Published Online: February 4, 2014
Published in Print: February 5, 2014, as State Votes Could Sway K-12 Policy
Includes correction(s): February 13, 2014

Stakes Are High for K-12 Policy in 2014 Elections

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker acknowledges high school students during his State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature in January. The 2014 elections will test the voting public's response to changes reducing public employees' collective-bargaining power that GOP leaders such as Mr. Walker championed.
—Andy Manis/AP

Campaigns start in earnest

State elections involving three dozen governors and more than 6,000 legislators this year could have major consequences for a variety of education policies, with the Common Core State Standards, school choice, collective bargaining, and early education among the topics most likely to get time in the spotlight and on the stump.

In some states, the 2014 elections may prove pivotal for the fate of controversial education measures enacted as a result of Republicans' strong showing in 2010. The GOP took control of 12 additional state legislatures and six more governorships that year.

The list of state elections includes 36 gubernatorial contests and legislative races in all but four states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia). There are also seven elections for state schools superintendent, as well as announced or official ballot initiatives related to K-12 education in a number of states, including Hawaii, Nevada, and New York.

Houses Divided

As of last week, the GOP controlled 26 legislatures and 29 governorships nationwide. In total, Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches of government in 23 states, while 15 states are in the hands of Democrats, and 11 are split, according to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Nebraska has a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature.)

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Only four legislatures have divided partisan control, down from eight four years ago, when Democrats controlled 27 legislatures.

Following state elections in 2010 and afterward that gave Republicans dominance over state government nationwide, many legislators and governors have been aggressive in instituting new policies affecting such matters as school accountability, teacher evaluation, and school employment.

For example, since 2011, nine states have adopted A-F school accountability systems. All of those states except Virginia have elected new Republican governors in 2010 or since.

The issue of such ratings can be tricky politically. To the extent that Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, a Republican, faces opposition in her re-election bid, including in the GOP primary, resistance to A-F accountability as it has been implemented in the state could be a factor. The system has been revised several times since it was adopted in 2011, but some people in the state have complained that it still doesn't work as intended, or that it unfairly punishes schools.

Collective Bargaining

The 2014 elections will also test the voting public's response to, and the durability of, changes reducing public employees' collective-bargaining power that GOP leaders such as Gov. Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Gov. Rick Snyder (Michigan) championed. In Mr. Walker's case, his push that won adoption of those changes sparked an unsuccessful recall election in 2012.

It's far from clear that those dramatic shifts in states' approaches to public employees will end up hurting lawmakers at the ballot box.

"I don't know if the unions have figured out a good way to make the case of, 'Hey, they're being mean to us teachers and they're hurting our bargaining rights.' That is a tough sell," said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

But the chance to push back on those kinds of signature accomplishments from some lawmakers, combined with a desire to pressure leaders to restore funding and services, could invigorate many races and provide more opportunities for traditional education leaders.

"It's impossible to talk about your strategy in 2014 without going back and looking what happened in 2010," said Karen White, the national political director of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, with 3 million members.

In fact, Ms. White said, the NEA has decided to invest more than 80 percent of its 2014 election war chest in state races, the largest-ever percentage the group has devoted to state contests. (At the federal level, all seats in the House of Representatives and 36 Senate seats will also be on the ballot this year.)

The pressure of such commitments by key education players, or the anticipation of it, could be having an effect before the election season really heats up.

Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican facing a tough re-election bid against one-time Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat, proposed a $542 million increase for state education funding. It is the second year in a row that Gov. Scott has pushed such a K-12 funding boost.

Legislative Control: Who's in Charge?

Republicans control most state legislatures. Democrats hold narrow margins in the Colorado and the Iowa Senates, while the same is true for the GOP in the Iowa House and the Wisconsin Senate.

Other Republican chief executives, including Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, have put forth education funding increases in their proposed budgets this year.

Of the 36 gubernatorial contests, GOP incumbents are running or are eligible to do so in 20.

"I think a lot of the tea party governors should be fearful, because they're going to be facing very energized public employees," said Michael T. Hartney, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame who tracks state elections.

Common-Core Anxiety

But the education issue with the biggest peril for state officials in 2014 could be what to do, and say, about the common-core standards.

For both the left and the right, the common core could open the door for partisans to pursue other K-12 issues, including a shortage of resources in the face of new mandates, the privacy of student data, and claims of federal intrusion.

The common-core issue could be particularly difficult, however, for Republicans in tough primary elections over the spring and summer. GOP candidates in those races might have very little to gain from vigorously defending the standards, which have been adopted by all but a handful of states, and a great deal to lose by doing so.

That is particularly the case among voters in the Republican base who fear that the common core—an initiative led by groups representing the nation's governors and state schools chiefs, but with strong federal backing—amounts to federal encroachment on local schools.

"They're really upset with their state governments ... they realize that the governors and legislators should have said 'No,' and they didn't," said Emmett McGroarty, the education director at the American Principles Project, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes the common core. "That's why it's the moms going into the statehouse saying, 'Excuse me, I'm upset that my children are learning this and being taught in this way, and why is it that your signature is on this piece of paper?' "

His group has worked with at least one statewide candidate, South Carolina superintendent candidate Sheri Few, a Republican.

At least one GOP governor up for re-election has already taken a firm stance regarding the common core, which covers English/language arts and mathematics.

In remarks Jan. 16 to a local Republican Party club, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said she would sign a state Senate bill repealing the adoption of the common core in her state. She justified her position (which she originally staked out in 2012) by saying that children in her state should not be educated in the same way as those in California, reportedly saying, "We are telling the legislature: Roll back common core. Let's take it back to South Carolina standards."

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Even those candidates who don't use language that is explicitly against the standards are more likely to tiptoe whenever the common core comes up in debates and interviews.

"They aren't going to come out and stump for them, because they'll either want to protect their tails, or they'll say, 'I like standards,' " said Arnold Shober, a professor of government at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., who tracks state K-12 governance issues.

Business organizations, like local and state chambers of commerce, might step up campaign and lobbying efforts to shore up the spines of governors and key legislators who start feeling heat from questions about the common core at campaign forums. ("Business Groups Defend Common Standards," Jan. 29, 2014.)

An approach that may prove popular for many lawmakers is the one articulated recently by Gov. Walker, the Wisconsin Republican, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. Despite reviews of the common core by officials in their respective states, both governors have claimed dissatisfaction with either the substance of the standards, in the case of Mr. Walker, or how they have been implemented, a concern Mr. Cuomo has expressed.

Gov. Walker and Gov. Cuomo have said their states should review the common core again.

The number of governors seeking to shield the common core—and their re-election bids—through executive orders could also grow. Those orders, which have been issued by four GOP governors eligible for re-election this year, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, assert their states' control over content standards but don't toss the common standards overboard.

Test in Texas

One interesting case study for the power of education in gubernatorial campaigns is in the race to replace Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who won't seek another term.

Texas Sen. Wendy Davis, one of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, reads her education proposals to reporters after an education roundtable last month in Arlington, Texas.
—LM Otero/AP

In the Lone Star State, one of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates with the highest profiles of any in the nation, state Sen. Wendy Davis, has made education a key issue in her campaign.

After declaring the importance of public schools to Texans at her campaign kickoff speech in October, Sen. Davis subsequently released a plan for improving education that includes promising a high school student in the top 20 percent of his or her class during junior year early acceptance to college and a Texas teaching job, if he or she commits to a teaching career; a loan-repayment program for teachers; and "bringing Texas teacher pay in line with the rest of the county." (The NEA ranked Texas 30th in the nation in average public school teacher salaries in a report last year.)

The man who is potentially her prime Republican opponent for governor, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, hasn't ignored education on the campaign trail, either.

In a Jan. 21 interview with Texas radio station KFYO, Mr. Abbott warned against a "cookie-cutter approach" to K-12 education, and advocated school choice (although he didn't explicit advocate for vouchers the help parents enroll children in private schools).

Regarding teachers, he said that educators wanted government "off their backs" in order to exercise more local control. Mr. Abbott also said, "A person who is a teacher is genuinely inspired to educate a child. That's what they wake up for, and they all know that they are underpaid for what they do."

Vol. 33, Issue 20, Pages 1,22-23

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Correction: 
An earlier version of this story misstated the number of Republican governors. There are currently 29 states led by GOP governors.

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