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Published in Print: November 15, 2000, as States Tap 4 Incumbents and 2 Newcomers In Chiefs' Races

States Tap 4 Incumbents and 2 Newcomers In Chiefs' Races

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Charlie Crist didn't have to endure an agonizing vote recount to get elected as Florida's commissioner of education last Tuesday. Unlike presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore, whose vote tallies in the Sunshine State were still in dispute late last week, the Republican contender for the state's top schools post learned of his victory on election night.

So it went in the six states that held elections Nov. 7 for schools chiefs. None of the races begot the kind of unusual plot twists that marked the presidential contest. Instead, candidates who won tended to follow more predictable scripts.

With four of the six races going to the incumbents, the winners tended to outspend their rivals, often by wide margins. In several of the states, the candidates who fully embraced the national movement for standards-based testing and accountability systems found favor at the polls.

Elsewhere, voters in Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Texas, and Utah filled seats on their state boards of education, the governing bodies charged with setting and implementing state education policies. Residents of the District of Columbia also voted for members of their newly reconstituted board of education.

In Kansas, voters ushered in several politically moderate board members who are pledging to overturn the board's highly controversial decision in 1999 to strip most references to evolution and the origins of the universe from the state's science standards.

In Florida, the most populous state holding an election for state schools chief last week, Mr. Crist won with 54 percent of the nearly 5.5 million votes cast. He defeated Democratic rival George Sheldon, who resigned in June as the state's deputy attorney general.

Because of a 1998 state referendum that overhauled Florida's educational governance system, the state's elected schools chief position will be eliminated in two years. In the future, superintendents will be appointed.

Mr. Crist, a two-term state senator, had amassed a war chest of $1.5 million, pouring it into television, radio, and mail ads. Mr. Sheldon, by contrast, spent $500,000. Both spending figures were provided by the campaigns.

The Democratic candidate "didn't have the money to make this a high-profile race," said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Mr. Sheldon did, however, garner the endorsement of the 120,000-member Florida Education Association, which was formed by the recent merger of the state's affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Sheldon voiced pride in having prompted voters to "revisit" the state's high-stakes testing and accountability program during the campaign. Mr. Sheldon opposed the current system, while Mr. Crist favored it.

Edge for Incumbents

In North Carolina, which saw the closest of the state schools chief races, incumbent Democrat Michael E. Ward bested Republican Michael M. Barrick, a member of the Caldwell County board of education. Mr. Ward picked up 53 percent of the ballots cast, to Mr. Barrick's 47 percent.

Mr. Ward outspent his opponent by a ratio of better than 5-to-1—$200,000 vs. $35,000, according to both candidates' campaigns. Mr. Ward attributed his victory in part to his support of the state's testing and accountability regime, which Mr. Barrick opposed. The issue has gained urgency as the Tar Heel State gears up for next spring's debut of a new retention policy, which calls for 5th graders who can't pass a statewide test to be held back in their current grade.

"I hope it signals that there's optimism about our reform efforts," Mr. Ward said of his win.

In Indiana, voters also re-elected an incumbent who supports her state's high- stakes testing program, Superintendent of Education Suellen Reed, a Republican. The popular schools chief, now in her second term, walloped Democrat Gerald McCullum, the superintendent of the Whiting school system in Lake County. Of the nearly 1.9 million votes cast, Ms. Reed garnered 57 percent, while Mr. McCullum pulled in 39 percent.

Ms. Reed's campaign war chest of $165,000 was vastly larger than the $8,000 raised by her rival, according to figures provided by both campaigns. Ms. Reed was endorsed by the state's largest teacher's union, the 47,000-member Indiana State Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate.

In Montana, Democratic state Rep. Linda H. McCulloch topped GOP rival Elaine Sollie Herman. Ms. McCulloch garnered 52 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for her opponent. In the money race, Ms. McCulloch spent $140,000, while Ms. Herman weighed in with $62,000, spokesmen for both campaigns said.

Ms. Herman, an investment adviser, seemed to have damaged her chances when she joked at a public gathering that one way to improve school discipline was "to give every teacher a gun and a holster and tell them to line [students] up and shoot them."

In other races, Democrat Wayne G. Sanstead, North Dakota's superintendent, trounced Republican rival Ray Holmberg, capturing 61 percent of the vote to his opponent's 39 percent.

Mr. Sanstead's victory was part of a statewide pattern, according to Stephen J. Stambough, a professor of political science at North Dakota State University.

"It's very difficult for an incumbent in North Dakota to lose," he said. "If you look at the races in the state, incumbents won."

Mr. Sanstead, who has held his post since 1984, spent $13,314, his campaign said. Spending figures for Mr. Holmberg, a state senator, were not immediately available last week.

In Washington state, Superintendent Terry Bergeson, who ran unopposed, also won her nonpartisan race for a second four- year term.

Nationally, 13 states elect state schools superintendents. In the other 37 states, the schools chiefs are appointed.

Evolution at Issue

In the contests for seats on state school boards, the Kansas race was perhaps the most interesting.

Five seats on the 10-member board were up for election, four of which went to candidates considered moderates and one to a candidate deemed a conservative. Under the new lineup, seven members of the board favor modifying the state's science standards to restore evolution, while three oppose such a revision.

The moderate members-elect and moderates on the current board made reopening the standards debate a priority even before the Nov. 7 elections, said Sue Gamble, a Republican who ousted the incumbent board chairwoman in the primary election and went on to outpoll her Democratic opponent in last week's vote by a large margin.

The new board will gather before taking office in January and will likely look at a draft of the science standards then, Ms. Gamble said. "We want to hit the ground running," she said.

Janet Waugh, a Democrat who has held office for two years and was not up for re-election this year, predicts that the 1999 science standards will be only one of several decisions made by the old board that the newly elected panel will reconsider.

"The science standards will be our number-one priority, but there are many changes that the conservatives made to social studies and math standards and to teacher-licensure rules that we need to correct," Ms. Waugh said.

Meanwhile, a Colorado election for the state board of education garnered attention mainly because of its price tag.

Unofficial results indicate that Internet entrepreneur Jared Polis, a Democrat, ousted Republican incumbent Ben L. Alexander by a tiny margin to win the at-large seat on the seven-member board. As of late September, state records show, Mr. Polis had laid out more than $784,000 on his campaign.

In contrast, Mr. Alexander spent about $30,000 on the campaign, according to state records. Preliminary election results show he lost the election by 300 votes out of 1.5 million cast. Two other candidates, a Democrat and a Republican, were also elected by wide margins to the Colorado board, which retained its Republican majority.

Mr. Polis, who is 25, attracted attention by traveling the state in a yellow school bus outfitted with sophisticated computer gear, which students tried out during his stops at schools.

"We did raise the profile of education issues," Mr. Polis said. "We are hopeful that people start paying more attention to state board of education races."

The amount of money Mr. Polis spent on the election is unprecedented for such a race, said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va.

State school board races are generally inexpensive affairs that turn on shoe leather, Ms. Welburn said. Exceptions have included an Ohio race nearly a decade ago in which a candidate spent $50,000, she said, as well as this year's Kansas primary, in which one candidate spent $100,000.

Vol. 20, Issue 11, Pages 16-17

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