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Education Opinion

Policy Promises and Political Turnover

By Andrew P. Kelly — November 02, 2010 6 min read
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Note: Andrew Kelly, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest-posting this week. He can be reached at andrew.kelly@aei.org.

Today’s the day, folks. Yesterday we talked House and Senate. As of 5:00 pm Monday night, Buck was up 3 points on Bennet in Colorado. In Alaska, Murkowski, Miller, and Democrat Scott McAdams were locked in a close three-way race that became even more volatile over the weekend.

Today I’ll take a look at some state-level races with an eye toward federal policy and school finance.

1. Promises, Promises: Gubernatorial Turnover and RTT/Common Core

The big story coming out of election week could be the number of governorships that change hands. This raises the question: will the states that won Race to the Top continue to implement their reform plans as promised under new governors?

RHSU has been unabashed in knocking RTT for rewarding “airy promises” rather than actual accomplishments. Electoral uncertainty exposes the problems with the RTT approach to education reform even further. Whether new governors maintain their predecessor’s commitment to the promised slate of RTT reforms is a huge question mark.

Of the 12 Race to the Top winners, seven will elect a new executive today because of retirements, term limits, or a run for higher office (these are D.C., Hawaii, Florida, New York, Tennessee, Georgia, and Rhode Island). Three more incumbent governors are locked in relatively close elections (Ohio, Maryland, and Massachusetts). According to yesterday’s New York Times, the governor’s races in Florida, Ohio, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Georgia are “toss-ups,” and Hawaii and Tennessee will almost certainly switch parties (Hawaii goes from Republican to Democrat, Tennessee goes Democrat to Republican). For those of you scoring at home, this means that anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of RTT winners will have a new face in the governor’s mansion, and somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the 12 chief executives could switch parties.

The story for the Common Core is similar. Of the 38 states (and D.C.) that have signed on, 29 have a gubernatorial election tomorrow. Of those, six states look likely to switch from Democratic to Republican (Wyoming, Iowa, Tennessee, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma) and three more will probably switch from Democratic to Republican. It’s possible that anywhere between 7 to 10 Democratic governors in states that have signed on to the standards could be replaced by Republicans.

I’m not arguing that new governors will automatically reject their predecessor’s RTT promises and/or the Common Core. But this uncertainty serves as a reminder of how difficult it is for policymakers to insulate their accomplishments from the prerogatives of future leaders. New administrations, particularly those from a different party, are usually elected on a promise to change course from the guys who preceded them. This is especially true in 2010, and the tension between past commitments and present conditions is particularly acute for Race to the Top because of its emphasis on what states promise to do. Surely, changes to state charter and data systems laws are difficult to undo after the fact. And state boards of education, some of which have staggered terms and partisan balance requirements, will protect commitments to the Common Core. But other policy promises, and their implementation, are much more difficult to insulate.

What will Secretary Duncan do if a new crop of state executives fail to hold up their end of the bargain?

2. Up Close: Florida and Ohio

Few states exemplify this dynamic more clearly than Ohio and Florida, where the governor’s races are still very much a toss-up. In the current political climate, Republican candidates who have run against big government and federal overreach--like John Kasich in Ohio or Rick Scott in Florida--are unlikely to cozy up to the Obama administration’s top education priorities after an electoral victory.

Take Florida: when the state won RTT money, sitting Governor Charlie Crist (an independent) credited the support from the teachers unions for the victory (he also vetoed a teacher tenure law that was opposed by the unions). In contrast, Rick Scott has made it clear that he would like to do away with tenure for new teachers, implement merit pay, and raise Florida’s class-size requirements. For its part, the Florida union has already warned that Scott’s plan to expand the state’s voucher program would run into constitutional issues and would prompt a lawsuit from the organization. Will the sunny consensus that surrounded Florida’s RTT application survive a Scott victory? If not, where does this leave Florida’s promised plan of reform? Scott and Democrat Alex Sink (who is endorsed by the state union) are currently in a dead heat.

In Ohio, John Kasich has already signaled a desire to roll back Ted Strickland’s slate of “evidence-based” funding reforms. Strickland has countered that a rejection of the reforms would "[endanger] $400 million in Race-to-the-Top funds,” a decision that is “irresponsible, reckless, and extreme.” Suffice it to say that there is a lot of daylight between Strickland and Kasich on education reform. The choice for Ohio voters has serious implications for both the state’s existing reform efforts and for the implementation of RTT. Kasich currently has a small lead (+3) in the polls, but it’s clearly anybody’s ball game.

A new sheriff in town would almost certainly have an impact on the implementation of RTT plans (and education reform more generally) in Ohio and Florida.

3. Voter Turnout And Education Funding

How do you compel state governments to make politically difficult choices to rein in education funding and increase class size?

A few states will experiment with one method tomorrow: take funding decisions out of the hands of risk-averse state legislators and put ‘em on the ballot, particularly in a year that is likely to feature a surge of energetic conservative turnout. Colorado’s “Amendment 60" would slash the amount of property taxes that residents must pay into the public schools, while Arizona’s Prop. 302 would redirect early childhood monies to the state’s general fund. Florida is seeking to relax its class-size amendment, a move favored by Republican Rick Scott. (For excellent coverage of these ballot initiatives (and others), see Alyson Klein’s story in Ed Week.)

These initiatives all face long odds at the polls, but voter turnout rates could make for a few surprises. If an enthusiastic wave of conservative, anti-tax voters are mobilized by candidates like Buck in Colorado and Scott in Florida, there is a chance that these propositions could surpass expectations. The teachers unions will certainly have something to say about that in both locales, and an impressive movement has evolved in opposition to Amendment 60 in Colorado (opponents, including Democrats and Republicans, have spent $6.8 million in the fight to defeat three tax-cutting amendments). Indeed, early polling suggests that the probability of a victory for the anti-tax group that is pushing Amendment 60 is small, and that the class size proposition has been a tough sell in Florida.

But if liberal Democrats are not mobilized as effectively as conservative Republican voters, these initiatives may have legs. Research on likely turnout suggests that the Republicans will have a clear (and perhaps unprecedented) advantage in voter turnout this year (see here and here). Moreover, these measures could serve as a barometer for the public’s appetite for education spending; even if they don’t pass, if they garner more support than expected at the polls, it could affect the latitude that state legislatures and governors have to pursue costly new initiatives.

Now that you’ve got a few things to keep an eye on while the early returns come in, go enjoy Election Day!

—Andrew Kelly

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.