Elections Yield Mixed Results For Education

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Voters may put education at the top of their list of concerns, as poll after poll shows, but how that plays out based on last week's state elections is a tricky business.

Washington state voters approved a ballot measure to scrap a car tax—a proposal that virtually every education group in the state had condemned because, they said, the resulting loss of revenue would put pressure on lawmakers to cut school spending. In Virginia, the Republicans took control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century, after a campaign in which GOP candidates talked a lot about education but avoided sharp debate on the issues.

The closely fought Mississippi governor's race, as of last week, seemed headed for resolution in the legislature. Both Democratic candidate Ronnie Musgrove and Republican candidate Mike Parker focused their campaigns on school improvement.

Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky, a Democrat whose proudest first-term achievement was an overhaul of the state's higher education system, coasted to victory over his Republican opponent, Peppy Martin, a political neophyte who had scant support from her own party.

Popular Tax Cut

Washington state voters, ignoring the pleas of Democratic Gov. Gary Locke and a coalition of business, labor, and public employees' groups, overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot to scrap the current car tax and require all future tax and fee increases to get approval at the polls. The measure, known as Initiative 695, replaces the state's annual 2.2 percent excise tax on motor vehicles with a flat $30 licensing fee.

The difference in revenue will leave the budgets for highway construction, local government, and transit about $750 million short. The loss does not directly affect the general fund revenues used to pay for education, but educators argued that with less money to go around, school funding would be jeopardized.

"It's a sad day for us,'' said Barbara Casey, the government- relations director for the Washington State PTA. "I don't think the voters realize the impact it will have on children."

But Tim Eyman, the sponsor of the initiative, said money available for education would grow as people spent the tax-cut dollars, boosting the sales and business taxes that flow into the general fund.

At the end of last week, several groups were considering constitutional challenges to the measure.

In Virginia, with all 140 seats at stake, the GOP won control of both houses of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction—achieving a prime political goal of Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who was elected in 1997. The Republicans will hold 52 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates, and will retain their 21-19 majority in the Senate. About a dozen races were hard fought, most of them in suburban Northern Virginia outside Washington, where voters were especially concerned about traffic gridlock and crowded schools.

Construction in Va.

Republican candidates in Virginia's competitive races generally steered clear of divisive issues, including school vouchers, and when it came to education focused instead on building schools and hiring more teachers. Their Democratic opponents did not sound much different, though they tended to be more critical of the state's new student-achievement tests.

In fast-growing Fairfax County, Democrat Kristen J. Amundson, a longtime school board member, beat Republican Scott T. Klein, a former aide to Virginia Sen. John W. Warner.

Ms. Amundsen emphasized school safety issues and criticized the state tests. "I think the standards are quite good," she said, referring to the state's nationally known Standards of Learning. "I just think the tests are not."

Musgrove Claims Victory

In the race for the open governor's chair in Mississippi, the Democrat, Mr. Musgrove, declared victory, but the Republican, Mr. Parker, his opponent, would not concede, citing the hair's-breadth difference in their tallies. The election was likely to be thrown this week into the state House of Representatives, which picks the governor when no candidate garners the 50 percent plus one vote necessary to win. With Democrats in the majority there, Mr. Musgrove is expected to get the nod.

In their campaigns, both candidates focused on the state's schools, which often land at the bottom of the heap in national comparisons of resources and achievement.

Unions Divided

Mississippi's race for lieutenant governor—an unusually powerful position, because the lieutenant governor serves as Senate chairman and appoints committee heads—went to Democrat Amy Tuck, who won 53 percent of the vote. She beat Republican Bill Hawks, the first gop candidate for a major state office to win endorsement from the state's largest teachers' union.

Michael Marks, the president of the 10,000-member Mississippi Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said that endorsing Mr. Hawks, a state senator, was in part a move to encourage changes of leadership in the Senate. "It has often been provincial Democrats, and not Republicans, who have been the enemy of education," Mr. Marks said. The state's other teachers' union, the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the national AFT, endorsed Ms. Tuck.

Both unions favored Mr. Musgrove for governor, whom they credit with fostering support for an 8 percent raise for teachers last spring. "If you hear somebody's floating over the Capitol in Washington, that would be me," said MaryAnn Graczyk, the president of the 2,500-member Mississippi AFT.

In the only other Nov. 2 gubernatorial contest, Kentucky's Mr. Patton won re-election to a historic second term under a new constitutional provision permitting incumbent governors to succeed themselves. He beat Ms. Martin, a publicist who did not receive the full support of the gop and who had shown a penchant for political gaffes.

Vol. 19, Issue 11, Pages 27, 29

Published in Print: November 10, 1999, as Elections Yield Mixed Results For Education
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