What Bellwether Is Watching Out For in Election 2020

That there’s a lot at stake in this election is obvious. And there is a lot at stake for schools even as they’ve been mostly an afterthought on the campaign trail. There are immediate questions about COVID-19 relief and, going forward, big questions for early education, higher education, assessment, accountability, and choice policies for K-12 schools. 

This is nothing new: Bellwether has an entire genre of blog posts about how little education gets talked about during presidential debates, vice presidential debates, State of the Union addresses, and other federal policy conversations. And while single-issue education voters may not be unicorns, they are pretty rare.  

At Bellwether we track the election and what it means for clients, and we pay attention to the context and conditions schools operate in. Our team is united by a shared mission of improving life and education outcomes for underserved students, but we differ about how best to do that — and, by extension, about politics. But like everyone, we are paying close attention this year.

Here’s some of what we are watching for:

Presidential race

  • How will the presidential race split across race, ethnicity, and educational attainment? Who wins matters most, but how they win matters a lot. Some polls suggest Donald Trump may perform better among Black and Hispanic voters, even as Democrats gain among white and older voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the first Democrat to win college-educated voters in 50 years. Joe Biden appears poised to extend those margins.
  • Once a winner is named, what can we expect for cabinet appointments at the Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees Head Start and child care funding), the Department of Agriculture (which oversees school food programs) and Department of the Interior (which oversees Bureau of Indian Education schools)?
  • As Andy writes over at Eduwonk: A Biden win might mean “investment and attention to non-academic facets of student’s lives, but also intense pressure on accountability and rough going for efforts to empower poor families with educational choice whether through charters or non-public options.”

State races

  • Heading into the 2020 elections, 36 states had “trifectas” — unified party control of the governor’s office and state legislative chambers. After state elections in 2017 and 2018, Republicans lost five state trifectas and seven divided government states became Democratic trifectas. Will Democrats continue to make gains at the state level in a year many see as a possible “blue wave”?
  • President Trump is creating headwinds for Michigan Republican Senate candidate John James who is challenging Democratic incumbent Gary Peters. The race has school choice implications. 

Ballot initiatives etc.

  • California’s Proposition 15 is not polling where referendums traditionally need to in order to pass, but the 2020 California electorate could be hard to predict. Proposition 15 would revise property tax rules affecting commercial and industrial land, with additional tax revenues (estimated to be $11.4 billion) benefitting schools and local governments. 
  • California’s Proposition 16 would restore affirmative action, affecting “hiring or school admissions in public employment, public education and public contracting.” Like Proposition 15, polling indicates a likely defeat, but in 2020, it’s important to wait until the votes are counted.
  • Arizona’s Proposition 208 would “provide more money to public schools through a 3.5% income tax surcharge on the state’s highest earners.” Despite vocal opposition by the Governor, the initiative is  polling strongly in a state with a marquee U.S. Senate race and a competitive race for the White House. It could raise $940 million for schools in its first year.
  • In Washington State, voters have a chance to weigh in on a recent state law requiring every public school in the state to offer comprehensive sexual education by the 2022-2023 school year. Passing Referendum 90 would allow that state law to take effect — a lightning rod issue. 
  • Colorado’s Proposition EE would send money to K-12 education and rural schools, among other priorities, by taxing e-cigarettes and other nicotine products and increasing existing taxes for cigarettes and tobacco.

Stay tuned for reactions and analysis as results roll in.