Money Is the Education Issue in Gubernatorial Races

By Harrison Donnelly — October 31, 1990 10 min read

As the nation’s 36 gubernatorial campaigns enter their final week, the debate over education has boiled down in almost every state to just one issue--money.

With the economy hovering on the brink of a recession that could have a potentially devastating fiscal impact on state governments, few candidates are finding much political mileage this year in proposing costly new initiatives for the schools.

Indeed, in campaigns where education has become an important issue, it is frequently over how the state can to pay for current programs, rather than over starting others.

“The economy is overshadowing everything,” said Chris Pipho, director of state relations for the Education Commission of the States. “The threat we see coming is that the states are going to reallocate existing resources rather than provide new ones.”

The heightened fiscal concerns also are evident in the large number of proposed tax- and spending-limitations on state ballots, at least some of which appear headed for victory in next week’s voting. (See story, page 12.)

The low status of education as an issue this year--compared with such subjects as taxes, crime, or abortion--and the relatively modest proposals of most candidates is in marked contrast with several election cycles during the 1980’s.

In the past decade, education often was seen by observers as the dominant issue in governors’ races, and a number of candidates were able to galvanize voter support with bold proposals to raise teacher pay and improve student achievement.

Today, candidates making such promises for the schools must also contend with the delicate question of who is to pay.

Perhaps the emblematic election for education in 1990 is in Illinois, where the governorship is vacant for the first time in 14 years. To the consternation of many educators in the state, a Democrat has gained considerable ground on the Republican front-runner by promising to end an income-tax surcharge that provides more than $350 million a year for the schools.

To be sure, education reform has not entirely slipped from the electoral agenda. In Tennessee, for example, the Democratic incumbent is expected to cruise to an easy re-election while developing a $650-million school-reform and tax-increase package. (See Education Week, Oct. 17, 1990.)

Moreover, many candidates are pushing a set of innovations whose costs are low, or at least difficult to calculate, such as school choice, greater accountability for educators, and stricter discipline for students.

In a similar vein, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin is running on a record that includes such pathbreaking, if controversial, programs as Learnfare for welfare recipients and private-school vouchers for low-income Milwaukee students. (See story, page 1.)

And even when shying away from major new spending for the schools, candidates are finding some advantage to reaffirming their commitment to education and offering some carefully circumscribed new programs.

“Education is being used to temper the tough stands candidates are taking on such issues as crime,” observed Lawrence J. Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. “It shows they’re taking the ‘tough but caring’ approach.”

Mr. Sabato pointed to a television commercial being used by the Republican candidate in Texas, which combines a vow to put more criminals on chain gangs with a promise to provide two-year college scholarships to low-income, high-achieving students.

In addition, noted Michael W. Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University, education may not be the most prominent element in most campaign strategies in part because its support is so broad.

“It’s a top concern of the voters, but it’s not an issue candidates can use to get an edge,” he said. “Both candidates are for it, so it’s not something they feel they can use to pick up votes.”

Mr. Kirst, who also serves as co-director of the research group Policy Analysis for California Education, added that the fact that education remains at least an issue of some significance in most states after nearly a decade of reform efforts demonstrates its strength.

“Issues tend to have a cycle where they’re hot for a while and then recede,” he observed. “But education is still prominent after eight years. It has surprising staying power.”

Illinois: Tax Confrontation

Illinois may be the major battleground for education this year both because it is the only one of the nation’s “mega-states” in which the topic has assumed the central role in the campaign, and because the debate between the candidates touches on some fundamental questions about financing the schools.

Prairie State voters have indicated in the polls that their primary concerns are taxes and the quality of the schools, and both candidates have concentrated much of their energy and advertising on those topics.

“This is the key issue because of all the things the candidates disagree on, this is the one that clearly delineates the two,” said Randy J. Barnette, press secretary for the Illinois Education Assocation. ''It’s going to be key to who gets elected.”

The focus of contention is the two-year, 20 percent tax surcharge approved by the legislature last year, the proceeds of which are evenly divided between the schools and local governments.

Secretary of State Jim Edgar, who had been considered the heavy favorite to succeed his fellow Republican, Gov. James R. Thompson, has said all along that he would ask the legislature to approve an extension of the tax when it expires next year.

But Mr. Edgar’s Democratic opponent, Attorney General Neil Hartigan, has been able to mobilize anti-tax sentiment in the state and pull almost even in the polls by first hinting, and last month promising, that he would let the surcharge die.

The Republican candidate argues that to fail to extend the surcharge would be to “pull out the rug” from schools. Although the additional revenues were originally intended to be used only for one-time capital projects, many educators have said they have had no choice but to use the money for operating expenses.

Mr. Hartigan argues that the same or greater amount of money could be provided to the schools even without the surcharge. He has proposed a plan for cutting alleged waste and duplication in state government that he says would save a total of $573 million a year. Most of that money would be given to the schools, along with 25 percent of the growth in state revenue next year and 50 percent in subsequent years.

Mr. Edgar and others have argued that Mr. Hartigan’s proposals are “phony” savings that would not produce nearly as much money as the Democratic candidate has promised. Nevertheless, the two conflicting plans for school funding have created a quandary for education groups.

Despite the strong interest of the National Education Association in having a Democratic governor to help shape Congressional redistricting in the state, iea officials decided to support Mr. Edgar because of the tax issue. And the Illinois Association of School Administrators, which has never endorsed a candidate before, is backing the Republican.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, supports Mr. Hartigan and has helped him develop his education platform.

“As they get down to the wire, the issue that seems to be coming to the forefront is whose plan for funding education is the most realistic,” said Gail L. Purkey, the ift’s assistant to the president for communications.

Georgia: Lottery Dilemma

The source of education funding is also the key issue in Georgia, but there too educators are not finding much comfort in being at the top of the electoral agenda.

The Democratic candidate, Lieut. Gov. Zell Miller, has based almost his entire campaign on a call for creation of a state lottery, the proceeds of which would go to education. Observers said the popularity of the idea helped Mr. Miller overwhelm Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, in the Democratic primary.

Mr. Miller says that money from the lottery would go only for new, innovative education programs, and would not replace existing revenues.

Ironically, the Republican candidate, State Representative Johnny Isakson, also favors a constitutional amendment creating a state lottery. But polls show most voters identify the proposal with Mr. Miller.

Mr. Isakson proposes to send lottery proceeds directly to local schools to spend at their discretion. “Unlike my opponent,” his platform states, “I do not want to see lottery revenues used to create new programs to be administered by the bureaucracy.”

Despite the prospect of new funding, many educators say they fear they are being used merely as a “smokescreen” for the lottery.

Skeptics also cite examples from other states, where the existence of lottery money appears to have held down increases for the schools from general revenues.

Because of those doubts--as well as unhappiness with Mr. Miller’s endorsement of merit pay for teachers--the Georgia Association of Educators decided to break with its custom and not endorse a gubernatorial candidate this year.

Iowa: Paying for Raises

Like Illinois, Iowa provides a reversal of the partisan stereotype this year, with a Republican governor promising higher pay for teachers and the Democrat questioning where the money is going to come from.

Gov. Terry E. Branstad picked up the endorsement of the Iowa State Education Association in return for a promise to raise the state’s average teacher salary from $27,947 to the national average of $31,304.

The endorsement was a major political plum for Mr. Branstad, since the isea is a traditional powerhouse in state elections.

The move set off a storm within the union, with some teachers bitterly complaining about the abandonment of the Democratic candidate, Speaker of the House Donald D. Avenson, a long-time union ally.

The proposal also led to a major fiscal debate. Estimating that his salary plan would cost the state $90 million, Mr. Branstad argues that it can be implemented through projected growth in state revenues and will not require a tax increase.

But Mr. Avenson warns that the pay proposal will cost some $300 million, and attacks the Governor’s promise not to ask for a tax increase as “blue smoke and mirrors.”

While expressing general agreement with the idea that teachers should be paid more, Mr. Avenson says that no commitments should be made until the state revenue outlook becomes clearer.

The Democrat also has suggested the state encourage consolidation of rural districts in order to free up money for pay raises, but observers say that may have added to his problem by raising fears of teacher job losses.

Alabama: Testing Teachers

In at least one state, though, candidates are focusing less on funding the schools than on an education-policy question. That is in Alabama, where Paul R. Hubbert is challenging the Republican incumbent, Guy Hunt.

That education is a major factor in the race is perhaps not surprising, given that Mr. Hubbert is the head of the Alabama Education Association.

Actually, however, Mr. Hubbert has not sought to make education a focus of his campaign. His media advertisements are more likely to stress efforts to get tough on convicts and put welfare recipients to work, and he has said he would not feel bound to seek a teacher raise if elected.

But Mr. Hunt, after devoting most of his campaign to extolling his achievements in office, has sought in recent weeks to bring critical attention to Mr. Hubbert’s role as a teacher lobbyist--a move that observers say partly reflects polls showing the Democrat cutting into the incumbent’s lead.

In addition to trying to tie Mr. Hubbert to the liberal wing of the national Democratic Party, Mr. Hunt has sharply attacked what he says is the aea’s role in killing teacher testing in the state.

A Hunt television advertisement, for example, says that Mr. Hubbert has opposed competency testing “for 20 years, and our kids are paying the price.” The commercial accuses the union of killing a testing plan proposed by Mr. Hunt.

While acknowledging that the aea successfully attacked the state’s testing program in court, on the grounds of racial bias, Mr. Hubbert says he supports the idea in general, and argues that the Governor’s proposal died in the legislature because of questions about its specifics among the business community.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1990 edition of Education Week as Money Is the Education Issue in Gubernatorial Races