As elections near, interest in schools fades for some campaigns

The Red For Ed movement forced the issue of education funding to the forefront this spring, but it has faded toward the background as the marches become more distant and the elections get closer. (Photo by Jesse Stawnyczy/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – When Arizona teachers walked out of their classrooms in April to demand more funding for schools, it forced the issue of education into the headlines.

Three months later, those headlines appear to be a distant memory to some campaigns.

“There’s a very big disconnect between what voters care about, and what politicians and policymakers are talking about,” said Tamara Hiler, the deputy director for education at the Washington think tank Third Way.

“People are not talking about Russia, or North Korea or what tweet Donald Trump had,” Hiler said. “People are talking about, ‘How is my kid going to get a good teacher, how can we make sure my kids gets the skills they need and afford to go to college?'”

A Third Way listening tour after the 2016 election found that voters “care about issues that affect them on a daily basis, like education.” That mirrored an informal Cronkite News query that found Arizona voters put education up with immigration as the issues most important to them, by far.

But in the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, education is not even mentioned on the websites of four of the five major party candidates whose names will be on the ballot later this month.

Democrat Deedra Abboud has a detailed education statement on her site while the others – Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republicans Martha McSally, Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio – don’t post any education policy positions.

But that’s true of their campaign sites in general, with Abboud posting a robust policy platform and the others listing shorter, and fewer, issues – or in McSally’s case, none at all. One expert said that is not surprising considering Abboud is a newcomer and the others have all held, or are holding, office.

Peter Loge, an associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, said Abboud has to set herself apart.

“If you enter any field where you’re competitive, and you do the exact same thing as the three other people in front of you in the line, you’ve either got to be the best, or you’ve got to figure out a different thing to do, what different thing can you bring to the table,” he said.

But beyond their web presences, there’s not much separating the candidates except party affiliation. McSally, Arpaio and Ward have all made statements in support of school choice and voucher programs while Abboud and Sinema prefer to fund the public schools we have.

“Instead of basically doing a brain drain for our local schools, allowing people to go to private schools and use public funds … we need to focus on the school in your neighborhood needs to be strong and competitive so you want to stay there,” Abboud said recently.

Sinema, a three-term member of Congress from Phoenix who worked in the Washington Elementary School District for eight years, has no education policy on her campaign website. When asked for her position, Sinema’s campaign provided a statement that said the state needs “to attract and retain talented, qualified teachers and make sure students are getting a fair shot at success in every single ZIP code.”

Sinema also took a swipe at federal standards that force teachers and students to focus preparing for standardized tests.

“Students should focus on mastering material, rather than memorizing for a test,” her statement said.

The GOP candidates were not fans of federal intervention.

“We’ve seen that despite the best of intentions, greater federal involvement in education since the 1960s has not produced better educational outcomes for children,” said Zachery Henry, a spokesman for Ward’s campaign. “Decisions concerning funding, curriculum, and standards need to move back to local school districts with direct input from parents.”

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Henry said Ward, a former state senator, also backs school choice and voucher programs, which divert public school funding directly to low-income families to use at the school of their choosing. Henry said a family’s economic status should not determine whether a child has access to a private education.

“Today, in many cases only wealthy families have the option to choose their children’s school,” Henry said. “Dr. Ward wants every family to have that choice – regardless of income.”

Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, said he would advocate for school choice and support a voucher program that would provide financial assistance from the state for parents who want to send their children to private schools.

“Parents want the best for their children. If they like a certain school, then why not?” Arpaio said.

Like Ward, he is leery of federal oversight.

“What I would like to see is that more of the resources are diverted back to the locals, let them decide, not the federal government,” Arpaio said. “Locally, they know their own standards.”

McSally, a two-term member of Congress from Tucson, does not have any policy positions on her site and her campaign did not respond to repeated requests to provide her position on education.

But a look back through previous campaigns showed support for school choice, with a 2014 calling for “the option for a better education that focuses on local control, parent involvement, choice, and competition.”

Hiler said it’s not surprising that education is an overlooked issue in a federal race, even though “an educated society in general is good for the country, for our economy.”

“This is an issue which affects every single person,” she said. “Every single person has gone to school, has had a teacher and sat in a classroom.”

But that campaign focus could change after the primaries, she said.

“As we see a shift into the general election cycle, and as we see candidates wanting to appeal to a broader swath of voters, perhaps even across the aisle, we will see more conversations about education,” Hiler said.