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K-12 Issues and Candidates Shaping the Midterms

The 2022 midterm elections are poised to have a seismic impact on the nation’s politics, especially at the state and local levels, with K-12 education at the heart of some of the most contentious issues on voters’ minds.

This year, debates over schools’ role in teaching students about gender, sexuality, and race have fueled the campaigns of candidates across the country in contests for governor, state superintendent, state boards of education, and local school boards.

For candidates on the conservative side, that often means promoting their conception of parents’ rights, along with school choice, and restrictions on how issues including race, gender, and sexuality are taught and approached in schools. Candidates on the more-liberal side, by contrast, are apt to champion issues such as teacher pay increases, greater mental health supports for students, and support for LGBTQ students.

“We are continuing to see the culture wars playing out” around K-12 education, said Sarah Hill, a political science professor and education policy expert at California State University, Fullerton. “In general, how are we going to talk about race? How are we going to talk about gender and sexual orientation? … What books are appropriate? What should be taught in sex ed? How much control do parents have?”

Many Republican candidates in governor and state superintendent races are proposing expanding school choice with vouchers and scholarship accounts that would give public dollars to families hoping to enroll in private schools, and pushing parent “bill of rights” proposals that would allow parents to formally review and approve or reject curriculum, learning materials, and books.

COVID and the mass switch to remote schooling “lit the spark” on parents’ rights movements, leading to a philosophical debate for school leaders and policymakers, Hill said. While most people can agree that parent involvement in education is important in many ways, schools are ultimately institutions that serve a larger purpose of preparing students for society, she said.

“It creates this really interesting tension of what parents want versus a more democratic, social need for schools and a purpose they have there,” Hill said. “And it’s playing out in really interesting ways.”

Local school boards, especially, have become the target for parents’ rights and other cultural issues. In states dominated at the congressional and state level by one political party or another, political activists often can find more success with elections like the school board, Hill said.

But if local leaders aren’t in agreement with state lawmakers it can lead to more divisions surrounding school issues, with state lawmakers proposing mandates to enact greater control over what’s happening in local classrooms, Hill said.

“We’re down a dangerous path,” she said. “Where do we turn to make this better, how do we stop these culture wars? I don’t have a good answer there. That’s what’s concerning.”

To help educators and school leaders understand what the 2022 midterms mean for K-12 policy, this Education Week election guide highlights issues resonating across multiple states and districts, as well as selected campaign battles to keep an eye on for their broader implications.

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Voters across the country will be casting their ballots for governor, state superintendent, school board, and ballot measures that will impact K-12 education policy. Here’s are some specific contests, ballot proposals to watch, and context on the races as the midterm elections approach.

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State Superintendent

Image depicting seven open seats.

Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming all have races for their state’s top education job—state superintendent—on the November ballot.

State superintendents are tasked with leading state education departments, which develop policies and programs for local schools, manage federal and state funding allocations, help local schools navigate emergency response, and advocate for the state education system’s needs.

While some state superintendents are appointed by governors or state boards of education, a handful are able to run for the position in either partisan or nonpartisan elections.

Some of the races are more contentious than others. Here are some states to watch.


Tom Horne (R)

Kathy Hoffman (D)
Arizona’s former attorney general and former superintendent of education aims to return to the state’s top education job.

Horne made headlines when he served as state superintendent from 2003 to 2011 for efforts to ban bilingual education and to separate English learners from other students for four-hour blocks in order to teach them English-language skills. The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights ultimately determined that those efforts violated the rights of English learner students. Now Horne’s hoping to tackle what he calls “indoctrination” of students at the hands of critical race theory, an academic concept that says that race is a social construct embedded into legal systems and policies, and the 1619 Project, a New York Times project that seeks to reframe history by putting the impacts of slavery and contributions of Black Americans at its center. He stresses “teaching accurate history.” and pledges to “restore discipline” in schools as part of his campaign platform.

Hoffman is the first educator to serve as the state’s superintendent in over 20 years.

Throughout her first term, Hoffman established the Arizona Teacher Residency program to recruit educators and oversaw an initiative to invest $1.5 million to expand broadband capacity to schools and libraries in rural Arizona.

If reelected, Hoffman has placed her focus on establishing mental health supports for students, tackling “codified bigotry” that she says “has denied too many children information about their health and their identities,” and raising teacher pay.


Debbie Critchfield (R)

Terry Gilbert (D)
The former president of Idaho’s State Board of Education beat out incumbent Sherri Ybarra in the May 17 Republican primary election for the superintendent of public instruction job.

If elected, Critchfield plans to prevent critical race theory from being taught in schools though she isn’t specific on how, require students to take personal finance courses, ensure education decisions are being made at the local level, promote school choice, and establish what she calls a Parent Bill of Rights. Her proposal would establish a set of 10 rights for parents, including rights “to expect their children will be taught how to think, not what to think,” “to review and provide input for their child’s curriculum,” and “to question and/or object to statements and/or policies from the federal to the local level without fear of retaliation.”

Gilbert, who has a 45-year career in education including as a public school teacher, hopes to increase funding for public schools and fight against vouchers and other efforts to use public funds for private or for-profit schools. He also plans to increase teacher pay for educators, invest in infrastructure, and raise graduation rates.

Gilbert has committed to working with stakeholders to meet Idaho’s goal of reaching a 92.4 percent graduation rate. In 2021, the state’s graduation rate was 80.1 percent, according to the Idaho Department of Education. He also plans to tackle aging school buildings by advocating use of the state’s budget surplus to address school infrastructure.

South Carolina

South Carolina State Superintendent Molly Spearman, who has been in office since 2015, announced in October 2021 that she would be retiring from the position to spend more time with her family. Her last day is Jan. 1, when she’ll hand the position over to a newly elected superintendent.

Ellen Weaver (R)

Lisa Ellis (D)
A Republican CEO of a conservative policy think tank, Weaver, like many GOP candidates, has focused her campaign on parents’ rights and school choice. She plans to “protect children from political indoctrination in every form” by preventing critical race theory from being taught in schools and insisting on “total transparency for all materials and resources used with students.” A teacher and the founder of a teacher advocacy organization called SC for Ed, Ellis hopes to tackle South Carolina’s teacher shortages by raising teacher salaries. Ellis also plans to address efforts to ban curriculum or learning materials by ensuring that teachers can teach to state standards “without fear of politically-motivated punishment or censorship.”


Image indicating 36 open seats.

Education has been a point of contention in the 36 races for governor this year. From establishing a Parents Bill of Rights and banning transgender student participation in sports to raising teacher pay and spending public funds on mental health resources, candidates across all races are pushing to win over educators and parents.

In many cases, priorities fall along party lines. Republicans on the most extreme end of the spectrum are hoping to ban critical race theory, give parents more control over school curriculum and “put God back into our schools,” as Jim Pillen, the Republican nominee for the Nebraska race, put it in the priorities listed on his website.

Democrats have focused their attention on pandemic recovery efforts, often calling for more funds to hire social workers and counselors, pushing for “grow your own” and apprenticeship programs to solve teacher pipeline concerns, and establishing equitable funding for schools with higher populations of students of color.

Governors in 15 states have the job of appointing the superintendent or education commissioner, and all governors have the ability to veto or sign state education bills into law. Here are some races educators should keep their eyes on:


Ron DeSantis (R)

Charlie Crist (D)
The Florida governor, a potential presidential contender in 2024, has drawn national attention—and some fierce criticism—for his education agenda. In March, for example, the Republican governor signed Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education Act,” commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, into law.

The law prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexuality for students in grades K-3, and has drawn a lawsuit by Equality Florida, an LGBTQ rights organization, and a group of parents and students and supported by 16 state attorneys general, arguing the law “will stigmatize and harm LGBTQ youth in Florida.”

If DeSantis wins, he plans to continue his efforts to limit discussions of gender identity, sexuality, and race in the classroom. DeSantis promises to “reject the use of Critical Race Theory,” guarantee parents’ right to “curriculum transparency,” and “educate, don’t indoctrinate.”

A former Republican who also served as governor, congressman, and education commissioner in Florida, Crist has focused much of his campaign on supporting teachers and has won the endorsement of the Florida Education Association. His running mate, Karla Hernandez-Mats, is president of United Teachers of Dade, the Miami-Dade teachers’ union, and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. If elected, Crist plans to declare a teacher shortage emergency, increase teacher pay, take steps to increase school safety, and “stop the unwarranted politicization of our classrooms.”

In addition to providing final say on state laws, whoever wins the Florida election will have the power to appoint members to the state board of education with approval from the Florida state Senate. The board of education has the power to appoint the state’s education commissioner, the top education job in that state. If elected, Crist aims to make the education commissioner position an elected position.


The Pennsylvania governor has the power to nominate a secretary of education for approval by the state Senate.

Doug Mastriano (R)

Josh Shapiro (D)
Mastriano has drawn the ire of educators across his state after indicating he would decrease per pupil funding.

In a March interview with WRTA, a local Pennsylvania radio station, Mastriano, a military veteran and a state senator who helped former President Donald Trump in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, said that instead of the current $19,000 per pupil funding, Pennsylvania should “fund each student around $9,000 or $10,000.” That level of budget cut would slash state education funding by one-third and eliminate 49 percent of jobs in public schools, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Eighty-nine school board members across the state signed onto a letter to Pennsylvania voters warning of the “devastating impact” of Mastriano’s proposed budget cuts.

Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state’s current attorney general and a former state representative, has promised on his website to “fully fund” Pennsylvania schools. Shapiro also plans to place at least one mental health counselor in every school, and ensure every high school offers vocational, technical, and computer training.

Shapiro has also expressed his support for Pennsylvania’s lifeline scholarship bill which would establish a program to give students in the lowest-performing 15 percent of public schools portions of per-pupil education funds for tuition to other schools, tutoring, textbooks, and curriculum needs. He also vows to appoint at least two parents to the Pennsylvania State Board of Education.

State Boards of Education

Image indicating 51 open seats.

Candidates will compete for 51 state board of education seats across nine states in November.

According to the Education Commission of the States, governors in 24 states appoint all members of the board of education. The remaining state boards are either partially appointed by the governor, appointed by the state legislature, or elected.

This year, Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, Utah, and the District of Columbia all have elections for state boards of education. Most states have four or five seats open, while Utah has eight seats and Texas has all 15 up for election.

Board of education powers vary from state to state with states like Alabama giving them “general supervision of the public schools” and states like Colorado assigning more specific duties, such as ensuring graduation requirements align with workforce and postsecondary education readiness and appointing a state commissioner of education, according to the ECS.

Local School Boards

At least 373 school districts had or will have elections in 2022, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit dedicated to providing an encyclopedia of elections in the U.S. The organization tracks school board elections by looking at districts in the 100 largest cities by population and the 200 largest districts by student enrollment. Of those 373 elections, 271 will happen in November or December.

With the pandemic causing major disruptions to education, it appears that more parents and community members are putting themselves up for school board, said John Heim, the executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, who did not quantify the trend.

“One of the things that came out of the pandemic was a lot of school boards started televising, or Zooming, their board meetings,” Heim said. “It became a lot easier for parents and community members to get engaged and learn a lot more about what school boards were doing.”

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Six states have ballot initiatives related to education issues this November, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ballot initiatives tend to ask voters to approve changes to taxes to increase school funding. Here are what this year’s ballot initiatives have to say:

  • California: Proposition 28, the Art and Music K-12 Education Funding Initiative, will ask California voters to approve annual minimum funding of 1 percent of required state and local funds for schools to go toward arts and music education. The measure is expected to increase the number of arts and music educators in California classrooms by more than 50 percent, according to the proposition.
  • Colorado: Proposition FF, the Reduce Income Tax Deduction Caps to Fund School Meals Program Measure, would create and fund the state’s Healthy School Meals for All Program by reducing income tax deduction capacity limits. The program would allow all students to eat for free regardless of financial status.
  • Idaho: A question on the Idaho ballot will ask voters to approve House Bill 1, which would generate $410 million in sales tax revenue for the state’s public school income and in-demand careers funds by changing income and corporate tax rates to a flat 5.8 percent. The ballot measure replaced an earlier measure, which would have increased the income tax rate for individuals who make above $250,000 a year to fund K-12 schools.
  • Massachusetts: Question 1 on the Massachusetts ballot will ask voters to create a 4 percent tax on incomes exceeding $1 million to fund education and transportation.
  • New Mexico: New Mexico has two ballot measures up for voters this year. A proposed constitutional amendment would appropriate funds from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to support early-childhood education programs. The other would issue nearly $216 million in bonds for public higher education institutions, special public schools, and tribal schools, according to NCSL.
  • West Virginia: West Virginia is asking voters to approve a measure that would require the state’s board of education to submit any proposed rules to the state legislature for approval.

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From critical race theory to student mental health, candidates have been confronting divisive and sensitive education issues as they seek to win over voters, especially parents.

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Critical race theory

Critical race theory, an academic concept that argues race is a social construct embedded in legal systems and policies, has remained a top concern for conservative political candidates, many of whom argue it is leading to political indoctrination.

Four of the six Republican nominees candidates for state superintendent explicitly mention preventing critical race theory from being taught in schools on their campaign websites, and nine governor nominees, all of whom are Republicans, have stated that preventing critical race theory is a top priority.

The fear over the potential implications of curriculum based on critical race theory have led to a slew of state laws limiting conversations about race in the classroom, but there has been little evidence the academy theory is being taught in K-12 schools.

While Republican candidates are using the topic as a major campaign tool, Democrats have decided not to touch it. Instead, many Democrat candidates have more-vague promises to prevent “politically-motivated punishment” for teachers, as Lisa Ellis, the Democrat Candidate for South Carolina’s Superintendent Race, said on her website.

LGBTQ issues

Debates over LGTBQ students’ rights and curriculum have seeped into the November general election.

Over the past two years, state lawmakers have proposed or passed at least 30 bills limiting discussions of gender identity and sexuality in the classroom, preventing transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, and not allowing students to go by their chosen pronouns or names.

Candidates reflect the fervor over LGBTQ students’ rights in their campaigns. Eight Democrat governor nominees, including Jared Polis in Colorado, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Beto O’Rouke in Texas, have specifically mentioned protecting LGBTQ people, especially youth, on campaign websites. Two state superintendent nominees, Democrats Lisa Ellis in South Carolina and Kathy Hoffman in Arizona, have pledged to support LGBTQ students and ensure their safety in schools.

Meanwhile, six Republican nominees for governor, including Jim Pillen in Nebraska, Ron DeSantis in Florida, and Kristi Noem in South Dakota, have stated plans to prevent transgender students from using restrooms, locker rooms, or playing sports consistent with their gender identity.

On Sept. 20, Tudor Dixon, the Republican nominee for governor in Michigan, called for the resignation of Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice, after the state’s Department of Education provided training to teachers that said educators aren’t required to inform parents about their children’s sexuality or preferred pronouns, according to reporting from MLive.

“Somewhere along the way radical political activists decided that our schools are laboratories for their social experiments and our children are their lab rats,” Dixon said during a Sept. 20 press conference.

School choice

School choice remains a top concern for candidates on both ends of the political spectrum with Republicans advocating for scholarships and vouchers for private schools, and Democrats arguing public school funds should remain in public schools.

Nineteen gubernatorial nominees, all Republicans, have expressed plans on their websites to expand school choice. They specifically mention implementing a voucher program that would redirect public funds into scholarships for private schools.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia already have school voucher programs, while six states have Education Spending Account programs, and 19 states offer scholarship tax credits, according to the ECS.

In states like Arizona, where students already have access school choice programs like the Empowerment Scholarship Account, Republicans plan to take school choice a step further. If elected, the Arizona Republican nominee for governor Kari Lake would implement a program to allow students to mix courses from multiple schools, giving students the power to attend one school for competitive athletics and take courses at another school with more rigorous academics.

A handful of Democrats in both governor and state superintendent races explicitly mention preventing school choice measures like vouchers. Georgia governor nominee Stacey Abrams stated on her campaign website that she opposes private school vouchers, arguing that “public dollars should go to public schools.” And Idaho state superintendent nominee Terry Gilbert promised on his website that he will “never give into the Voucher Vultures and their for-profit school scheme.”

Academic recovery

Candidates on all sides of the political spectrum have expressed concerns about the pandemic’s impact on student learning, but their strategies to address those issues vary.

Math and reading scores among 9-year-olds plummeted in 2022, the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Long-Term Trend test data show. Many candidates have used academic declines to bolster their arguments for policies such as school vouchers, increased funding, and curriculum changes.

Republican candidates are hoping to address that issue by promoting school choice offerings, which they argue will unlock greater opportunities for students, and blaming Democrats for closing schools to in-person learning during the pandemic.

Democrats have promised to expand early-childhood education and create more opportunities for after-school and summer learning.

School funding

School funding has historically been a point of contention in elections with Democrats pushing to increase funding for schools and Republicans often arguing that schools aren’t spending money effectively.

This year’s election is no different, with 25 governor nominees and seven contenders for state superintendent arguing for increased funding for schools on campaign websites. Of the governor nominees, 20 are Democrats, who often advocate for increases to state per-pupil funds. Five of the seven superintendent nominees are Democrats as well.

While a handful of Republicans, five Democratic nominees, and two state superintendent nominees, argue for increased funding for public schools, the vast majority hope to evaluate school funding practices and redirect funds to support school choice initiatives.

Parents’ rights

After the pandemic drove an increased interest in how schools operate, parents have landed at the center of political campaign strategies.

Eleven Republican governor nominees and three Republican state superintendent nominees vow to protect parents’ rights in schools. For some of the candidates, including Idaho state superintendent nominee Debbie Critchfield and Minnesota gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen, that means establishing a “Parents Bill of Rights,” giving parents the power to review and express opinions on curriculum, learning materials, and books used in school.

While they aren’t going so far as to recommend parents’ rights policies, Democrats have placed some focus on building parent and family partnerships in schools and bridging political divides between teachers and families.

The focus on parental rights extends a theme that factored heavily in the election of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2021. The Republican used parental anger over schools’ handling of the pandemic to his advantage, stoking divisions between educators and parents, his opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, said at the time.

School safety

School safety and security has been a topic of intense concern in communities around the country, especially in the wake of the May 24 school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers. An Education Week review of campaign websites shows that 14 of the gubernatorial nominees and four state superintendent nominees mention increasing school safety. Ten of the 14 governor nominees are Republicans while three of the four superintendent nominees are Democrats.

Solutions for school safety issues tend to vary and aren’t often falling along political lines. For example, Richard Woods, the Republican incumbent nominee for state superintendent in Georgia, plans to increase the presence of school resource officers and mental health resources in schools, while also securing school buildings and providing more safety training to school officials. Woods’ opponent Alisha Searcy, a Democrat, also wants to provide resources to hire SROs, secure school facilities, and provide mental health and trauma support to students.

Sarah Hill, an education policy and political science expert with California State University, Fullerton, said she’s surprised that school safety hasn’t played a larger part in this election cycle.

“Nobody is against school safety, of course, everybody wants school safety, but there is a disagreement on how to achieve that and what it means,” Hill said. “I find it interesting that after Uvalde I’m not seeing more of that. It’s there a little bit, for sure, but I’m surprised it’s not a bigger issue.”

Teacher issues

While Republicans are focusing much of their campaign efforts on parents, Democrats are making teachers and their issues central in their campaigns.

Twenty-three nominees for governor and seven state superintendent nominees argue for raising teacher pay on their websites. Most of those —18 of them for governor and four for state superintendent candidates—are Democrats, who also widely support efforts to improve the teacher pipeline and address shortages in their communities.

Outside of raising teacher pay, some of the solutions Democrats and some Republicans have proposed include establishing statewide “grow your own” and apprenticeship programs, recruiting teachers from rural areas, and partnering with colleges and universities to create more robust teacher preparation programs.

Democrats have also expressed support for teacher unions, while Republicans hope to limit teachers’ union powers through legislation.

Student well-being

Student mental health, community schools, and social-emotional learning have all become popular solutions to education problems since the start of the pandemic.

Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed desires to improve student mental health. Sixteen governor nominees—11 Democrats and five Republicans—mention supporting mental health on their campaign websites. Six state superintendent candidates—including four Democrats, one Republican, and a nonpartisan candidate—expressed the same.

Democrats’ solutions for student well-being typically involve expanding the pipeline of mental health professionals, social workers, and school nurses. Meanwhile, Republicans aim to address mental health as a solution for school safety and school shooting prevention. Democrats have also advocated for programs that promote social-emotional learning, an effort to build skills such as resilience, compassion, and goal-setting for students. The term social-emotional learning has become caught up in anti-CRT controversy.

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