School Issues Get Big Play In Campaigns

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Republicans and Democrats alike are giving top billing to class-size reduction and school safety and making vouchers and tax credits for private education defining issues in this year's crowded state election season.

With 36 governors' races, slim majorities in control of many legislatures, and several significant ballot measures, the stakes are high for schools this Nov. 3.

Gubernatorial candidates, in particular, are emphasizing education. But debates over how to improve public schools aren't limited to just top-slot candidates, said Susan F. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"From the top of the ticket to the bottom, education is on everybody's brochures," Ms. MacManus said. "The [past year's school] shootings, continued emphasis on low test scores, and people's personal experiences with schools...all of these things have brought it to the crux."

With many of the 25 gubernatorial incumbents seeking re-election well ahead in the polls, the 11 other races for state chief executive are "the ones to watch," said Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

1998 Election Activity

In Florida, both candidates looking to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles have tagged education as their biggest priority. Republican Jeb Bush and Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay have each introduced education agendas that include school safety initiatives, accountability proposals geared toward ending "social promotion," and plans for routing more of the state's lottery proceeds to education.

The one major difference between them: private school vouchers. Under Mr. Bush's accountability plan, parents with children in schools that consistently perform poorly on state tests could use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools or high-performing public schools. Mr. MacKay contends such a measure would divert money from the schools that need it most.

Polls suggest that by framing his school choice proposal as an experiment and shying away from endorsing full-scale implementation of private school vouchers, Mr. Bush, the former head of a Florida-based real estate company who lost narrowly to Mr. Chiles in 1994, has gained popular support for his plan, Ms. MacManus said. He is the favorite in this year's governor's race, carrying a lead of approximately 16 percentage points, according to independent polling data.

"Polls show that citizens are interested in trying something different," Ms. MacManus said. "The business community, especially, is really in favor of getting something done."

In Illinois, gubernatorial candidates Glenn Poshard, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, are using the campaign trail to champion their competing proposals for fixing a state school funding formula long criticized for its reliance on property taxes. ("Edgar Renews Call For School Finance Reform," February 4, 1998.)

The state's largest teachers' union, the Illinois Education Association, gave its endorsement to Mr. Ryan earlier this month. The other teachers' union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, supports Mr. Poshard, who is currently a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mr. Ryan's proposal to rely on the state's healthy economy and direct 51 percent of all new revenues to public education is "simplified but profound," said Bob Haisman, the president of the IEA, a National Education Association affiliate. Still, with both candidates pushing strong education platforms, the decision was a "tough call," he added.

"I have never seen a campaign where education has played as prominent a role," Mr. Haisman said, noting that the IEA worked with both candidates in shaping their education plans.

The IFT, meanwhile, supports Mr. Poshard's proposal to generate more revenue for schools in part by eliminating many of the tax breaks that large corporations receive. Mr. Ryan's school funding plan, members of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate say, could dip into the budgets of other important state services.

"Coming from deep south Illinois," where many poor, rural districts are located, "[Mr. Poshard] understands what happens when there are have and have-not districts," said Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the IFT.

A poll this month by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. shows Mr. Ryan leading Mr. Poshard by 12 percentage points.

With more than 6,000 legislative seats up for grabs in a total of 46 states, the November elections could also change the partisan balance in many state capitals. Currently, the Democrats control 49 chambers and the Republicans 48. Nebraska has a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature, and the Indiana House is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Power Shifts

Shifts seem likely because the dominant parties in 37 chambers now hold majorities of five seats or less, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

But the outcome of many of the legislative races hinges largely on who shows up to vote in the more visible gubernatorial and congressional contests, acknowledged Nancy Rhyme, a program director for the NCSL.

Voters in nine states also are being asked to pick state school superintendents this year.

And, in six states, at least one education-related ballot initiative is being voted on. The stakes for such measures are particularly high in Colorado and California.

Passage of Amendment 17 in Colorado would provide state income-tax breaks for parents wishing to home-school their children or send them to private schools. The tax credits would equal 50 percent of the average cost of educating students in public schools in Colorado--an estimated $2,500--or 80 percent of their tuition, whichever was less.

Under a California measure backed by outgoing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, voters there could permanently lock in funding for the state's popular K-3 class-size-reduction program and approve creation of school councils composed mostly of parents and given control of their schools' curricula and budgets.

Californians will also vote on a $9.2 billion bond issue that would offer aid to some state colleges and universities, help relieve school overcrowding and reduce class sizes, as well as a measure that would raise cigarette taxes by 50 cents a pack to pay for a comprehensive early-childhood-development program.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Pages 1, 20-21

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as School Issues Get Big Play In Campaigns
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