Published Online: October 26, 2009
Published in Print: October 28, 2009, as Education Issues Bid for Voters' Attention

Education Issues Bidding for Voters' Attention

New Jersey gubernatorial candidates, from left, Republican Chris Christie, Independent Chris Daggett, and Gov. Jon Corzine, the Democratic incumbent, meet the audience prior to their final debate at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., on Oct. 16.
—Christopher Barth/AP

Schooling Figures in Key Mayoral, Gubernatorial Races in Off-Year Elections

In a relatively quiet electoral season, education is making some noise in a number of campaigns around the country, from the New York City mayoral race and New Jersey governor’s contest to ballot measures in Washington state and Maine.

Voters in Maine, for instance, will consider measures with big implications for public schools, including a proposal to repeal a 2007 law requiring consolidation of many small school districts and an initiative designed to rein in state and local spending that could constrain education aid.

Generating at least as much heat is an initiative that would overturn Maine’s new law allowing same-sex marriages. Those seeking to overturn the law have put out television ads suggesting it would lead to the widespread teaching of gay marriage in schools, an effect the law’s supporters dispute.

Meanwhile, education is at the heart of mayoral races in New York City and Boston, where the mayors are in control of their cities’ public school systems.

“The stakes are high when it comes to education in New York City,” said Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, City University of New York, noting that incumbent Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has extraordinary authority over the 1.1 million-student system. “It’s probably the strongest system of mayoral control in the country.”

‘Just an Appetizer’

As an off-year election, there’s far less campaign activity around the nation than in many other years. Only two governors’ seats—New Jersey and Virginia—are on the ballot. By contrast, in 2010, some 37 governorships will be up for grabs, as well as dozens of Senate seats and every spot in the U.S. House of Representatives. Also, voters in six states will elect state superintendents of education next year.

New York City Mayoral Race

“This year is just an appetizer,” said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Even so, education is getting plenty of attention in some races.

In New York, where Mayor Bloomberg is seeking a third term, the performance of the public schools under his watch is the paramount issue in his contest against William C. Thompson Jr., the city’s comptroller—and former president of the city’s board of education.

One indication of the issue’s potency: Last month, Christopher Cerf, a top deputy to city schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, left that post to work as a senior adviser to Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign.

Mr. Thompson, a former investment banker who was head of the city school board from 1996 until 2001, has accused the mayor of overemphasizing standardized testing, exaggerating the city’s high school graduation rate, alienating parents, and wasting millions of dollars on expensive consultants who Mr. Thompson contends have not improved operations in the school system.

As one of his first acts if he wins the election, Mr. Thompson has pledged to fire Mr. Klein, who has been chancellor since Mr. Bloomberg took over the system.

Mayor Bloomberg, who in recent polls has enjoyed a comfortable lead in the race, has blamed his opponent for many of the school system’s failures during the time Mr. Thompson was president of the city school board, which was dissolved when Mr. Bloomberg won control over the system in 2002.

In a news conference last month, Mr. Bloomberg gave a blunt response when asked about Mr. Thompson’s education platform.

Boston Mayoral Race

The candidates, both Democrats, are competing in a nonpartisan runoff.

“The issue for voters really is clear,” the mayor said. “If you think the schools are better today than they were under my opponent’s leadership then you should vote for me. And if you think that they were better when he ran the board of education, then you should vote for him.”

In Boston, Mayor Thomas M. Menino is facing his first real challenge in 16 years from Michael F. Flaherty Jr., a Boston city councilman who has attacked the mayor’s stewardship of the school system and the city’s lack of progress in stemming the high school dropout rate.

Mr. Menino, a Democrat who for years had opposed charter schools, shifted his stance earlier this year, saying he now supports converting some of the city’s low-performing schools into charters. At the time, Mr. Menino said his change of heart was influenced largely by a desire to help Massachusetts win some of the $4 billion in grants under the federal economic-stimulus law’s Race to the Top competition.

Mr. Flaherty, also a Democrat, is an ardent charter supporter who has called for lifting the state cap on the number of charters.

Obama Campaigns in N.J.

Meanwhile, in the tight New Jersey gubernatorial race, first-term incumbent Gov. Jon S. Corzine has emphasized his record on schools matters.

“Probably his single biggest claim has to do with education,” said Maurice Carroll, the director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, based in Hamden, Conn. The Democratic governor has promoted his expansion of early-childhood-education programs, his efforts to step up spending on education amid declining state budgets overall, and his retooling of the state’s funding formula for schools.

Just last week, President Barack Obama campaigned with Mr. Corzine and talked up the governor’s record on education.

New Jersey Governor's Race

"This is also a leader who’s stood up against those who want to cut what matters, like education," the president said at an Oct. 21 rally in Hackensack, N.J.

Mr. Carroll said that the other two major candidates in the race—Republican nominee Christopher J. Christie and Independent Christopher J. Daggett—"haven’t talked much about their education agendas."

In his platform, Mr. Christie, a former U.S. attorney, has emphasized school choice, including a call for more charter schools and expansion of an interdistrict school choice program.

Although Mr. Daggett trails far behind his major party rivals, who are considered neck and neck, he offers at least one unusual credential in this race: a doctorate in education. Mr. Daggett served as an education adviser to then-Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey in the early 1980s, but later focused on environmental issues and served as a regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In Virginia, education has played second—or third—fiddle to issues such as transportation and taxes in the gubernatorial race between R. Creigh Deeds, a Democratic state senator, and Republican Robert F. McDonnell, a former state attorney general.

Mr. McDonnell’s education agenda, which includes calls for teacher performance pay and more charter schools, echoes top priorities of Mr. Obama, who won Virginia in the 2008 presidential election.

Virginia Governor's Race

“He comes out against certain Obama positions,” Mr. Sabato said of the GOP candidate, “but he is also very careful to say, ‘Oh we have some things in common.’ ... He has portrayed himself this year as a moderate.”

Mr. Deeds’ education platform includes calls to set new “readiness” standards so students graduate from high school prepared for college, raise teacher salaries to the national average, and expand public school choice.

‘It’s Just Absurd’

Ballot measures in Maine, Ohio, and Washington state have potential implications for schools.

The district consolidation measure in Maine stems from a 2007 law requiring a reduction in the number of school districts across the state to 85 from 280, to cut operational and administrative costs and to reorganize what advocates of the plan described as a top-heavy system. ("Maine Districts Take Key Step to Consolidation," Sept. 12, 2007.)

Critics say the law is unpopular in many communities and is not producing significant cost savings.

“It really is a disaster,” said Lawrence P. Greenlaw Jr., the chairman of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools, an advocacy group that initiated the repeal effort. “We’ll save all the money our governor wants, but don’t destroy our school governance.”

Ballot Measures

Voters in several states will be asked on Nov. 3 to consider state measures with implications for public education. Among them:

MAINE
Question 1: Would repeal a new state law allowing same-sex marriages.

Supporters of the repeal effort claim that the law, signed by Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, in May, would lead public schools across Maine to teach about homosexual marriage, which opponents of the measure deny.

Question 2: Would cut the rate of the municipal excise tax on motor vehicles less than 6 years old and exempt hybrid and other highly fuel-efficient vehicles from sales tax and three years of excise tax..

Opponents say the measure would place a greater strain on local property taxes, which primarily fund public schools, to help make up the lost revenue.

Question 3: Would repeal a 2007 state law on school district consolidation.

The law requires a reduction in the number of districts from 285 to 80.

Question 4: Would impose limitations on spending by state and local governments, and require voter approval of certain tax increases.

OHIO
Issue 3: Would authorize the operation of gambling casinos in Ohio for the first time, with one facility each allowed in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and Toledo.

A portion of the tax revenues would be set aside for school districts statewide.

WASHINGTON STATE
Initiative 1033: Would limit the growth of certain state, county, and city revenues to annual inflation and population growth, not including voter-approved revenue increases.

Revenue collected above the limit would reduce property-tax levies.

But Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and others say backing away from the law would be a mistake.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said the law, which took effect this summer, is already producing savings in some districts that have merged, and that the efforts are bringing other benefits through the sharing of ideas and best practices.

“They have found great educational opportunities and ... saved money along the way,” he said.

Maine voters will take up two other ballot measures that could affect school coffers. One would lower municipal taxes on certain automobiles. Another, a version of the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or tabor, would set limits on spending by state and local governments, and require voter approval of certain tax increases.

Proponents say the tabor measure is needed to restrain government spending and provide tax relief, giving Mainers a greater say in decisions on taxes and spending.

But Mark L. Grey, the executive director of the Maine Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, argues that the measure could take a toll on education spending and other government services.

“We think it’s just absurd and would paralyze the state from any kinds of investments in any particular sector of our economy,” he said. “It’s purely designed to restrict public sector investment.”

Education also has been a factor in the heated debate over the proposed repeal of Maine’s same-sex marriage law, particularly the question of whether the new law would bring the issue into classrooms. State Attorney General Janet Mills—responding to an inquiry from the state commissioner of education—said the law would have “no impact on the curricula of Maine’s public schools.”

In Washington state, meanwhile, a measure that would limit the growth of certain state and local revenues has drawn opposition from teachers unions, which argue that the measure would lead to cuts in education and other programs.

And, in Ohio, an initiative would authorize casino gambling, with a portion of the tax revenue reserved for school districts.

Vol. 29, Issue 09, Pages 15,18

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