Partisan Politics Lend New Twist To State Debates

By Jessica L. Sandham — May 26, 1999 9 min read

Third in an occasional series.

In the closing hours of the Arizona state legislative session this spring, tempers flared not over what did happen, but rather, what didn’t.

Locked in a political standoff, lawmakers allowed the clock to run out on an omnibus bill designed to impose stricter regulations on the state’s expansive 300-school charter system, even though members of both parties agreed at the start of the session that the system needed better safeguards against abuse.

But after months of wrangling over the specifics, the two competing legislative factions held their ground on opposing sides of an ideological gulf, blaming each other for the bill’s failure.

The series so far:

“There were a couple of good reforms that didn’t happen that should have happened,” said Jeffry Flake, the director of the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank in Phoenix. “Partisan politics had a role, but a lot of it traces back to a real, fundamental philosophical divide over how to improve schools.”

Arizona’s pitched battle over charter schools is but one example of the ideological and partisan divisions that have shaped the debate over education in state legislatures in recent years. As state leaders extend their influence in schools beyond financial matters and into areas of student achievement, instructional practices, and school accountability, observers say the policymaking stakes for legislators have only grown higher.

Nonpartisan Roots

In the past, education was not typically viewed as a legislative issue with natural partisan divisions. In the 1970s, when legislators did little in the way of shaping school policy beyond setting financial guidelines, education was the one issue where debates rarely broke down along party lines, said Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy and political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

“Education used to be a bipartisan issue,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “The arguments were over which districts would receive how much money. Now it’s about ‘What is the best way to reform schools?’ It’s much more polarized.”

As lawmakers move from determining what goes into their school systems to trying to influence the student test scores and educational results that come out of them, the debate over reform has naturally grown more tense.

Lawmakers from both major parties agree that the progress of students, teachers, and schools needs to be measured. Deciding how to use those measurements, however, has proved contentious, said Eric Hirsch, a policy specialist at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

“It used to be that education was an input-driven system,” Mr. Hirsch said. “Now that you have accountability, it changes the kind of debate you’re going to have. It’s necessarily more divisive.”

To be sure, lawmakers do not divide along partisan, or ideological, lines around every educational issue. Observers note that there has been plenty of bipartisan support for numerous initiatives, including those designed to raise academic standards, lower class sizes, and make schools safer.

But in debates over vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other ideas related to the school choice movement, the sharp ideological divisions in legislatures are often difficult to ignore. And, analysts say, similar partisan rifts have opened up in debates over such topics as the best approach to reading instruction and the education of language-minority students.

“There are a lot of hot-button issues,” said Thomas B. Timar, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Riverside. “It’s one of the great ironies. What we’ve produced in the last 15 years with this intense focus on education is less consensus than ever before.”

Reading Wars

During the 1998 legislative session in Washington state, for example, the decibel level for debate over phonics-based reading instruction quickly became “unnecessarily high,” said Dwayne Slate, the associate executive director for government relations for the Washington School Directors Association.

Republican lawmakers supported a plan, introduced by then-Rep. Peggy Johnson, that would have mandated that schools with unsatisfactory reading scores implement phonics-based instruction emphasizing the sounding out of syllables in new words. The Democrats, meanwhile, argued that the measure was overprescriptive and that decisions on how to teach reading ought to be made at the local level.

After weeks of what one observer called “high political drama,” the two sides struck a compromise: The state would allot roughly $9 million in grants to provide teachers and principals with materials and professional development on effective reading strategies. The use of phonics is defined and encouraged in the legislation.

“It ended up being a debate over local control,” said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, a Democrat. “Phonics was the issue, but it could have been about any program that people think is a silver bullet. The legislation finally got there, but it was very tough.”

In Washington, as in other states, the legislative divisions on education became especially apparent after the Republican sweep in the 1994 elections--a turning point for many legislatures across the country, as well as Congress.

That year, many new lawmakers were voted into office on a wave of “anti-bureaucratic fervor” that extended to education departments and school districts, Mr. Timar said. According to the NCSL, in 1992, there were 25 Democratic-majority legislatures, eight Republican-majority legislatures, and 16 with split party control. After the 1994 elections, Democrats controlled 18 legislatures, Republicans held 19, and 12 legislatures were split. In other words, voters opted for change--and they got it.

The resulting political clashes have made it more difficult to gather “parents, teachers, and administrators in the same room together without people wondering whose side they’re on,” said Mr. Slate, who also worked with Washington’s House and Senate education committees for 15 years.

“When I came to work in the 1970s, the politics really focused on labor relations,” Mr. Slate continued. “Nobody ever thought of education in a partisan way other than that. Now, how to teach reading has become a partisan issue.”

Rising Competition

Still, lawmakers have been known to put aside party differences and join forces against gubernatorial proposals they see as misguided.

In Pennsylvania, as in other states, lawmakers in the past four years have had to come to grips with a governor who has increasingly tried to set the agenda on education issues--a role that once belonged to them.

As a result, when it comes to school reform, the ideological fault lines in Pennsylvania are more apparent between the legislative and executive branches than among the legislators themselves, said Ronald R. Cowell, the president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a nonpartisan policy-research center based in Harrisburg, Pa.

Even as Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, has continued to push a school reform agenda that would provide publicly financed tuition vouchers for students in various school districts to attend private or religious schools, members of both the Republican and Democratic leadership on the House and Senate education committees have maintained a strong stance against vouchers.

“That suggests a bipartisan approach to these issues,” said Mr. Cowell, who served as a state legislator in Pennsylvania for 24 years before beginning his current job.

Analysts say the changing debate over school policy is at least partly attributable to the fact that, in many states, the legislatures that were once dominated by one party have watched their partisan margins grow slimmer and slimmer still.

Partisan debates have become more combative across the board, on education as well as other issues, as the competition for state legislative seats has intensified, said Karl T. Kurtz, the director of state services at the NCSL.

In the South, especially, states that were once overwhelmingly dominated by Democratic legislatures now have seen steady Republican gains.

Following the 1994 elections, for instance, the Democrats controlled roughly 60 percent of the seats in the South, compared with roughly 85 percent in 1975. Also in 1994, Republican lawmakers in many Western states solidified their majorities.

Party officials at the national level, meanwhile, have awakened to the fact that state legislatures are the arena in which many new ideas are first advanced. As a result, Mr. Kurtz said, the parties have started pumping more money into campaigns at the state level.

“National parties now recognize that it’s important to them to win state legislatures,” he said. “There’s more money being spent to win the races, and that’s probably led to a hardening of positions.”

Arizona Standoff

During the final hours of the Arizona legislative session on May 7, Sen. John Huppenthal, the chairman of the Senate education committee, saw no reason to ease his opposition to proposed charter school regulations he deemed excessive.

“Sometimes the cure can be part of the poison,” the Republican lawmaker said, explaining why he voted in a conference committee to strip the charter school bill of several Senate-approved changes, including one that would have spread state payments over 12 months instead of the current practice of giving charter school operators one-third of their funding up front.

A provision that would have required charter operators to be subject to state laws on open meetings and public records was also removed.

Without those provisions and others, Democratic Sen. Mary Hartley and a handful of other senators from both parties voted not to accept the remaining charter school changes that were approved by the conference committee.

Ms. Hartley said she did so with the hope that she and the Senate’s Republican leaders could still negotiate a compromise. Mr. Huppenthal had other ideas, and the measure died.

“I’m not going to concede one single point unless I have to,” Mr. Huppenthal said. “She’s a profound supporter of the district school system and an ardent foe of competition. Being reasonable doesn’t work.”

In the end, Ms. Hartley said, Arizona lawmakers are still dealing with the fallout of an ideological divide over school choice that began five years ago.

Trying to find consensus may be grueling, she said, but it’s important for the debate to run its course.

“It’s a major philosophical rift,” she said. “There are people who think that the only accountability charter schools should have is the number of kids in their desks. It needs to be debated and dealt with.”

Now that the session is over, Ms. Hartley said she remains baffled by local press reports that seem to place the blame for the failure of the proposed changes squarely on her shoulders.

“I just stood firm, and people were convinced by my argument,” she said, adding that she supports charter schools, but believes they need to be held more accountable.

“Now I’m to blame for everything,” she said. “They’re looking for a scapegoat, and I’m it.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 1999 edition of Education Week as Partisan Politics Lend New Twist To State Debates