Off-Year Election Results Could Usher In Policy Shifts
New Kentucky governor, Democrats’ Virginia gains are among the changes.
Kentucky residents could see a referendum on the ballot next year that would allow casinos in the state as a way to help pay for education, now that Democrat Steve Beshear has been elected governor. That prospect is among the education-related outcomes expected around the country from last week’s off-year elections.
The Nov. 6 balloting also saw Democrats take control of the state Senate in Virginia and in Mississippi, voters in Utah overturn a statewide voucher law, and Oregonians reject a children’s-health-insurance plan to have been funded by a cigarette-tax increase.
In Kentucky, where incumbent Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher lost to Mr. Beshear, a former lieutenant governor and state attorney general, the challenger said during the campaign that he would push strongly for a constitutional amendment allowing for “limited expanded gaming.” Such gambling,Mr. Beshear said, could raise up to half-a-billion dollars annually for education, job creation, and health care.
Mr. Fletcher, who garnered just 41 percent of the vote to Mr. Beshear’s 59 percent, in unofficial returns, had made his opposition to gambling a central message of his re-election campaign. He also was trying to overcome ethical problems in his administration, stemming from allegations that he had improperly given state jobs to political supporters. Although he was indicted on misdemeanor charges, the charges were later dropped by a judge.
Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens’ advocacy group, believes the education community is “optimistic” about Mr. Beshear’s victory. He said that he expects the new governor to announce plans early next year to expand preschool programs.
Still, with Kentucky Republicans, who control the Senate, saying they won’t allow the question to get on the ballot next year, the governor-elect could have a hard time delivering on one of his campaign promises,Mr. Sexton said.
In Mississippi, meanwhile, popular Republican Gov. Haley Barbour easily fended off a challenge by a Democratic opponent, John A. Eaves Jr., who often sounded more like a conservative Republican during his campaign than did Mr. Barbour.
Mr. Barbour campaigned for a second term on his leadership during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and won support from educators for pushing for full funding for the state’s school finance formula. He received 60 percent of the vote, in unofficial returns, to 40 percent for Mr. Eaves. But education groups say they don’t want the K-12 budget only to be the subject of a campaign promise.
“Our position is that needs to be funded every year, not just in an election year,” said Kevin Gilbert, the president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
Gov. Barbour has also pledged to push for teacher pay raises and to provide mentors for new middle school teachers.
Three states had off-year legislative races last week; Louisiana, which elected Republican U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal governor last month, will hold its legislative elections on Nov. 17.
In Virginia, where Democrats took a 21-seat majority in the 40-member state Senate on Nov. 6, the turnover is likely to give Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine more allies in his efforts to expand early-childhood education, and education groups were celebrating the results. Democrats also picked up a few seats in the state House of Delegates, although Republicans retained control.
Princess Moss, the president of the Virginia Education Association, also an affiliate of the NEA, said in a press release that it was clear “we’ll have more friends of public education this year.”
Democrats, who already controlled the House in Mississippi, took a majority in the Senate there. The shift could make it more likely that the school finance formula will get full funding again next year.
In New Jersey, where the House and Senate had been in flux since the defeat of several incumbents in the June primaries, Democrats held on to both houses.
While education didn’t figure significantly in the New Jersey legislative races, funding for schools is sure to be a priority during the 2008 session, with Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine working on a new school finance formula.
Children’s advocates in the state are concerned about how the changes might affect students both in and outside the urban districts covered by the state supreme court’s ruling in the Abbott v. Burke school finance case.
“In an attempt to ensure that all poor children—regardless of school district—receive higher levels of funding, our biggest fear is that the ‘Abbott pie’ will just be cut up instead of the appropriation of new funding,” said Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst for the Association for Children of New Jersey, based in Newark.
Questions on the Ballot
Voters around the country faced far fewer state ballot measures this year than they did in 2006, but there were still a few notable education- and child-related questions, the most prominent of them a referendum on Utah’s new statewide voucher law, which was overturned.
In Oregon, voters rejected a plan to increase the state’s tobacco tax by 84.5 cents a pack, to $2.03, to pay for health coverage for uninsured children, after being bombarded with messages against the initiative that were paid for by the tobacco industry.
But Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski, a Democrat who was in favor of the initiative, has indicated he will work with the legislature to find other ways of providing coverage for more of the state’s estimated 117,000 uninsured children.
On a pair of measures, voters in Washington state showed that they don’t want policymakers to have an easy time passing tax increases. In both cases, though, the results were fairly close.
By a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, the voters said yes to Measure 960, which will now require that tax increases be approved by at least two-thirds of the members in each house of the legislature. A similar measure was passed in 1993, but supporters of the latest initiative say lawmakers have weakened it over the years though loopholes.
Voters also turned down a proposed constitutional amendment, by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, that would have changed the requirement that school district tax levies be approved by a supermajority, twothirds of the voters. Instead, just a simple majority would have been required for passage.
In Minnesota, where the legislature has gradually been shifting more of the responsibility for education funding to local districts—and which increased education spending by just 1 percent for fiscal 2008—voters were more generous to school districts asking for operating tax levies than some observers had predicted.
Sixty-one of the 99 districts passed all of the tax questions on their ballots. Of the 27 districts with construction bond measures on the ballot, 14 passed and 13 failed.
“It’s a huge improvement over last year,” said Greg Abbott, a spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association, adding that only 42 percent of the districts with operating tax levies had been able to pass them last year.
Still, he said, the districts whose measures failed are in “a world of hurt,” and will probably begin to have conversations about whether they need to consolidate with other districts, or begin sending high school students to other districts. The 840-student Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City district—already a consolidated district west of Minneapolis—lost out for the fourth time since 2003.
Rolf Parsons, a school board chairman for the 8,700-student White Bear Lake school district, which did pass a tax measure, said in a statement that the results “raise a fundamental flaw in our funding system. If we continue to rely on local levies to fund basic school operations, we will become a state where some schools have and other schools have not.”
Vol. 27, Issue 12, Pages 18-19