School & District Management

State Electoral Victors Face K-12 Hurdles

By Michele McNeil — November 11, 2008 7 min read
North Carolina Gov.-elect Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, gives the thumbs-up after winning in that state, among the most hard-fought gubernatorial contests this year. Teachers' union volunteers swept in to campaign for the former teacher.

The new class of governors, state legislators, and chief state school officers elected last week will face formidable challenges in dealing with the squeeze the nation’s sagging economy—and ballooning state budget deficits—is putting on K-12 education.

In the Nov. 4 elections, Democrats added one more governor’s office—in Missouri—to their power grid and built on their dominance in state legislative chambers. Democrats now control all of state government in 17 states; the Republicans’ prevail in eight. Control is split between parties in the others.

Such political shifts could alter education policy. In Ohio, for example, Democrats’ newly acquired control of the House could spell trouble for charter schools and vouchers, proponents fear.

Battleground States

Voters in 11 states chose governors in the Nov. 4 elections, and three contests—Delaware, Missouri, and North Carolina—were for open seats. Democrats now hold the governorship in 29 states. In addition, 44 states elected state legislators, and nine of those states saw a shift in the partisan control of one or more chambers. Among legislatures, Democrats now have control of both chambers in 27 states and Republicans in 14.

12ballot c1s

SOURCE: National Conference of State Legislatures; Education Week

The election also resulted in five state schools chiefs being chosen, and in what was an upset, Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson lost to union official Randy Dorn.

The gloomy economic climate will pose big challenges for those crafting state budgets, which typically allocate about half their spending to education. Already, at least a dozen states have made targeted cuts to precollegiate education.

“Democrats have control at a time when you have to be slashing budgets. The party isn’t particularly good at saying no to anybody,” said Joe Williams, the executive director of the New York City-based Democrats for Education Reform, which works on school reform issues nationwide.

Defending K-12 budgets could become a common theme as education groups fight with those pushing other spending priorities at a time of dwindling tax revenues.

Newly re-elected Gov. Christine Gregoire of Washington, a Democrat who survived a tough battle, faces a $3.2 billion budget shortfall next fiscal year and has pledged not to raise taxes or fees.

Democrat Jack Markell celebrates after winning the race for governor in Delaware on Nov. 4, one of three open governor's seats nationwide.

In Delaware, Democrat Jack Markell, now the state treasurer, was elected to fill the office vacated by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, who was forced out by term limits. The winner already faces difficult decisions: The state’s budget deficit has reached $200 million, and school cuts are possible.

Missouri Switch

At the gubernatorial level, one of the Democrats’ biggest victories came in Missouri, which elected Attorney General Jay Nixon to replace Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, who decided not to seek re-election. Mr. Nixon’s win gave Democrats 29 governors’ seats.

He campaigned on improving college affordability, among other issues, and even stressed the issue during his victory speech Nov. 4.

“Too many middle-class families are unable to afford college for their children, … and too many students who make it to college are graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” Mr. Nixon said. “So we’ll create a pathway for middle-class students to get a four-year degree and graduate debt-free.”

He was referring to his “Missouri Promise,” which would expand an existing plan that helps pay for a two-year community college or technical school degree, and would allow students who meet income, grade, and community-service criteria to earn a four-year degree tuition-free. The cost: $61 million a year.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, easily won his re-election bid in a campaign that also included a new plan to improve college affordability. He has proposed granting students who meet income requirements two years of free tuition in the state’s community college system, or the equivalent of that tuition to be used at any other state public university. It would cost $50 million a year.

Education also was a big issue in the North Carolina governor’s race. Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a former teacher, defeated Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory in what was probably the most competitive governor’s race in the country in the weeks leading up to the election.

Teachers’ union volunteers from North Carolina and elsewhere, as well as the National Education Association’s main office, descended on the state to help drum up support for Ms. Perdue. She campaigned on an increase in college scholarships for low-income students, more money for prekindergarten, and an expansion of the state’s teaching-fellows program as a recruitment tool.

The Washington state’s governor’s race was a rematch from four years ago. Gov. Gregoire beat Republican Dino Rossi, a businessman and former state senator whom she bested in the last election by fewer than 200 votes. This year, she won by about 150,000 votes.

Also winning re-election were Democratic Govs. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, John Lynch of New Hampshire, and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia. Republican Govs. Jim Douglas of Vermont, John Hoeven of North Dakota, and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah also were re-elected.

Voters delivered mixed messages in state legislative races: Five chambers switched to Democratic control, four switched to Republican, and two chambers ended up tied. Democrats won big in the Delaware House and the New York Senate, for example, while Republicans won in both chambers in Tennessee and in the Montana Senate.

Before the election, Democrats controlled both chambers in 14 states, compared with GOP control in 10 states. The two parties had split control of statehouses in 25 states, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures’ tally. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature.)

Now, Democrats dominate 27 statehouses, Republicans control 14, and seven states are split—the fewest number of divided legislatures since 1982, according to the NCSL. (Nebraska and Montana, which has an evenly split lower chamber, aren’t included in that tally.)

N.Y. Turnover

The biggest legislative win was probably the New York Senate, which flipped to Democratic reign—the first time since 1935 that Democrats have controlled the New York legislature and the governor’s office at the same time, according to the ncsl. Democrats will be in charge as the budget deficit reaches $47 billion over the next four years.

“You won’t see anyone come forward with anything that will cost more money,” said Mr. Williams of the Democrats for Education Reform. “It’s more a matter of playing defense.”

That’s the sentiment, too, in Ohio—another big win for Democrats, which claimed the House for the first time in 14 years. Though this gives Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland legislative allies, the Senate is still under the thumb of Republicans.

The Democratic surge in Ohio could threaten initiatives such as charter schools and voucher programs that have been advanced under gop legislative control, said Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

“There’s not going to be any new money, and so legislators and the governor won’t be able to do anything dramatic,” Mr. Ryan said. “So in order to be seen as doing something for education, they might say, ‘We can’t afford charter schools or the voucher programs.’?”

Democrats suffered their biggest setback in Tennessee, where Republicans gained control of the Senate and more seats in the House. The GOP also won control of the Montana and Oklahoma senates.

Boards and Chiefs

In races that more directly affect education oversight, 10 states and the District of Columbia elected members to their state boards of education in contests that were largely uneventful, with Ohio as the notable exception. Voters there ousted two incumbents largely because their opponents’ name recognition was strong, according to local news media reports.

Five states also elected chief state school officers. Washington state had by far the most heated contest—and resulted in the upset of Ms. Bergeson in a close, nonpartisan contest that wasn’t decided until two days after the election.

Ms. Bergeson had clashed with the Washington Education Association over high-stakes testing. Once the president of the state’s teachers’ union, she was not endorsed by the WEA in 2004 or again this year. Over the summer, Ms. Bergeson, who was first elected schools chief in 1996, sought to catch attention by shifting her stance on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which she previously had defended.

Mr. Dorn campaigned on a message of “change” and on ditching the state’s standardized test in favor of a “simpler, fairer” test.

Indiana and Montana voters were more decisive in their election of new state schools chiefs. Republican Tony Bennett, currently the superintendent of the 11,000-student Greater Clark County school system in the southern part of Indiana, will replace Suellen K. Reed, who decided not to seek a fifth term.

In Montana, Democrat Denise Juneau, the state’s director of Indian education, will succeed Linda McCulloch, another Democrat who was barred from running again after eight years in office.

And in North Dakota, Wayne G. Sanstead won a seventh term to continue his streak as the nation’s longest-serving state schools superintendent.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as State Electoral Victors Face K-12 Hurdles

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