Your editor hasn’t spent any time so far on what yesterday’s Election Day results mean for federal education policy. That piece will come later. Right now, however, here are a few other points about state-level races that should be considered.

wpid-threethoughslogoAs I noted earlier today, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers suffered near-total defeat at nearly all levels of politics. Certainly this is a matter that AFT President Randi Weingarten attempts to dance around in her latest press release; after all, she would engage in her typical class warfare rhetoric and complain about the losses all about the unwillingness of voters to consider “everyday concerns”. But given the defeats the two unions have experienced in gubernatorial races, state board seats, school board elections, and even legislative races, Weingarten’s rhetoric is just plain laughable. [Her colleague at NEA, Lily Eskelsen Garcia was more honest, admitting that it was “sad” that “so many friends” of the unions lost their seats.]

This can be seen in Louisiana, where an effort by the AFT and its Jefferson Parish local to win control of the traditional district’s school board fell apart. Despite spending $446,000 in political action committee spending campaign itself (as well as pouring another $40,542 from the main coffers into an organizing project there), the AFT only captured one of the four new seats it sought on the nine-member board,while losing another. [There will be runoff elections for two other seats,both of which will likely result in losses for the union.] All the money the AFT has sunk into Louisiana in the past couple of years is resulting in nothing but defeat.

This is also clear in New York State where the AFT’s losses extend beyond Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s re-election in spite of their snub of his candidacy earlier this year. In Albany, Republicans regain sole control of the senate after four years of sharing control of the body with a small group of dissident Democrats egged on in part by Cuomo. For the AFT, which has poured plenty (including contributions from its New York State Public Employees Federation affiliate) into backing the Democratic bid to take control of the Empire State upper house, this is a tremendous loss.

Senate Republicans will give Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King freer hands in advancing their reform efforts; this is something that the governor (who helped orchestrate the senate’s governing coalition two years ago) appreciates because he knows his fellow Democrats are often unreliable on education policy. Senate Republicans will also have long memories of how the AFT tried to wrest power from them. Expect the senate to pass at least one school choice measure, most-likely the voucher-like tax credit plan that Cuomo has publicly endorsed, as well as give King leeway to shut down failing districts. Certainly both measures may not make it past the state assembly and Speaker Sheldon Silver (who is in the AFT’s pocket). But given the political weakness of the AFT’s affiliates — and the demonstrated inability of them to launch effective reprisals against wayward politicians — Silver may actually be willing to go along with modest versions of both.

But the AFT isn’t the only one who lost big in the Empire State. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also took it on the chin. Several of the Democrats he backed for the state senate lost their bids. As a result, de Blasio will also face a hostile state senate willing to back Gov. Cuomo’s efforts to beat back the first-term mayor’s efforts to roll back predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s overhaul of the Big Apple’s traditional district. Cuomo, in particular, will be more than happy to remind de Blasio that he is the most-influential politician in the Empire State the same way his father, Mario, put then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch back in his place four decades ago.

What should be clear for the NEA and AFT (as well as for de Blasio) after last night is that their embrace of policies that damage children, as well as their defense of quality-blind practices that do little for high-quality teachers and help laggards instead won’t lead to political victories. Most of the few wins the unions managed to gain — most-notably in Pennsylvania (where Democrat Tom Wolf beat incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett) — resulted either from the inability of their opponents to mount effective campaigns or from their timid leadership while in office. So long as the two unions continue to hold on to traditionalist thinking and old-school industrial union models, their influence and relevance will remain in free-fall.

Across the country in California, the NEA and AFT did a tad better. Incumbent Supt. Tom Torlakson, who was backed by the two unions to the tune of $5.2 million in direct donations (as well as millions more in independent spending) beat reformer Marshall Tuck. But it wasn’t by much. Torlakson won by a mere 181,489 votes, or a margin three-quarters smaller than the 746,828-vote lead he had over Larry Aceves four years ago. For the two unions, along with their fellow traditionalists, Torlakson’s victory can be best-considered a defensive win. A pliant ally remains in office and in control of the education agency at the heart of the Golden State’s balkanized educational governance structure, while also avoiding a high-profile win that would be nearly as big for reformers as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election victory last night.

As for reformers? There is plenty of good news from Tuck’s defeat. For one, the small margin of Torlakson’s victory shows that there are plenty of Californians ready to embrace systemic reform. The state superior court’s ruling last June in Vergara v. California, along with the outcry over the state legislature’s unwillingness over the past two years to pass legislation that would make it easier for districts to remove criminally-abusive teachers from classrooms, has galvanized many families. This is especially true for black and Latino families who attend the Golden State’s failure mills and have benefited the most from the few systemic reform efforts that have been undertaken in the state. The fact that reformers showed up with cash to fund Tuck’s campaign is also important; they are realizing that favored candidates need money to have a chance to back traditionalist opponents backed by NEA and AFT coffers. That reformers such as Ben Austin of Parent Revolution and former Los Angeles Unified board president Caprice Young stepped up and campaigned for Tuck is also heartening.

Yet because school reformers, especially in Los Angeles, have spent so little time courting and building up grassroots support, Tuck didn’t have enough votes to overcome Torlakson’s natural advantage as the incumbent. You can’t expect to win when you only reach out to your allies during election cycles. The misplaced hostility among Beltway reformers outside of the Golden State, as well as wonks within it to Vergara suits and Parent Trigger laws have also alienated the movement from the very families and activists who rightfully recognize both as key tools for helping families become lead decision-makers in education policymaking.

Yet as I mentioned, there is plenty of opportunities for reformers to turn Tuck’s defeat into long-term success. This starts by building stronger support among the grassroots, especially with the single-parent households and immigrant families from Latino and Asian communities. This means adopting the approach of listening and engaging intently and deliberately with communities that Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr (now the chairman of Democrats for Education Reform’s Golden State branch) used successfully in the last decade. At the same time, it also means embracing the tactics of Vergara and Parent Trigger efforts to build allies on the ground; you can’t claim to be for poor and minority kids if you are opposed to the very tools that empower their families. This has to be done every day starting now, in an open-ended way; helping out communities with critical needs builds goodwill that is useful at the ballot box.

These tactics, along with embracing traditional political mobilization approaches such as voter registration drives, wouldn’t just be helpful to California’s school reformers. One of the biggest problems of the movement on a national level is that its leading lights have been so focused on winning over statehouses and political leaders that they struggle when faced with traditionalists with greater presence on the ground. As seen yesterday, the advantage traditionalists have doesn’t always show up at the ballot box. But as seen earlier this year in Newark N.J. (where school principal-turned city councilman Ras Baraka beat out Shavar Jeffries for mayor, and became for Supt. Cami Anderson, a well-deserved thorn in her side), reformers can end up on the losing end of political battles. This lack of political savvy (along with an overemphasis on being the smartest in the room instead of the savviest in politics) is one of the reasons why Common Core supporters have been on their heels for most of the past two years.

The benefits of strong grassroots ties can be seen in Minneapolis, where Don Samuels, a former Twin Cities councilman, won a seat on the traditional district’s board. Certainly Samuels was helped out by funding from reformers; this includes $228,000 raised by the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund, which spent plenty backing Samuels and his teammate, American Indian education activist Iris Altamirano. But Samuels, a Jamaican émigré who came into politics after a varied career that including gospel singing and running a toy design studio, also had strong community ties at his disposal. The onetime mayoral candidate has spent years volunteering with community organizations working on children’s issues, and has won both controversy and acclaim for speaking truth to influence, especially to fellow blacks in the city. So Samuels had a leg up on the traditionalist competition when announced his run for the district board this summer.

There are plenty of lessons from last night for reformers to heed. Embracing the grassroots, as well as addressing the concerns of poor and minority communities who are damaged the most by the nation’s education crisis, are two of them.

*Editor’s Note: Updated to note the role of reformers in backing Tuck’s campaign, as well as the Jefferson County school board results.