‘Education Governor’ Is a Relative Term

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Which of the 50 governors can claim to be a true “education governor”?

Just about all of them, since virtually every governor at some point singles out education as his or her No. 1 policy issue.

Several governors made just such statements in their 2005 State of the State addresses. Some of them moved beyond such general declarations to specific school proposals, a reminder that governors have the capacity to be the leading K-12 education policymakers in their states.

The truth is, defining what constitutes an education governor depends on how you slice the state leaders’ accomplishments.

The nation’s governors, a 50-state review by Education Week shows, fell into three general categories in 2005: those who proposed a lot of new ideas for K-12 education, those who focused on selling one or two big education proposals to legislatures or the voters, and those who concentrated on other policy areas.

A majority of governors proposed spending increases for K-12 schools in 2005 and again are pushing for such hikes in 2006, mostly because of escalating health-insurance costs for school districts and modest bump-ups in teacher salaries. Those costs alone can raise state education budgets by several percentage points.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who will wrap up his eight-year tenure next January, was among those who proposed several education policy changes, with victories on a few. He won more literacy training for teachers and money for the state’s first universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds. But he failed to push through a referendum to scale back his state’s class-size limits and for reading coaches in all middle schools.

In 2006, he began pressing lawmakers to allow a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment preserving private school vouchers for thousands of students, after the state supreme court overturned one of the state’s voucher programs early this year.

Some others who proposed lots of education ideas in 2005: Democrats Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, Tom Vilsack of Iowa, and James E. Doyle of Wisconsin; and Republicans Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Matt Blunt of Missouri, Donald L. Carcieri of Rhode Island, and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah.

With the exceptions of Gov. Blunt and Gov. Huntsman, the governors who tended not to see many of their long lists of ideas pass dealt with at least one legislative chamber controlled by the opposing political party.

For instance, Gov. Romney hasn’t exactly found a receptive audience for offering teacher performance-based pay or providing low-cost laptop computers to all middle schoolers in his state, where Democrats resistant to his ideas outnumbered Republicans in the legislature last year by more than 6-to-1.

Gov. Barbour’s modestly priced plan to improve education didn’t pass in 2005, though he has brought it back in 2006.

Some governors have found ways to compromise with lawmakers from opposing parties.

Gov. Vilsack persuaded Iowa lawmakers to approve several of his early-childhood programs. Gov. Pawlenty had luck with his incentive-pay plan for teachers.

After deadlocking on the voucher issue last year, Gov. Doyle, a Democrat, recently agreed to an expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program—but only if Wisconsin’s GOP lawmakers will provide more money to reduce class sizes in public schools and require testing and accreditation in private schools that accept the vouchers.

In Virginia, former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat whose term ended in January and who is said to be considering a run for president, said in an interview that he worked with the Republican-controlled legislature by assuring lawmakers that record-high levels of new spending on schools would be accompanied by strong academic-accountability measures and programs such as financial audits to help districts run more efficiently.

“You can build broad, bipartisan coalitions in terms of support for education if you have significant accountability,” Mr. Warner said. “Don’t just stand there at the press conference, but come back and visit the schools and make sure the policy is being implemented, and follow up.”

From left, Democratic Govs. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina
and Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Republican Gov. Jeb
Bush of Florida have put K-12 schools high on their agendas.
From left, Democratic Govs. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina and Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida have put K-12 schools high on their agendas.
—Photograph by Hector Emanuel

A number of other governors chose to focus on one or two specific proposals for K-12 education in 2005. Some of them counted the year as a success; others fared less well. Among those with focused school agendas were Republicans Frank Murkowski of Alaska, Bill Owens of Colorado, Bob Taft of Ohio, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina; and Democrats Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee.

Alaska’s governor pushed through reforms to teacher benefits that pleased lawmakers but angered the state teachers’ union. Ohio’s governor successfully sold legislators on expanded school vouchers, while South Carolina’s governor lost his bid to create vouchers and corporate-tax-credit scholarships in his state.

Governors in Arizona, Delaware, and Tennessee pushed through legislation expanding prekindergarten for 4-year-olds. Others, including governors in Kansas and Montana, focused on court orders to retool their states’ school finance systems.

Vol. 25, Issue 28, Page S2

Published in Print: March 22, 2006, as ‘Education Governor’ Is a Relative Term
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