Educators Predicted To Feel ‘Staggering’ Legislative Shifts

By Lonnie Harp — November 16, 1994 6 min read
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The overwhelming Republican victories in last week’s elections have laid the groundwork for a big shift in state education policy, political observers said.

Besides the well-publicized shakeup in Congress and pickups in several governors’ offices, Republicans also made wide gains in state legislatures.

With votes in a few races still being counted, returns showed that in nine states where Democrats and Republicans had split control, Republicans now have majorities in both the House and the Senate. In six more states where Democrats had controlled both houses, Republicans have gained control in one chamber.

Officials at the National Conference of State Legislatures called the shifts “staggering.”

Educators and others will feel the transformation quickly come January, according to Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform.

“It is going to be a banner year for choice and charter schools, and a bad year for school-based management, school-finance reform, and other things that clearly have not helped to solve our problems,” Ms. Allen predicted.

Other observers agreed that lawmakers are likely to focus on management rather than money and suburbs rather than cities. New standards-based achievement tests are likely to get more scrutiny, vouchers for private schools will regain some momentum, and property-tax limits may become a popular idea.

“People are joking around here, ‘Welcome to the real New Texas,’” said a lobbyist in Austin, where Gov. Ann W. Richards, a Democrat, lost, and Republicans narrowed Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

A New Landscape

Some states appear likely to follow their previous course. Schoolreform was not a major issue in Kentucky races, for example, and leading supporters and foes of the 1990 school-reform act there remained in office, promising no major shifts.

But many other states are now more hospitable environments for ideas that have been identified with conservatives.

Legislatures in Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin are now solidly Republican, and--except for Indiana and North Dakota--now have Republican governors. Alaska’s gubernatorial race last week was too close to call.

With three House races undecided, the Oregon legislature also appeared to be close to Republican control.

Republicans have also won greater clout in states they do not control outright, including California, where Democrats retained control of the Senate but now have a 40-to-40 tie with Republicans in the Assembly.

In Connecticut, Republicans won the governor’s race and narrowly won control of the Senate.

In Maine, the Senate will be evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. In the Maine House, the Democrats’ 33-seat majority dwindled to three seats.

Republicans also gained control of the House in North Carolina and Washington State, while winning a tie in the House in Nevada, which the Democrats had previously controlled.

That new political power will translate into a new policy stance in many of the states, analysts said.

Choice and Charters

Observers expect Texas to be among the states where energized Republicans push for laws to allow open enrollment and create some variation on charter schools, which win freedom from state regulation by signing a performance contract with the state.

Governor-elect George W. Bush promised to push for “home-rule schools,” a spinoff of the charter-school concept, as well as downsizing and decentralizing the Texas Education Agency--another theme likely to win currency among Republican state leaders.

And the early rumblings from the Lone Star State come from a state where the composition of the legislature stayed largely the same. State Sen. Carl A. Parker, a longtime former chairman of the Senate Education Committee, was among the few Democrat lawmakers upset on Election Day. Texas and 17 other legislatures still have Democratic majorities.

“There was a slight shift toward Republicans,” said Frank Battle, the acting director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards. “But what it signals is that the state is going to be worrying less about collective bargaining and teachers’ union issues and more about things like vouchers.”

Observers said they will also watch Connecticut and Pennsylvania for creative choice and deregulation bills when the new political season begins in 1995. Arizona also may be likely to move education programs inspired by conservative thinkers.

Ms. Allen predicts a “panoply” of strategies to “reduce bureaucracy, return accountability, and reinstate local control” that may begin in a few states in January and flourish over the next two years.

The leadership of Republicans may also increase the focus on standards-driven reforms while at the same time causing reconsideration of the standards themselves.

Republican leaders in Pennsylvania, for example, are likely to push for changes in the state’s assessment program and re-examination of the state’s school outcomes to tie them more explicitly to core academic skills rather than such qualities as reasoning ability or teamwork. Republicans in Arizona, Connecticut, and South Carolina may make testing an issue.

Budget Cuts Imminent?

In Illinois, the election results insure that Chicago’s interests will have a lesser voice in state decisions. Already, talk has begun about a breakup of the Chicago school system.

“The first priority is going to be aid to the suburbs and the priorities of Republicans,” said John Pelissero, a professor of political science at Loyola University in Chicago. He doubts Republicans will waste much time before showing their strength.

“In some states where the Democrats lost a few seats, the Republicans may see this as a chance to move forward, but here, they are not going to miss the opportunity to take control of policy and march forth,” Mr. Pelissero said. “They clearly see this as a mandate.”

The Republicans’ penchant for freezing property taxes may force a new round of tough budget decisions on districts in Illinois and other states.

At the same time, the education associations that have traditionally gone to bat on such issues may also find themselves struggling.

Teachers’ unions--a favorite target of conservative lawmakers--may be among the biggest losers. Several analysts predicted that bills intending to sap their organizing ability and contract-bargaining power may sail through Republican-dominated states.

In California, a law guaranteeing 40 percent of the state’s general-fund revenue to education will keep lawmakers from any drastic cuts, while a law requiring a two-thirds majority to adopt the state’s budget will limit what either party can do, according to observers.

“It is not as bad as it might be,” said Fred Glass, a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers. “But we can expect that Governor [Pete] Wilson and the Republicans will not be giving more money to schools.”

Moderate But Active

While a conservative trend might be associated with less government spending, some observers said that a continued economic upturn may counteract it.

“Unlike Republicans in Congress, at the state level Republicans are different, and if they have money they will put it into schools,” said Allan R. Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who tracks school funding.

“They key determinant of appropriations is the health of state economies,” he said. “In good times, the state budget does well and so does education.”

While leaders in Washington may call for spending cuts, state leaders are likely to be more moderate, he added, calling Republican Governors like Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, William Weld of Massachusetts, and John Engler of Michigan--all re-elected last week--"moderate but active.”

Some of that activity, he said, will likely come in pushing for increased state aid to schools.

Some observers are skeptical, however, that the new faces will make a big difference.

“We don’t see any political will on either side to deal in any substantive way with this state’s school-finance problem,” although Ohio is under a court order to do so, said William Phillis, the executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding. “Until they have to act through outside intervention, the only thing that will happen is tinkering.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 1994 edition of Education Week as Educators Predicted To Feel ‘Staggering’ Legislative Shifts


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