Although most education policy decisions are made at the state level, America has been having a national debate over the future of our schools for the last several years. Arguments have raged over Covid-related closures and the resultant student learning loss, Critical Race Theory, school funding, parental choice, college debt, and more.
The 2022 campaign and election cycle provided an opportunity to better understand whether these national issues and narratives match those at the state level. By studying the educational agendas of gubernatorial candidates, we can also see whether there were differences between incumbents and nonincumbents, Republicans and Democrats, and candidates in red, blue, and swing states. Perhaps most important, with the election now behind us, we can see what the winners had in common and thereby forecast the next several years of state-level education reform.
In 2022, 36 states had races for governor. Using campaign websites, I collected information on the education priorities of all 72 major-party candidates. Most sites had an “Issues,” “Agenda,” or “Policies” page that explained what the candidates hoped to do if elected. Based on those data, I created 27 issue categories; each category was supported by at least one candidate. These categories ranged from one supporter (limiting sex education and creating energy-efficient schools) to 30 supporters (expanding career-and-technical education [CTE] and increasing school funding).
For some issues—such as “improving student mental health”—every candidate who discussed the particular issue generally had the same types of reforms in mind. Although there might be nontrivial differences in different candidates’ plans (e.g., what types of services, who runs the programs, who funds the programs), they are all grouped in one category. For other issues—school choice, for example—candidates clearly adopt one of two approaches, so there are two categories (pro–school choice and anti–school choice).
Some categories were simple to create and name because all candidates discussing it used very similar language—for instance, “reducing class size” and “increasing teacher pay.” But in some cases, a group of candidates had the same general idea, but their proposals varied significantly. One example relates to community colleges: some want free community college for all, some want more state funding for community-college programs, and some want more community-college scholarships. Here, I created a single category: “expanding community college.” Similarly, responding to concerns about politicized classroom materials and instruction, some candidates advocated for a parents’ bill of rights, others proposed rules for curricular transparency, and others sought to explicitly limit critical race theory by name. Here, I created a single category called “curricular reform.” A full list of categories is in the [Appendix].
Six issues were supported by at least 25% of all candidates (Figure 1). Topping the list were expanding CTE and increasing school funding. Since the public generally supports more money for schools, the popularity among candidates for greater spending is not a surprise. Likewise, given the concerns about student debt, the value of four-year college degrees, and low labor-force participation, it makes sense that candidates are in favor of CTE.
Rounding out this list are pro–school choice positions, expanding pre-K (early childhood programs), raising teacher pay, and curricular reform. Perhaps the most surprising omission from this list, considering how much attention it garnered over the last year, is the supposed nationwide teacher shortage. This was seldom highlighted by gubernatorial candidates. Though many candidates mentioned a variety of ways to support teachers, such as increased pay and benefits, only three candidates discussed the teacher-shortage issue.
Most Popular Issues Among All Candidates
Democrats vs. Republicans
Democratic and Republican candidates differed significantly. Six issues were supported by at least eight Democratic candidates, with increasing funding, expanding pre-K, and expanding CTE at the top of the list (Figure 2a). Similarly, six issues were supported by at least eight Republican candidates, with pro–school choice, curricular reform, and expanding CTE at the top of the list (Figure 2b).
Most Popular Issues Among Democratic Candidates
Most Popular Issues Among Republican Candidates
Notable areas of overlap: expanding CTE was supported by 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans; increasing funding was a top-six issue for candidates in both parties. Other issues with cross-partisan support included supporting the state’s university system (seven Democrats and six Republicans) and addressing Covid learning loss (six Democrats and six Republicans).
More striking is the partisan difference on key issues (Figure 3). On some matters, support is strong among candidates of one party but negligible to nonexistent among candidates of the other party. Democratic gubernatorial nominees were far likelier than Republican nominees to support expanding pre-K and increasing teacher pay; not a single Republican mentioned expanded community college, which was among Democrats’ top issues. Even more stark is the lack of support among Democrats for school choice, curricular reform, and charter schools. Only one Democrat supported any of these (PA nominee Josh Shapiro supported school choice).
Several other issues had wide differences. No Republicans were anti–school choice, and none supported strengthening teachers’ unions / collective bargaining or reducing class sizes. These views were supported by six, four, and five Democrats, respectively. No Democrat was pro-homeschool or promised to protect women’s sports; four and three Republicans, respectively, did so.
Wide Differences in Partisan Support on Key Issues
Incumbents vs. Nonincumbents
In the 2022 election, 13 Democrats were running for governor as incumbents, and 23 were running as nonincumbents (as challengers or in an open race). On many key issues, the set of Democratic incumbents mirrored nonincumbents (Figure 4a). For example, 62% of incumbent Democrats supported more school funding, as did 61% of nonincumbents; 54% and 48% of incumbents and nonincumbents, respectively, advocated for expanded pre-K.
Key Similarities Among Democratic Incumbents and Nonincumbents
However, nonincumbent Democrats discussed several issues that no incumbent mentioned. Notably, 26% of nonincumbent Democrats articulated an anti–school choice position, 22% argued for less testing, and 17% supported strengthening teachers’ unions / collective bargaining (Figure 4b). Perhaps nonincumbents believed that taking these positions would help them win their Democratic primaries and secure the support of politically important teachers’ unions.
Key Differences Among Democratic Incumbents and Nonincumbents
Interestingly, there was less similarity among incumbents and nonincumbents among Republicans. Certainly, the two groups had similar support rates on some issues, such as reading instruction, expanding pre-K, supporting the state’s public university system, and addressing Covid learning losses (Figure 5a). But in these instances, neither group overwhelmingly prioritized these issues.
Key Similarities Among Republican Incumbents and Nonincumbents
On several issues, Republican incumbents were significantly likelier to express support than Republican nonincumbents (Figure 5b). Interestingly, on two issues generally associated with the political Left—lifting overall K–12 funding levels and teacher pay—the support level among Republican incumbents was closer to Democratic candidates than Republican nonincumbents.
Issues with Significantly Higher Support Among Republican Incumbents than Nonincumbents
Most notably, on some of the most prominent issues of the day, Republican nonincumbents were much likelier to express support than Republican incumbents (Figure 5c). For instance, Republican nonincumbents were overwhelmingly likely to express support for school choice and curricular reforms. Not a single Republican incumbent expressed support for charters, but 38% of Republican nonincumbents did. Perhaps incumbents, generally not needing to worry about a difficult primary race, were more focused on potential general-election issues, whereas nonincumbents (needing to win a primary) were more focused on earning the support of base voters.
Issues with Significantly Higher Support Among Republican Nonincumbents than Incumbents
Red States, Blue States, and Swing States
To understand whether candidates’ views differed based on the political leanings of the populations they hoped to lead, I compared those running in red states, swing states, and blue states. Red states were those where President Biden received less than 47% of the popular vote in 2020; swing states were those where Biden received 47%–53% of the 2020 popular vote; in blue states, Biden received more than 53%. There were 14 red states, 9 swing states, and 13 blue states.
Differing Levels of Support Among Democrats in Blue, Swing, and Red States
Democratic nominees were similar across the three types of states (Figure 6). The most notable differences were between blue-state and swing-state Democrats. Those in states that President Biden won comfortably supported the more traditional, higher-dollar initiatives, such as expanding pre-K and community college and raising K–12 funding levels and teacher pay. Swing-state Democrats also supported more spending, but they were more likely to prioritize two practical issues highly relevant in the wake of Covid: addressing students’ mental health and academic losses. But the most striking difference relates to postsecondary education. Whereas blue-state Democrats were much more likely to discuss investments in their states’ community colleges and university systems, swing-state Democrats were much more likely to discuss CTE.
Among Republican candidates, we see a clear split between those in red states and those in blue and swing states (Figure 7). On some issues, such as expanding CTE and increasing teacher pay, the three GOP groups were similar (strong support on the former, weak on the latter). But on several of the highest-profile issues, red-state Republican candidates were less likely to publicly advocate for the position generally associated with Republicans today.
Differing Levels of Support Among Republicans in Blue, Swing, and Red States
For example, though Republican nominees were highly likely in blue and swing states to support curricular reforms (e.g., parents’ bills of rights and anti-CRT measures), only one in five Republican nominees in red states advocates for such policies. Similarly, blue- and swing-state GOP nominees were considerably more likely to support school choice. One of the most striking findings relates to charters: more than half of blue-state GOP nominees articulated a pro-charter position, but not a single red-state GOP nominee did so. Interestingly, red-state GOP nominees were four times more likely to advocate for more K–12 funding than blue-state GOP nominees.
How is this possible? Perhaps instruction in school districts in blue states had alarmed GOP candidates while instruction in red-state districts had not. As a result, GOP nominees in blue states could have felt the need to advocate for state-level curricular reforms while GOP nominees in red states could have felt less need to do so. A related hypothesis is that Republicans in red states believe that their states have already successfully addressed this issue, so campaigning on it was unnecessary. Legislation related to parents’ rights, critical race theory, curricular transparency, and similar matters had passed in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. In many of these states (AL, ID, IA, NV, NH, OK, SC, TN, TX, WY), the Republican candidates did not mention these issues; but in some states (AZ, FL, GA), Republican candidates did. In the other states, there was no race for governor in 2022 (KY, MS, MT, ND, UT, VA).
Similarly, perhaps red-state GOP candidates approve of the behavior and performance of their public schools, meaning that they feel little need to advocate school-choice and charter reforms, while blue-state GOP nominees’ frustration with public schools caused them to support more educational alternatives. Indeed, for a host of reasons related to history, geography, and funding, many of the states that have no charter school law or no school choice program are red politically (e.g., AK, ID, MO, MT, NE, ND, SD, TX, WY).
Of those candidates who won, the top issue was more K–12 funding, followed closely by expanding pre-K and expanding CTE (Figure 8). One in four winners also supported increasing teacher pay and expanding school choice.
Top Issue Among Winners
These figures mask an important result from the 2022 gubernatorial elections. In the 14 red states, 13 Republicans won (the only Democratic winner was Kansas incumbent Laura Kelly). In the 13 blue states, 12 Democrats won (the only Republican winner was Vermont incumbent Phil Scott). In the nine swing states, results were split: five Democrats and four Republicans won.
This becomes important because, as demonstrated above, Democrats running in blue states differed from Democrats running in swing and red states, and Republicans running in red states differed from Republicans running in swing and blue states. It is true that 18 Republicans won and 18 Democrats won; but for the purposes of this study, it’s highly relevant that 13 red-state Republicans and 12 blue-state Democrats won.
As shown in Figure 9, there is one key similarity among winners across the three different types of states. Increasing K–12 funding is a top-five issue among winners in blue, swing, and red states. But that’s where the commonality ends; no other issue was in the top five of all three types of states.
In blue states, winners supported high-dollar issues typically associated with the political Left—not just higher overall spending but also growing pre-K programs, lifting teacher pay, and expanding community college.
One interesting finding is that among winners in both red and swing states, the top three issues were the same: more K–12 funding, expanding CTE, and pro–school choice. Notably, in blue states, winners prioritized higher education (community college and university systems); in swing and red states, winners prioritized expanding CTE.
Top Issues Among Winners in Different States
Several issues were prominent among candidates or in the national conversation but did not end up among winners’ top priorities (Figure 10).
Prominent Issues Not Widely Advocated Among Winners
Curricular reform was a top issue among blue- and swing-state Republican candidates, but few of those candidates won. Remarkably, eight Republican candidates advocated for charters (seven in blue states and one in a swing state). All those candidates lost. To put a fine point on this: given that no Democrat supported charters, zero of the 36 incoming governors articulated pro-charter positions.
Though Covid learning loss has been a major national story, only 12 candidates openly discussed it, and only five of those candidates won. Similarly, the teacher-shortage problem got minimal attention among candidates, and it was discussed by only one winner. Only six Democratic candidates articulated anti–school choice positions, and only two of those won (both in very blue states).
Conclusion: The State of the States
With three simple pieces of information, the 2022 gubernatorial elections make a great deal of sense. Candidates’ party affiliations, their states’ political preferences, and whether they were incumbents or not help explain which education issues were prioritized.
When we look at all 72 major-party candidates, a mélange of issues rose to the top. Six seemingly unrelated positions were embraced by 25%–50% of candidates. But once we separate candidates by party, the picture becomes clearer. Higher K–12 spending and enhanced CTE were top issues for Democrats and Republicans alike. But Democratic candidates prioritized a set of issues—increasing teacher pay, growing pre-K programs, and expanding community college—generally associated with the political Left. Republican candidates prioritized school choice and curricular reforms.
But were there differences among Democrats and among Republicans? Yes. Nonincumbent Democrats were likelier to express support for less mainstream issues—for example, strengthening teachers’ unions / collective bargaining and opposition to school choice. On the Republican side, incumbents—compared with nonincumbents—were likelier to support issues generally associated with Democrats, such as increased K–12 spending and teacher pay. Republican nonincumbents were likelier than incumbents to express support for curricular reforms, school choice, and charter schools.
Republican candidates’ and Democratic candidates’ positions also varied, based on the partisan leanings of their states. Swing-state Democrats were likelier to voice support for two practical issues related to the fallout from Covid: improving student mental health and addressing learning loss. Even more interestingly, whereas blue-state Democrats prioritized investments in their states’ community colleges and university systems, swing-state Democrats were much more likely to discuss CTE.
Among Republican candidates, those in blue and swing states were likelier to express positions that suggested deep frustration with public education. Blue-state and swing-state Republicans were likelier to support curricular reforms, school choice, and charter schools. Red-state Republicans, on the other hand—possibly because they were more supportive of their public schools—were four times likelier than blue-state Republicans to advocate for more K–12 funding.
The final piece of the puzzle is the non-wave results in November. Neither side did unusually well. Republicans won almost all elections in red states, and most of these winners were incumbents. Democrats won almost all elections in blue states, and most of these winners were incumbents. Republicans and Democrats split the swing states, but most of the winners were—again—incumbents. As a result, the incoming set of governors reflect the views of red-state incumbent Republicans and blue-state incumbent Democrats. Across all states, winners embraced more K–12 funding. But in blue states, the incoming governors supported traditionally Democratic positions on teacher pay, pre-K, and community colleges. In swing states and red states, school choice and expanded CTE were the top issues among winners.
- Addressing Covid learning loss
- Addressing teacher shortage
- Anti-closure and anti-masks
- Anti-school choice
- Curricular reform
- Energy-efficient schools
- Expanding community college
- Expanding CTE
- Expanding pre-K
- Improving mental health
- Limiting sex ed
- Local control of K–12
- More K–12 funding
- Pro-school choice
- Protecting women’s sports
- Raising teacher pay
- Reading instruction
- Reducing class size
- Reducing testing
- School safety
- School-supply tax holiday
- Strengthening unions/collective bargaining
- Supporting state university system
- Reforming teacher training
Photo by Vyacheslav Petelin/iStock