There was a time when showing up for a photo op at a local kindergarten was enough to prove that a politician was school-savvy. Not this fall. According to a recent opinion poll co-sponsored by the Public Education Network and Education Week, voters are hankering to place education specialists in office. In fact, almost 90 percent of the survey’s respondents said they’d favor a candidate who understands education issues, believes most school- related decisions should be made by parents and teachers, and pledges to stand firm on education funding in the face of budget cutbacks. About 63 percent said a politician’s education views played either the “most important” or a “very important” part in their voting decisions.
To win over the electorate, many candidates are floating ideas for solving specific problems faced by schools in their states. Following are four such issues, the candidates’ responses to them, and what teachers’ unions think of those plans. No matter who wins the races, though, one thing is certain: Debate over these subjects is sure to continue long after November 5.
The Race: Governor, New Mexico.
The Candidates: Democrat Bill Richardson, former U.S. representative and Energy Department secretary, vs. Republican John Sanchez, state representative.
The Issue: New Mexico currently ranks 47th in teacher pay out of all states and the District of Columbia. Consequently, it is facing a crippling teacher shortage.
Candidates’ Plans: Richardson suggests that the state implement a system of bonuses, funded by private-sector donations, to bump up the salaries of high-quality educators. Sanchez advocates adopting a more traditional merit pay system that would increase or decrease teachers’ salaries based on student test scores.
Union Endorsement: Richardson. The New Mexico Federation of Educational Employees supports the Democrat although the union cautions that bonuses are not true pay reform. “We have endorsed Bill Richardson because of his opposition to vouchers and privatization,” explains union president Christina Trujillo.
The Race: U.S. Senator, Minnesota.
The Candidates: Democrat Paul Wellstone, incumbent, vs. Republican Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul.
The Issue: Minnesota faces a projected deficit of $1.95 billion for 2002-03, so policymakers will be spending the next legislative session balancing the budget by raising revenue, using reserves, and cutting spending. Educators fear that school funding could be scaled back.
Candidates’ Plans: Wellstone wants the federal government to freeze tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans—those making $300,000 a year or more—and use that money to fund 40 percent of schools’ special education costs as promised in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendment of 1997. (Currently, the feds pay about 15 percent of costs.) While Coleman doesn’t have a detailed plan to increase special ed funding, he told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press in August that he would use his coalition-building skills to make it happen.
Union Endorsement: Wellstone. Judy Schaubach, president of Education Minnesota, says Wellstone “brings a lot of common sense” to the discussion of how to implement requirements outlined in federal legislation like the “No Child Left Behind” Act and the IDEA.
The Race: Governor, Pennsylvania.
The Candidates: Democrat Ed Rendell, former mayor of Philadelphia, vs. Republican Mike Fisher, state attorney general.
The Issue: Perhaps no city in the nation has drawn more attention for its failing education programs than Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia, which was thrust into the national limelight in December 2001 when the state took control of its schools. Now, the private company hired to manage the 20 worst-performing ones, Edison Schools Inc., is in financial turmoil. It’s not surprising that each candidate is keen to convince voters that he knows best how to stabilize the situation.
Candidates’ Plans: Both candidates believe inequitable funding is at the heart of the problem of failing schools. Rendell’s recipe for equalizing resources: Generate more money to spend on education. He has proposed installing slot machines at racetracks to bring in an estimated $500 million per year of extra cash for schools. He also wants to dedicate a portion of the state’s newly passed cigarette tax to the cause. Fisher’s approach: “Instead of spending more, we’re going to spend smarter,” he declares on his campaign Web site. If elected, he plans to call a special session of the General Assembly to examine Pennsylvania’s school funding options.
Union Endorsement: Rendell. “Ed Rendell is closer to our association on important issues affecting public education,” explains Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “He has made it a key part of his campaign to talk about reducing the over-reliance on property taxes to fund schools.”
The Race: U.S. Senator, Tennessee.
The Candidates: Democrat Bob Clement, U.S. representative, vs. Republican Lamar Alexander, U.S. secretary of education from 1991 to 1993.
The Issue: Unequal education is a serious problem in Tennessee. Quality Counts 2002, an annual report by Education Week that assesses states’ education policies, gave Tennessee a grade of D plus, placing it among the worst in the nation for the equity of resources among its schools. In such a climate, many families seek to move their kids to better- performing schools. Options are limited, however, because Tennessee is one of 13 states that prohibit charter schools.
Candidates’ Plans: Alexander is promoting a program he developed as secretary of education dubbed the “GI Bill for Kids.” The program would give $250 “scholarships” to middle- and low-income students to help them go to the public or private school of their choice. “There’s always a big roar when you say ‘voucher system,’” Alexander told the Chattanooga Times in April. “That’s not what we’re talking about. I’d like to see the federal government help schools that need it, with no strings and more choices.” He also advocates changing state law to allow charters. Clement opposes school choice. To improve the learning environment in Tennessee’s low-performing institutions, he instead proposes that the state work to reduce class size and attract good teachers.
Union Endorsement: Clement. Judy Beasley, president of the Tennessee Education Association, says the union agrees with the Democrat’s tactics for improving schools. The fact that Alexander was once the nation’s top education official doesn’t impress the union much, she adds, since the organization believes his views on school choice “undermine the public schools.”