Stakes High for States in Fall Votes
No matter what state you live in, the future of education policy—at least for the next few years—will be heavily influenced by the votes cast in the November elections.
Those votes will decide who will be governor in 36 states, and who will hold 84 percent of the legislative seats in statehouses across the country. Voters in seven states will choose chief education officers, and in at least 10 states they’ll elect members of state boards of education.
Even with the heightened federal role under the No Child Left Behind Act, state lawmakers, governors, and state superintendents still are central in deciding how much money schools get, how to get well-qualified teachers into the classroom, and what students must do to graduate. And it’s at the state level where policies aimed at educational improvement—whether high-stakes testing, universal preschool, or new forms of school choice—are most often conceived, advanced, and duplicated.
The 2006 elections also offer Democrats their best opportunity in more than a decade to seize power in many states. Republicans have a fairly narrow, 28-to-22 edge in governorships. And the GOP’s control of statehouses is razor-thin: Twenty legislatures are controlled by Republicans; 19 by Democrats. Power in the remaining statehouses is split, except for Nebraska’s legislature, which is nonpartisan.
“States are where the action is in public policy. The legislatures control a half-trillion dollars in public money,” said Tim Storey, an election expert at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “These elections are vital.”
At the level of state schools chief, South Carolina has one of the most intense races, where Republican Karen Floyd survived a five-way primary and now battles Democrat Jim Rex in a campaign that’s focused largely on school vouchers. In Idaho, a former education advisor in the Bush administration, Republican Tom Luna, faces Democrat Jana Jones for a post he tried for and lost in 2002. And perhaps the most interesting state board of education races will be in Kansas, where the controversial issue of teaching evolutionary theory has trumped most other education issues.
A Democratic takeover of more governors’ offices and statehouses likely would mean less talk of vouchers and merit pay for teachers, and more calls for additional funding for public schools, especially from the federal government to help finance the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Polls suggest that the electorate is an angry, dissatisfied bunch that’s ready for a change.
“Americans are more unhappy than they have been in the last 30 years,” said the Washington-based pollster Peter D. Hart, speaking at the annual meeting of the NCSL in Nashville, Tenn. Mr. Hart’s firm does polling for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, and for mostly Democratic candidates and campaign committees.
He said his research has shown that voters are increasingly distrustful of American institutions, from sports to public schools. “There’s a sense that institutions are letting us down,” Mr. Hart said. “The mood is rancid. It is a sense of change.”
And that’s why Republicans are worried. In 1994, they were on the winning end of a similar uneasiness, when a GOP surge led to Republican victories in many states. Then, a dozen governors’ seats flipped to Republican control. Twenty percent of statehouse seats turned over, mostly in Republicans’ favor, as the GOP picked up more than 500 legislative seats. The party also gained control of both houses of Congress.
“There is a much higher emphasis on legislative races now, and it’s going to be a challenging year for Republicans,” said Alex Johnson, the executive director of the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which seeks to get Republicans elected to state legislatures. “A lot of these issues that are working against Republicans—like the war in Iraq—are not in our control. It’s important for legislators to focus on local issues.”
And education is sure to be one of those local issues. “That continues to be in the top two or three issues for us,” said Michael B. Davies, the executive director of the Washington-based Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the counterpart of the GOP group.
“Especially now that states have resolved their budget issues,” he said, referring to states’ recent fiscal rebound, “I think we’re going to see more emphasis on education funding.”
Across the country, 6,181 legislative seats are up for grabs—and some will be more pivotal than others. The NCSL has identified 10 battleground states, where power in one or both chambers could flip. Democrats have opportunities to take control of the Indiana House, the Minnesota House, the Oregon House, and the Tennessee Senate, the NCSL says. They could seize the House and the Senate in Iowa.
Republicans’ best chances are in the Oklahoma Senate, the North Carolina House, and both chambers in Colorado and Maine. Either party could win in Montana, where the House is evenly split between the GOP and Democrats.
Only four states won’t have legislative races: Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia.
State legislatures don’t work in a vacuum, and the success and failure of education ideas will also hinge on who is governor.
In those races, Democrats need to defend the 14 governors’ seats that are up and which they now control, and win four more to claim a majority of the 50 governorships. Republicans have 22 governors’ offices to protect.
The National Education Association is closely watching 10 governors’ races, including those in Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, and Ohio, because they have the potential to switch parties, said National Education Association President Reg Weaver.
And if there’s any doubt of the impact a governor can have on education, consider outgoing Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who led the charge to implement vouchers and high-stakes testing with penalties and rewards for schools.
In Minnesota, a governor who’s worked to reform teacher pay structures and high schools is in a tough re-election battle.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, successfully secured money for districts that adopt incentive pay for teachers, making his state a front-runner on teacher-compensation issues. His state is also working on redesigning high schools with the aim of making them more effective.
But Gov. Pawlenty’s teacher-pay plan, which encourages schools to structure salaries based on teacher performance, wasn’t popular with teachers’ unions, who traditionally argue for across-the-board pay raises. He’s also been criticized for shortchanging public schools by balancing the state’s budget without raising taxes. Mr. Pawlenty, who was elected in 2002, and is the incoming chairman of the National Governors Association, is in a competitive race with Democratic Attorney General Mike Hatch.
“I’m an agitator of change,” Gov. Pawlenty said in an interview last month. “So of course I have my opponents.” He’s countered criticism with a plan to reward high school students finishing in the top quarter of their classes with full-tuition scholarships for at least two years to a Minnesota public university.
His opponent, Mr. Hatch, pledges to lower class sizes and invest more money in education.
“All of the candidates are trying to capture the independent-minded swing voter, and the issue for drawing those voters in is education, particularly putting more money into education,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute.
And Minnesota is like many other states, Mr. Jacobs said, when it comes to how important education is to the elections: “It’s an education arms race here.”
Vol. 26, Issue 03, Pages 1, 30Published in Print: September 13, 2006, as Stakes High for States in Fall Votes