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Published in Print: November 10, 2004, as Legislative Shifts Alter Prospects for Funding and School Vouchers

Legislative Shifts Alter Prospects for Funding and School Vouchers

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Democrats fared better in state legislative races Nov. 2 than they did in the federal elections, lending momentum to efforts in some states to increase school funding and slam the brakes on vouchers.

But Republicans performed almost as well, making history by gaining control of the Tennessee Senate, plus House majorities in Georgia, Indiana, and Oklahoma.

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View the accompanying graphic, “Chart: Mapping Legislative Change”

The Democratic Party wrested control of both legislative chambers in Colorado, a shift that observers expect to alter the education landscape there. Democrats also captured the Oregon Senate, the Washington state Senate, and the Vermont House, among other chambers.

While control of at least one legislative chamber changed in 13 states, Colorado was the only one that saw shifts in both houses, according to preliminary results. The impact on schools there could be significant.

The Democrats’ gains in Colorado could give a boost to advocates of increased school funding and ward off legislation to allow state-financed vouchers that could be used for private school tuition. With Republicans controlling both chambers, the legislature passed a voucher law last year that the state supreme court overturned in June. Voucher supporters had vowed to pass a revised law next year. ("Colo. Vouchers Now Back In Political Arena," July 14, 2004.) But the prospects for vouchers look dimmer now.

“I would predict that no voucher bill will make it out of the legislature in the next two years,” said Jane W. Urschel, the associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, which opposes the use of public money for private schools.

While Colorado faces roughly $300 million in state budget cuts in 2005, lawmakers could raise special education funding and offer voters a chance to overturn constitutional amendments that have squeezed funding for public schools, Ms. Urschel said.

In Georgia, meanwhile, Republicans signaled the South’s continued move to the GOP by winning a 95-82 majority in the House, decisively reversing a 102-75 majority for Democrats.

Ben Scafidi, the education policy adviser to Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, said voters have responded favorably to the Republican governor’s involvement of “front-line educators” in his policymaking. Republican lawmakers have followed the governor’s lead, Mr. Scafidi said.

In Tennessee, Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time since Reconstruction, gaining four seats. Republicans also kept their majority in the House.

Changes Raise Questions

In contrast, Democrats gained ground in North Carolina, seizing the House majority and widening their margin in the Senate. Those shifts should bode well for the policies of Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, who was re-elected to a second term and has been a high-profile supporter of public schools.

But the change in the House left in doubt the future of an unusual shared-power arrangement with moderate Republicans, analysts said. Under the arrangement, Republicans shared committee leadership with some Democrats.

In Oregon, Democrats broke a 15-15 tie in the Senate, winning an 18-12 majority. Republicans kept control of the Oregon House, but lost two seats.

The Oregon elections provide a balance of power that could mean stability for school funding in 2005, said Chris Coughlin, the executive director of the Coalition for School Funding Now, a nonpartisan organization based in Salem, the state capital.

But Oregon faces state budget cuts of perhaps $600 million or more next year, Ms. Coughlin said.

Maine’s Status Quo

In Maine, Democrats held onto their majority in the House and appeared to keep a one-vote majority in the Senate, pending final certification of results. Democratic control could mean opponents of school vouchers will keep their Senate allies for the next few years, said Rob Walker, the president of the Maine Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

The defeat of local property-tax caps in a statewide referendum will “take the pressure off” school funding in the near term, Mr. Walker said. He noted that lawmakers must decide how to fulfill voters’ mandate that the state supply 55 percent of local education funding. ("Second Time a Charm For Maine Measure," June 16, 2004.)

Elsewhere, Democrats in Washington state were expected to secure their hold on the House, and possibly win a slight majority in the Senate—in which they have been narrowly in the minority. Washington state lawmakers must deal with the aftermath of voters’ rejection of a $1 billion tax increase for schools.

And Democrats made huge strides in Vermont, winning an 84-59 majority in the House, currently home to a five-seat Republican majority. The Democrats’ gains could spell trouble for the school choice initiatives of Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, who was re-elected.

The GOP reversed its fortunes in Oklahoma, gaining nine seats in the House and its first majority in the chamber in decades. Democrats kept control of the Oklahoma Senate.

Republicans also gained control of the Indiana House by seven seats and kept their Senate majority in that state. Those changes could help Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels, also a Republican, as the state deals with a budget deficit of perhaps $800 million, which could affect school funding. Indiana Republicans also may push for more charter schools in the state.

Missouri voters gave Republicans control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time since 1920.

Vol. 24, Issue 11, Page 18

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