Saturday, November 5, 2016

Schoolhouse Rock the Vote: 2016 Superintendent Race Ratings

Depending on Springfield's system of government, before Gary Chalmers could become superintendent, he might have had to be elected to it. On the state level, superintendents of public instruction are placed in charge of our most precious resource: sloppy joes. Oh, and children, I guess. State superintendents are responsible for the day-to-day management of the entire state school system—often a billion-dollar enterprise—and make highly sensitive policy decisions on things like curriculum that hit close to home for many families. Superintendent elections have been some of the most contentious and downright unbelievable campaigns of the past few cycles, and yet they still get a disproportionately low amount of voters' attention. They are the battlefield where the controversy over Common Core plays out; they become bloated with campaign cash from special interests just looking for one inch of progress in the long-running trench warfare over charter schools. In Indiana, the superintendent's office has been a tense place to work in the last four years, as its occupant and Governor Mike Pence played tug-of-war with the fate of Hoosier education. In this year's election, control over North Dakota schools will go either to a candidate who had complimentary words for Adolf Hitler or an incumbent who has had multiple brushes with the law.

Superintendents of public instruction are elected in 13 states. Six of the elected superintendents are Republicans, and three are Democrats; four are nonpartisan, because apparently more states think it's important that education not be a political issue than who runs our elections, but we'll leave that aside for now. In a remarkable display of the presidential vs. midterm divide, all three Democrats were elected in 2012 and are up again this year; all six Republicans were elected in 2014, so none are on the ballot in 2016. Two of the nonpartisan offices are up in 2016 as well. With most of this year's races competitive, it's entirely possible that Democrats will exit 2016 with control of no state superintendent offices in the entire country. With the election only days away, we'll know the results sooner than you can say, "SKIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNNERRRRRRRRRR!"

Below are my race ratings for superintendent of public instruction; more in-depth explainers can be found after the jump. To check out all the downballot race ratings I've released so far, click on the 2016 Ratings tab.


  • Indiana: Tossup. Glenda Ritz sent Democrats into delirium in 2012 when she unexpectedly toppled Republican Tony Bennett (the superintendent, not the singer), who had earned the enmity of many during his term for shady use of public resources, his closeness to his wife's charter-school company, and manipulating the state's A–F grading system for public-school performance to benefit a political donor. During her term as Indiana's only Democrat in the executive branch, instead of building up her bipartisan bona fides, she clashed with Governor Mike Pence (to be fair, he attempted to strip her office of some of its powers) and even briefly intended to run against him for governor in 2016. Instead, she will run for reelection against less flawed Republican competition than she encountered in 2012: Yorktown, IN, superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Like many superintendent elections, this one has become a battle between teachers' unions, who support Ritz, and education reformers, who have donated thousands to McCormick. Indeed, the very donor Bennett was accused of favoring is in McCormick's corner, and Ritz has found success continuing to use Bennett as a bogeyman. Although Ritz has outspent McCormick, each candidate has roughly the same depth of resources, and it's one of the few constitutional-office elections where both candidates are up on TV.
  • Montana: Tossup. Montanans have long entrusted their public schools to Democratic control—it hasn't been since 1984 that a Republican has won the post—but with incumbent Democrat Denise Juneau waging a long-shot bid for Congress, the job is wide open here in 2016. Both Democrat Melissa Romano and Republican Elsie Arntzen (also a state senator) are teachers, though only Romano has the support of the Montana Education Association–Montana Federation of Teachers, which has even gone up on TV on Romano's behalf. The union's total $300,000 in independent expenditures has helped make this the most expensive superintendent's race in Montana history. Both campaigns are also advertising on broadcast, and Romano has outspent Arntzen $247,000 to $123,000. However, Arntzen still clung to a 42%-to-38% lead in the race's only poll.
  • North Carolina: Leans Democratic. Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson appears to have found a niche. In 2012, she won her third straight election for the office, by a close but comfortable eight points, even as Mitt Romney was carrying North Carolina in the presidential. Atkinson will likely have even more of a buffer this year, with North Carolina competitive on the presidential level, so she only needs to run a couple points ahead of the top of the ticket. However, her Republican opponent, Forsyth County Education Commissioner Mark Johnson, is no Some Dude and has kept it competitive with healthy fundraising totals.
  • North Dakota: Not included in the chart above, North Dakota's superintendent of public instruction is technically a nonpartisan position, although both candidates identify as Republicans. Incumbent Kirsten Baesler is challenged by teacher Joe Chiang, who himself is, er, challenged. Chiang went to jail for embezzlement 30 years ago, a charge that he calls "ancient history." More recent, however, was the August 2015 Facebook post in which he said God answered prayers to heal "a sickly Austrian boy"... who turned out to be Adolf Hitler. "As a result millions of Jews died, punished for their disobedience to God." Amazingly, when the North Dakota Republican Party voted on whom to endorse in the race, Chiang still almost won, with 46% of delegates to Baesler's 54%. Baesler is no angel either; she pled guilty to shoplifting in 1997, and just last year she was arrested for allegedly assaulting her then-fiancĂ©. (The charges were soon dismissed.) Despite this, Baesler should be safe in her quest for reelection; Chiang has less than $4,000 in campaign funds, and the incumbent dominated the June top-two primary, winning almost three times as many votes as Chiang.
  • Washington: Unlike elsewhere, in Washington it doesn't take a nonpartisan position to pit two members of the same party against each other—but the Evergreen State's superintendent of public instruction is nonpartisan anyway. Democratic State Representative Chris Reykdal and Assistant State Superintendent Erin Jones, who is also a registered Democrat, square off for this open seat. Both profess to be progressives, and they even come down on the same side of the big issue in education these days: charter schools. Both say they oppose them, but pro-charter forces such as Stand for Children have chosen sides by donating generously to Jones, and the Washington Education Association is in Reykdal's corner. With little else to distinguish them in this blue state, however, polls have shown massive numbers of undecideds (the race went from a 16–16% tie in August to 18–17% in October). That's kind of concerning, considering the Washington Supreme Court recently ruled that Washington public schools are receiving an unconstitutionally low amount of funding, and the deadline to act falls in 2018—smack-dab in the middle of the new superintendent's term. Maybe that's why almost $300,000 in independent expenditures have been invested in the race. This is pretty much the definition of a tossup: totally unpredictable.

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