School & District Management

Schools Chief Races Highlight Policy Divides

By Jessica L. Tonn & Linda Jacobson — October 17, 2006 6 min read
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Six states have elections for schools chiefs on the November ballot, and voters’ decisions in at least a couple of those states could significantly alter education policy over the next four years.

At the top of the list may be the race for state superintendent in South Carolina. That appears to be turning more into a decision over vouchers than a vote on the candidates’ qualifications or their overall education agendas.

Republican Karen Floyd, a businesswoman, and Jim Rex, the Democratic candidate and a retired college president, are vying to replace Democrat Inez M. Tennenbaum, who decided not to run again after losing a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

Ms. Floyd has been able to raise more money for her campaign, in part, observers say, because of contributions from out-of-state voucher supporters, who would like to see Republican Gov. Mark Sanford’s “Put Parents in Charge” plan for private school tuition tax credits become a reality.

In Ms. Floyd’s campaign materials, she writes: “For South Carolina’s next generation of children to be successful, we cannot afford to insist that all children receive their education from a school to which they are arbitrarily assigned. While it may shake the walls of the education establishment, we must open the doors to parental choice.”

Pushing Teacher Turnout

Mr. Rex, a former high school English teacher, proposes to fight what he describes as “this serpent called vouchers” by offering schools more flexibility, adjusting the state’s school accountability system, and attracting more professionals into teaching.

“There are so many issues out there that aren’t being talked about because of this voucher issue,” said Rick Ott, a senior executive in a school construction company and the co-chairman of an organization called Choose Children First.

The group is supporting Mr. Rex, and is also running a voter-registration campaign that will reward schools that sign up the most new voters. Mr. Ott said he is especially concerned about improving voter turnout among teachers.

Idaho is the other state where two newcomers are in a hotly contested race for state superintendent. Marilyn Howard, a two-term Democrat, announced last year that she would not seek the office for a third time.

Tom Luna, a former local school board member in Nampa, and the president of a company that makes weight scales, is the Republican candidate. He has held leadership positions on statewide education commissions, and served as an adviser on rural education issues to former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

Mr. Luna has promised that rural education will be a top priority for him if he is elected state chief. Last month, he laid out his plans for a rural initiative that would include attracting and retaining highly qualified teachers, closing the “technology gap” between urban and rural schools, and providing more Advanced Placement and other college-preparatory opportunities for students in remote communities.

The state’s teachers’ association is supporting the Democratic candidate, Jana Jones, a deputy superintendent in the state education department and a longtime educator. As a former teacher in early-childhood education, Ms. Jones has promised to focus on improving coordination between child-care and preschool programs, and says she would also work to make sure students acquire higher-level math and reading skills.

“She clearly understands the needs of public schools, and what it’s like to work with kids,” said Sherri Wood, the president of the Idaho Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “We just want someone who will be a strong advocate for our public schools.”

Incumbents Given the Edge

Incumbent chiefs in four states are defending their seats, and appear to have the edge against their opponents. All four are expected to win, said Charles Merritt, the vice president of external relations for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

State Chiefs Races

Jason Williams, Democrat
Tom Horne, Republican (I)

Denise Majette, Democrat
Kathy Cox, Republican (I)

Jana Jones, Democrat
Tom Luna, Republican

Sandy Garrett, Democrat (I)
Bill Crozier, Republican

South Carolina
Jim Rex, Democrat
Karen Floyd, Republican

Michelle L. Hoffman, Democrat
James McBride, Republican (I)


SOURCE: Education Week

In Georgia, Republican Kathy B. Cox is being challenged by Denise L. Majette, a Democrat who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for two years before losing a bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004.

Ms. Majette, a lawyer, former judge, and a public school parent, said she wants to improve the state’s education record. But she was unable to pick up an endorsement from the Georgia Association of Educators, the National Education Association affiliate, which usually supports Democrats.

Ms. Cox helped restore relations between the state education department and local districts after she succeeded fellow Republican Linda C. Schrenko, who is now serving time in federal prison for fraud and money laundering.

Ms. Cox has also overseen the implementation of a new statewide curriculum, which was recently ranked among the best in the nation by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Moving west, Arizona Superintendent Tom Horne, a Republican, appears “very safe,” Mr. Merritt said. And in Wyoming, he said, voter turnout among Democrats is expected to be low because incumbent Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat, has a huge lead in the polls. If that expectation proves true, it will hurt Democrat Michelle L. Hoffman, who is challenging incumbent Jim McBride, a Republican.

Finally, in Oklahoma, Republican Bill Crozier favors the teaching of “intelligent design”—the belief that certain aspects of human development show signs of having been designed by an unnamed creator—in science classes, and he supports increasing teacher salaries. He is challenging four-term incumbent Democrat Sandy Garrett. This is Mr. Crozier’s fourth attempt to win public office.

Two incumbents—California’s Jack O’Connell and Oregon’s Susan Castillo—were re-elected to their seats in their state’s primaries.

Despite the positive predictions for incumbents, a good number of chief state school officer positions are likely to be affected by the November elections, Mr. Merritt said, because of governors’ races in 10 states where the schools chief is appointed by the state’s chief executive.

In fact, he said, the top education spot in states has changed over the years from an elected job to one that typically is an appointed job. Currently, only 14 states have elected superintendents, and there are efforts in some of those to change it to an appointed position.

State Board Races

Some appointed superintendents will also be closely monitoring this fall’s state board of education races.

State boards appoint state superintendents in nine of the 11 states with board elections this year. The state education chiefs in the other two, Texas and New Mexico, are selected by the governor.

In Colorado, the outcome of the Nov. 7 elections will determine the political tilt of the board, and consequently affect its relationship with Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney. Two incumbents’ seats, one Republican and one Democrat, are contested in the general election.

State Boards on the Ballot

*Click image to see the full chart.

Click to enlarge: State Boards on the Ballot

Note: Some state board of education seats are uncontested.

SOURCE: Education Week

Mr. Moloney, who has been unpopular with some of the board’s Democrats since he was hired in 1997, has also faced criticism from local superintendents recently. A coalition of 178 district leaders presented a “white paper” outlining their grievances against him and the education department to the state board in May. (“Colorado Schools Chief, Local Superintendents Spar Over Role of State,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

Democrats on the board have been especially vocal about wanting Mr. Moloney’s removal, while Republicans have pledged their support. The board has been evenly split between the parties, but that split will end when the number of members is reduced from eight to seven in January.

Kansas schools chief Bob Corkins could also face the loss of board support after next month’s elections. Mr. Corkins was hired last year after a 6-4 board vote in his favor by the conservative majority. The results of the party primaries ensure that either moderate Republicans or Democrats will hold at least six of the 10 seats.

The other states with board elections are Alabama, Hawaii, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, and Utah.

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as Schools Chief Races Highlight Policy Divides

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