Strong Platforms Help State Schools Chief Winners
The seven state schools chiefs elected last week make for a diverse group of officials who will guide local education policies, including the crucial requirements of the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, for the next four years.
Georgia, which was at the forefront of a national gust of support for Republicans, continued the trend in the race for state superintendent of schools: Kathy Cox, a GOP legislator and teacher, overcame a strong opponent in Democrat Barbara Christmas, a teacher who heads the nonunion Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
Arizona businessman Tom Horne, who spent more than $1 million to beat incumbent Jaime A. Molera in the GOP primary, narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent, professor Jay Blanchard.
In California, state Sen. Jack O'Connell soundly defeated Anaheim school board member Katherine H. Smith to replace Delaine Eastin as the state's officially nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction. Mr. O'Connell, as a Democratic legislator, was an architect of the state's class-size-reduction plan.
Wyoming will also see a new state education chief, Republican Trent Blankenship, currently the superintendent of the Carbon County district.
Democratic incumbents Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina and Sandy Garrett in Oklahoma coasted to victories in their races. Idaho incumbent Democrat Marilyn Howard won re-election as she balanced time campaigning with the demands of caring for her daughter, who is battling cancer.
In many elections, the results of the typically low-profile races for the top education job hinge on "down-ticketing," a term that describes how voters use a straight party- line vote to choose candidates, said Charles Merritt, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver.
That was not the case this year, though, he said. Most candidates, according to Mr. Merritt, were propelled to victory because of their experience, stands on a particular issue, or savvy advertising.
"The only down-ticket evidence that really jumps out at you is Georgia," he said.
Georgia, indeed, may see changes in education policy as a result of choosing Republicans for governor and schools chief.
In her campaign, Ms. Cox pledged to reverse some of the splintering of education department duties made by Gov. Roy E. Barnes, a Democrat who suffered a surprise defeat in his re-election bid to Republican Sonny Perdue. During his term, Gov. Barnes has shifted a number of duties and programs away from the agency to avoid the involvement of Linda C. Schrenko, the outgoing two-term Republican superintendent.
Ms. Cox, who appeared with first lady Laura Bush in a campaign stop earlier this month, pulled ahead of the Democrat, Ms. Christmas, just days before the election.
Ms. Christmas, in part, blamed advertising by Cathy Cox, Georgia's popular secretary of state, who coincidentally was seeking re-election, as causing confusion that benefited Kathy Cox in the lower-profile education race. Though the two women share the same name, they are not related.
Other campaign promises by Superintendent-elect Cox included lowering the dropout rate, revamping the state's academic standards and accountability system to put more focus on factors other than test scores, providing more training and professional development to reduce teacher shortages, and finding ways to give districts more control over their schools.
"We are truly going to change the way we do education in Georgia," Ms. Cox, a member of the state House representing Fayette County, an Atlanta suburb, said in her victory speech.
In Arizona, debate centered on whether or not to use the state's controversial assessment as a graduation requirement.
Mr. Horne argues that students must be required to pass the test to receive their diplomas, and not be allowed to complete a school project instead, as Mr. Molera had proposed.
Mr. Horne also does not believe the state is properly enforcing its voter-approved measure to replace bilingual education with English immersion, and he has vowed to ensure that mandate is upheld and enforced. He also wants to give more school construction dollars to fast-growing districts, promote character education and stronger discipline measures, and improve state-sponsored reading programs.
Mr. O'Connell's victory in California was not a surprise, though polls of likely voters had shown him with only a slim lead going into the Nov. 5 balloting. In the end, Mr. O'Connell, a well-known legislator from San Luis Obispo, won with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Rather than promoting a detailed agenda, Mr. O'Connell relied on his record as a school finance expert and endorsements from school groups to win. He also had the support of outgoing two-term Superintendent Delaine Eastin, who said in a written statement last week that "when I vacate this office on Jan. 6, it will be with a happy heart and full confidence in my successor."
The superintendent's position, however, could be restructured into an accountability-oversight post by a master education plan that is before lawmakers.
Several chiefs' races, meanwhile, proved that a state's top education official is not always aligned with the party in power.
Voters in Wyoming, a Republican stronghold, chose Democrat Dave Freudenthal for governor, but—less surprisingly—a Republican superintendent, Mr. Blankenship, who promoted accountability and keeping education spending in check. The new schools chief will succeed Judy Catchpole, a Republican who served two terms.
And Democrats in Idaho and South Carolina won even though voters in those states chose mostly Republicans for major state and federal offices.
Ms. Tenenbaum's win seemed to reaffirm her popularity with South Carolinians, and she hinted in her victory speech that she might consider a higher office.
Ms. Howard beat GOP opponent Tom Luna in Idaho by 53 percent to 45 percent. Mr. Luna, who supports school choice and more accountability measures for schools, had run an aggressive yearlong campaign and made appearances with popular state Republicans.
Ms. Howard's supporters worried because she did little campaigning. But Ms. Howard held her post by emphasizing her accomplishments. In her victory speech, she thanked voters for "giving their children back to me."
Vol. 22, Issue 11, Pages 16, 18Published in Print: November 13, 2002, as Strong Platforms Help State Schools Chief Winners