School & District Management

7 States Will Go to Polls To Pick Schools Chiefs

By Joetta L. Sack — October 09, 2002 6 min read
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Elections 2002

Voters in Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming will choose their top education officers when they go to the polls Nov. 5.

And even though few voters outside education circles know who they are or what they do, the state schools chiefs have increasingly important roles as new federal mandates take hold.

Each race has its own local education issues, though most candidates for state superintendencies are focusing on accountability and testing in their campaigns.

“The common trend right now is conflict over using and creating state tests for assessments in order to comply with the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act,” said Charles Merritt, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver.

The job will be more significant, he added, in light of the budget cuts many states face and the increased testing and accountability requirements from the federal law. A reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law passed by Congress in 2001 and signed by President Bush in January requires states to test students in grades 3-8 annually in reading and mathematics, or risk losing federal aid.

“I don’t think there’s any question the state superintendent’s job becomes more important,” added John Schilling, the chief of staff for the Education Leaders Council, a Washington-based group of state and local officials that strongly supports the new law. “There are a lot of things [state superintendents] can do in their agencies to make ‘No Child Left Behind’ a seamless transition.”

Desert Race

Already, the state chiefs’ contests have yielded one upset.

Arizona Superintendent Jaime A. Molera was defeated in the Republican primary by former state legislator Tom Horne. Mr. Horne, a lawyer and a current Paradise Valley school board member, spent $500,000 of his own money to unseat Mr. Molera, who was appointed in May 2001 to fill out the term of Lisa Graham Keegan.

Mr. Horne supports the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, the state’s controversial student- assessment system. He wants to give college scholarships for top scorers on AIMS exams.

His Democratic rival, state Sen. Jay Blanchard, has proposed eliminating the AIMS tests, which he dubs “the Arizona Instrument for Messing up Schools.”

He says that the AIMS program is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and argues that the state should instead use the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition already in place to measure student progress. Mr. Blanchard, who is also a professor of education at Arizona State University, vows that, if he wins, the state assessment “is gone, it’s over, it’s history, deceased, missing in action.”

Elsewhere, two outspoken state chiefs who usually are on opposite sides of the issues—Delaine Eastin in California and Linda C. Schrenko in Georgia—are stepping down. The races to replace them are among the most contentious this year.

In California, Katherine H. Smith, the president of the Anaheim Union High School District board, shocked political observers last spring when she won enough votes to force a runoff with state Sen. Jack O’Connell, a well-known legislator and former teacher. Many expected Mr. O’Connell, a Democrat, to win enough votes to win outright, or to face a different Republican candidate in the nonpartisan general election.

Since then, Mr. O’Connell has been touring the state and running television and other advertisements highlighting his record as a sponsor of a host of education initiatives, including the state’s class-size-reduction program.

Ms. Smith has largely kept a low profile, aside from sharply criticizing the state attorney general for his handling of the ruling last June by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that declared unconstitutional the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But recent polls of likely voters still show a tight race, with Mr. O’Connell barely ahead.

Succeeding Schrenko

On the opposite coast, Georgians are watching a tight race to replace Ms. Schrenko, a Republican who lost a bid for the GOP nomination for governor.

Republican state Rep. Kathy Cox, who also teaches high school social studies, is running against Democrat Barbara Christmas, a former teacher and administrator who has led the state’s largest teachers’ association—a nonunion group—for six years.

Both want to strengthen the Georgia Department of Education and restore some of the tasks that were transferred to other agencies as a result of education reform efforts in recent years.

“I think that because I’ve run a large organization like [the Professional Association of Georgia Educators], it means I can run a business and a budget,” said Ms. Christmas. She added that it was time to stop fighting the state’s new accountability system and begin “implementing the reforms in a common-sense manner.”

Ms. Cox, who was elected to the Georgia House in 1998 and serves on its education committee, believes her legislative experience will make a difference. She disagrees with many of the “top down” reforms Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes has pushed through the legislature. Still, Ms. Cox says that if she and Mr. Barnes, who is seeking re-election, both win, she would not have the same tense relationship with the governor that Ms. Schrenko has had.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s incumbent state superintendent is fighting to keep her job.

Marilyn Howard, a Democrat, is hoping to stave off GOP challenger Tom Luna, a businessman and school board member in Nampa, Idaho. Ms. Howard is campaigning on her accomplishments as schools chief, which include a reading program and improving state standards and assessments.

Mr. Luna argues that state leaders should focus more on the results of state assessments to determine which education programs are working and which are not. He’s also a fan of local control and of giving districts more control over those tests.

Wyoming Showdown

In Wyoming, where Superintendent Judy Catchpole is leaving because of term limits, fellow Republican Trent Blankenship, the superintendent of the Carbon County schools, wants to streamline state assessments.

His opponent, Democrat Kathy Emmons, the executive director of the Wyoming Children’s Action Alliance, says the state education department should do a better job of disseminating data and giving recommendations to the legislature.

In two other states, incumbents appear to have big advantages.

Oklahoma’s superintendent, Democrat Sandy Garrett, has pushed her achievements as a former secretary of education under Democratic and Republican governors to help her survive in a GOP-dominated state.

Those high points include, she says, character education programs, a moment of silence in schools, and cuts in bureaucratic waste.

But her Republican challenger, Lloyd O. Roettger—a former teacher, school administrator, and business executive—has taken issue with the state’s school funding increases because, he says, they haven’t led to increased test scores. Instead of cuts in bureaucracy, Mr. Roettger says, Ms. Garrett’s office has seen big increases in its budget.

In South Carolina, incumbent Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat and a friend of former Gov. and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, is expected to win easily over GOP challenger Dan Hiltgen, a physics professor at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson contributed to this report.

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