School & District Management

Policy, Leadership Direction at Stake in Chiefs’ Contests

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 02, 2014 7 min read
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Along with a crowded slate of gubernatorial and legislative elections this year, several races for state schools chief could lead to big changes in K-12 leadership and serve as test cases for the durability of such contentious issues as the Common Core State Standards and school choice.

The top K-12 spot is up for grabs in Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Wyoming, which represent seven of the 12 states that elect their superintendents, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. Among those with elections this year, all but California, which is under Democratic control, have legislatures and governorships controlled by Republicans.

Four of the states—Georgia, Idaho, South Carolina, and Wyoming—feature races in which the current office-holder isn’t seeking re-election.

Two incumbents decided to run for governor instead: Georgia Superintendent John Barge lost his bid to be the GOP gubernatorial nominee in that state in the May 19 primary, while in Wyoming’s Aug. 19 Republican primary, Superintendent Cindy Hill is seeking to unseat Gov. Matt Mead, who signed legislation last year that stripped virtually all of the schools chief’s authority over K-12 education.

At least two of the state superintendent primaries held so far in Republican-leaning states, Georgia and Idaho, appear to give supporters of the common core reason for optimism despite the sometimes turbulent politics surrounding the standards in states with large shares of GOP voters.

In general, it’s been hard so far to find state races where support for the standards has cost incumbent politicians their jobs, said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank that supports the standards.

“Most people still don’t know what the common core is. This is a very heated debate among a small number of people,” Mr. Petrilli said. Many voters, he added, seem to have focused more on considerations like candidates’ experience.

Gold Rush

The weeks leading up to this week’s California primary have featured a fierce battle between the two front-runners for state chief, incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Marshall Tuck, the former president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator in Los Angeles. Lydia Gutierrez, a teacher who highlighted her opposition to the common core, is the third candidate.

A candidate in the nonpartisan race needs 50 percent of the vote in the primary plus one additional vote in order to claim the job outright; otherwise, the top two candidates from the June 3 primary will face off on Nov. 4.

Mr. Tuck is a critic of the political power he says teachers’ unions hold in the state. The unions’ support for the incumbent, Mr. Tuck argues, shows that California needs a new person in the superintendent’s job to improve, among other measures, the state’s relatively poor ranking on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

He pledges to place more weight on the concerns of parent-advocacy groups and to provide more flexibility to districts seeking waivers from what he says are the state’s onerous regulations.

“The core of what the state needs first and foremost is leadership, leadership that’s focused on fundamental change,” Mr. Tuck said.

But Mr. Torlakson, seeking a second term after being elected in 2010, contends in his campaign that the state is on the right track under the leadership team that includes Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, as well as himself and the legislature. He highlights, for example, his successful push to replace the state’s old testing regime under the federal No Child Left Behind Act with common-core field tests, and his willingness to stand up to the U.S. Department of Education regarding that testing plan.

“We have worked as a team. We have worked together,” Mr. Torlakson said. “It’s no time to change teams in the middle of progress.”

He also cites the state’s rising high school graduation rate, which reached 80.2 percent for the 2012-13 academic year, the first time in California history the rate passed 80 percent.

And he stresses that, contrary to some perceptions, he doesn’t always agree with the teachers’ unions. He cites his support for the waiver some California districts have received from NCLB mandates, despite union concerns about the waiver.

Good News for Common Core

In Georgia, where political leaders have taken actions over the past year to distance themselves from the common standards—including withdrawing the state from a multistate consortium developing common-core-aligned tests—the May 20 primary results could be a signal that the standards actually won’t be a significant political liability for candidates.

The primary elections weren’t decisive for either Democrats or Republicans running for state superintendent, and runoff elections will take place July 22. But three of the top four candidates who made it to the runoff, out of a crowded primary field of 15 between both parties, support the common core, including the top Republican vote-getter, Michael Buck.

In addition to serving as the chief academic officer at the Georgia education department under Mr. Barge, Mr. Buck has worked as a Title I director for a Georgia district and as a principal at both elementary and high schools. He cites his experience implementing the common core in Georgia in the 2012-13 school year as one of his accomplishments on his campaign website.

His runoff opponent, Richard Woods, a former teacher and administrator, wants the state to ditch the standards, however.

In addition, both candidates in the Democratic runoff, Valarie Wilson and Alisha Morgan, are common-core supporters. As a state representative, in fact, Ms. Morgan introduced a House resolution earlier this year to affirm the state’s adoption of the common core.

The Georgia Democratic runoff shares some characteristics of the California chief’s race, in which the two highest-profile candidates identify as Democrats.

In each race, one major candidate, Mr. Torlakson in California and Ms. Wilson in Georgia, has received prominent teachers’ union backing and has stressed the need for more K-12 funding. Meanwhile, the other major candidate in each race—Mr. Tuck in California and Ms. Morgan in Georgia—has earned plaudits from nonunion education advocacy groups and places a notable emphasis on school choice. (Mr. Tuck has focused on charter schools and Ms. Morgan backs tax-credit-supported scholarships.)

All four of those California and Georgia candidates are also common-core supporters.

Although the common core in general has had an easier time in Idaho than in Georgia, common-core supporters can still point to the victory of Sherri Ybarra in Idaho’s Republican primary as a plus for their cause. Although she acknowledged what she sees as some legitimate concerns about the standards, Ms. Ybarra, the director of federal programs and curriculum for the Mountain Home school district, said on her campaign website, “The Idaho Common Core is the critical first step towards achievement.”

Primaries on the Horizon

Several states with chiefs’ races, including Arizona, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, still have upcoming primaries.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, a Republican seeking re-election, has characterized some conservative common-core foes as “barbarians at the gate” and refused to retreat from his support for the standards. His opponent in the Aug. 26 GOP primary, Diane Douglas, a former school board member, has made opposition to the common core the centerpiece of her campaign.

A closely contested race is underway in Oklahoma’s June 24 Republican primary for the role of state chief. Incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi is in a fight for the GOP nomination, according to polling on the race released in May that showed all three GOP candidates getting between 14 percent and 18 percent, with more than half of those polled undecided.

She is facing Joy Hofmeister, a former teacher and member of the state school board, and BrianKelly, who describes himself as an educator with two decades of experience.

Ms. Barresi has supported the common core, but more recently, her campaign manager declared the standards “dead in Oklahoma.” (Ms. Barresi’s campaign manager’s declaration was made over a month before a bill to repeal the state’s adoption of the standards was sent to Gov. Mary Fallin, also a Republican. As of Education Week‘s deadline for this issue, Gov. Fallin had not signed the bill.)

Ms. Barresi, who was elected in 2010, has come under fire during the latter part of her tenure concerning her handling of the state’s A-F accountability system.

She and Gov. Fallin also suffered a policy defeat this year when state lawmakers voted to allow students to move from 3rd to 4th grade even if they fail a standardized reading test, repealing a state law passed just two years ago with the support of Ms. Barresi and the governor.

A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2014 edition of Education Week as Policy, Leadership Direction at Stake in State Chiefs’ Races


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