School & District Management

Governors Cite Education Records

By Michele McNeil — December 17, 2007 10 min read
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The three current presidential hopefuls with experience as state governors have records on education that offer voters an unusually detailed preview of what the nation’s schools might expect if any of the three should win the White House next year.

Those candidates—New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, on the Democratic side, and former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, in the Republican field—are still working to refine their positions on national education policy.

But their state experience already offers clues to what their priorities might be and how they might work with Congress to get their platforms accomplished, said Jacob E. Adams Jr., an education professor who studies education governance at Claremont Graduate University in California.

“The change from one office to the next changes the responsibility they have for education,” said Mr. Adams. “But the process they go through to find political solutions is going to be the same in the statehouse and in the White House. It’s the same dynamics, just on a bigger, more intense scale.”

Governorships have been a frequent steppingstone to the presidency. Four of the five most recent presidents—from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush—were current or former governors when they won election.

Despite ideological differences, the three gubernatorial veterans in the 2008 race share some experiences in dealing with education.

Each served at a time when states were in the throes of implementing the testing and sanctions requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, while grappling with the effects of the economic slowdown at the start of the decade.

And for all of them, echoes of their time in the governors’ mansions can be heard on the campaign trail.

Mr. Huckabee, for example, faced a school finance court decision in Arkansas that led him to support tax increases and tax shifts to boost funding for K-12 schools—a decision that haunts him in trying to appeal to anti-tax conservatives.

Mr. Romney, who was a big booster of testing and higher standards, helped usher in Massachusetts’ exit exam for high school students, and supported the addition of science to the requirement. Now, Mr. Romney may be NCLB’s strongest supporter in the current campaign.

In sharp contrast, Mr. Richardson in 2003 penned a letter with Montana’s then-Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, to then-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige urging changes to NCLB on behalf of small, rural school districts. Mr. Richardson now wants the federal accountability law scrapped altogether.

To be sure, governors and presidents play very different roles when it comes to education. For presidents, the part is intermittent and most typically involves the office’s “bully pulpit.” Even with the federal activism of President Bush’s NCLB law, Washington pays less than 10 percent of the overall cost of K-12 public education. Day-to-day control over schooling—and responsibility for most of the price tag—remain with state and local officials.

For a governor, that almost inevitably means a concrete record to brag about—or to defend.

Aggressive in New Mexico

As a newly inaugurated governor in 2003, Mr. Richardson—a former congressman and member of the Clinton Cabinet—was determined to seek more control over education in New Mexico. He successfully campaigned that year for a state constitutional amendment to consolidate more power over schools in the executive branch.

The amendment, which earned him criticism as a bully, abolished the elected state board of education and created a new department of education headed by an education secretary he appointed. He also successfully pushed for a second constitutional amendment allowing use of a special land-grant fund to increase K-12 spending.

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Mr. Richardson has enjoyed a legislature under the control of fellow Democrats, which has made certain priorities, such as expanding prekindergarten, easier to pass. But he has encountered criticism that his actions as governor, including on education, have been crafted with a eye toward his future political aspirations.

“It appears to me that he’s more interested in appearing good at the national level than he is concerned about what’s good for the state,” David Bacon, a political rival on one of his constitutional-amendment efforts, told the Sante Fe New Mexican in 2003.

Mr. Richardson’s supporters see it differently.

“He really put his political collateral on the line,” said Eduardo Holguin, the past-president of the New Mexico affiliate of the National Education Association and now the state union’s government-relations official.

During the tenure of Mr. Richardson, now in his second term, teacher salaries in the state—a priority for him as governor and in his presidential campaign—have risen to 30th in the nation, on average, from 48th, Mr. Holguin said. Mr. Richardson has proposed that the national average for teacher starting salaries be at least $40,000.

See Also

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Under Mr. Richardson, New Mexico has earned notice for implementing a three-tier teacher-licensing system that seeks to give teachers a career ladder on which they can move up.

And in September, state education officials noted that New Mexico was among just four states that made significant progress in improving scores among Hispanic students in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

Arkansas Contrarian

As Arkansas’ governor from 1996 to 2007, Mr. Huckabee, who stepped up from the lieutenant governorship, didn’t always take the politically easy way out. He often embraced policies—such as tax increases and opposition to tuition vouchers—that seemed to fly in the face of his conservative credentials.

Even his partisan foes in Arkansas give him credit for his education accomplishments. Many say he faced his defining moment in response to a 2002 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling, Lake View School District v. Huckabee, which found that the state’s school funding system was unconstitutional.

In response, the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2004, with Mr. Huckabee’s tacit support, passed tax increases totaling nearly $380 million a year to boost K-12 spending. Now, in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, he’s catching heat from anti-tax conservatives, such as the Washington-based Club for Growth, which has called him a tax hiker who’s no economic conservative.

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“He could have ducked the issue, … but instead he capitalized on the moment and said it was the right thing for the state to do,” said state Sen. James Argue, a Democrat who says he doesn’t agree with most of Mr. Huckabee’s politics. “He was never a pro-tax governor. But he was also a political pragmatist.”

During Mr. Huckabee’s tenure, the state’s NAEP scores climbed steadily for 4th and 8th graders in math and reading. In 4th grade reading, for example, two-thirds of students are now scoring at or above the “basic” level, a 10-percentage-point increase since 1998.

Mr. Huckabee also tackled the issue of school consolidation, a political land mine in a state full of small school districts. In the 2003 legislative session, he called on lawmakers to require districts to consolidate if they had fewer than 1,500 students.

The proposal proved so divisive that it took another year before legislators could agree, and even then the threshold for consolidation was lowered to 350 or fewer students. Mr. Huckabee refused in protest to sign the bill, so it became law without his signature. But it was still the first time in state history that the legislature had passed any form of school consolidation, Mr. Argue said.

Mr. Huckabee also didn’t shy away from other controversial issues: He once proposed making district superintendents state employees. (That went nowhere.) He’s catching flak now for supporting legislation that would have made the children of undocumented immigrants eligible for the same scholarships and in-state tuition as other students, so long as they met other requirements. (That also didn’t make it out of the legislature.)

While Mr. Huckabee has made music and arts education a part of his presidential platform, Sen. Argue says the former governor could harness his rising popularity in opinion polls to address even more serious issues. “What about this achievement gap between whites and blacks, especially in the South?” Mr. Argue said. “Let’s talk about that in the campaign.”

Standards in Massachusetts

The support Mr. Romney expresses for No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing is rooted in his single term as Massachusetts’ governor, from 2003 to 2007.

When he first took office, the successful businessman and organizer of the 2002 winter Olympics also took charge of implementing the state’s new, controversial exit exam for high school graduation. He even squared off three years later against the mayor of New Bedford, Mass., who had declared that his district would give its students diplomas even if they hadn’t passed the test. Mr. Romney won that skirmish.

The governor took the law a step further and successfully pushed for science to be added to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System graduation test for the class of 2010. He appeared before the state school board to make his case.

Education: What They Did as Governors

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SOURCE: Education Week

He became even more convinced of testing’s value by the data. In 2000, a year before the state’s high-stakes test was implemented, 55 percent of 10th graders passed the math portion of the test on their first try; by 2004, the passing rate had jumped to 85 percent.

At last week’s Republican debate in Iowa, Mr. Romney bragged that “my 4th graders” and “my 8th graders” in Massachusetts had placed first in the nation on NAEP, although he didn’t specify a year. The state did rank first in math and reading for the two grades on the most recent, 2007 results; many experts point to the state’s generally high socioeconomic status to help explain those results.

Testing aside, the Democratic-controlled legislature didn’t give Mr. Romney much help on education issues, particularly when he tangled with the teachers’ unions.

In 2003, his first task was dealing with an inherited budget deficit of about $600 million, which ballooned to $2.7 billion for fiscal 2004, in a $23 billion state budget. Though Mr. Romney spared education in his budget proposals, the legislature made cuts anyway, angering the unions—which still blamed the governor.

An advocate of school choice then and now, Mr. Romney also went to bat for charter schools, fighting off attempts to place a moratorium on their expansion. And in 2005, he angered teachers even more by pushing performance-based pay as part of a comprehensive education package that called for longer school days and a speedy turnaround process for troubled schools.

The performance-pay and turnaround proposals died in the legislature, though the idea of an extended school day ended up in a pilot program that’s showing success. (“Mass. Initiative: Does More Time Equal More Learning?,” Dec. 12, 2007.)

While the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, opposed Mr. Romney’s policies outright, the union also opposed the way he went about pushing them—by not trying to compromise. “He never reached out to any of us. Not one time,” said MTA President Anne Wass.

But Mr. Romney’s defenders say he crafted his policies around two chief concerns: the achievement gap between minority groups and other students, and what he called an “excellence gap,” between the United States and its foreign competitors, especially in the subjects of math and science.

“He always saw the link between education and economic performance,” said Robert M. Costrell, a professor of economics and education reform at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, a former education adviser to Mr. Romney while he was governor. Mr. Costrell now serves on Mr. Romney’s education advisory board for his presidential campaign.

Debate Topic

Clearly, the governors-turned-presidential-candidates are aware of their education records—and tout them often to illustrate how they would tackle the issue in the White House.

Blog: Campaign K-12

For regular updates on education in the presidential election, read our Campaign K-12 blog, written by Education Week staff writer Michele McNeil.

In debates and in campaign ads, Mr. Richardson has highlighted his accomplishments in raising teacher salaries, for example. In last week’s Democratic debate in Iowa, he said of his education record: “Teacher training has increased in my schools. Teacher performance, testing has dramatically improved. We’ve reduced the achievement gap.”

And as a sign of how powerful a governor’s accomplishments on schools might be, in the Dec. 12 GOP debate—the Republicans’ last before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses—the front-running Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Romney politely disagreed about who could claim this title: Best Education Record.

Mr. Huckabee said: “I had executive experience longer than anyone on this stage running a government. And I had also the most, I think, impressive education record.”

Mr. Romney, ever the data-driven executive, retorted: “I don’t believe you had the finest record of any governor in America on education. … The kids in our state scored number one [on NAEP.]”

A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week as Governors’ Education Records Prove Campaign Fodder

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