School & District Management

States’ K-12 Policies in Play in Wake of GOP Surge

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 07, 2014 8 min read
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker gives a thumbs-up after speaking at his campaign victory party on Nov. 4 in West Allis, Wis. Walker defeated Democratic gubernatorial challenger Mary Burke.
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Republican governors and state lawmakers swept into office or re-elected this week are likely to spark major K-12 policy changes in a fresh crop of states and extend GOP-driven initiatives launched in the wake of 2010’s electoral upsets.

Among the big winners this year could be advocates of school choice programs in states like Illinois and Massachusetts, where Republican governors will take over, and in Wisconsin, where an activist GOP governor was re-elected.

Action to overhaul education funding is likely in many states regardless of party control—one consequence of an election in which K-12 spending was a significant issue on the campaign trail.

However, the scope of action for governors of both parties could be blunted in some cases by the divided partisan control in several states ranging from Illinois to Pennsylvania. So it’s not clear that some of the policy changes like curbs on collective bargaining rooted in the 2010 elections will spread.

Still, “the action will be at the state level going forward,” said Paul Manna, an associate professor of public policy at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., comparing state leaders and federal policymakers. “So these are the more important races to think about.”

Republican Gains

In both gubernatorial and legislative elections, state-level Republicans increased their current dominance.

In 2015, there are set to be at least 31 GOP governors, up from the current 28, compared with at least 17 Democrats, down from 20. (Races in Alaska and Vermont were still officially undecided as of late last week.)

Only 11 state legislatures are set to be controlled by Democrats, compared with 30 for Republicans. Seven legislatures will have divided control, while control of the Colorado legislature was unclear as of last week.

Meanwhile, the number of states with divided control between governors and legislatures was slated to jump significantly, from 11 to 18.

Observers are particularly interested in how newly elected GOP governors like Bruce Rauner in Illinois and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts deal with legislatures controlled by Democrats on issues such as managing the costs of public-employee pensions and lifting the charter school cap, respectively.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott waves to the crowd during a victory party on Nov. 4 in Bonita Springs, Fla., after defeating Democratic challenger and former Republican Charlie Crist.

And, after a long turn in the political spotlight this year, the role of the Common Core State Standards in many gubernatorial and legislative general elections was minor or murky, although the common standards had a more prominent place in several state chiefs races.

For teachers’ unions, this year’s state elections proved a disappointment. Unions could point to Democrat Tom Wolf’s defeat of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania as a clear victory—they’d spent heavily in a race where the incumbent was already seen as far behind. They also had strongly backed California state chief Tom Torlakson’s winning re-election bid in a highly competitive race. But teachers’ unions otherwise had little to celebrate after spending $60 million in the 2014 election cycle, a record-setting percentage of which went to state and local races.

Meanwhile, groups that are critical of labor unions but often or exclusively support Democrats, such as Democrats for Education Reform, hailed gubernatorial wins by Democrats such as Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island and incumbent Govs. Andrew Cuomo in New York and Dannel Malloy in Connecticut, who have clashed with K-12 unions in some fashion. But they were otherwise disappointed in many instances by GOP victories that might conflict with their K-12 priorities in other areas.

The large class of GOP governors first elected in 2010 that pushed controversial policy changes, such as the restrictions on public employees’ collective bargaining successfully championed by Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, proved durable despite vigorous opposition from labor.

For example, of the 10 Republicans who took away Democratic seats in gubernatorial elections four years ago, all but Gov. Corbett were re-elected last week.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a first-term Republican, likewise had been deemed vulnerable, but he survived a close race. Mr. Scott approved a major expansion of his state’s tax-credit-scholarship program as well as controversial changes to teacher evaluation opposed by the state’s unions.

The extent to which Republican chief executives will feel emboldened to break new ground in school policy is unclear. But the elections could provide a particularly strong mandate for governors to expand the reach of charter schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers, said Matt Frendewey, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a Washington-based advocacy group that backs such scholarships and vouchers that parents can use to pay private school tuition.

Noting that 91 percent of his group’s endorsed candidates won last week, Mr. Frendewey said that compared with the 2010 elections, “this year was just as big, if not bigger, in terms of wins nationwide. There is a sea change among voters.”

Mr. Walker is widely expected to push for expanding the state’s voucher program. Republican governors-elect like Mr. Rauner in Illinois could decide to continue recent overhauls of the state’s pension system, but will have to do so in conjunction with a Democratic legislature. A similar dynamic holds true for Mr. Baker in Massachusetts, who will push his state’s Democratic legislature to increase the state’s cap on charter schools—state lawmakers rejected such an increase in this year’s legislative session.

Different Speeds

But the pace of such policy shifts won’t be uniform despite the dominant GOP election performance.

For example, the new Illinois and Massachusetts governors might work with Democrats in control of their respective legislatures on pension and school choice issues. But for them and others in states with divided party control to push major new limits on collective bargaining restrictions would likely be “a bridge too far,” said Michael Q. McShane, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that supports school choice and other free-market-oriented policies.

“The conditions on the ground are different. So the conditions for education reform I think are different,” Mr. McShane said.

High-profile Democrats who held their governorships or defeated an incumbent Republican could face a similar issue. Mr. Wolf, the governor-elect in Pennsylvania, will have to work with a GOP-controlled legislature, while Colorado’s re-elected Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper could see his power significantly reduced if the final vote shows Republicans taking control of that legislature.

Shifts in Spending

Conditions also vary when it comes to school funding—a major issue on which Democrats who support bigger state budgets can take some solace.

Mr. McShane of the AEI said that with the exception of Gov. Corbett in Pennsylvania, many Republicans like Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas were able to win in spite of sustained attacks on their K-12 spending records from Democrats and labor unions.

But some Republican governors who survived such criticisms during their re-election campaigns might have been spurred to take a fresh look at the issue.

For example, Gov. Nathan Deal in Georgia has pledged to initiate a fundamental review and potential overhaul of public school spending, while Gov. Scott in Florida has promised to increase such spending to record levels next year on a per-pupil basis.

Those kinds of promises give heart to Carmel Martin, a former top U.S. Department of Education official in the Obama administration, despite what she acknowledged “wasn’t a good night for Democrats.”

“Some of the places where you saw [education] playing in a big way were around funding issues. So that makes me happy,” said Ms. Martin, who is now the executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank that favors greater financial resources for public schools.

In some states, attention may focus on the impact of new governors on K-12 spending proposals already in the works.

For example, legislation in Illinois approved by the state Senate last year seeks to create a new funding formula that would put a priority on low-income and other needy students and make K-12 spending more transparent. Now under consideration in the House, the bill has momentum and political backing that could prove immune to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s defeat to Mr. Rauner.

“No one is saying, ‘Oh my God, the thing that’s really going to change this is the election,’ ” said Michael Griffith, a school finance analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver who has worked with Illinois lawmakers on changes to K-12 spending.

The same could hold true in Pennsylvania, where a committee of lawmakers is tasked with proposing a new funding formula next year. While Democratic Gov.-elect Wolf, a businessman who hasn’t previously held elected office, campaigned strongly on approving a bigger state K-12 budget, his positions on other key questions for a new state formula are less clear.

Teacher Focus

Among state ballot initiatives dealing with K-12, many sought funding increases through various means, and their success rate was mixed. New York state’s Proposal 3 to issue $2 billion in bonds in part to improve technology in public schools passed, but Washington state’s Initiative 1351, which aimed to hike spending to reduce class sizes, failed.

Teacher preparation and licensure could also be fertile ground for new action from state lawmakers.

Regardless of political persuasion, most lawmakers now recognize the importance of teachers to student achievement, argued Ms. Martin of CAP. She noted, for example, that seven states are participating in a two-year pilot organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers to reconsider how they prepare individuals for teaching careers.

Since 2010, nationwide enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has declined, and the drop has been especially pronounced in states, like California and Texas, with large populations. Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, said, “The big question in ed policy is going to be the teacher piece.”

She added: “Perhaps the road ahead for some resourceful governor is to figure out a way to really up the ante in terms of the teaching profession in his or her state, or to be innovative in that area.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Republicans Enhance State-Level Advantage

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