Elections Seen as Mandate For Bipartisan Schools Policy

By Bess Keller — November 15, 2000 9 min read

While the partisan divide of the U.S. Congress will be reflected in statehouses across the nation as a result of last week’s elections, the concerns about governmental gridlock in Washington are not echoing in many states—at least when it comes to education.

The Nov. 7 elections revealed voters in many states to be as evenly split over who should run their states as they are over who should control the federal government. But many analysts are bullish on the chances for Democrats and Republicans to bridge their differences and work together on school policy in the coming legislative session.

“There will be a huge step forward for public education,” predicted Mary Ellen Teasley, the director of government relations for the National Education Association. “Public education does not play out at the state level as it does at the federal.”

Ms. Teasley’s words were echoed by others as education observers digested the results from last week’s 11 gubernatorial races, as well as state legislative contests in 44 states.

“There may be a pretty strong message here that the country does want some balance and bipartisanship and action,” said Ted Sanders, the president of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. “And education in most states is more bipartisan than many other issues.”

Those circumstances may create an opening, the thinking goes, for legislators to act on a core set of ideas for improving schools without alienating voters or losing support among their colleagues.

“There is strong support for standards-based reform, for accountability focused at the school level with rewards and sanctions, and for concern with teacher quality, including performance pay for teachers,” said Allan Odden, a co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Tensions Remain

Yet despite the potential for cross-party cooperation, such questions as how to fix failing schools, and whether such efforts should include tuition vouchers for private schools, hold the potential for quickly eroding bipartisan spirit, education analysts say.

“There are real tensions now,” warned Matthew Gandal, the vice president of Achieve, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass., that was formed by governors and business leaders to promote improved student achievement through academic standards. “The key is that in debating out those issues, we don’t lose sight of keeping the whole movement going forward.”

The results of state elections suggested that neither education nor any other issue could easily be used to alter the balance of partisan power.

In the races for governor, voters adjusted the scales of power only slightly, giving Democrats one more chief executive position. But as before the elections, Republican governors will far outnumber their Democratic counterparts next year. As a result of the Nov. 7 vote, the GOP will control 29 governorships, down from 30, while Democrats will hold 19, compared with the current 18.

In the legislatures, the major parties will each control both chambers in 16 states; that balance represents a loss of one state for the GOP and three states for the Democrats. The number of legislatures with control split between the two parties rose from 13 to 15.

As of late last week, the overall tallies for the legislatures in Oregon and Washington state remained in doubt, as did the question of whether party dominance in either state would shift.

“The bottom line is there is not a whole lot of change, and where there is change, it is mostly toward more party parity,” said Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Distinctions Grow Subtler

At the same time, observers pointed out, party affiliation has become harder to define by the positions that elected officials take on education. That means partisan splits—whether between governors and legislatures, or between legislative chambers—often don’t add up to gridlock on school policy.

“You’re going to see more moderation and compromise” in statehouses, Mr. Storey said. “That’s what it takes when you’ve got such evenly divided power.”

Ms. Teasley of the NEA said education emerged from the elections a winner, and not only because the victors in all but two gubernatorial contests—those in Montana and North Dakota—had been endorsed by the NEA’s state affiliates.

Voters, she said, showed they “want investment, they want reform, they want public schools to succeed.”

In the gubernatorial races, the sole seat to switch from one party to another was in West Virginia, where U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, a Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Cecil Underwood. Mr. Wise squeaked past Gov. Underwood with 50 percent of the vote, to the incumbent’s 48 percent, according to preliminary vote totals. Mr. Underwood was the only sitting governor to lose this year.

In a tough race, Mr. Underwood at first ran on his record, which includes increased attention to school safety, school technology improvements, and pay raises for state employees, including teachers. Mr. Wise, in turn, argued that the state’s education system should be doing more to help West Virginia’s faltering economy.

But later in the race, the two sparred over posting the Ten Commandments in schools, among other issues. Mr. Underwood failed in a recent bid to get the state school board to require the commandments’ display.

In the two states where disagreement over private school vouchers came to the fore in governors’ races, the candidates who championed the publicly financed tuition aid went down to defeat; both were Republicans.

In North Carolina, the most populous state among the 11 states electing governors, state Attorney General Michael F. Easley defeated former Mayor Richard Vinroot of Charlotte with 52 percent of the vote to 47 percent, unofficial results showed. Mr. Vinroot favored a Florida-style accountability system in which vouchers would be available to students in failing schools. Mr. Easley, who emphasized school safety measures, including alternative programs for disruptive students, opposed vouchers.

In Missouri, U.S. Rep. Jim Talent lost to state Treasurer Bob Holden in a tight race for governor. Mr. Holden, a Democrat, stressed his opposition to vouchers, which his GOP opponent has favored in pilot programs during his career in the U.S. House of Representatives. Preliminary results showed that Mr. Holden had received 50 percent of the vote to Mr. Talent’s 49 percent.

In Missouri, as elsewhere, analysts say the election results suggest that voters generally favor current attempts to improve the public schools. The late Gov. Mel Carnahan, a Democrat who died in a plane crash last month and was the posthumous winner of the U.S. Senate race there Nov. 7, had made such efforts a centerpiece of his two terms in office.

“I think the vote sends a message that people in this state wanted to keep [the direction of school improvement efforts] as it was,” said David Hough, the dean of the education school at Southwest Missouri State University.

School Funding at Issue

In New England, two incumbent Democratic governors won re- election, despite sharp criticism that they had mishandled controversy over their states’ school finance systems.

Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire captured 49 percent of the vote to gain a third term, defeating former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a Republican, who was supported by 44 percent of the voters. Mr. Humphrey had accused Ms. Shaheen of ducking the issue of how to pay for New Hampshire’s schools. For a decade, the state’s plan for financing education has been embroiled in legal challenges.

In Vermont, Gov. Howard Dean kept his seat by garnering 51 percent of the vote. He turned back challenges from Republican Ruth Dwyer, a former state representative, who received 39 percent of the vote, as well as from third-party candidate Anthony Pollina, the Progressive Party nominee, who got 10 percent of the vote, according to preliminary tallies.

Ms. Dwyer had promised to “rebuild” the state education system by winning passage of charter school legislation and a tax credit for expenses at either public or private schools. She also decried an overhaul of the school finance system, which Mr. Dean backed.

Three other incumbent governors fared well. In Indiana, Gov. Frank O’Bannon, a Democrat, defeated U.S. Rep. David M. McIntosh, a Republican, with 56 percent of the vote to Mr. McIntosh’s 42 percent, unofficial reports indicated. During the campaign, Mr. O’Bannon touted progress in Indiana schools during his four years in office. His rival said not enough had been accomplished, and proposed changing the testing system.

In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Gary Locke rode a tide of support for public education in that state to victory, capturing election to a second term with 59 percent of the vote to GOP opponent John Carlson’s 40 percent.

And in Utah, preliminary results showed that Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican, won 56 percent of the vote to defeat former U.S. Rep. Bill Orton, a Democrat, for a third term. Mr. Orton received 43 percent of the total.

Two hard-fought Western races—in North Dakota and Montana—ended with Republican victories.

John H. Hoeven, a Republican who formerly headed the state-owned bank of North Dakota, defeated state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, with 55 percent of the vote compared with 45 percent for Ms. Heitkamp, according to unofficial tallies. Though Ms. Heitkamp had won the endorsement of the state teachers’ union, both candidates ran on platforms that included addressing a shortage of teachers by increasing salaries, which are among the nation’s lowest.

In Montana, where teacher shortages are also an issue, Lt. Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, bested state Auditor Mark O’Keefe, a Democrat, by a reported 51 percent to 49 percent.

In Delaware, the executive office went handily to a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, who garnered 60 percent of the ballots. John Burris, a Republican who had served as majority leader in the state House, received only 40 percent of the vote. Both candidates had competed hotly for the endorsement of the state teachers’ union; Ms. Minner got the nod.

A Few Switches

In legislative races involving 80 percent of the nation’s statehouse seats in 44 states, results by late last week had altered party control in just six chambers. And neither party gained the most obvious prize—greater influence over next year’s federal redistricting in states expected to gain or lose seats in Congress—because control didn’t shift in those states.

Republicans continued to hold their slim lead in the lower chamber in Pennsylvania, for instance, while Democrats successfully defended an equally slim margin in the Texas House. Pennsylvania is expected to lose two congressional districts and Texas is expected to add two.

Control of legislative chambers changed hands in Colorado, where the Senate moved to the Democratic column for the first time since 1962; in Vermont, where the Republicans captured the House; and in New Hampshire, where the Senate went back to the Republicans, who had held it for all but two of the past 88 years.

In three states, South Carolina, Maine, and Missouri, small Democratic majorities in the Senate gave way to ties between the parties. In the Arizona Senate, the GOP no longer holds the majority and had to settle for a tie.

“It’s about the same number of party-control switches you’d see in any election, maybe fewer,” said Mr. Storey of the NCSL. “The parties are competitive across the board, and the one-party state is becoming a thing of the past.”

Reporter-Researcher Adrienne Coles, Staff Writer Lisa Fine, Assistant Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Staff Writer Andrew Trotter, and Associate Editor Debra Viadero also contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Elections Seen as Mandate For Bipartisan Schools Policy


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