K-12 Policy at Play as Two States Pick Governors This Year
This year's N.J., Va. contests presage 2018 election battles
There are 36 governor seats up for grabs next year and—based on the K-12 issues animating the 2017 contests nearing their climax in New Jersey and Virginia—testing, teacher shortages, and funding formulas are likely to remain hot topics on the campaign trail.
Education has taken a prominent spot in both those states in this off-year election, with the Republican and Democratic nominees posting policy papers prominently on their campaign websites, along with educators' testimonials, and heart-tugging commercials featuring candidates relaying their passion for the future of the states' K-12 system.
This comes as governors nationwide are poised to play a greater role in setting education policy under the Every Student Succeeds Act. That point isn't lost on education advocacy groups, teachers' unions, and the candidates themselves.
"We see time in and time out that education has been a big driver in thinking for gubernatorial candidates," said Javaid E. Siddiqi, the executive director of the Hunt Institute, which trains state politicians about education issues. Governors are expected to use their bully pulpits to sketch out long-term statewide goals and use their budget to prioritize education spending, Siddiqi said.
On the policy front, an unusually high number of states in the coming years plan to overhaul their state funding formulas, figure out ways to reverse teacher shortages, and revise their school accountability systems.
"Governors are going to be, whether they want to or not, thrust into the limelight and forced to lead on several education policy decisions in their states," Siddiqi said.
Hitting the Trail
Of the 38 races between now and next November, 19 are guaranteed to install new governors since incumbents have either reached their term limits or announced they won't run for re-election. More than 6,000 state legislative seats, or 82 percent, will be up for election.
This year's New Jersey and Virginia contests offer a glimpse of what's to come.
In Virginia, with Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe having reached his single-term limit, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, a business owner and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is running against Democratic candidate Ralph Northam, a physician and the state's current lieutenant governor. Recent polls show the candidates tied.
Also running is Libertarian Cliff Hyra.
Virginia, like many other states, is at a policy crossroads when it comes to improving its K-12 system. ESSA forced the state board of education to create a new accountability system after operating several congruent state and federal accreditation and accountability systems at once for the last several years. That put the state's school turnaround efforts, teacher evaluations, and school choice policies on the political frontline in recent months.
On the school choice front, Virginia has only nine charter schools, and charter proponents have pushed in recent years to change the state's authorizing process.
Similarly, angst over teacher pay came to a boil last year after the legislature passed a bill forcing the state to come up with a way to raise salaries. Whoever wins in November will likely have to lead that legislative process.
Gillespie says the state's bureaucrats have gotten in the way of K-12 innovation and, ultimately, school achievement.
He features on his website a four-point K-12 plan to improve the state's school system: providing teachers more autonomy around lesson plans, cracking down on academically wayward schools, and dramatically expanding the school marketplace to include more charter and online schools.
"The proper role of government is not to guarantee equality of outcomes, but equality of opportunity," he said on his website. "That means we have a moral duty to ensure all children have access to an excellent public school."
Northam, the Democratic nominee, has plastered his campaign literature with the phrase "public school," emphasizing that he's a graduate of a public school, and that his wife is a former science teacher at a public school.
"Public schools have given so much to our family," he says on his website. "I've been proud to fight for them as a state senator and lieutenant governor."
He wants to expand the state's accountability system so that it's not so reliant on test scores and raise teacher pay (though he doesn't describe how he'll do it).
The teachers' union in Virginia is backing Northam, deploying hundreds of teachers to knock on doors and staff phone banks.
New Jersey Showdown
In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie has reached his limit of two terms, providing an audible sigh of relief to the state's unionized teaching workforce, which has been at odds with him for years.
Shortly after being elected in 2009, Christie said in a video now gone viral that teachers' unions deserved a "punch in the face." He didn't let up. As recently as last year, after ramping up the weight that test scores have on teacher evaluations, he referred to the teachers' union as the state's new "Mafia" before vetoing several education bills passed by the Democratically controlled legislature.
Now the stage is set for a new governor to shape policy in a state where Christie in his nearly eight years has cast a long shadow, having appointed six state superintendents.
School funding is among the prime issues to have received a lot of attention during the campaign as homeowners have pushed for a dramatic upending of how the state distributes money between wealthy and poor districts.
Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, a former business executive and diplomat, who so far is polling several points ahead of Republican candidate Kim Guadagno, says in his campaign literature that he wants to restore and fully fund the state's controversial funding formula. He has suggested raising taxes on the state's wealthy to provide $1 billion more to several of the state's rapidly growing but underfunded school districts.
He also says he wants to get rid of PARCC as the state's standardized test, and completely abolish state takeovers of districts.
On his website, Murphy says he "will put our educators ahead of the special interests ... and allow them to get back to doing what they do best: educate."
Guadagno, New Jersey's secretary of state and a former sheriff, wants to overhaul what she called an "antiquated" school funding formula.
She has proposed a formula that would bring in $1.5 billion and where homeowners wouldn't have to pay more than 5 percent of their household income toward their property taxes that support schools. She would pay for the reduced tax by reforming government and health-care spending.
She also favors expanding school choice and merit pay for teachers.
"We must not rest on our laurels and instead put all available tools and resources together to improve our education system so our students can graduate with the needed skills to get a job, buy a home, and raise a family in New Jersey," she said.
Election Day in New Jersey and Virginia is Nov. 7.
Vol. 37, Issue 04, Pages 1, 14Published in Print: September 13, 2017, as K-12 an Issue in Governors' Campaigns