Education, School Finance Among Losers in Governors' Races

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The angry electorate that put Republicans in control of the U.S. Congress for the first time in decades also weighed in last week against some education-friendly candidates in gubernatorial races.

All the candidates who focused their campaigns on education and school finance came up losers, an outcome that has education advocates worried about their prospects in state legislatures. (See related story )

For the first time since 1970, a majority of the nation's governors will be Republicans.

In the 36 states that elected governors last week, 24 chose Republicans. No g.o.p. incumbents lost, but four Democratic Governors--Mario M. Cuomo of New York, Ann W. Richards of Texas, Bruce King of New Mexico, and James E. Folsom Jr. of Alabama--were defeated.

Republicans also won in 10 of the 14 states where no incumbent was running, including seven seats that had been held by Democrats and one that had been held by an independent.Three Democrats won open seats that had been in their column, and an independent, Angus King, won the governorship of Maine, which had been Republican.

That leaves 30 statehouses in the hands of Republicans and 17 controlled by Democrats. Democrats also led in close races in Alaska and Maryland.

(See education was an important issue in a few states that face court orders to improve the equity or adequacy of their school systems. Candidates who defied the courts and argued that major change is not needed prevailed.

For example, the Republican incumbents, Stephen Merrill and Fife Symington, retained the governorships of New Hampshire and Arizona, respectively. Both Mr. Merrill's opponent, Wayne D. King, and Mr. Symington's challenger, Eddie Basha, had proposed using a statewide property tax to increase school-finance equity and reduce local tax burdens.

Arizona and New Hampshire are heavily Republican states. But in Alabama, Governor Folsom also lost a close race to Fob James Jr., a former Democratic Governor who had switched to the g.o.p. Mr. James has said he would appeal a state court ruling that Alabama's education system is both inadequate and inequitable, and he vowed that he would not raise taxes to comply with it. Mr. Folsom had supported the court ruling and promoted an education-reform package that failed in the last legislative session. He promised that voters would be able to approve any tax increase.

In South Dakota, where residents are clamoring for relief from high property taxes, both major gubernatorial candidates--Democrat Jim Beddow and Republican William J. Janklow--proposed increasing the share of school costs borne by the state. Mr. Janklow, a former Governor who contended that this could be done by cutting other spending, won the election.

School Finance, Taxes

Democratic candidates who tried to unseat Republican incumbents in Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin made school finance an important part of their campaigns--and they all lost badly. All four had proposed financing increased school aid and property-tax relief by raising the income taxes of the wealthy and some sales taxes.

Dawn Clark Netsch, the Illinois candidate who based nearly her entire campaign on her finance-reform plan, was beaten by Gov. Jim Edgar by a 2-to-1 margin. Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, noted that polls indicated that a majority of voters wanted property-tax relief and were willing to pay higher income taxes to fund education.

"There's some kind of disconnect in the logic circuits," Ms. Purkey said. "They were wanting exactly what she was saying, and yet she lost."

"I think you have to look at it in the context of the Republican juggernaut," she added. "I don't know if it's a repudiation of [school finance] as an issue so much as total anger on the part of the electorate."

Two Republican candidates who proposed income-tax cuts fared well in the election last week.

State Sen. George E. Pataki pulled off a big upset in New York, ousting Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo after three terms, largely on the strength of his pledge to cut income taxes by 25 percent over four years.

In heavily Democratic Maryland, Parris N. Glendening, a Democratic county executive, held a narrow lead late last week over state Rep. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, as absentee ballots continued to be counted. Ms. Sauerbrey promised to cut taxes 24 percent over four years.

However, Republican Gene Spence lost to Gov. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a popular Democrat, despite proposing a 10 percent income-tax cut and a cap on property-tax levies.

Choice and Prayer

Ms. Sauerbrey was among several Republican candidates who supported private-school-voucher plans, but Jeb Bush was the one most identified with the idea. The son of former President George Bush nearly unseated Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida with a platform focused on crime and conservative, values-oriented issues. He supported school prayer, and he proposed eliminating the state education department.

Lance deHaven-Smith, the associate director of the Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University, suggested that Mr. Bush's emphasis on choice may have hurt him with the rural, white voters who represented the swing vote in this election because "they are working-class people with kids in the public schools."

"In exit polls, the voters said they were concerned about experience and extreme ideas," Mr. deHaven-Smith said.

He also noted that voters in Lake County--which gained national attention when religious conservatives mounted a takeover of the school board--backed Mr. Chiles.

"If vouchers were important to voters, you would have expected them to go for Bush," Mr. deHaven-Smith said.

Education was also an issue in Texas, where George W. Bush--Jeb Bush's brother--proposed more autonomy for local school districts and curbing the authority and bureaucracy of the Texas Education Agency.

Ms. Richards, the incumbent, was saddled with defending an unpopular school-finance system--enacted in response to a court ruling that the previous system was unconstitutional--that essentially takes revenue from relatively wealthy districts and distributes it to poor ones.

The Texas lottery also became an issue when Mr. Bush charged that Governor Richards had misled voters into thinking that all the lottery proceeds would be devoted to education.

Vol. 14, Issue 11

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