Education Gets Short Shrift at Governors’ Winter Session

Economic Worries, Energy Take Precedence, Though Follow-Up Meetings Slated

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The long list of priorities that the nation’s governors tackled at their just-concluded annual winter meeting here barely had room for K-12 education, which was overshadowed by worries about a weakening economy that is battering state budgets.

Still, Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican and the point man for the National Governors Association on public education, tried to inject some enthusiasm for education improvement into a sparsely attended session of governors who serve on the NGA’s education committee.

His agenda: Focus the governors’ attention on three areas, by holding three separate meetings from now until summer, on the topics of turning around struggling schools, improving college and work readiness, and examining teacher quality.

While the federal No Child Left Behind Act sets the umbrella expectations for standards and accountability, Gov. Carcieri said in an interview, “it’s the states’ responsibility to push reforms, and there is no question that at the state level is where those reforms are going to happen.”

There was limited talk about that responsibility at the main NGA conclave, however, although 23 of the governors did take action on a pressing higher education issue before Congress. Those governors, Democrats and Republicans from states including Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, New York, and Utah, signed a letter urging Congress to reject a proposed “maintenance of effort” mandate that could penalize states for reducing aid to higher education. ("HEA Proposal on College Costs Riles States," Feb. 27, 2008.)

“This is very, very problematic for states,” Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, said during a committee meeting in which the letter was discussed. “This could mean states lose money for higher ed.”

That education issue aside, the Feb. 23-25 event was focused on rising Medicaid costs, energy independence, the federal “Real ID” identification mandate, and the federal economic-stimulus package. And an undercurrent in the meeting was this: Will any of the governors, who occupy offices that have often been a stepping stone to the White House, be pursued by one of the eventual 2008 presidential nominees as a running mate?

Shifting Spotlight

One factor edging education from the spotlight was the change in the NGA’s rotating chairmanship. Last year, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, picked for her theme as chairwoman “Innovation America,” which included an emphasis on science and mathematics education. In his 2004-05 term, another Democrat, then-Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, worked on an initiative for redesigning high school education.

This year’s chairman, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, has chosen to focus his tenure on the states’ role in creating a clean energy future. Gov. Pawlenty, who was an early supporter of the GOP front-runner, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is thought to be a strong contender for the vice-presidential running-mate slot.

Even though federal issues and national politics dominated the governors’ business, there’s still a clear need for the states to get more aggressive in leading the charge for improving education, argues Gov. Carcieri, who leads the NGA’s education committee.

Governors across the country, he said, are becoming more convinced of the connection between high-quality schools and a sound state economy. “The better our states will do for education, the better they will do economically,” he said.

A nearly two-hour discussion on Feb. 24 concentrated on Gov. Carcieri’s first agenda item: turning around low-performing schools. The talk was jump-started by Pedro Noguera, the executive director of the New York City-based Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, who told the governors that the key is addressing poverty.

“Their economic and social needs are impacting their economic needs,” Mr. Noguera said of the students in poverty. In other words, the solutions to improving education aren’t found just in schools.

But in a tacit acknowledgment of how complex those solutions might be, governors mostly discussed existing strategies that involved schools.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, touted a proposal he unveiled in his State of the State speech earlier this year for better aligning the state’s K-12 system with higher education.

And Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, talked about his state’s effort to cut the dropout rate by placing graduation coaches in high school, an initiative that’s been expanded as initial results proved promising. ("Georgia’s Graduation-Coach Team to Grow," Oct. 17, 2007.)

The governors also discussed the political realities of making education changes happen. Oklahoma’s Gov. Henry talked of getting the biggest “bang for your buck” in devoting more state funding to prekindergarten, but said one of the biggest challenges was in getting legislators who help broker budget deals to see past the next election. And Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, said expanding pre-K in his state is a “political hot potato” because he’s in favor of it, drawing opposition from his political opponents.

Gov. Kaine, who said he is alarmed at the growing percentage of adults in other countries with post-secondary degrees in contrast with the relatively stagnant proportion of Americans with college degrees, will spearhead the second meeting of the NGA’s education committee in Richmond, Va., in May, when governors will focus on college and work readiness.

Teacher quality will be the focus of the governors’ annual summer meeting in Philadelphia in July.

Vol. 27, Issue 26, Pages 16-17

Published in Print: March 5, 2008, as Education Gets Short Shrift at Governors’ Winter Session
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