School & District Management

Education Stakes High in 2010 State Elections

December 15, 2009 7 min read
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Regardless of how voters cast their ballots in the 2010 elections, the nation will witness a sea change in state leadership—and, potentially, big changes in the direction of education policymaking.

At least 20 governors will step down as of January 2011, based on those who are facing term limits or have decided to leave voluntarily. They include Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist of Florida (who is running for the U.S. Senate) and Democrats Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan. In all, gubernatorial contests will take place in 37 states next year.

“That’s a lot of governors leaving office at a time when gubernatorial leadership has been, I think, key to moving forward some pretty aggressive [school] reforms in states,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington-based group formed by governors and business leaders that advocates tougher state academic standards.

And the troubled economy, which has hit state coffers hard, seems likely to make the number of new governors in 2011 even higher.

“The economy will be the number-one explanation for gubernatorial defeats of incumbents and party turnovers in 2010,” said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center on Politics at the University of Virginia. “The voters want to blame somebody.”

Commitment Issues

The vast majority of state legislative seats also will be up for grabs, Mr. Sabato noted.

Education Governors

Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, backed a performance-pay program for teachers and stiffer graduation requirements.

Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, backed a performance-pay program for teachers and stiffer graduation requirements.

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Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, has focused on improving teacher quality and raising high school graduation rates.

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Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, a Republican, has supported placing graduation coaches in high schools and improving student-date systems.

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Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, a Democrat, pushed through a law overhauling the state’s education system, including a new finance scheme.

Credits from top: Doug Wells/AP, Mark Humphrey/AP, John Amis/AP, Paul Vernon/AP

And significant turnover is likely among state schools chiefs, given that governors in more than a dozen states appoint their chief school officers, while in some others, governors appoint state board members who make the selections. What’s more, voters in eight states, including California, Georgia, and Oklahoma, will cast ballots on elected chiefs in 2010, out of 14 elected superintendents nationwide.

Observers say the high turnover looming in state governance may complicate efforts by nearly all the states to develop and embrace common academic standards. (“New Standards Draft Offers More Details,” Sept. 30, 2009.)

It also may have implications for the promises states make on matters such as improving teacher quality and turning around low-performing schools in their applcations for a slice of $4 billion in economic-stimulus aid under the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund competition.

“If parties flip, if governors are of a different philosophy than the previous one, you might have problems carrying out commitments,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research and advocacy group, and a former longtime aide to Democrats on the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee.

To be sure, change in leadership is itself a constant in American politics. But Mr. Sabato from the Center on Politics said the governors who already have signaled plans to depart in January 2011 represent “an unusually large number, for the combined reasons of term limits plus retirements.”

Of the 37 gubernatorial seats up next year (including a special election in Utah), 19 are held by Democrats and 18 by Republicans.

The list of governors leaving in 2011 includes a number who are seen as having made a notable imprint on education matters in their states, such as Republican Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Sonny Perdue of Georgia, and Democratic Govs. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, all of whom are wrapping up their second terms.

Gov. Bredesen, for instance, has focused considerable effort on improving teacher quality and ensuring more Tennessee students graduate from high school. He has championed a revamping of the state’s graduation requirements as well as additional supports for struggling students.

“Few governors have focused as much on improving graduation rates,” said Alan Richard, a spokesman for the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based compact of 16 states.

Seeking Second Terms

Gov. Pawlenty, meanwhile, the chairman of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, championed Minnesota’s “Q Comp” program, which includes teacher performance pay and career ladders, among other components, and supported the ramp-up of graduation requirements.

At the same time, at least a few incumbents who have had high visibility on education are seeking second terms, including Democratic Govs. Ted Strickland of Ohio and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

Gov. Strickland pushed hard for the passage last summer of a new state law to overhaul key elements of Ohio’s education system, from state standards and testing to school finance.

Gov. Patrick gained greater authority over education when he successfully pushed for the creation of a Cabinet-level secretaryof education. He is championing a plan that would allow more charter schools in low-performing districts and create “Readiness Schools” that would give school officials greater control over curriculum, staffing, and other matters.

Gubernatorial races with no incumbent, meanwhile, are quickly shaping up around the country.

California is expected to feature an especially lively race. Jerry Brown, the state attorney general and former governor, is widely seen as the likeliest Democratic candidate, and former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman the likeliest Republican.

In South Carolina, the elected state superintendent of education, Jim Rex, is running for governor as a Democrat, promising that as governor he would work to improve the high school graduation rate, increase public school choice, and free schools from “unnecessary mandates.”

‘Low-Budget Spectaculars’

Observers say the impact of the recession, from which state treasuries are expected to be slow to recover, will make it difficult for candidates in most states to offer expensive new education programs, such as expansions of preschool or reductions in class size.

Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, said the fiscal situation makes it more likely that candidates will look to champion “no- or low-budget spectaculars that have a lot of play in the media,” such as proposals to change teacher-evaluation systems or tenure rules.

He also said that he sees some Democratic candidates in particular as struggling with how to respond to the Obama administration’s agenda on education, with its emphasis on some issues that give teachers’ unions pause, such as expanding charter schools and setting up teacher-evaluation systems that include student test scores.

“They’re casting about for something that will not alienate the large education organizations, particularly the teachers’ unions, and have them sit on their hands during the election,” he said.

The coming turnovers in governorships could pose particular challenges for the push for common academic standards, which is being led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, as well as for efforts by states to secure Race to the Top discretionary grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Applications for the first round of those federal awards are due in mid-January.

“Race to the Top is asking states to promise to do things that incoming governors may not feel committed to, may not be invested in, or they may like but they’re not going to get much credit for,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

But others note that the Deparment of Education is requiring applicants to ensure a broad base of support for applications, which may help avoid such difficulties.

“There are a lot of stakeholders who have to be involved,” said Charles Barone, the federal-policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. “These reforms are supposed to be sustainable and scalable, so you would hope that whether a governor is leaving next year or in three years, that they are putting in place what they need to do to have this last beyond their tenure.”

On the common-standards push, Susan L. Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy for the Washington-based Business Roundtable, said she sees a vital role for a state’s business leaders in working to ensure commitments are sustained by a new governor. Forty-eight states have signed on to the standards initiative.

For Mr. Gandal of Achieve, which is helping with the standards drive, the crucial question when it comes to major changes in education policy is: “Can states build broad enough support for the reforms now so that whoever is coming into office in 2011 will feel compelled to build on those reforms rather than undo them and start over?”

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Looming Turnover in Statehouses Poses Questions for Reform Efforts

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