Voters in a three southern states head to the polls this month for governors races that have cast a spotlight on contentious debates over education issues like choice, funding, and teacher pay.
Political prognosticators often watch the off-year elections —in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi—for signs of voters’ attitudes going into the presidential election the next year. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have campaigned for Republican candidates in all three states this year, and those candidates have run television ads that emphasize their ties to the national politicians.
Voters in those states—which all favored Trump in the 2016 election—must weigh that popularity along with priorities that hit close to home, like how to build an education system that supports their economies. Kentucky and Mississippi vote Tuesday, and Louisiana voters head to the polls later this month.
In Kentucky, It’s Trump Ties v. Teacher Activism
Amid waves of teacher activism around the country, Kentucky’s teachers walked out of classrooms in 2018 and 2019 to protest proposed changes to their pension plan. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin responded to those protests with unusually combative remarks, even blaming teachers for children being shot or assaulted when they weren’t at school. His opponent, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, who has an educator as a running mate, has put Bevin’s tensions with teachers at the center of the governor’s race.
And some Kentucky teacher activists, who support “anyone but Bevin” for governor, hope their Republican neighbors will be swayed by that harsh tone, even if they aren’t bothered by Trump’s similiarly aggressive and personal remarks.
“When Donald Trump talks about the ‘failing New York Times,’ that’s something far away that doesn’t affect us,” said Jeni Bolander, a high school teacher in Lexington, told me in June. “But when Matt Bevin blames teachers for kids getting sexually assaulted, that’s someone’s friends and neighbors.”
But Bevin’s supporters say a strong state economy and his position on social issues, like abortion, will likely sway red-state voters.
At issue in the teacher walkouts was Kentucky’s public-employee pension system, which had been cited by Standard & Poor’s as the worst-funded in the nation. Teachers in the Bluegrass State are not eligible for Social Security, and many were concerned that the state wouldn’t honor its obligations. Bevin signed a pension-reform bill that legislators had tacked onto an unrelated measure shortly before it passed, and Beshear later successfully challenged the move in court. Beshear has proposed backfilling the pension system through funds generated by taxes on gambling and through legalizing marijuana.
In Louisiana, Disputes Over Teacher Pay and High-Profile State Schools Chief
Louisiana will select a governor in a runoff election Nov. 16.
Louisiana’s incumbent Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards was first elected in 2015 after criticizing state Superintendent of Education John White, who has a national profile for his education initiatives, including plans that emphasize growth over raw proficiency. In 2017, the governor criticized White again, saying the state’s plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act didn’t include enough public feedback, didn’t do enough to reduce testing, and was otherwise flawed. However, the state’s education board, which is partially appointed by the governor, has given White positive reviews while keeping him on an extended month-to-month contract.
Edwards’ Republican challenger is businessman Eddie Rispone, who told the Baton Rouge advocate that White has “done a very good job of raising the standards and still addressing the opposition.”
One of Rispone’s boldest pledges is to hold a constitutional convention, rewriting many of the state’s laws, including those affecting education. But, in interviews and on the trail, Rispone has said little about exactly what that would entail or what policies he wants to change. Rispone, who has also pledged tax cuts, supports teacher-pay increases based on merit, rather than an across-the-board raise.
But Edwards, who supported a $1,000 teacher raise that approved by state lawmakers this year, says the Pelican State doesn’t have a reliable way to rate teacher performance for the purpose determining merit bonuses.
In Mississippi, Differing Visions for Addressing Teacher Shortages
In Mississippi, voters will elect a replacement for term-limited Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, choosing between two-term Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and four-term Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. The two candidates offer varying plans for addressing teacher pay and shortages.
In a recent legislative session, lawmakers proposed teachers’ raises up to $4,000 before finally approving a $1,500 increase, the Clarion Ledger reported.
Hood, endorsed by the state’s teachers’ union, called that increase “nothing more than election-year pandering.”
His education plan calls for fully funding the state’s education formula, boosting early education spending so that all children can have access to pre-kindergarten programs, evaluating existing testing requirements, and providing $3,000 in additional teachers’ raises. Hood wants to address the need for additional teachers by increasing scholarships for education students and state tuition forgiveness for teachers, building pathways to teaching for high school students and paraprofessionals, and easing requirements for retired teachers to return to classrooms to fill shortages.
Reeves has supported school voucher proposals for students with special needs in the Magnolia State, and he’s signaled he’s open to private school choice more broadly.
He’s proposed gradually raising Mississippi teachers salaries by about $4,200 over four years to meet the regional average. To address shortages, he wants to provide sign-on bonuses to recruit teachers to high needs areas. He also wants to increases funding state’s early-learning collaboratives, though he hasn’t committed to universal access, and to create a statewide advisory board of teachers.