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Common Core, Money Matters Fuel Debates in State Elections

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 18, 2015 7 min read

The three elections for governor this year aren’t generating a lot of attention in the education world when compared with K-12 issues in the 2016 presidential race.

But the policy stakes surrounding races in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi are high and could have an impact on the national debate about the Common Core State Standards and other education issues.

That is especially the case in Kentucky. After garnering national attention for being the first state to transition to the common core and make other notable K-12 policy changes, the state could tack in a dramatically different direction if the Republican nominee wins the November election.

The three gubernatorial races this year could also set the stage for how public school policy is discussed in the more crowded 2016 election field, where 12 states will have races for governor.

Standards Debate in Kentucky

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The race to take over for Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who is term-limited and has been in office since 2007, features state Attorney General Jack Conway as the Democratic nominee against Republican Matt Bevin, a businessman who rose to prominence when he unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat in the 2014 Republican primary.

The most obvious gap between the candidates on education concerns the common core. Conway is backing the standards for the most part, and Bevin is adamantly opposed to them. “This is probably the most critical gubernatorial election that Kentucky has seen in a long time,” said Stu Silberman, the executive director of the Prichard Committee, a nonprofit advocacy group and backer of the standards.

Bevin has claimed the standards represent an example of the federal government’s unconstitutional overreach and should be replaced. (The federal government didn’t create or mandate the standards, but it did encourage their adoption through the Race to the Top grant program and waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act.)

He has stressed that the standards are bad education policy, saying in a debate last month with Conway that, “If you know you’re going the wrong way, take your foot off the gas.”

Bevin’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Conway, meanwhile, is a common-core supporter. He has gone after Bevin for what he calls misinformed attacks that the common core is a federal takeover of education, saying at the same July debate: “And if it needs to be tweaked, let’s tweak it from the local level.”

In addition to being the first state to adopt the common core, Kentucky was also the first to administer tests specifically aligned to the standards in 2012. The state education department sought public input on the standards from August 2014 through last April.

Silberman acknowledged that in Kentucky’s case, as in other states, “sometimes in order to have that continuous improvement, you have to disrupt the system.” He cited overtesting as a possible issue meriting further exploration.

Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, left, shakes hands with Gov. Steve Beshear before speaking to a group of supporters last spring in Frankfort. Three states are electing governors in 2015.

But in the same breath, he worried that if the state abandoned the common core and related policies, the state would backslide and lose its last half-dozen years of policy and advocacy work.

‘Some Important Changes’

Many Republican governors have voiced opposition to the common core and pushed their states to ditch the controversial standards. But only three GOP governors—Mike Pence of Indiana, Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, and Nikki Haley of South Carolina—can accurately claim to have repealed them, at least nominally, through legislation they’ve signed. And in Indiana and South Carolina, the state boards ultimately adopted standards that in many instances have strong similarities with the common core. Oklahoma hasn’t adopted replacement standards yet.

It’s still not clear, however, what Bevin thinks would replace the common core, said Richard Innes, an education analyst for the Bluegrass Institute, a nonprofit organization that opposes the common core.

“Will that result in every single common-core standard being thrown out? I doubt it,” Innes said of a Bevin victory in November. “But I do think it will result in some important changes.”

In addition, Bevin could also dramatically alter the direction of state K-12 policy simply because he’ll have the power to pick new state board of education members.

Kentucky is one of seven states that do not have laws permitting charter schools. Bevin has expressed support not only for the state to allow charter schools, but for the state to create a voucher program as well. Conway is a voucher opponent, meanwhile, but says he supports charters as long as they don’t sap resources from traditional public schools.

In an email, Conway campaign spokesman Daniel Kemp said a top priority for the candidate is to craft a plan “that expands and supports educational opportunities for students and makes certain that every child in Kentucky has access to high-quality, early-childhood education.” But Conway has yet to provide specifics about those plans.

Bevin has criticized Head Start funding and has expressed skepticism about the long-term impact of early-childhood programs.

Louisiana’s Crowded Field

In Louisiana, the common core’s future is subject to different political pressures. That political atmosphere begins with the election process: The state has a “jungle primary,” in which the top two vote-getters in the October primary election, regardless of party, will square off in the November general election.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who, like Beshear, is term-limited,failed in his push to get the legislature to repeal the standards. The state school board has undertaken a public review of the common core, and any alterations to the standards stemming from that review are due early next year.

But two of the GOP candidates, U.S. Sen. David Vitter and state Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, are adamantly opposed, although Vitter is a former proponent of the common core. The main Democrat in the race, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, has been skeptical of the standards. Among the top four candidates, only Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne supports them.

However, the governor’s election is just one of many in Louisiana this year. The election of new members to the state legislature who oppose the common core could upend the board’s review process. (The legislature is currently controlled by Republicans.) In addition, eight of the 11 seats on the state school board are up for election.

Jindal has pledged to fight for anti-common-core candidates. To what extent he is doing so amidst his presidential campaign, however, is unclear.

“If they become anti-common-core political bodies, and they say, ‘We reject [the common-core review], we want you to do this all over again,’ then the political fight is going to start all over again,” said Stephanie Desselle, a vice president for the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports the standards.

Mississippi Funding Questions

Incumbent Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, running for a second term,has enjoyed strong polling when matched up against at least one Democratic candidate earlier this year, and could be on course for an easy re-election. His Democratic opponent is Robert Gray, who has no prior political experience but won an upset in the party primary election. Gray has said he favors spending more money on schools.

Bryant vetoed a bill initiating a common-core review because he said it was not the full repeal he wanted. The state board subsequently began its own review any way.

Bryant signed a new charter school law in 2013 that allows up to 15 new charters to be approved by the state each year, as well as a new accountability system using A-F school grades in 2012.

Perhaps the most contentious K-12 issue on the ballot isn’t directly attached to a candidate. Initiative 42, placed on the ballot through petition signatures, would require the state to pay for an “adequate and efficient” system of schools by fully financing the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the K-12 funding formula. It also specifies that the courts have power to oversee that such funding meets the legal standards.

Legislators have balked at the initiative. They say Initiative 42 gives too much power over K-12 funding to the legal system rather than to the legislature. Lawmakers placed their own initiative on the ballot, Alternative 42, that would give the legislature the power to maintain an “efficient” system of schools.

A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2015 edition of Education Week as Education Stakes Are High in Ky., La., and Miss., Governor Races


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