In State Campaigns, Schools Emerge as Topic A
With "education" on their lips at every campaign stop, state politicians are heading into electoral contests this fall that could help determine school funding and improvement efforts for years to come.
Part of the power of the Nov. 7 elections comes from the sheer number of legislative seats up for grabs in 44 states—more than 5,900, or about 80 percent of the total. But analysts see a strong possibility that party control could shift in a number of state legislatures, with greater influence over next year's state and federal legislative redistricting the most obvious prize.
Voters in 11 states will pick governors, and in seven they will decide a total of 14 ballot measures directly affecting precollegiate education, as well as some tax-related proposals with potentially important implications for the public schools.
If anything, education seems to be an even higher priority among voters in this fall's contests than it was two years ago, when governors were elected in 36 states and legislators in 46.
"I think because other things are going well—crime is down, the economy is good, there are no major conflicts overseas—people are focusing in on education more so than ever," said Michael P. Griffith, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group serving state education policymakers.
The top billing that the presidential candidates and the news media are giving education is fueling the emphasis on it in state races as well, Mr. Griffith said.
In some instances, state candidates have made education funding or vouchers their defining issues, but many others have kept the talk fairly general.
"All the polls say you have to say education is important," observed Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University in Bellingham. "But candidates don't think the voters are going to absorb detail that much, so they express concern. Only attacks get specific."
And the attacks have barely begun, with the last primaries taking place only this week.
Power Shifts Possible
Still, lawmakers do eventually get down to specifics, even if candidates don't, and the specifics of education policy could be considerably different in as many as half the states depending on the election results. That's because of the slim majorities holding one or both houses.
If Democrats take over from Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature, for instance, where Republicans hold a three-seat majority in both houses, or in the Michigan House, where the GOP is ahead by just six seats, new school district evaluations favored by those states' Republican governors, Tom Ridge and John Engler, respectively, might get less attention. Both governors have hired the consulting firm Standard and Poor's to analyze costs and performance in their states' districts.
But if Republicans gain control of Indiana's lower chamber, where Democrats hold a six-seat majority, or in the Missouri legislature, where the Democrats have 10 more seats in the House and two more in the Senate, school funding might take a back seat to tax cuts.
Also noteworthy in the upcoming elections will be hundreds of new faces—legislators replacing incumbents whose terms were limited by law, including some legislators who made their mark in education policy. Term limits will come into play for the first time with this election cycle in Arizona, Florida, Montana, Ohio, South Dakota, and in the Arkansas Senate and the Missouri House.
While four current governors are being pushed out of office by term limits and another is retiring, incumbents are running in six of the 11 gubernatorial races. In most, the campaign battles are principally over education.
In Indiana, Gov. Frank O'Bannon, a Democrat seeking his second term, is trying to fend off his challenger, U.S. Rep. David McIntosh, a Republican elected to Congress in 1994. Mr. McIntosh has attacked the governor as not having done enough to improve Hoosier schools, and has promised to make them better while also cutting taxes.
Mr. O'Bannon has defended his record on both education and taxes. He has proposed using lottery profits and other gambling revenue to help districts pay for more kindergarten and preschool programs as well as better training in reading for teachers.
In West Virginia, the gubernatorial race is apparently tightening, as U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, the Democratic nominee, focuses on Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood's failure to fund a college-scholarship program authorized by the legislature last year. Facing a troubled state economy, Mr. Underwood has favored more money for an existing need-based scholarship program rather than starting up the program endorsed by the legislature and modeled on Georgia's HOPE scholarships, which cover in-state college costs for any Georgia student graduating with a B average.
"It's almost a cornerstone of Bob Wise's campaign," said Paul Owens, the political editor of the Charleston, W.Va., Daily Mail, of the scholarship issue. "He doesn't make a speech on the campaign trail without mentioning it."
Mr. Wise wants to pay for the new scholarships by legalizing gambling on video-poker machines and taxing the proceeds.
New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen will face off against Gordon J. Humphrey, a former U.S. senator who won the Sept. 7 Republican primary. Mr. Humphrey is trying to distinguish himself from Ms. Shaheen by putting forward a plan to plug a predicted $829 million school funding shortfall in 2001-02 that is part of a long-standing finance problem in the state. He charges that Ms. Shaheen lacks a plan, while the governor says she is waiting for the report of a panel she appointed to address the problem.
In North Carolina and Missouri, where incumbent governors must step down because of term limits, the candidates have clashed over tuition vouchers. In North Carolina, Republican Richard Vinroot, a former mayor of Charlotte, advocates a Florida-style voucher program that would give scholarships to students in public schools that had failed to meet state standards. Democrat Mike Easley, the state's attorney general who is currently favored to replace Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., says vouchers wouldn't work in the Tarheel State.
In Missouri, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Holden has put the issue at the forefront of his campaign, too. But the state treasurer is running against the idea, which his opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. James M. Talent, has supported. Mr. Talent sponsored a bill in Congress that would have given vouchers to students in poor communities.
Voters in six states will also be asked to choose state schools superintendents this November. The most interesting of those races might be in Florida, where two former state legislators are vying for a job that will last only two years because of a government reorganization approved by voters in 1998.
The current education commissioner, Tom Gallagher, announced that he was resigning at the end of this year to run for the U.S. Senate, only to later switch to the race for state insurance commissioner. Republican Charlie Crist and Democrat George Sheldon want to replace him.
Susan A. MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said that with so much national attention focused on Florida by the presidential race, the commissioner's job "is a possible launching pad not just to other state offices ... but to the national administration" of the party that wins the White House.
In six states, meanwhile, 11 education-related initiatives will appear on statewide ballots, a record number in that category, according to M. Dane Waters, the president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a research group based in Washington. In addition to the 11 measures that started with citizen petitions, another three questions related to K-12 education were put on the ballot by state legislatures.
Six of the measures are intended as ways around anti-tax laws in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington that have made it difficult for legislatures to raise education spending."What you are seeing in a lot of states are interest-group conflicts that can't be resolved in the legislatures spilling over into initiatives," said Mr. Donovan, the political scientist at Western Washington University, who studies ballot measures.
Two states, California and Michigan, have measures on the ballot that would authorize tuition vouchers for private schools. California's would give at least $4,000 to every participating student, while the Michigan question would limit scholarships of $3,100 to districts where two-thirds of the students fail to graduate.
"This is a very critical year for the school choice movement," Mr. Waters of the Initiative and Referendum Institute said. "If either [the Michigan or California initiative] is successful, I believe you'll see others in the future. If not, I don't believe there will be one such measure in the next election cycle."
Vol. 20, Issue 3, Pages 21-22