years ago. For the GOP, though, the focus on CRT, transparency, and a parents’ bill of rights is of recent vintage. Similarly, a decade ago, Republican candidates talked more about charter schools than private-school choice; that has flipped. And not long ago, “college for all” still held sway in most circles, so it’s notable that a left-right consensus has emerged on giving career and technical education more emphasis.
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