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It’s not just Trump: Education a big issue in 2018. ‘No candidate wants to be seen as stingy’

The battle to be the "education governor" isn't just playing out in Pennsylvania: Across the country, candidates are committing to steer more money into schools.

Arizona teachers camp out at the capitol in Phoenix during budget debate in the spring; Gov. Ducey agreed to give teachers a near 20 percent pay raise. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona teachers camp out at the capitol in Phoenix during budget debate in the spring; Gov. Ducey agreed to give teachers a near 20 percent pay raise. (AP Photo/Matt York)Read more(AP Photo/Matt York)

Hot-button issues like immigration and guns might be commanding more attention, but in Pennsylvania and around the country, education has become a major player in state elections.

From Arizona and Oklahoma to Florida and Maryland, candidates for governor across party lines have been committing to steer more money toward schools and, in a number of states, pledging to boost teacher paychecks — elevating a lower-profile issue into a campaign-trail talking point.

Gubernatorial campaigns always feature "sort of a litany of issues — create jobs, improve the state's economy, educate our kids. But this time, it really is more top of mind, and I think more pivotal in a number of races," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor who tracks governors' races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

School funding has been a prominent issue in deep-red states like Kansas and Oklahoma, where "there is a serious backlash against Republican governors who cut taxes" at the expense of education budgets, Duffy said.

While teacher unions have generally allied with Democrats, Republicans also have been voicing support for educators. In Arizona — among the states where teachers walked out earlier this year — Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has described himself as "on the side of the teacher," pointing to a budget he signed promising a nearly 20 percent pay increase over three years.

In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum proposes increasing corporate income taxes to raise $1 billion in revenue for public education, while conservative Republican Ron DeSantis says he will "boost classroom spending for students and teachers."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who warred with teachers over legislation that weakened unions, has branded himself the "pro-education governor" as he defends his seat against Democratic state school superintendent Tony Evers.

And in Pennsylvania, Scott Wagner, a Republican trying to unseat Democratic Gov. Wolf, has pledged to put an additional $1 billion into public education — even as he has contended schools "have enough" money. Meanwhile, Wolf, who boosted funding by nearly $2 billion — though most of that was used for pension costs — has emphasized his continued support for education.

Following the recession, "a lot of people have been waiting for money to go into education, and wondering why if the economy is doing well, public schools aren't doing as well," said Mike Griffith, a school finance consultant with the Education Commission of the States.

Teacher strikes in six states earlier this year have also drawn new attention to school funding. For advocates trying to engage voters, "you have to talk about things like that — not 'schools don't have enough money,' but 'we have 27 teaching openings that we can't fill,'" Griffith said.

A national Education Next survey this year found that 49 percent of respondents who were given information about teacher salaries in their state said pay should increase — up 13 points from last year. In the six strike states, 63 percent of respondents said pay should increase, compared with 47 percent elsewhere.

The only year in the survey's 12-year history when a higher percentage of respondents said teacher pay should increase was 2008, just before the financial crisis.

Of respondents supplied data on how much their school district spends per student, 47 percent said spending should increase — up 7 points from last year.

In a number of states, voters will decide on ballot measures to put more money into education. In Colorado, they will be asked to raise taxes on income over $150,000 and to raise the corporate income tax rate to increase K-12 funding. Maryland voters will decide whether to dedicate an increasing amount of gambling revenue to education; Missouri voters, to legalize medical marijuana and devote a portion of tax revenue to early childhood education; Oklahoma voters, to use property taxes to fund school operations and construction.

Also before voters in several states are proposed bond measures, including in New Jersey, where voters will decide whether to bond $500 million to expand county vocational technical schools and pay for school security upgrades.

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Making education a prime campaign issue isn't necessarily buoying candidates. In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is leading in polls despite Democratic challenger Ben Jealous' pledge to raise teacher pay nearly 30 percent and legalize and tax marijuana to pay for universal pre-kindergarten.

"There's outrage all over Oklahoma about the state of schools. There's not outrage all over Maryland," Duffy said. She said that while Baltimore schools are struggling, in the suburbs of Washington, "voters are pretty happy" with their schools. Hogan has been touting his education record, running ads promoting "record" funding for schools during his tenure.

While some Democrats — including in Arizona and Florida — are pitching tax increases to fund education, a number of Republican candidates are talking about directing money to classrooms. DeSantis, the Florida Republican, pledges to "boost" spending for students and teachers by requiring 80 percent of education funding to go to classrooms, though details of the plan aren't clear.

For Republicans, "especially in a state like Pennsylvania, a lot of this is trying to connect with blue-collar voters" who like their schools and teachers, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. But he questioned how much impact such appeals would have in a polarized election climate: "Usually, education gets the most traction when folks are playing for the middle."

School funding isn't the only education issue at play. In Ohio, the collapse of an online charter school has provided ammunition for Democrats trying to regain power from state Republicans, who have supported school choice policies.

"Elected officials at the state level have seen that education reform is very complicated politically," said Martin West, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "Some of these issues of test-based accountability, school choice — they are complex."

That may be part of the reason candidates are instead talking about funding schools, West said: "No candidate wants to be seen as stingy when it comes to K-12 education funding."