School & District Management

Executive Agendas

March 21, 2006 7 min read
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Executive Agendas:
A 50 State Roundup
About This Report
Executive Agendas
‘Education Governor’
Is a Relative Term
Goals and Outcomes: A Year in Education: 2005
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PDF of entire report

Governors are focusing much of their attention on two critical areas of education policy—high school and preschool—a 50-state look at the nation’s governors and their leadership on education over the past year shows.

At least 22 governors proposed significant policies last year aimed at improving high schools, or have made such proposals so far in 2006, Education Week found in preparing this special report. At least 20 governors began last year or have initiated in current legislative sessions pushes to expand prekindergarten for 4-year-olds or other early-childhood programs.

Several other topics drew the interest of governors in 2005, including incentive pay or other changes in teacher compensation, school choice, school- and district-level consolidation, child nutrition, and educational technology.

Even as the federal No Child Left Behind Act is reshaping much of the landscape of American education, the states—through their chief executives as well as their legislatures—retain the most significant role in setting policy. This snapshot of governors’ agendas for education, and their successes and setbacks in achieving those goals, underscores that role.

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Education Week’s report comes as 36 of the 50 states are gearing up to elect governors this fall. For incumbents seeking re-election, and for their would-be successors, education seems likely to be a top issue—especially in states worried about corporate cutbacks and economic challenges from overseas.

The governors ended 2005 with mixed records on gaining legislative approval for their high school and preschool plans. They also used executive action, formed blue-ribbon panels, and worked through state school boards to push their agendas.

While many governors who proposed high school policy changes have seen only some of their ideas enacted into law or added to state regulations, they have found more success—albeit incremental—in expanding preschool and other early-childhood programs. Governors in more than a dozen states pushed through expansions of preschool or related policy changes in 2005.

Policy experts who monitor states’ efforts on high schools and preschool are pleased in general with the leadership they see from state chief executives. But many also believe governors can push harder for efforts to help more students finish high school and make their way into college and career opportunities, while also making it easier for all of the nation’s 4-year-olds—and younger children as well—to have access to prekindergarten and related services.

Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, the chairman of the National Governors Association, said that last year’s National Education Summit on High Schools provided the inspiration and direction for his colleagues to return home and get their states working on improving secondary-level learning.

“Most governors went back to their states and looked very hard at high schools,” the Republican said during the NGA’s winter forum in Washington last month. “The result is, kids are going to get a better high school education.”

The governors’ high school plans are taking many forms.

An extensive review of governors’ education agendas for 2005 shows that many of the chief executives want to provide more help for their states’ lowest-rated high schools, make more merit- and needs-based scholarships available for college, create more small high schools, add online-learning opportunities, and offer more help to students who struggle with exit exams.

At A Glance


• Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah signed into law the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarships.

• Gov. Bob Taft signed into law a voucher plan for students in persistently failing schools in Ohio.

• Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona vetoed a bill to allow corporate-funded private school scholarships.


• Led by Gov. Mike Huckabee, the Arkansas board of education restricted sale of junk food in schools.

• Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois signed a bill requiring schools to offer breakfast to needy students.

• Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico signed legislation creating 34 new school-based health centers.

Teacher Pay

• Gov. Kenny Guinn of Nevada signed into law a $5 million plan for teacher incentive pay.

• Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota won approval of funds for districts that adopt teacher incentive pay.

• Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington won approval to restore voter-approved teacher pay raises.

Few states have done as much to try retooling high schools as North Carolina.

Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, told fellow governors at the NGA’s winter forum of his state’s efforts to open smaller high schools that link students more closely with college preparation and career training. Twenty-two such schools—often schools within schools, or schools that meet on college campuses—will open in North Carolina in fall 2006.

“Every time I bring in a new company, … it will be somebody who requests at least an [associate’s] degree” for most workers, Gov. Easley noted.

Several governors also are showing an interest in improving student data so that states can more carefully monitor graduation rates and each student’s academic status, said Stefanie Sanford, the deputy advocacy director for national initiatives for the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is providing grants to states to help them improve high school education.

“High school reform isn’t just a discussion for the education community. It actually is a vital link to the economic vitality” of the United States, she added.

For example, Oregon lawmakers backed Democratic Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski’s plan last year to finance the creation of an integrated K-16 data system to track students’ performance throughout their academic careers.

Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida contends that high schools must be a focus because their success hasn’t matched that of the early grades. “The strategy for high school is to make sure the crop of high schoolers coming in are more equipped to take on that work,” the Republican said in an interview. “We need middle school reform as well.”

Improvements in high school and clearer paths to college and career training are becoming more embedded in state policy, so that such changes survive elections, said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve Inc. The Washington-based nonprofit group, formed by governors and business leaders, works to boost graduation rates and improve college and career access.

State and federal accountability measures also should require improved graduation rates, based on more dependable data, Mr. Gandal said. “College- and work-readiness is not a factor in most high school accountability systems,” he said.

Along those lines, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, signed a bill last year requiring the state board of education to establish statewide formulas for calculating dropout, graduation, student-mobility, and promotion rates.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, speaking at the National Governors Association winter forum in February, won passage in 2005 of $21 million in new spending on early-childhood programs—about half of what he had sought. The theme continues to be one of his top priorities. With him, from left, are Govs. Michael Rounds of South Dakota, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, Sonny Perdue of Georgia, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi.

Former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat who led last year’s high school summit as the NGA chairman, said he was pleased to see governors taking action to improve education at that level of schooling. The hard work has just begun, he added, especially on improving graduation rates. “The dropout issue is one that I think needs much more attention,” he said.

The expansion of preschool and other programs in early-childhood education also continues to be a priority for many governors. But new programs for 4-year-olds who aren’t now in the system require more classroom space, state oversight, and millions of dollars in annual expenditures.

Those factors have influenced several governors to call for incremental expansions of pre-K classes, and other early-childhood programs, which they argue can make such programs affordable and give states time to make sure the programs are of good quality.

“Incremental, because you have got to fit it into your budget,” Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, said in explaining her year-to-year push to expand kindergarten classes statewide. “It’s a great investment in Arizona,” she said, “and our most growing population is 0- to 5-year-olds.”

Calls to expand and improve prekindergarten and other early-childhood programs have moved into the political limelight thanks to governors from both parties, said Libby Doggett, the executive director of Pre-K Now, a Washington-based advocacy group that monitors state policies on prekindergarten.

“The states that can’t afford it are going to find themselves so far behind in a couple of years,” Ms. Doggett said. She added that the next trend in early-childhood education may be something she believes is sorely needed: providing high-quality care using well-trained, fully certified teachers.

After lawmakers killed her school and tax package, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was confronted with Hurricane Katrina.

Georgia has the nation’s most complete voluntary “universal” system of prekindergarten, experts in early-childhood education say. Under additional funding approved last year, the program, which is financed through the state lottery, has spaces for some 68,000 3- and 4-year-olds.

This year, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, proposed state-funded voluntary preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in his state.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia, who was elected last November on a platform that included universal pre-K for the state’s 4-year-olds, said he plans to appoint a commission in the fall to develop a voluntary program, which could help ensure that existing programs do not overlap.

“The wrong thing to do is to build it before you understand how to do it,” the Democrat said.

Gov. Bush said he decided to back a 2002 Florida initiative calling for voluntary universal prekindergarten to begin last fall because he had an interest in developing children’s literacy at an early age.

Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee, a Democrat, said his plans to expand pre-K classes are leading to the development of academic and safety standards for such programs. Persuading Tennessee lawmakers to approve state-financed pre-K classes wasn’t the hard sell it might have been several years ago, he observed.

“The only real opposition we had was from very conservative legislators who feel the woman’s place is in the home and the kids belong there with them,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who want access to [pre-K] for their kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Executive Agendas


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