States

Educators Weigh GOP Wins in Two States

By Alan Richard & David J. Hoff — November 12, 2003 5 min read
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Educators and other observers in two states that elected Republican governors last week are hoping voters’ choices won’t bring major changes in K-12 education policies.

Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat who pointed prominently to his education agenda in his bid for a second term, lost to Republican challenger Haley Barbour, a Washington lobbyist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee who commutes to the nation’s capital from his home in Yazoo City.

Mr. Barbour’s new job—which he won by garnering 54 percent of the more than 850,000 votes in last week’s election, according to unofficial results— brings his work much closer to home. He has said that he would not cut education funding or back away from teacher-pay raises advocated by Gov. Musgrove.

“We hope he will be as interested in doing as much for education as Governor Musgrove did,” said C.L. Stevenson, the superintendent of the 4,700- student South Panola schools in Batesville, Miss.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher defeated Attorney General Ben Chandler, a Democrat, by capturing 55 percent of the more than 1 million votes cast, according to unofficial results. Mr. Fletcher is the first Republican to be elected Kentucky’s governor since 1967.

Both candidates in the Bluegrass State promised not to make significant adjustments to Kentucky’s well-known school improvement work.

“The Republicans have recognized that they can’t launch too much of a frontal assault on education,” said Joseph Gershtenson, the director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics, based at Eastern Kentucky University.

A close governor’s race to be decided on Nov. 15 in Louisiana between Lt. Gov. Kathleen Babineux Blanco, a Democrat, and Republican Bobby Jindal, a former official in the current Bush administration, is being watched closely by Democrats and Republicans alike, because of the possibility of a Republican sweep in the three states electing governors this year.

“It kind of reaffirms the South’s move to the GOP, and has to be seen as a good omen for the president going into 2004,” Hastings Wyman, the editor of the Southern Political Report and a longtime observer of politics in the region, said of last week’s results.

‘Part of His Success’

During his campaign, Gov.-elect Fletcher endorsed many pieces of Kentucky’s 13-year- old school reform agenda, a program that some conservative GOP legislators have criticized. He also advocated teacher pay raises.

Although he voted in the U.S. House of Representatives for a private-school-voucher program for District of Columbia students, he didn’t call for vouchers or other forms of choice during the recent campaign.

“I definitely think [his moderate education platform] was part of his success,” said Roger L. Marcum, the superintendent of the 3,000-student Marion County district in central Kentucky.

The congressman from Lexington, Ky., may be unlikely to make major changes in education policy, but his pledge to reject new taxes could cause funding problems for schools, educators and political scientists say.

“It’s a little bit frightening from an educational perspective,” Mr. Gershtenson said of that vow. “There’s a real potential for a scarcity of resources right now.”

Mr. Fletcher has promised to overhaul the state tax code, but has said the changes wouldn’t add new revenues. His opponent made a similar pledge but proposed to raise money by legalizing slot machines and other new forms of gambling at the state’s horse- racing tracks.

While educators support the governor-elect’s promise to raise teacher salaries, they question whether Mr. Fletcher will find the money to do so.

“There are no indications of how he might raise the revenue necessary to do it,” said Mr. Marcum, the Marion County superintendent.

For the current budget, the state legislature has already eliminated spending on textbooks and health-insurance payments for school employees, said Robert Lovingood, the superintendent of the 9,800-student Christian County district in southwestern Kentucky.

And even with those cuts, the state faces a shortfall of almost $300 million, and state officials are telling districts to prepare for cuts in state aid next spring.

“The bottom line is, we have tightened up our school systems to be efficient,” Mr. Lovingood said. “But we need our state funding.”

Mississippi Money

In Mississippi, Gov.-elect Barbour may have benefited from staying away from controversial education topics such as vouchers. Recent campaign appearances by President Bush and more than $5 million in support from the Republican Governors Association didn’t hurt, either.

Mr. Barbour overcame Gov. Musgrove’s attempts to paint him as a man more occupied with big-time political lobbying in Washington than with affairs at home. Voters may have been convinced instead that Mr. Barbour’s connections and experience might help the state.

Educators were worried last week, however, that Mr. Musgrove’s resolve to win a $236 million budget increase earlier this year for education and his hopes for state-financed preschools could fade under the new governor.

Even though Mr. Barbour has said he isn’t planning to cut education spending, he has warned of waste in state government and a budget deficit that could reach $700 million next year out of a total $3.7 billion budget.

Mr. Stevenson, the superintendent in Batesville, said cuts to K-12 education should be out of the question for the new administration. He added that the state should follow through with steps toward preschool for all 4-year-olds, because many school districts in Mississippi can afford only limited preschool programs on their own.

The superintendent acknowledged that he had been a little biased in supporting Mr. Musgrove for re- election. The governor attended the local schools as a child, and worked as the school district’s lawyer until he was elected to the state’s highest office four years ago.

Among his other plans for education, Mr. Barbour wants to establish the Mississippi Education Extension Service. It would send out experts to conduct parenting classes and travel the state to certify that child- care centers had instructors qualified to teach reading and other academic skills.

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