When voters in 36 states elect governors next month, they will choose a new wave of state leaders who stand to make a powerful impact on K-12 education.
Twenty states are guaranteed to elect new chief executives, since several incumbents decided not to run again and others have reached term limits. The onslaught of potential new governors includes 10 women in nine states who are major-party nominees.
Depending on how incumbents fare, Nov. 5 could usher in the most significant turnover of governors in at least 16 years. And just about every candidate has an aggressive education agenda. Many want to spend more money on schools. Some are stressing school choice.
“Education is the high priority,” said Jim Watts, a vice president of the Atlanta- based Southern Regional Education Board who monitors state politics. “The bad thing is, we don’t have much money to spend.”
Indeed, tight economic times are making it harder for newcomers and incumbents alike to propose expensive new programs. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying to get voters’ attention by promising to raise teacher pay, shrink class sizes, or rescue low- achieving schools.
Republicans say they’re able to talk about education with new confidence. President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 is taking hold, placing new requirements on states for testing K-12 students and for raising teacher quality.
And that is good news for all GOP candidates, argues one prominent Republican veteran who is fighting for a third term.
“For the first time in modern history, Republicans are looked at positively on education, and I think that’s because of the president,” Gov. John G. Rowland of Connecticut, who is being challenged by Democratic former State Comptroller Bill Curry, said last week. "[President Bush] put us all in a pretty good light.”
Republicans hold 27 seats, compared with the Democrats’ 21, while two are held by Independents.
For their part, many Democrats are proposing to emulate education plans that have won political favor for their party’s governors in other states. The early-childhood program started by former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. has proved deeply influential, as have other states’ successes with class-size-reduction plans and with lotteries or new “sin” taxes to aid schools.
“We’ve watched and learned from other governors,” said first-term Gov. Don Siegelman of Alabama, who is running neck-and-neck against U.S. Rep. Bob Riley, a Republican.
Some candidates and analysts suggest the record number of women who could be elected to governorships this year could alter the way governors view their work on education. They note that women candidates are more likely than their male counterparts to have helped in classrooms while their political careers developed.
“I’ve been involved in education for life,” said Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, the state insurance commissioner and former lawmaker who is seen as leading in the race for governor in GOP-leaning Kansas. “I served as a room mom, worked on the board of the PTO, was chair of the teacher-appreciation committee at Topeka High. That perspective kind of adds to my policy lens on education.”
The candidates’ positions in Kansas offer an example of how this year’s races are focused on education and, more precisely, spending on education.
And voters there certainly have two different platforms on school finance to choose from as they try to decide who will replace outgoing two-term Gov. Bill Graves, a Republican.
Ms. Sebelius and her Republican opponent, State Treasurer and former Speaker of the House Tim Shallenburger, have both made money for schools a central issue in their first-time bids for governor. A commission appointed by Gov. Graves determined that the state needs to spend hundreds of millions more dollars to improve schools.
But Mr. Shallenburger contends the state should rework the school finance formula Ms. Sebelius helped craft as a legislator, and change current laws to allow more Kansans to raise local property taxes for schools if they wish.
“There’s no reason we should prohibit people who want to pay more from doing it,” he said.
Ms. Sebelius counters that drastically changing the formula would be unfair to school districts that depend heavily on state funding. “No distribution method works unless you put the resources into it,” she said.
Besides the race in Kansas, women could win in eight other states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Rhode Island. Five states have women as governors now.
Both major-party candidates in Hawaii are women. Democratic Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono faces former Maui County Mayor Linda Lingle, a Republican.
While the Hawaii race focuses on education themes familiar to voters in many other states, there’s one issue that is unique to the Aloha State: whether to create local school districts.
Ms. Hirono says she favors improving Hawaii’s existing, one-district system of schools, while Ms. Lingle proposes to split the system into seven districts with independently elected school boards.
Connecticut’s Gov. Rowland, who is the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, sees a bright future for Ms. Lingle, who narrowly lost to retiring Democratic Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano in 1998. “I think she’s dynamite. She’s a national player, a moderate woman running in a hugely Democratic state,” he said.
In a race that is getting national attention, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend faces U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
Though Ms. Townsend, the eldest child of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, belongs to the country’s most famous Democratic political dynasty and is running in a Democratic-majority state, recent polls show her in a close contest with her Republican opponent.
Both candidates back the Maryland legislature’s plan to spend billions more dollars on public schools during the next decade. (“Md. Schools Get Big Hike in Funding,” April 17, 2002.)
In their effort to replace outgoing two-term Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendenning, Mr. Ehrlich and Ms. Townsend are pitching different approaches to finding that money—a task that could be complicated by the state’s budget shortfall.
Mr. Ehrlich wants to legalize slot machines at horserace tracks to raise extra money, while Ms. Townsend opposes them. And while her platform calls for expanding preschool programs and lowering class sizes, she wants to raise cigarette taxes to narrow the $1.7 billion shortfall.
Newcomers and veterans alike are trimming their plans to reflect the impact of gaping budget shortfalls.
“You can talk about education, but unless you have the money, you can’t walk it,” said Gov. Siegelman of Alabama, who wants to raise education spending, while his Republican opponent has been critical of the governor’s handling of the state’s budget crisis.
The battle in Michigan is about money. The outcome could also shape the long-term legacy of outgoing Republican Gov. John Engler, who led a major school-finance-reform movement early in his nearly 12-year tenure.
Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus, this year’s Republican nominee, favors keeping that system, which has increased the state’s share of school funding and led to more equalized spending in districts. But his Democratic rival, Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, wants to tweak the system to allow for greater spending in school districts that have that ability.
Her plan “would widen that gap again,” argued Sage Eastman, a spokesman for Mr. Posthumus’ campaign.
The lieutenant governor, who is running for governor for the first time, wants to focus on improving children’s reading skills rather than increased spending, Mr. Eastman said. Mr. Posthumus also backs the current state ban on teacher strikes, Mr. Eastman said, and constraints on union negotiations with school districts. Ms. Granholm’s views appear more friendly to organized labor.
While the reality of slimmer state budgets has tended to keep this year’s gubernatorial platforms fiscally modest, other issues are emerging to help voters distinguish between the different campaign messages.
In Pennsylvania, two old acquaintances are running against each other for governor.
Former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, the Democrat, faces Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher. The two candidates worked together on death-penalty legislation in Pennsylvania when Mr. Rendell was a prosecutor and Mr. Fisher was a state legislator.
The winner will fill the spot held for nearly two full terms by Republican Gov. Tom Ridge, who became President Bush’s homeland security director last fall. Gov. Mark S. Schweiker, the former lieutenant governor who succeeded Mr. Ridge, did not seek the job in his own right.
Mr. Fisher favors expanded school choice, including vouchers, and wants to direct spending on schools to help more children master basic skills.
Mr. Rendell, who opposes vouchers, wants to move Pennsylvania toward state-financed preschool for all 4-year-olds with a $25 million commitment next year. He also wants more state spending on K-12 education, less dependence on local property taxes in the state, and higher cigarette taxes.
“Ed has never said that funding will cure every ill, but you can’t cure some of them without the funding,” said Mr. Rendell’s campaign spokesman, Dan Fee.
In another race in which school choice is an issue, former U.S. Rep. Matt Salmon, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, wants to provide vouchers to students in failing schools, and expand an existing scholarship program that is underwritten by state tax credits, which helps poor families pay private school tuition.
Mr. Salmon’s opponent, Democratic Attorney General Janet Napolitano, wants to focus on teacher recruitment and early childhood programs.
Several other GOP candidates have school choice planks in their platforms. But candidates are avoiding vouchers as a central issue—despite last June’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Cleveland voucher program—because the topic is still volatile, said Gov. Rowland of Connecticut.
“I think they play big, certainly in the urban settings,” Mr. Rowland said. But he added: “I don’t think you’ll see anybody running [primarily] on the issue.”
Other races have newcomers as well as political veterans running to fill seats being vacated by incumbents.
Two- term New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, will step down because of term limits. Replacing him will be either former U.S. Rep. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and former energy secretary under President Clinton, or Republican state Rep. John Sanchez. Both candidates want the state to focus its education spending on classroom instruction, while Mr. Sanchez favors school choice and Mr. Richardson wants to build more small schools and work on dropout prevention.
The fraternity of governors also will lose arguably its leading celebrity to someone new. Independent Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the former TV wrestler and surprise winner four years ago, is not running this year. Challengers for his seat include Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe; Republican state House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty; and Independence Party candidate and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Penny.
One veteran governor offered up a suggestion last week for newcomers to governors’ seats.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican seeking a second full term against Democratic State Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher, quoted an old-time gospel song to explain how every governor wants to implement programs but can find little money right now.
“Everybody wants to go to heaven,” Mr. Huckabee said, “but nobody wants to die.”