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Two Governors, Two Partisan Showdowns With Their State Legislatures

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 06, 2019 5 min read
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Two governors, one a veteran, and the other in her first year, have engaged in very public conflicts in the last several weeks with their state lawmakers over education funding issues. And even more so than usual, it’s a real stretch to say these recent disputes—in Maryland and in Michigan—aren’t partisan, since in each case the two sides represent different parties.

The likelihood of these specific kind of clashes is becoming less common. That’s because the number of states where the governorship and legislature are controlled by different parties has shrunk in recent years: At the start of 2009 there were 23 states with such divided control of government; a decade later, that figure had shrunk to 13.

However, as education politics has grown more divisive at the state as well as national level over things like school choice, spending, and civil rights issues, the odds are pretty decent that when these fights do occur, they’ll run hot.

‘Vicious Weapon Against Kids’

Charter school aid is the big flashpoint in Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat in the first year of her term, recently caused a stir by vetoing a $240 per-pupil increase for charter school students for the upcoming fiscal year approved by the GOP-controlled legislature—Crain’s Detroit reported that the veto nixed a total of $35 million in additional funding for charters. Whitmer did not veto a separate funding increase for traditional public schools. Whitmer executed a total of 147 such line-item vetoes and stepped up her war with the Republican legislature in the process.

It’s not particularly surprising that Whitmer isn’t a big fan of charters. During her 2018 campaign, Whitmer argued that the state GOP has “sided with Betsy DeVos to push an education agenda that included ... expanding unaccountable for-profit managed charter schools.” Michigan is DeVos’ home state and has been a political battleground over charters and other forms of school choice for some time. Whitmer also called for greater accountability for charters.

The governor said she’s willing to negotiate with Republicans on the issue. But charter school advocates swiftly criticized Whitmer for the veto. For example, the Great Lakes Education Project, a non-profit group that supports school choice, said the governor used her veto pen as a “vicious weapon against kids” and that Whitmer had “callously and specifically attacked minority students, learners from low-income families, and public school kids in Detroit urban neighborhoods.”

Charter schools educate about 10 percent of students in the state, and have come under a lot of scrutiny since DeVos became U.S. education secretary in 2017. The state’s for-profit charter sector has shown promising results for students’ math achievement; about two-thirds of charters in the state are run by for-profit entities. However, an investigation five years ago by the Detroit Free Press found that public school students outperformed charter students statewide, even when poverty is accounted for. And while Detroit charter school students have done well recently relative to their traditional public school counterparts in the city, the comparison may not be especially flattering given how poor Detroit’s traditional public schools have performed recently on standardized measures.

There are also concerns about charter school oversight in the state, a theme Whitmer highlighted in her campaign.

A Commission and a Controversy

Unlike Whitmer, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland is not a first-year executive. But just like his Michigan counterpart, Hogan, who was re-elected in 2018 and is term-limited in 2022, is in a public and testy fight with his legislature—controlled by Democrats—over education spending.

In this case, the issue is overall education spending. A state commission tasked with examining the state’s school finance system recommended that the state provide a $3.8 billion funding increase for K-12 over a decade. (Click here to learn more about the commission’s work and recent policy shifts in Maryland education aid.) While Democrats passed state legislation this year to begin providing a cash boost for education over a three-year period focused on pre-K and teacher pay, the overall size and scope of the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations remain a touchy issue. (That bill became law without Hogan’s signature.)

That’s because, as Hogan has publicly discussed, the $3.8 billion funding boost would probably depend in large part on significant tax increases. The governor made it plain that despite additional school funding Democrats might seek, no such tax increases would take place on his watch.

As the Washington Post reported last month, Hogan’s opposition to tax increases for the Kirwan Commission is such that a new political action committee Hogan started will accept “unlimited donations” in its attempts to fight the full implementation of the commission’s spending recommendations. The Post also notes that Hogan’s successful campaign for governor in 2014 was rooted in his public opposition to tax increases from a few years earlier. Last year, state voters approved a ballot initiative intended to ensure that state revenues from gambling would be directed to the education budget.

In response, state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, called Hogan’s political strategy “abhorrent” and said that the governor is only interested in rejecting education spending plans without coming up with any of his own.

Any year that follows gubernatorial elections that split state governments is often an interesting one, and 2019 is proving to be no different.

Correction: This post has been corrected to reflect that Gov. Larry Hogan did not sign a school funding bill passed by the legislature this year.

Photo: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks about the state budget, during a press conference at the State Library and Michigan History Center in Lansing. (Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP)