Education Eyed in 36 Battles for Governor

By Michele McNeil — October 24, 2006 7 min read
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Votes cast in next month’s 36 gubernatorial elections will help shape future K-12 policies, from how schools are financed to how teachers are paid.

Candidates throughout the country are running on platforms based on the trendiest ideas in school policy. Many want to pay teachers based on their performance. Others are proposing to expand pre-kindergarten programs. And several Republicans say their states’ school districts should be required to spend at least 65 percent of their money on classroom expenses.

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“Every one of those governors is running on what they’re going to do for education. Every candidate says, ‘I want to be the education governor,’ ” said Bob Wise, who was West Virginia’s governor from 2001 to 2005. A Democrat, he is now the executive director of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group that works to improve high schools.

Whatever the outcomes on Nov. 7, the nation will have at least 10 new state governors, because the incumbents are prevented by term limits from running again, chose not to seek re-election, or were defeated in a primary election.

The governors of Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada, and Ohio are prohibited from seeking re-election, according to the National Governors Association. The governors of Idaho, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New York chose not to seek re-election. Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski lost the Republican primary in August.

And several other states could also have new residents in their governors’ mansions. At least four races that feature incumbents are toss-ups, said Larry J. Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Democratic governors in Oregon and Wisconsin, and Republican governors in Minnesota and Maryland, are locked in tight re-election battles.

The new crew of governors won’t wait long to begin shaping education policy, Mr. Wise said.

Shortly after taking office, the governors will have to deliver a major speech, such as a state-of-the-state or inaugural address, and lay out their priorities. In many states, the governors will prepare budgets in early 2007 and decide how much money they want their legislatures to devote to K-12 education.

Fast Start

A governor’s political capital is usually at its greatest just after being elected, so expect some new education initiatives to dominate next year’s legislative sessions, Mr. Wise said. “You want to lay your marker down and get as much done in your first session,” he said.

If the gubernatorial campaigns are a sign of what’s to come, school finances will be Topic A in many of those sessions.

That’s mostly due to a push among Republican candidates to require a certain percentage of school funding to be spent on classroom instruction, and not on other expenses, such as administration. What supporters call the “65 percent solution” is being touted by the GOP nominees in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. In Wisconsin, U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Republican who is running against Democratic Gov. James E. Doyle, has one-upped the proposal, calling for 70 percent of school funding to be spent in the classroom. So has Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican squaring off against Attorney General Mike Hatch, a Democrat.

In Oregon, the school finance debate isn’t really about percentages, but about keeping funding at current levels, finding efficiencies in school spending, and improving the budgeting process.

Ron Saxton, the Republican contender there and a former chairman of the Portland school board, wants more transparency in school budgeting and better auditing to maximize the dollars that go directly to student instruction. The Democratic incumbent, Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski, wants to create a stable funding source for schools, devote at least 61 percent of the state budget to education, and then track whether any increases in school funding are working.

“There has been such a pervasive message about spending, that many parents feel like there’s a lot of waste in schools,” said Kevin McCann, the executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, which represents the state’s 198 local school districts. His group is working to convince parents and policymakers that schools are spending money efficiently.

What could really complicate things in Oregon, Mr. McCann said, are two ballot measures that could reduce revenue available for schools if voters approve them. One would change the state constitution to institute a new state-spending cap, while the other is a tax change that could decrease revenue to the state. Both candidates for governor oppose the measures, but if either or both pass, Mr. McCann predicted, “it will be an incredible problem for the next governor.”

School funding is at the heart of the governor’s race in New York, where Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the Democrat, has a sizable lead in the polls over Republican John Faso, a former state assemblyman. Mr. Spitzer is pledging to resolve a 13-year-old lawsuit that seeks more money for New York City schools by spending between $4 billion and $6 billion in state aid over four or five years on the 1.1 million-student district. (“Finance Issues Stir Emotions in N.Y. Case,” Oct. 18, 2006.)

Teacher Pay and More

Republicans are also the chief supporters of a controversial idea that most teachers’ unions oppose: paying teachers based on performance. GOP candidates for governor in at least 10 states are calling for some type of incentive pay, or merit pay, for teachers based on how well their students perform.

Other issues aren’t nearly as partisan. Expanding prekindergarten is part of the education agendas for both major-party candidates in Alaska, Connecticut, and Vermont. College affordability has been a bipartisan topic in Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota.

Though many overarching national issues have trickled down to governors’ races, in most of the contests the education debate is intensely local.

In Wisconsin, whose governorship is being closely contested, that issue is vouchers.

Gov. Doyle rankled the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, when he approved an expansion of the state-enacted Milwaukee voucher program earlier this year. The new law will allow 22,500 students to receive state-financed tuition vouchers that can be used to attend private schools. That’s an increase of 7,500 students—a hike that opponents fear could further shift money away from Milwaukee’s public schools.

“We were adamantly opposed to it,” said Stan Johnson, the president of the 98,000-member Wisconsin union, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

But in return, the Democratic governor asked for and got more accountability for private schools in the program, which now must obtain independent accreditation and administer a nationally normed test. Separately, Gov. Doyle secured more money for class-size reduction—something the teachers’ union supports.

When it came time for the union to endorse a candidate, “we struggled,” Mr. Johnson said. “But we looked at what has been done over the past few years.”

The union pointed to Gov. Doyle’s efforts to reduce class sizes and keep school funding levels steady despite a large deficit at the beginning of his term. So despite the governor’s pro-voucher move, the union still endorsed him.

His opponent, Mr. Green, wants to go even further and eliminate the cap on the Milwaukee program altogether.

“Milwaukee parents, not Madison politicians,” he said in a statement, referring to the state capital, “know what’s best for Milwaukee schoolchildren.”

In Wisconsin, the most polarizing education debate centers on the state’s big, urban, troubled school system, which enrolls some 95,600 students. In Maryland, it’s the same story.

The 85,500-student Baltimore city school system, which has been plagued by low standardized-test scores and low graduation rates, is mixed up in the tight race between Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. Even though both the governor and the mayor jointly appoint the nine members of the district’s school board, Mr. O’Malley has spent a large part of the campaign defending his role in the poor performance of city schools.

In 2006, for example, only 39.4 percent of 8th graders in the district tested at the proficient level or above in reading, and only 21.6 percent tested at least proficient in math, according to the Maryland Department of Education. Earlier this year, Mr. O’Malley opposed a state-attempted takeover of 11 failing schools, which was blocked in the legislature.

“You protected the status quo,” Gov. Ehrlich said to his opponent in a debate televised last week. “You sentenced these kids to another year of nothing.”

Mayor O’Malley defends his record, declaring that test scores are inching up, and that the graduation rate has improved, from 41 percent 10 years ago to the current 60 percent.

“We’re not done, but we’re making progress,” Mr. O’Malley said in the debate, adding that the schools would improve even more with more support from the state. “What we need is a governor who is better at taking responsibility than he is at taking cheap shots.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Education Eyed in 36 Battles for Governor


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