By: Paul Bentz
Education has consistently been the top issue facing the State of Arizona since 2014 and survey after survey shows that vast majorities of voters think schools are underfunded and teachers are underpaid. Clearly, this issue is coming to a head across the country and here in Arizona. Education advocates have caught lightning in a bottle starting with the successful referral of the voucher expansion last year and continuing with the ongoing demonstrations at the Arizona State Capitol this year. They have proven success at reacting to the problems and mobilizing. The challenge now is transitioning from reacting to problems to leading the discussion on solutions.
As a product of public schools and with my children in public school now, I am a strong believer in public education and want it to succeed. Over the past few years, I have worked on a wide variety of education issues from Proposition 100 to a significant number of local school bonds and overrides. Along the way, I have learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t. The school supporters that we have consulted with have come to realize that they have to work much harder to pass their issues and utilize more sophisticated messaging that focuses on leading instead of reacting.
As I am watching the parade of protestors and posters at the #RedforEd march, I am growing concerned that the lessons we have learned from the education campaigns are not translating to the latest demonstrations. I very much support their effort, but I am concerned that they are hurting – not helping – their chances with the very audiences they need to convince.
The reality is that November 2018 is a Gubernatorial Cycle with significantly lower turnout than a Presidential Election. We know who is definitely going to vote in this election – Republicans will continue to have a double-digit participation advantage and more than half of the electorate will be over the age of 50. The environment may lead some additional audiences to participate, but the fact of the matter is, when the President is not on the ballot, turnout will be much lower.
So, with that in mind, I thought I would take a minute to offer up some grades for some of the protest messages and share some thoughts:
Grade A: “Keep Arizona Businesses Here”
“Keep Arizona Businesses Here” is a powerful message that directly translates the importance of education for our long-term growth and economic success. If we think we have a chance to attract companies like Amazon or Apple, we must have strong schools. In our survey research, this is a universally supported message across all partisan and age groups. It is a homerun and should be repeated as often as possible.
Grade B: “Strong Schools Strong State”
While advocates typically want to talk about education in its pure academic form, there are other ways to change the discussion while still directly relating to education. Case in point, our quality of life as a community is directly related to our ability to educate our children. Public safety, property values, and crime can all be linked to education. “Strong Schools Strong State” speaks to that notion.
Grade C: “Students are our Future. Invest!”
So close. If this sign had said, “Students are our future workforce,” it would have received an A grade. In a lot of electoral environments, we have found that “Do it for the children” has finally run its course as a reason for supporting education. Ultimately, our future ability to attract jobs and economic opportunities depends on our ability to provide a trained workforce for companies to hire and our ability offer quality education to the employees of companies who choose to locate here. Voters strongly believe that we need more highly-skilled and trained workers and we need them now.
Grade D: “I don’t want to strike”
If the debate continues on the same path that it is on now, we will be stuck in the same spot with advocates demonizing elected officials and their high efficacy constituencies and our leaders continuing to lay the blame on the specter of bloated bureaucracies and faceless administrators who refuse to put money into the classroom. The only chance for success lies in the ability to change the conversation and find ways to appeal to a broader coalition of support. I can assure you, there are a lot of Republicans who care about education. The same can be said about seniors, conservatives, and many other subgroups. However, in my experience, they do not react well to threats. Public opinion is on your side, but that may change if an extended strike were to take place.
Grade F: “Better have my money”
I get that its an attempt at humor, but this is NOT helpful. I’m sure it received a lot of high fives at the rally, but everyone must realize they aren’t preaching to the choir. They must also appeal to elected officials and their high efficacy constituencies who have different priorities. In fact, it’s critically important to remember that more than 70% of the electorate do not even have children under 18 at home with them and nearly 40% of all likely voters will be over the age of 65. Using derogatory names does not help. The public is on your side and you are building momentum to make things happen. Don’t give people excuses (no matter how flimsy) to sit on the sidelines.