School & District Management

In States, GOP Winners Mapping Course for K-12

By Sean Cavanagh — November 05, 2010 9 min read
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at his victory party in Buda, Texas, on Nov. 2.

The big incoming crop of Republican governors and state lawmakers will inherit bleak conditions for funding school programs and face potentially vexing decisions about whether to pursue the ambitious education proposals crafted by their predecessors, often with bipartisan support.

Many of those victorious GOP candidates campaigned on time-tested conservative platforms, emphasizing a return to local control over education and resistance to what they see as state and federal overreach.

But they will also take office during a dynamic time for education policy.

Many states have pursued major changes to policies for charter schools, teacher evaluation, and other areas over the past two years, with backing from both Democrats and Republicans. States across the country have also agreed to adopt common academic standards and to use federal dollars to pursue bold school improvement efforts through the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program, financed through the 2009 federal economic-stimulus package.

Whether the new state leaders would attempt to upend those agreements and coalitions remains unclear.

Before the midterm elections, “governors were out there talking about issues like teacher evaluation, and they got a lot of buy-in,” said Judith Rizzo, the executive director of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, a Durham, N.C.-based group that has helped states in their adoption and implementation of common standards. Newly elected officials, she suggested, might find it politically difficult to take recently approved policies in a different direction.

Governors' Race Results

Education emerged as an issue in a number of gubernatorial contests around the country Nov. 2.

ALABAMA
Ron Sparks, (D), agriculture and industries commissioner
✓ Robert Bentley, (R), state legislator
Mr. Bentley called for improved teacher performance and new approaches to reducing dropouts in the academically low-performing state.

Robert Bentley, governor-elect of Alabama
—Dave Martin/AP

11Governors Bentley1 280

CALIFORNIA
✓ Jerry Brown, (D), state attorney general and former two-term governor
Meg Whitman, (R), former chief executive officer of eBay
Mr. Brown’s education priorities will be complicated by the state’s budget woes: Schools have faced $17 billion in funding cuts over a two-year period.

Jerry Brown, governor-elect of California
—Rich Pedroncelli/AP

11Governors Brown1 280

FLORIDA
Alex Sink, (D), state chief financial officer
✓ Rick Scott, (R), former health-care executive
Mr. Scott’s agenda, which calls for an expansion of vouchers and charter schools, could be helped by a legislature dominated by Republicans.

Rick Scott, governor-elect of Florida
—Joe Cavaretta/Sun Sentinel/AP

11Governors Scott1 280

GEORGIA
Roy Barnes, (D), former governor
✓ Nathan Deal, (R), former congressman
Libertarian John Monds, former financial officer
Mr. Deal favors creating new monetary incentives to draw aspiring math and science teachers into the field, and promises to treat teachers as “equal partners” in his education agenda.

Nathan Deal, governor-elect of Georgia
—John Bazemore/AP

IOWA
Gov. Chet Culver, (D), incumbent
✓ Terry Branstad, (R), former governor
Mr. Branstad, who returns to the governor’s office, campaigned against his opponent’s voluntary state preschool program.

Terry Branstad, governor-elect of Iowa
—Charlie Neibergall/AP

11Governors Branstad1 280

OHIO
Gov. Ted Strickland, (D) incumbent
✓ John Kasich, (R), former congressman
Mr. Kasich has vowed to do away with his opponent’s education funding model, which was created after courts declared the state’s previous approach unconstitutional.

John Kasich, governor-elect of Ohio
—Jay LaPrete/AP

11Governors Kasich1 280

TEXAS
Bill White, (D), former mayor of Houston
✓ Gov. Rick Perry, (R), incumbent
The Republican governor repeatedly railed against federal stimulus funding, including the Race to the Top program, describing it as federal heavy-handedness.

Rick Perry, current governor and governor-elect of Texas
—LM Otero/AP

11Governors Perry1

= Winner

“It would be pretty hard to say, ‘Well, we used to think teacher evaluation was important, but we don’t think it is anymore,’ ” Ms. Rizzo said. “People can roll back anything, but they’re going to have to articulate their reasons to abandon commitments that were made by a whole bunch of well-intentioned people.”

Election Aftershocks

As was the case in this year’s congressional races, the GOP had been expected to make major headway in state-level contests, and the Nov. 2 results bore that prediction out.

In addition to winning most of the governorships on the ballot last week, Republicans achieved historic gains in state legislative chambers, where lawmakers wield significant power over school budgets and policy. Those new state legislators will work with newly elected governors who in some cases campaigned on promises to scale back or scrap Democrats’ education proposals.

One such candidate was Ohio’s Republican governor-elect, former U.S. Rep. John Kasich, who defeated Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland, after criticizing his education agenda as bureaucratic and expensive.

In Georgia, former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat who made education a centerpiece of his campaign, lost his bid to return to that office to the GOP’s Nathan Deal, a former congressman. And the Republican tide carried through Iowa, where incumbent Democratic Gov. Chet Culver was ousted by former four-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who campaigned against his rival’s state voluntary preschool program. Mr. Branstad called instead for targeted education support for families.

While vowing in his victory speech to set about “restoring the best education in this country for our kids,” Mr. Branstad also said he would control spending. He promised “a smaller government that is lean, frugal, and [as] efficient as the people we serve.”

In Texas, meanwhile, Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who has been one of the most vocal critics of recent federal education spending, turned back former Houston Mayor Bill White after a surprisingly tough campaign. Mr. White, a Democrat, had accused the governor of making an enemy of the federal government for political gain.

Democrats bucked the trend in the nation’s most populous state, California, where former Gov. Jerry Brown defeated Republican Meg Whitman, the former chief executive officer of eBay, who had drawn the opposition of state affiliates of a pair of unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Mr. Brown said he would revamp the state’s testing system, which he says is antiquated and does not help guide instruction.

Changes Ahead

The winners will come into power as states are taking significant steps to revamp education policy. Forty states and the District of Columbia, for instance, have agreed so far to adopt common academic standards in English/language arts and mathematics through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led effort to create demanding, uniform academic goals. While that initiative has drawn bipartisan support from governors and state legislators, it has received criticism from some state officials and education advocates who worry about a loss of state and local control over curriculum.

Similar worries have been raised by some officials about the federal Race to the Top program, even though many of its goals appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. That federal program, a high-profile Obama administration initiative, has awarded $4.35 billion in competitive grants for state education reform proposals.

While newly elected GOP state leaders could try to “peel off the process” of implementing common standards and Race to the Top plans, many of them will be inclined to leave the core intact, said Kevin Carey, the policy director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. That’s partly because governors and state lawmakers from both parties have argued that significant changes to school policy are necessary to promote academic achievement and job growth, he said, and many elected officials believe common standards and the improvement steps being taken under the Race to the Top fit those goals.

“There’s a danger that an effort to retreat from Race to the Top and common standards could be seen as bad, from an economic-development standpoint,” Mr. Carey said.

A total of 37 states held governors’ races on Nov. 2, and even with two contests still undecided as of late last week, Republicans had made clear gains. Of the governorships in contention, 19 were held by Democrats going into the midterm elections, while 18 were held by Republicans.

The most recent tally showed that GOP candidates had won at least 23 of the governorships on the ballot and Democrats only 11. One independent, former Republican U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, won that state’s governor’s race. Contests were still in play in Connecticut and Minnesota.

The winning governors in some cases will be working with legislatures that have a new balance of political power. More than 6,000 state legislative races were on the ballot. Going into the elections, Democrats controlled 60 legislative chambers, Republicans had 36, and two were evenly split. The 2010 elections leave Republicans in control of at least 55 lawmaking chambers across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan research organization in Denver. The GOP will hold about 3,890, or 53 percent, of the total legislative seats nationwide, the NCSL estimates, the largest number of seats in the Republican column since 1928.

“The Republican wave in the states is perhaps even stronger than it is at the federal level,” said Tim Storey, a senior legislative fellow at the NCSL.

Republicans' Statehouse Surge

How big were GOP gains in the state legislatures around the country?

An estimated 6,115 state legislative seats were up for grabs this election, and the Republicans won roughly 3,890, or 53 percent, giving them their highest total number since 1928. Pre-election, Republicans controlled just 36 state legislative chambers, compared with the Democrats’ 60, and two were tied. (Nebraska’s legislature is nonpartisan and unicameral.) As of late last week, Republicans were expected to be in charge of 55 chambers. They will control North Carolina’s Senate for the first time since 1870. All told, the Republican pickups in 2010 far surpassed the gains they made during another GOP-dominated election, in 1994.

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures

Meanwhile, seven states held elections for state schools superintendent, with Republicans winning all six partisan races on the ballot. (“GOP Scores Big in State Chiefs’ Contests,” November 10, 2010)

Fiscal Woes Await

In most states, the winners’ postelection euphoria is likely to fade when they delve into the states’ budget books. At least 46 states faced budget shortfalls headed into fiscal 2011, said the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization in Washington.

“It’s going to be difficult governing,” Mr. Storey said. “It’s going to take a whole lot for us to pull out of the depths we’re in.”

Given the nation’s slow recovery from the deep recession, education was “really overwhelmed by the economic anxieties the voters had,” Mr. Storey said. But now victorious candidates will be forced to make hard decisions about K-12 spending, he said, given its large share of state budgets.

The midterm elections played out amid an unprecedented flow of federal emergency education spending to the states. Much of that money arrived courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the federal stimulus, which provided some $100 billion in education funding. This past summer, Congress supplemented that with an additional $10 billion through the Education Jobs Fund, a measure designed to stave off thousands of layoffs in the nation’s schools.

The infusion of cash from Washington was criticized by some conservatives, who complained that it gives federal officials too much sway over state and local school policy. For instance, in Texas, Gov. Perry refused to have his state apply for one program funded through the recovery act, Race to the Top, though it has accepted billions of dollars in stimulus aid, including money for education.

In other states, Race to the Top appears to have had a major influence on education agendas. Eleven states, plus the District of Columbia, won grants through the program. A total of 34 states across the country approved new education laws or policies during the course of the competition, federal officials say. Many of those changes, such as expanding charter schools and creating new models to evaluate and pay teachers, have bipartisan appeal. (“Ambitious Race to Top Plans Put School Districts on Spot,” October 13, 2010.)

Seven of the 11 winning Race to the Top states will have new governors. Another winner, the District of Columbia, will have a new mayor, Vincent C. Gray, who ousted incumbent Adrian M. Fenty in the city’s Democratic primary and won the general election last week. The impact of those leadership changes is uncertain.

In Ohio, Gov.-elect Kasich had lambasted Gov. Strickland’s education funding and policy agenda during the campaign. But Mr. Strickland argued that gutting his schools plan would imperil Race to the Top funding. Doing so “could put in serious jeopardy our receiving these resources,” the Democrat said at a forum hosted by the Dayton Daily News, because “we would not have met the obligations and the commitments that we put forth in our application.”

In Florida, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, who lost narrowly to Republican Rick Scott, had been a strong backer of her state’s winning, $700 million Race to the Top blueprint, which calls for increased graduation rates and for school districts to develop merit-pay plans, among other steps. By contrast, Gov.-elect Scott had vowed to “refuse temporary funding from the federal government that creates permanent spending in Florida” in his economic plan, while not referring specifically to the Race to the Top.

It seems unlikely the GOP winner will oppose Florida’s implementation of its plan, given its focus, said Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

“It appeals to conservatives, and they’re going to need those dollars,” Mr. Smith said.

Education Sector’s Mr. Carey, a former state school budget official in Indiana, agreed that the dire condition of state economies could solidify the status of the Race to the Top and common-standards efforts, because those programs are supported with federal money. (Some state and local officials have said implementing the Race to the Top will require additional, nonfederal spending.)

Mr. Carey was skeptical of the idea that states would change their Race to the Top proposals in ways that jeopardize millions of dollars in grant funding. He noted that many states had threatened to fight the No Child Left Behind Act, only to back away at the prospect of losing federal funding.

“Everybody cashed the check in the end,” he said.

Assistant Editors Catherine Gewertz and Erik W. Robelen contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as State-Level GOP Crews to Map Course on K-12

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