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What Do Elections Really Tell Us?

By Larry Grau, DFER Indiana State Director

On the heels of Election Day, I’ve read countless articles and heard many people’s opinions on what the results of various races and initiatives mean for our country. And, much like the final outcomes of elections across the country, these reflections have been a mixed bag.

Winners tend to feel their stances are unequivocally validated. Conversely, those on the losing end contend the results point toward candidate favoritism, or only reflect public opinion on a very specific issue. I contend there is an inherent danger in both vantage points. The results across my home state, for example, illustrate outcomes that are much less simplistic.

Over the last couple of years, IN turned into a hotbed for reform organizations, supporters, and the education media. During this time, the Hoosier state has seen almost every form of education reform one could. The state instituted a new teacher evaluation system, we ended LIFO, expanded charter schools, and established a statewide voucher program. As an ed reformer, I view many of these changes as a positive development in our state. To those who oppose reforms, most of these changes have been portrayed as an attack on our public education system. And, the difference in opinion between these groups has created a situation in which emotions have run extremely hot.

State Superintendent, Tony Bennett, became the face of education reform in Indiana. As a vocal, highly visible reform leader, he approached his agenda in a take-no-prisoners manner, making him the ideal target for anti-reformers. To this group’s “credit,” nearly every organization with an axe to grind (the teachers unions, school board, superintendent, and principal associations, etc.) rallied together against Bennett. It is therefore easy to interpret Bennett’s defeat as a rejection of education reform policies. But when you look at other election results, and consider the entire set of outcomes, you see a very different picture.

For a second consecutive election, voters in Indianapolis overwhelmingly elected reform-minded members to the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) School Board. DFER IN was actively involved in those elections and we are proud to have the three candidates we supported - Caitlin Hannon, Gayle Cosby, and Diane Arnold - not just win, but do so by some of the widest margins of victory of any race on the ballot, as the results below indicate:

These three reform-minded candidates will join three others who have expressed support for reform on the seven-member board to form a majority. This will now allow the board to enact decisive policies with the potential to drive tremendous improvement in a school district where more than half of the students either dropout or fail to graduate with a regular diploma.

If our state’s elections were some sort of referendum on education reform, it’s clear from these results that the voters in Indianapolis didn’t get that memo. Nor did those across the state who voted for nearly all of the legislators who cast votes to approve the reforms in the first place. Nor did the voters across the country, who re-elected the “Reformer-in-Chief,” President Obama, and 22 out of 30 DFER “Hot List” candidates. At the end of the day, voters in Indiana and many other states put more individuals who support reform in office than candidates who oppose reform. If you viewed this election as some sort of referendum on reform, then you have to conclude the reform side won, while a few reformers, such as Tony Bennett did not.

Otherwise, what did the election outcomes tell us? For one, when you run a well-organized, unified campaign that effectively paints the opposition in a negative light, you can win. However, the interpretation that these selective wins are some sort of wholesale rejection of ground-breaking education policies is not supported by the facts when one looks at the entire picture. Instead, the results seem to indicate that by and large, voters want electeds casting votes for policies to support reform, especially on the IPS School Board. This is what made the students of IPS and the Indianapolis community the real winners on November 6th.

Larry joined the DFER team at the end of 2010. He has over twenty years of experience in research, policy development and analysis, and evaluation, primarily in the areas of education and youth development. He was formerly the chief education policy advisor to Governor Frank O'Bannon, and served as the Education Finance Analyst for the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee prior to that. Read more about Larry here.