Governors’ Seats on the Line in La., Ky., and Miss.

By Lonnie Harp & Mark Pitsch — October 30, 1991 8 min read

While the governors of two key education-reform states, Kentucky and Mississippi, will be elected next week, the results are likely to do little to divert the attention of education analysts and political observers from the riveting events unfolding in Louisiana.

On Nov. 16, Louisiana voters will go to the polls to decide if they want their next governor to be a former Ku Klux Klan leader, State Representative David E. Duke, or a former governor, Edwin W. Edwards, whose career has been dogged by allegations of corruption.

Openly appealing to white voters’ resentment of affirmative action and welfare programs, Mr. Duke finished a close second to Mr. Edwards in the state’s Oct. 19 nonpartisan primary, thus winning a spot in next month’s run-off.

Mr. Duke’s rhetoric has been attacked as racist by national political leaders, and he has been disavowed by the heads of the Republican Party, to which he belongs.

Louisiana teachers’ unions also view a Duke victory as a catastrophe, and have promised to go all out for Mr. Edwards, a Democrat. If Mr. Duke wins, said Fred Skelton, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, “We turn the clock back. It would be a disaster.”

“It’s not hard to see what we’re going to do in the next election,” Mr. Skelton said. “We are going to be adamantly opposed [to Mr. Duke], and we have already started working.”

The unions can already claim a share of the credit for bringing down the incumbent governor, Buddy Roemer, who finished third in the primary. The unions had bitterly opposed Mr. Roemer, who switched to the G.O.P. after winning election in 1987 as a Democrat, for his support of a statewide teacher-evaluation program.

In the other two states, by contrast, the gubernatorial campaigns have been far less tumultuous.

In Kentucky, both candidates are promising not to substantially alter the state’s landmark reform law. And in Mississippi, Gov. Ray Mabus is campaigning both for a second term and for a stronger hand in his dispute with the legislature over funding for his school-improvement program.

Louisiana: Evaluation Issue

Mr. Roemer frequently touted his education reforms during the campaign leading up to the primary vote. But a cornerstone of his efforts, the teacher-evaluation program, was anathema to the L.F.T. and the Louisiana Association of Educators, and is currently in limbo. The legislature this year removed the evaluations from use after one year so that educators and lawmakers could revise it.

Teachers supported Mr. Edwards, Mr. Skelton said, because Mr. Roemer’s evaluation program failed to give local educators control over the evaluations--something Mr. Edwards has pledged to do.

“The litmus test was teacher evaluations,” he said.

In addition to calling for changes to the teacher-evaluation program, Mr. Edwards’s platform--developed in cooperation with the L.A.E.--proposes working with school superintendents in developing a new method of financing public education and convening a taxation convention to look at the rewriting of tax laws for that purpose.

The legislature is expected next year to consider a new school-finance formula that would shift money to poorer school districts at the expense of wealthier ones.

Mr. Edwards has also pledged to provide more money for preschool and K-4 programs.

The “key” to Mr. Duke’s education platform, according to an assistant, Marc Ellis, is “local control.”

Mr. Duke supports ability tracking in public schools; a parental-choice program that would allow parents to send their child to any public school and provide state funding for most, but not all, of private school tuition; a statewide college loan program for middle-income families; and a teacher-evaluation program that features local control, Mr. Ellis said.

Kentucky: Fine-Tuning Reform

Although both candidates in the Kentucky have pledged to abide by the 1990 education-reform law, each has some fine-tuning in mind.

The Republican candidate, U.S. Representative Larry J. Hopkins, is calling for the more extensive list of changes in the landmark statute.

Mr. Hopkins has proposed adding a non-parent community representative to the six-member school-based management councils established by the reform law, for example. In addition, he wants to connect the measure’s statewide school-technology network to a fiber-optic system that is also part of his economic-development strategy.

Mr. Hopkins’s education agenda also includes full funding of school programs for 4-year-olds, expanding mentor programs, studying privatization of school services, using school buildings beyond normal hours, adopting an alternative teacher-certification path, and expanding school-choice programs.

While he has put forward a number of education proposals, the Democratic candidate, Lieut. Gov. Brereton C. Jones, also is telling voters that this is the wrong moment to tack major new school-improvement schemes onto the structure created by the reform law.

“This is a time that requires the complete and unwavering commitment of a governor to making our education agenda work,” Mr. Jones said at a recent candidates’ forum.

Mr. Jones, who is seen as the favorite by most analysts in the heavily Democratic state, has advocated expanding the reform law’s parent-and-child literacy programs, known as PACE, to each county. Further, Mr. Jones said he would seek greater Head Start funding from the state.

Mr. Jones also would modify the education-technology program by expanding the state public-television network’s efforts to provide distance learning and including financial-aid information in the statewide database.

Both candidates have said they would seek more money for the state’s school-finance formula, which fell short of full funding this year after more districts than expected raised local tax rates in order to receive additional state aid.

While backing funding increases, however, both candidates have expressed skepticism about a proposal by Commissioner of Education Thomas C. Boysen to assess all students each year. Mr. Hopkins for now has ruled out the plan, which is estimated to cost $50 million a year.

Moreover, any reform efforts by the new governor may be weakened by the state’s darkening budget picture, which currently shows a $160 million shortfall.

Analysts noted that, while Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson, who is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, will probably make the cuts necessary to balance the budget before he leaves office, the projected deficit is the first sign that Kentucky may be falling prey to the recession that has shadowed many state budgets in the past year.

“Financially, it’s a discouraging picture. But, over all, we’ve been encouraged by the support on both sides to implement the reform program,” said Robert F. Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens'-advocacy group that does not endorse candidates.

“Whoever is elected has made a commitment to the program that the legislature will see as the direction the governor will want to go,” Mr. Sexton added.

Mississippi: Funding Woes

In Mississippi, Governor Mabus is making education reform a major theme of his bid to become the state’s first governor to be re-elected. But some analysts are speculating that the state’s education-funding problems and broader budget woes may be creating an opening for Mr. Mabus’s opponent, Kirk Fordice, to become Mississippi’s first Republican chief executive since Reconstruction.

The Governor, a Democrat, is once again touting his Better Education for Success Tomorrow reform plan, which passed the legislature in 1990.

But the Best program has yet to be funded, as the result of a dispute between Mr. Mabus and the legislature over whether the money should come from a new state lottery or a tax increase.

In addition, school districts across the state have been hit hard by budget cuts at both the state and local levels. After repeated cuts during the last fiscal year, the state has already cut about $30 million in elementary and secondary school aid from this year’s budget.

Mr. Mabus has told voters he will push for a law requiring that education bills be the first considered and passed by appropriations panels.

“We want to make education a clear budgeting priority,” said Pickett Wilson, the Governor’s special adviser for education. To that end, she said, Mr. Mabus also would promote a bill requiring the legislature to appropriate no less than 42 percent of general-fund revenue for education, thereby guaranteeing no further funding decreases.

Public disappointment over the BEST bill’s fate and the more recent cuts has spilled over into legislative races, where education funding has become a predominant topic this year, Ms. Wilson said.

The depth of public concern over school financial woes was evident in a Sept. 17 primary, in which only 7 of 28 locally elected school superintendents seeking re-election won a majority.

Mr. Mabus also has used this year’s campaign to attempt to build public support for a lottery, which faces determined opposition in the legislature.

Mr. Mabus’s efforts on behalf of the lottery and his education plan have both become targets for Mr. Fordice, a Vicksburg contractor making his first bid for statewide office. Mr. Fordice used his status as a rookie politician uncomfortable with written speeches and other campaign formalities to handily win his party’s primary runoff.

Mr. Fordice has promised to continue his grassroots approach in developing a new education-reform strategy. He has said he would gather lawmakers, business leaders, and educators to draft a new reform plan that would suit employers’ needs.

The candidate has also pledged to send a confidential questionnaire to teachers soliciting advice on how to improve the state’s schools.

Mr. Fordice also favors a parental-choice plan that would eventually phase-in a voucher system, according to Beverly Bolten, his communications director.

Despite considerable rhetoric focusing on education improvements, though, observers said that the campaign has done little to move voters.

“The cuts have convinced a lot of people that we have not made as much progress as has been claimed,” said John L. Hartman, executive director of the Mississippi School Boards Association. “I don’t see a great deal of optimism.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 1991 edition of Education Week as Governors’ Seats on the Line in La., Ky., and Miss.