Governors Leave Education Legacies

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During his first campaign for Georgia's highest office in 1990, Zell Miller outlined his vision for a new state lottery program that would keep Georgians from crossing state lines to play the revenue-generating games of chance and benefit education to boot.

Eight years later, it's that vision rather than Mr. Miller's name that will appear on the Georgia ballot. For while Mr. Miller is winding up his second and, by law, final term as governor, Georgia voters will decide whether to amend the state constitution to seal the link between the lottery and education that the outgoing governor forged.

Regardless of the constitutional vote, however, Mr. Miller's educational legacy is air-tight.

Mr. Miller is one of 11 governors leaving office next January, many of whom led high-profile efforts for students and schools that have collectively helped secure education as one of the nation's foremost political concerns.

Whether their successors will keep the educational torch burning as brightly depends largely on their ability to establish agendas early and stay the course, national education observers say. With 36 gubernatorial races this November, education is a prime topic on many campaign trails.

"The big question is, can we end up with another group of long-term performers?" said Frank Newman, the president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "Can we translate campaign interest in education into long-term interest?"

The Long View

In Georgia, widespread support for the Democratic governor's lottery-supported HOPE Scholarship and prekindergarten programs practically guarantees their continued existence for years to come, said Mark D. Musick, the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

"The South has had some pretty substantial education governors, but you'd be hard-pressed to say any were more so than Zell Miller," Mr. Musick said. "He is a governor who has made a difference."

For the next class of governors, turning political promises into an educational legacy could become increasingly difficult in an era of legislative term limits and turnover that favors "shorter-term, more politically oriented actions," Mr. Newman said. "If there's one thing that's clear about education reform, it's that it takes a long, long time."

Rounding out his 16th year in office, outgoing Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad appears to know a thing or two about the long haul.

Even in a recent unsuccessful tug of war as a lame-duck governor, Mr. Branstad can be credited for the sheer perseverance he showed this summer in trying to coax state lawmakers into a special session on his proposal to strengthen merit pay for teachers, said Jolene Franken, the president of the Iowa State Education Association.

While he failed to rally sufficient support for a special session, the four-term governor--who has chosen not to seek re-election--ensured that the issue of teacher standards and compensation would live past his tenure by establishing a commission to analyze the topic and make recommendations to the 1999 legislature.

Still, the Republican chief executive's greatest contribution to Iowa schools remains the 1996 establishment of a five-year, $150 million technology program that provided a "real shot in the arm for our school districts," Ms. Franken said.

Nationally, too, the governor ushered in a new focus on educational technology, beginning in the late 1980s, through his support for an interactive, fiber-optic computer network that now links government buildings, state colleges and universities, and most of the state's 375 school districts.

"For its time, [the Iowa Communications Network] was a real leap forward technologically," said Chris Dede, a professor of education and information technology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "It was a model of what was possible that a lot of states have chosen to follow."

Bully Pulpit

One lesson that can be gleaned from the records of this year's class of outgoing governors, education experts say, is that one of the best ways to seal up an educational legacy is to foster popular support at every turn.

"What these people understood was that you have to build public support for what you want to accomplish," Mr. Newman of the ECS said.

With his regular appearances at town meetings, and a propensity for using visual aids to explain educational concepts, retiring Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, for example, successfully drummed up strong, and early, support for a statewide system of standards and assessments in 1993.

"We used to have a joke about Governor Romer that he wouldn't be able to function without an easel," Mr. Newman said. "But Romer was key to the standards movement because it was very early on. Today it would be much easier to argue for standards."

Some analysts are also quick to credit Mr. Romer, as a past chairman of the National Education Goals Panel, with helping to bring to other states an awareness of the value of uniform standards and assessments.

The departure of Mr. Romer, a Democrat who is barred from seeking another term as governor, marks an "extraordinary loss" for the state, said James Souby, the executive director of the Western Governors Association.

"He knows how to use the bully pulpit," Mr. Souby said. "He knows how to keep the education issue alive."

Era of Competition

In addition to holding office during a time when the academic-standards movement gained steam nationally, many of the retiring governors helped usher in competition in public schooling with charter schools and other forms of school choice.

At the initiative of the state legislature, Minnesota became the first state to green-light charter schools in 1991. Since that time, outgoing Gov. Arne Carlson has strongly supported charter schools and promoted legislation that enabled their expansion.

In 1997, the two-term Republican governor also pushed through a measure that provides families earning an annual income of $33,500 or below an income-tax credit of up to $2,000, which they can apply toward educational services and materials including tutoring, academic camps, and textbooks. The tax credits were a product of political compromise, passed after Mr. Carlson vetoed an education finance bill that did not include broader tax credits he supported that would have helped cover the costs of private school tuition.

Mr. Carlson, who has chosen not to seek a third term, will ultimately be remembered for his significant role in creating a competing "non-district sector within public education," said Ted Kolderie, a charter school proponent based in St. Paul.

In an interview last week, Mr. Carlson said he hopes he will be remembered for "the creation of the most comprehensive school choice program in America."

"The name of the game is not to destroy public education," Mr. Carlson said. "The name of the game is how you improve it. What will make public education good will be competition."

But teachers' union leaders say they will remember Mr. Carlson for "demoralizing" public schools in promoting private school initiatives. His tenure, they maintained, took its toll on teachers and public school employees.

"His role has been to bash, bash, bash the public schools," said Sandra Peterson, a co-president of Education Minnesota, a teachers' union recently formed by Minnesota's American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association affiliates. "We're looking forward to a change."

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 21

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Governors Leave Education Legacies
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