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A Bit Skittish, Voters in State Races Show Tendency To Back Status Quo

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The 1995 elections may best be remembered for what they won't cause.

Kentucky lawmakers probably will not be incited to dismantle the nation's most extensive statewide school-reform program. Educators in Virginia have little need to worry about a conservative-flavored school overhaul. And the split control in Mississippi that has checked the ambitions of Republicans and Democrats alike probably will enforce restraint on education issues through century's end.

Voters seemed a bit skittish at the ballot box this year after turning over the legislative reins to Republicans in federal and state races last year.

Indeed, to the extent that education became an issue in the handful of state races this fall, it was held up to raise fears of extremism. Democrats said Republicans wanted to wipe away the public education system. Republicans said Democrats wanted to water down teaching, bolster the status quo, and look the other way instead of facing problems.

In the end, many voters decided that maybe it was best for things to stay as they are.

"It was a vote for moderation," said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' coalition in Kentucky.

Governorships Split

In the Kentucky gubernatorial race, Mr. Sexton said that Republican challenger Larry Forgy apparently misread voters' concerns about the state's 1990 school-reform law.

Mr. Forgy, a Lexington lawyer and longtime leader of the state's underdog Republican Party, lost narrowly to Democratic Lt. Gov. Paul E. Patton, a former coal-mine operator and county executive who got 51 percent of the vote. Gov. Brereton C. Jones, a Democrat, was prohibited by state law from seeking a second term.

"Kentucky is a pretty moderate state, and this was a reflection of that tendency," Mr. Sexton said. "The Republican candidate said this was a referendum on school reform, but I don't think that held true. He threw around words like `experimentation' and `failure,' but we get the sense the public didn't really bite on that."

Raising fears of an education apocalypse failed to work for Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus, a Democrat who focused his challenge against Gov. Kirk Fordice on concerns that the governor's plans for an education-reform constitutional amendment would wreak havoc on the state's public schools. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

The Republican incumbent, who has presided over an economic boom sparked by a thriving riverboat-casino industry, won with 55 percent of the vote.

Mr. Fordice has promised to push his massive school-deregulation plan, known as PRIME--People's Right to Initiate Model Education. Part of the reason the governor will be taking his education plan straight to voters is that he has been able to achieve little beyond confrontation with the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Mississippi Democrats, in fact, strengthened their hand in state legislative races last week, picking up one seat in the Senate and four in the House. The Republicans also lost the lieutenant governor's seat, where incumbent Eddie Briggs was defeated by Sen. Ronnie Musgrove, the chairman of the Senate education committee.

Democrats Hold On in Va.

Despite last year's clear trend of voters favoring Republican candidates, Democrats also were able to maintain their narrow hold on control of the Virginia legislature.

Education was a pivotal issue in legislative races across the state, and Democrats apparently were convincing in their argument to voters that GOP control would place no check on the conservative designs of Republican Gov. George F. Allen, who is at the midpoint in his term.

The most prominent casualty in the election was Democrat Hun-ter B. Andrews, the Senate majority leader, who lost his re-election battle to Marty Williams, a Republican. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1995.)

After a campaign that drew unprecedented interest and financing from outside the state, Virginia Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate to achieve a 20-20 split with Democrats. The Democrats' five-member majority held in the House, however.

Gov. Allen appeared last week to have gotten the message that voters were not interested in sweeping Democrats completely out of the way so that he could push his agenda. He said his hope was for "a philosophical majority."

Observers, however, argued that the outcome, if anything, probably strengthened Democratic lawmakers' hand.

"Teachers in Virginia will never realize how bad things could have been," said Robley S. Jones, the president of the Virginia Education Association, which endorsed 87 Democrats and 19 Republicans in the legislative races and saw more than two-thirds of them win. "We will have an opportunity to be a player instead of a victim."

Democrats also won a minor victory in New Jersey last week, picking up three seats in the House. But Republicans continue to keep a strong grasp on both chambers of the legislature, holding their 24-16 majority in the Senate and moving to a 50-30 majority in the House.

There will be state elections Nov. 18 in Louisiana, where the governor's mansion is up for grabs because of Democratic Gov. Edwin W. Edwards' retirement. Seats in the legislature are being contested, but Democrats have solid control of both chambers.

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