Teachers unions took a drubbing on Tuesday after spending more than $100 million to try to elect their allies and steamroll education reformers. Like good Democratic team members, now the unions are blaming President Obama for their sweeping losses while taking credit for their few slim, hard-fought wins.
“The Republicans successfully made it a referendum on the president,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said on Wednesday, by way of explaining the union’s thumping. “In the few places where you had issues like education and you had a good candidate who could get through the torrent of negative ads, we were able to win.”
Kudos to Ms. Weingarten for her optimism and ironic humor in the wake of defeat. Reformers like Republican Govs. Rick Snyder in Michigan, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Nathan Deal in Georgia and Sam Brownback in Kansas did cut through a torrent of negative union ads and prevailed.
Teachers unions this election provided an object lesson in how to lie with statistics by lambasting school reformers across the country for “cutting” education spending. According to one ad, Mr. Brownback signed the “largest single cut to education in Kansas history.” Florida Gov. Rick Scott stood accused of taking a $1.3 billion sledgehammer to schools, and Mr. Snyder of slashing $1 billion from education.
Yet in Kansas, total per pupil spending has increased to $12,960 from $12,283 since Mr. Brownback was elected in 2010, despite a $412 per pupil decline in federal aid. Mr. Snyder has increased education spending by $660 per student over his four-year tenure, while Mr. Scott has increased annual state funding for schools by 20%—nearly $2 billion—over the past four years.
The teachers unions also whacked Mr. Scott for expanding private-school scholarships for low-income kids, eliminating tenure, and linking pay to performance for new teachers. “Florida’s private-school voucher programs are a risky experiment that gambles taxpayers’ money and children’s lives,” Florida Education Association vice president Joanne McCall warned in a local newspaper op-ed. “Voucher schools are largely unregulated.”
So far as we know, there have been no reports in Florida of death-by-voucher. In fact, scholarship recipients in Florida have posted academic gains equal to their public-school counterparts despite coming from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Mr. Scott’s challenger, Democrat Charlie Crist , in a previous life as the state’s Republican governor vigorously promoted vouchers; he quietly walked back his support during the campaign.
Scott Walker also got whipsawed for expanding vouchers and reforming public-worker collective bargaining, which Wisconsin Education Association Council President Betsy Kippers claimed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was really “aimed at tearing down the strongest advocates for public education: teachers.” Meantime, the union chief groused that the governor was “slipping tens of millions of dollars to those bent on privatizing education, along with handouts to businesses and the wealthy.”
Last year, thousands of teachers stormed the barricades in Raleigh, N.C., to protest legislation that Thom Tillis had quarterbacked in the state House reforming tenure and creating a modest voucher program. Sen. Kay Hagan —whom he unseated on Tuesday—this fall also ran ads charging Mr. Tillis with phantom education cuts: “The fact is: Thom Tillis hurts North Carolina students.” Voters clearly didn’t agree.
Unions unsuccessfully sought to erect a firewall in Illinois, where Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn faced a formidable challenge from Bruce Rauner, a Republican businessman. Mr. Rauner has personally financed some of Chicago’s highest-performing charter schools and campaigned to reform teacher tenure, lift the cap on charters and introduce private-school scholarships for poor children.
“We’ve got a system rigged to protect the bureaucracy of the school system rather than set up to advance the agenda of kids and their parents,” Mr. Rauner declared last month. The Republican governor-elect can now claim a school-reform mandate, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has won an ally in Springfield in his brawl with the teachers union.
Unions also got clobbered in statehouse elections and, in some cases, on Democratic turf. A pro-charter group defenestrated three Democratic state senators in New York, giving Republicans control of the upper chamber. School reformers warned that re-electing the Democratic senators would give Bill de Blasio , New York City’s progressive mayor, and his union cronies hegemony over Albany.
The American Federation for Children, which supports private-school scholarships, elected all 13 of its legislative candidates in Alabama despite being outspent by the state teachers union 27-to-1. In Tennessee, the pro-school-choice outfit toppled Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a teachers-union favorite.
A rare silver lining for the unions was California State Superintendent Tom Torlakson ’s slender victory over school reformer Marshall Tuck, a fellow Democrat and former head of the nonprofit Los Angeles-based Green Dot charter schools. Mr. Tuck, who was backed by other Democratic school reformers, including San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson , was blasted by teachers-union ads as a creature of Wall Street who would turn “our schools over to for-profit corporations motivated by money” and “those who profit from high-stakes testing would take the joy out of learning.”
Perhaps no candidate for political office in California has posed a greater threat to the teachers unions than Mr. Tuck, an articulate, congenial and unassuming Democrat who ripped wide open the crack in the party over school reform.
The California State Democratic Party, progressive groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, in addition to nearly every Democratic legislator and statewide officer—save one—backed Mr. Torlakson. A profile in courage, Gov. Jerry Brown refused to weigh in on the contest. Had the governor endorsed Mr. Tuck, there is little doubt that the reformer would have won and realigned the tectonic plates in Sacramento, hardening the backbone of Democrats who are afraid to buck the unions.
Yet Mr. Tuck can claim a moral victory, since he prevailed in most low- and middle-income communities in the state, including San Bernardino, Riverside and Fresno counties, and led in polls among minority groups. Mr. Torlakson won by racking up large margins in the Bay Area and other tony coastal areas—with voters unlikely to be sending their children to the schools in urgent need of help.
On the whole, teachers unions got crushed in the midterms, and their biggest victory—the defeat of Marshall Tuck—was decidedly hollow.
Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.