School & District Management

State Chiefs’ Races Blend K-12 Issues, State Politics

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 09, 2012 8 min read
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School finance, the role of standardized tests, and local control of education policy are among the hot issues as candidates vie for the top school leadership spot in four states next month, with three incumbent state superintendents running hard on their records as they seek another term in office.

The visibility of elections for top state education jobs has increased in recent years, as has the amount of money being spent on campaigns, said Chris Minnich, the senior membership director at the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

For example, in Indiana, incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican, had a campaign war chest of $779,000 at the end of the second quarter in June, the most recent quarterly report available from the secretary of state’s office. His Democratic opponent, Glenda Ritz, reported a balance of $25,000.

But money and national issues aren’t the only key elements in these top leadership campaigns, Mr. Minnich added: “Inside-state politics matter a lot in each one of these elections.”

They Want Your Vote

Voters in four states will elect new state schools chiefs on Nov. 6. Three of the four races are partisan elections; all but one race features an incumbent running for re-election. All four states have legislatures controlled by Republicans. Key issues include the role of standardized tests, the power of local districts versus that of state education departments, and funding.

INDIANA

Tony Bennett (R)
Incumbent
Mr. Bennett was elected superintendent of public instruction in 2008 and has touted the state’s work in Advanced Placement course participation and an increasing graduation rate. He has implemented major changes to teacher evaluations and school accountability. He is a close ally of outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, and has clashed with teachers’ unions.

Glenda Ritz (D)
Ms. Ritz has won “teacher of the year” awards at two schools and has the backing of the Indiana State Teachers Association. A teacher in the Indianapolis area, she has criticized Mr. Bennett’s teacher policies as being too focused on standardized testing in areas from preparation to evaluation. She also opposes recent state takeovers of individual schools.


MONTANA

Denise Juneau (D)
Incumbent
Ms. Juneau was elected superintendent of public instruction in 2008, and was a speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in September. During her term, she has launched a statewide Graduation Matters initiative designed to improve high school completion and postsecondary readiness. She is a member of the Hidatsa and Mandan Native American tribes.

Sandy Welch (R)
Ms. Welch has worked as a teacher and principal and now runs a consulting business. She believes districts should have more control over education decisions and has pledged to reduce state-level regulations to give districts flexibility. She also wants to open state trust lands to more resource development to generate more revenue for public schools.


NORTH CAROLINA

June Atkinson (D)
Incumbent
Ms. Atkinson was first elected superintendent of public instruction in 2004 and has worked at the state education department in various capacities since 1976. She has overseen a 12-point increase in the graduation rate over the past six years. She wants to expand online learning opportunities to high-demand courses in state public schools.

John Tedesco (R)
Mr. Tedesco is a member of the Wake County board of education, which oversees a public school system with roughly 147,000 students; he also serves as president of the North Carolina Center for Education Reform, which supports mentoring and community partnerships for schools. He says he would work better with the Republican-dominated legislature than Ms. Atkinson has.


NORTH DAKOTA (nonpartisan)

Kirsten Baesler
Ms. Baesler has been the president of the Mandan school board since 2006 and a member since 2004; she has also worked as an assistant principal and media specialist. She supports policies that stress early literacy and also wants to explore allowing charter schools to begin operating in the state. She supports the Common Core State Standards.

Tracy Potter
Mr. Potter, a former state senator and former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, says he dislikes his opponent’s description of herself as a Republican in the nonpartisan race. He says teaching is an art form that should not be measured by standardized testing; he also wants to increase state funding for public schools to hire more teachers.

Hoosier Home Stretch

Ms. Ritz, Mr. Bennett’s challenger in Indiana, is strongly opposed to the incumbent’s education policies. She has argued that they are inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative Washington-based group that provides model state legislation and has outraged some education advocates by promoting policies like “parent trigger” laws, which allow parents to initiate the process of converting a school into a charter.

She also has accused Mr. Bennett of turning the teaching profession, through changes in programs such as teacher licensing and evaluation, into a high-stakes game of getting enough right answers on an exam, or trying to ensure students do.

“In the state of Indiana, it’s all about a pass-fail test,” said Ms. Ritz, who has the backing of the Indiana State Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate representing more than 45,000 public school workers. (The last time a Democrat was elected state superintendent in Indiana was 1972.)

Ms. Ritz also said Mr. Bennett had frozen out educators.

“The rest of the nation may feel he’s a pretty public figure, in his circles. But he’s not in Indiana. We don’t see him that way,” she said.

In his first TV ad and elsewhere, Mr. Bennett chooses to emphasize the statistical accomplishments of Indiana students during his first term, such as the 4.3 percent increase in the graduation rate since he took office in 2009, and progress toward the goal of having 90 percent of students pass state tests. That has been done without suffocating school and district leaders, he argued.

“We don’t tell the locals how to teach,” Mr. Bennett said in an interview.

Mr. Bennett also stressed external validation from groups such as the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based pro-school-choice group that ranked Indiana as the number one state for “parent power.”

“I would really like to see some performance-based metric in our school funding formula,” Mr. Bennett said. “It will come when we put our education policies and our fiscal policies together, so that we really ... think about what we get out of our education system.”

Veteran Eyes Third Term

June Atkinson, a Democrat, has been superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina since 2004 and has worked at the department in some capacity since 1976. But now would be a bad time for voters to pick a new state chief, she argued, since the state is implementing its $400 million Race to the Top grant from Washington and a new statewide data system for teachers and principals.

Ms. Atkinson highlighted the state’s improving graduation rate, which has risen from 68.3 percent in 2006 to 80.2 percent this year, the highest in state history. She cites a bigger focus on 9th grade vocational education and the use of technology “to personalize education for every child so that traditional structures such as a school day, a school year, would become less important.”

She also said she would fight any proposals to create vouchers or provide tax credits for private schools.

“We don’t have time to waste in using strategies for which we have no data to support that there will be a payoff,” she said.

Her Republican opponent, John Tedesco, is calling for a cultural overhaul of the state department.

He is a member of the Wake County board of education, which has been the site of highly-publicized battles over school integration politics and recently ousted the sitting superintendent Anthony Tata. He said he has overseen significant budget cuts in that county ($102 million over fiscal years 2011 and 2012, by his estimate) without eliminating a single teacher’s position in the 147,000-student district, while providing teacher bonuses in fiscal 2012.

“It should run with a little less focus on state-level bureaucratic oversight and a little more localized customer service,” Mr. Tedesco said of Ms. Atkinson’s office.

He said schools should enlist a variety of partners to fight what he called the “school-to-prison” pipeline, as Wake County did through it’s Economically Disadvantaged Student Performance Task Force, of which Mr. Tedesco is the chairman.

The challenger also said the fact that about two-thirds of the state’s community college students require remediation undermines many diplomas’ value. And he was blunt about the fact that he could work more effectively than Ms. Atkinson with Republicans, who gained control of the state legislature in 2010.

“It’s time for a different set of eyes,” he said.

Big Sky, Big Election

After four years as Montana’s schools chief, Democrat Denise Juneau likes to stress the flexibility her department is providing for local districts that are performing well and monitoring for those that are struggling, while implementing an initiative to improve high school completion. She also stresses the state’s success on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Montana 8th graders scored better than counterparts in 43 other states in NAEP reading (and roughly the same as eight other states or jurisdictions), improving by 3 points since 2009. Math and reading scores in the 4th grade, on the other hand, have remained flat.

Ms. Juneau emphasized that the state, working with several stakeholders, including school boards, unions, and the Montana Rural Education Association, reset its trajectory on state standardized tests and has seen improved performance, without having to go through the process of seeking a federal waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The national rhetoric that’s going on about a broken system is not true in our state,” she said.

She praised Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer for vetoing several “horrible” bills from the Republican-controlled legislature. She pledged to fight the introduction of charter schools (the state has no charter law) and state-level attempts to tie teacher evaluations to test scores.

“There is already tons of flexibility built into our districts,” she said.

Not so, argued her Republican opponent Sandy Welch, a former high school principal who said Ms. Juneau’s office has failed to remove old regulations for districts as it added new ones.

In addition, if only about 15 school districts are removed from the state’s graduation measures, Ms. Welch argued, postsecondary success drastically improves, calling into question how the state sets goals for such issues. (There are 317 school districts in the state.)

“It’s local schools that should set goals and identify needs. I think the state should be a resource,” she said.

Ms. Welch would explore implementing an A-F grading system for individual schools, adopting literacy standards by the end of 3rd grade, allowing charters for the first time, and starting a data system that would allow for parents to compare multiple schools simultaneously.

The state superintendent also serves on the Montana State Land Board, which manages timber, surface, and mineral resources on state trust lands (in fiscal 2011, trust lands generated $59.6 million for public schools). Ms. Welch, who has been endorsed by the state Chamber of Commerce, said she would be a more business-friendly vote on the board, which would in turn mean more money for education.

Replacing a Fixture

With the retirement after 28 years of North Dakota state chief Wayne Sanstead, two nonpartisan candidates are seeking to replace him.

But Kirsten Baesler, the president of the Mandan public schools board since 2006, who has worked in education for more than two decades, is not afraid to identify herself as a Republican. She is also not afraid to support the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and math, which has been a divisive issue among Republicans. When asked why, she noted that an elementary school she recently visited had students who were originally from 26 states.

“As global as our world is becoming ... it’s very, very important for us as a nation to have the same expectations and the same standards,” she said.

Because of North Dakota’s recent population growth (the state was home to three of the 50 fastest-growing counties in the United States and a population increase of 1.7 percent from 2010 to 2011), Ms. Baesler argues for state funding to reflect often-higher student-enrollment predictions instead of the previous year’s enrollments. Under her model, districts would refund the money if the higher estimates were inaccurate.

Her opponent, Tracy Potter, is a former Democratic state senator and one-time U.S. Senate candidate, and said his primary goal is to fend off policies that eliminate teaching as an “art form.”

“It’s the teachers that matter, and testing, standardized testing to try to determine the quality of teachers, is a fool’s errand. It really can’t be done,” said Mr. Potter. “President Obama is wrong. I believe George Bush was wrong.”

Mr. Potter called for a large, state-directed school construction effort to prevent overcrowded classrooms, as well as a universal prekindergarten program to allow parents more freedom to find jobs.

“We have to throw this money at the problem, even if it isn’t wise in the long run,” he said.

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as Chiefs’ Races Blend Issues, State Politics

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