Candidates for Governor Wrangle Over School Issues

By Alan Richard & David J. Hoff — October 22, 2003 6 min read
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Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove throws himself a birthday party on a Delta plantation with the actor Morgan Freeman as a special guest. Republican challenger Haley Barbour, a well-connected Washington political consultant, tells stories about his “mama"and growing up in Yazoo City.

While their campaigns for governor may have a down-home feel, the candidates in Mississippi, as well as in Louisiana and Kentucky, are stressing serious issues such as education, the economy, and ways they can help people find better jobs. Voters in those three states head to the polls in the coming weeks to choose governors.

Louisiana will set a first no matter who’s elected on Saturday, Nov. 15. The voters can choose a man who would be the nation’s youngest governor and the first Indian-American to hold such an office. Or they may elect the state’s first woman governor.

Kentucky voters—who go to the polls Nov. 4, like their Mississippi counterparts—will choose between two more traditional candidates who both claim they will keep the state’s landmark education reforms alive.

In Mississippi, Gov. Musgrove is putting his education-friendly image against Mr. Barbour’s calls for stronger state leadership.

The Democratic incumbent is the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based group that advises Southern states on education policy. He speaks often about how the state must keep putting education first, how he championed a major education funding increase last spring, and how Mississippi became the first state to provide an Internet- connected computer for every classroom—a claim disputed by some (“Technology Spreads Slowly But Surely in Miss.,” April 2, 2003.) Mr. Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and White House political director under President Reagan, challenges the governor’s ability to talk frankly about the state’s economic problems and the work that remains to change the state’s most struggling schools for the better.

Comparing the Candidates

During the first of four debates, Gov. Musgrove accused Mr. Barbour of having closer ties with foreign countries and special interests than with his home state of Mississippi.

“I’m the only candidate who has worked for Mississippi his entire life,” Mr. Musgrove said. He accused Mr. Barbour of bad-mouthing, or “running down,” the state on its schools and other issues.

The Republican responded that the governor, who is seeking his second term, needs to take responsibility for the state’s affairs, even when all the news isn’t good.

“Governor, talking about our problems is not running the state down. Facing up to our problems is something we have to do,” Mr. Barbour said during the Aug. 29 debate in Jackson.

He also questioned why roughly half the state’s schools failed to meet test-score goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act this year. “At Yazoo High, Coach Kelly taught us 50 percent is not a good grade,” he quipped.

Gov. Musgrove is running mostly on his education record. He pushed lawmakers to approve a $236 million increase in education spending in this fiscal year’s $2 billion K-12 budget, has won teacher raises each of the past three years, and points to state gains on test scores and other indicators.

“That’s the kind of result I believe that people were looking for,” said Mr. Musgrove, who is endorsed by the Mississippi Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

The governor wants to allow families to deduct state college- tuition costs from their income taxes, and he is pushing for preschool for every 4-year-old whose family wants that option. Currently, the state gives schools no money for preschool for 4-year-olds.

Mr. Barbour backs the teacher raises pushed by Mr. Musgrove, and says the state shouldn’t spend less on education.

He wants to establish a Mississippi Education Extension Service, a team of fieldworkers that would certify which child-care centers have instructors qualified to teach reading and other academic skills. The extension service also would work with parents.

“We should be judging a politician’s commitment to education by the result they can achieve for our children and for our state,” Mr. Barbour said in a September speech in Jackson.

No matter who wins in Mississippi, many educators want the momentum around school improvement to continue, said Mike B. Vinson, the executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Administrators.

Keeping that momentum should remain a priority and more of an “educational issue than a political issue,” Mr. Vinson said.

Other States to Choose

In Louisiana, voters will decide in the mid-November runoff between a 32-year-old Republican whose parents were born in India and the Democratic lieutenant governor.

Bobby Jindal has had an impressive career already. A former Rhodes Scholar, he has been the state health director, the president of the University of Louisiana system, and an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the current President Bush.

He wants to raise teacher pay in shortage areas and begin merit pay for teachers based on student achievement. He also calls for amending the state constitution to allow the state or universities to take control of failing public schools. Mr. Jindal, who is seen as a social conservative, has the backing of two-term Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who cannot run for a third term.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, 60, has more seasoning in politics. A former business education teacher and state lawmaker, she has served two terms in the state’s second-highest office, in which she oversees the state’s billion-dollar tourism industry.

Ms. Blanco wants to provide laptop computers for every 7th grader in Louisiana and to mandate preschool. She also favors more charter schools and low-interest loans for adults to continue their schooling.

In Kentucky, Republican U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher, of Lexington, faces state Attorney General Ben Chandler, a scion of a prominent Democratic family. Both candidates support the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, which has come under attack in recent years, and say they would continue the progress the state has made under the sweeping plan.

But Mr. Chandler, the grandson of former Gov. Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler, said that Mr. Fletcher’s votes for the federal No Child Left Behind Act and other education bills have undermined the state’s ability to progress as defined under the federal law.

The No Child Left Behind Act is “a Washington solution to a problem Kentucky doesn’t have,” Mr. Chandler said Aug. 25 as he unveiled his education platform at a press briefing in Louisville. The law forced the state to add tests and create a separate accountability score for schools under federal rules.

Mr. Fletcher wants to launch a reading initiative that would ensure the state qualifies for federal money under parts of the No Child Left Behind law, and he favors raising Kentucky’s teacher salaries to the regional average.

The Republican was criticized recently by Mr. Chandler for casting a deciding vote in the House of Representatives for a pilot tuition-voucher program in the District of Columbia. Mr. Fletcher formerly opposed vouchers, but said he voted for the bill once safeguards were added that would limit the impact on public schools. (The Senate hadn’t voted on the voucher plan as of last week.)

Mr. Chandler wants to set up a trust fund to pay for expenses such as teacher salaries, tutors, and school renovations. The money would be collected by allowing the state’s historic horse-racing tracks to introduce other forms of gambling and then taxing those revenues. Mr. Fletcher opposes the expansion of gaming in the state.


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