Education Takes a Back Seat in Gubernatorial Races

By Reagan Walker — November 01, 1989 4 min read

Although they are battling to succeed Governors who have spoken out forcefully on education issues, the four major-party gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia this fall have devoted relatively little energy to talking about the schools.

Debate over education has not been entirely absent from the nation’s two gubernatorial contests to be decided Nov. 7. But the campaigns suggest that the candidates have seen less political mileage to be gained from education than from other issues.

In New Jersey, U.S. Representatives James J. Florio, a Democrat, and Jim Courter, a Republican, are seeking to replace Gov. Thomas H. Kean.

Attention in the race has focused largely on charges and counter-charges over each candidate’s alleged ethical shortcomings.

In Virginia, Lieut. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is the Democratic standardbearer against the gop’s J. Marshall Coleman.

The incumbent, Gerald L. Baliles, was a prominent advocate of greater international-education efforts during his term as chairman of the National Governors’ Association.

Abortion has been the most controversial issue in the Virginia race, with Mr. Wilder strongly attacking Mr. Coleman’s support for abortion restrictions.

Both Mr. Kean and Mr. Baliles are barred by state law from seeking re-election.

In their position papers, both New Jersey candidates have sought to portray themselves as the logical successor to Mr. Kean, who won widespread acclaim during his eight years in office for his support of education reform.

Mr. Courter, for example, said he would be “proud to inherit the Kean legacy in education.”

Mr. Courter favors teaching values in schools, public-school choice, and New Jersey’s school-takeover law, which allows the state to assume control of “academically bankrupt” school districts.

Both Mr. Florio and Mr. Courter have promised to seek more funds for school facilities, early-childhood programs, and drug education.

Mr. Florio also has pledged his support for the takeover law--recently implemented in Jersey City--but has said he wants to improve monitoring procedures to focus more on outcomes than on procedures.

He has promised to beef up state-funded teacher-preparation programs and to establish a state office of parental information and support.

On perhaps the most contentious education-related issue to surface in the race, however, Mr. Courter’s position has been seemingly at odds with that of Mr. Kean.

At different times during the campaign, Mr. Courter has suggested that homosexuals and teachers and students with aids be barred from the classroom.

In an Aug. 24 interview printed in The Record, a newspaper in Hackensack, Mr. Courter was quoted as saying that, “to protect children,” he would urge passage of legislation that would bar homosexuals from working as teachers, foster parents, and camp counselors.

He later modified his proposal after coming under fire from gay-rights groups and religious organizations. He would not seek legislation, he explained, but did think that school boards should inform parents if their children’s teacher is a homosexual.

In a televised debate Oct. 11, Mr. Courter said teachers with aids should not be permitted in the classroom. Children infected with the aids virus, he argued, should be taught in separate programs.

Mr. Kean, who is supporting Mr. Courter, was quoted in response as saying that the exclusion of those with aids from the classroom “is not the policy of this administration--our policy is based on scientific evidence.” The Governor added that he thought Mr. Courter was trying to address widely held concerns of parents.

Mr. Florio, who has led in public-opinion polls throughout the campaign, has been endorsed by the state affiliates of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The closely fought contest between Mr. Wilder, who is seeking to become the nation’s first black governor, and Mr. Coleman, a former state attorney general, has been characterized by negative advertising and personal attacks, which some educators said have detracted attention from the issues.

“I would describe the campaign as tiresome,” said Madeline Wade, president of the Virginia Education Association, which has endorsed Mr. Wilder. “This dirt-grubbing set of tactics is not doing Virginia’s image any good, and it is not doing the educational image any good either.”

The candidates are far apart on a number of key educational issues. Mr. Coleman favors merit-pay programs for teachers, while Mr. Wilder backs across-the-board pay raises.

Mr. Wilder supports the current state requirement for “family life” sex education, and Mr. Coleman has said he would work to repeal it because it does not focus enough on sexual abstinence. (See Education Week, Sept. 27, 1989.)

Mr. Wilder wants to expand the current child-care subsidy program for low-income families, while Mr. Coleman seeks tax credits for families with children and for employers who provide child-care programs.

The two men have also sparred over school choice.

In September, Mr. Coleman called for a choice plan that would allow pupils to cross jurisdictional lines. Mr. Wilder quickly labeled the plan “reactionary,” contending that it would lead to resegregation of schools.

Before the end of the same day, Mr. Coleman issued a statement clarifying his position, emphasizing that he supported choice as long as it did not create a resegregated system.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as Education Takes a Back Seat in Gubernatorial Races