In decades past, governors have leveraged their bully pulpit to advance increasingly bold education agendas. They’ve had their own children integrate schools, pledged that every child would have a laptop computer, and overhauled learning standards.
Next year, they’ll enjoy fresh leverage in school accountability, courtesy of the nation’s flagship K-12 law—and that prospect already has amped up the volume of education debate in several of this year’s gubernatorial contests.
The Every Student Succeeds Act tosses power back to states to design their own school-accountability and teacher-evaluation systems, among other measures, after more than a decade when the federal government used the No Child Left Behind Act to set priorities for education policy nationwide.
Voters in 12 states will pick governors this year, with only five incumbents up for re-election. The winners will have considerable power to shape state education policy under the new Every Student Succeeds Act. Education policy has taken a central role in many of these states.
LEFT: Democrat: John Carney
RIGHT: Republican: Colin Bonini
LEFT: Democrat: John Gregg
RIGHT: Republican: Eric Holcomb
LEFT: Democrat: Chris Koster
RIGHT: Republican: Eric Greitens
LEFT: Democrat: Steve Bullock (Incumbent)
RIGHT: Republican: Greg Gianforte
LEFT: Democrat: Colin Van Ostern
RIGHT: Republican: Chris Sununu
LEFT: Democrat: Roy Cooper
RIGHT: Republican: Pat McCrory (Incumbent)
LEFT: Democrat: Marvin Nelson
RIGHT: Republican: Doug Burgum
LEFT: Democrat: Kate Brown (Incumbent)
RIGHT: Republican: Bud Pierce
LEFT: Democrat: Mike Weinholtz
RIGHT: Republican: Gary Herbert (Incumbent)
LEFT: Democrat: Sue Minter
RIGHT: Republican: Phil Scott
LEFT: Democrat: Jay Inslee (Incumbent)
RIGHT: Republican: Bill Bryant
LEFT: Democrat: Jim Justice
RIGHT: Republican: Bill Cole
Source: Education Week
Twelve states will pick governors Nov. 8, and two-thirds of them will be new faces regardless of the partisan outcome, as incumbents exit the stage because of term limits or other factors. Of the 12 races, six governorships are held by Democrats, five by Republicans, and one (West Virginia) by an independent.
That fluid situation and the Every Student Succeeds Act’s new grant of policy flexibility to the states may clear the way for a more activist stance on education policy by the nation’s governors, according to James B. Hunt Jr., who served as the governor of North Carolina from 1977 to 1985, and then again from 1993 to 2001. He now runs the Hunt Institute, which aims to help shape the education agenda of politicians aspiring to serve as a governor.
“Back in the days before [the No Child Left Behind Act], we were making huge changes to increase education resources and focusing on teacher improvement with a laser-like focus,” he said. “With ESSA, what you’re going to see now is governors throw themselves back into the education arena.”
In the 12 gubernatorial races this year, school funding, finance formulas, and accountability have dominated the debates. Here are some of the hot spots to watch as the elections near:
Delaware is one of the only states not to provide extra funds for students with special needs, English-language learners, and poor students, a situation creating a pitched battle between districts in the Wilmington area over which will serve which neighborhoods. Many of the state’s districts are reluctant to take on these students since they won’t get extra money to serve them.
In 2015, Democratic Gov. Jack Markell appointed a task force called the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission, made up of business leaders, parents, and district administrators, to come up with a way to address the problem.
The legislation they crafted, which would have shifted more money toward high-poverty schools and redistricted parts of Wilmington, failed this year. It’s now become a campaign issue for the gubernatorial candidates.
“I believe strongly that we need to preserve the progress that WEIC has made and build on it next year,” Democratic candidate John Carney said, according to The News Journal, a Wilmington newspaper. “I am, however, committed to doing whatever is necessary to give every child the quality education they deserve, particularly those facing the kinds of obstacles WEIC is most concerned about.”
Republican nominee Colin Bonini has said that he’s an advocate of local control and opposes “top-down mandates from the state.”
Under Republican Govs. Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence, Indiana’s government crafted one of the nation’s most aggressive and punitive school accountability systems. It grades both schools and teachers, based mostly on test scores.
When botched test scores were released this year, superintendents and the state’s teachers revolted, complaining that the legislature had gone too far in scrutinizing public schools. Meanwhile, the state has been hit with a teacher shortage that’s left several districts having to increase class sizes and use uncertified teachers.
“We’ve seen some of the biggest changes that have impacted public education [of] any state in the union,” said J.T. Coopman, the executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. “The things that they referred to as reforms have actually decimated public education.”
Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb, who stepped in as the GOP nominee for governor after Pence was tapped to run for vice president on the national Republican ticket, doesn’t have an extensive track record on education, though he has served under both Daniels and Pence.
That’s left several observers in the state wondering in which direction he would go on education policy if he moves up to the state’s top job.
“Among our top priorities will be retaining and attracting a 21st-century workforce, ... striving to make Indiana’s public school system the best in the country, supporting teachers as role models, and equipping them to develop outstanding young Hoosiers,” Holcomb said, according to local reports.
His Democratic opponent, John Gregg, said during a debate in August that he thinks education has become too political in recent years.
“We also must eliminate the ISTEP testing,” he said of the statewide test, according to the Princeton Daily Clarion. “Teachers must be part of the solution.”
The rivals for the governorship will have an education-focused debate later this month at the state’s superintendent and school board association fall conference.
While most states have seen an increase in revenue since the rebound from the Great Recession, others, for a variety of reasons, have had to make cuts to their public schools as tax revenue dropped.
In Missouri, at least 15 districts have gone to four-day school weeks to save money. Many educators have lobbied the legislature to overhaul the state’s funding formula. A bill that would have done so failed during the 2016 legislative session.
Democratic nominee Attorney General Chris Koster opposed the bill, saying it would have lowered education spending in the state.
“A billion dollars annually is cut from the [elementary school] budgets; infrastructure investment has come to a halt at the hands of the Republican legislature,” he said at a debate this summer, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m trying to bring some balance back to the state government.”
On his campaign page, Republican nominee Eric Greitens, a retired Navy SEAL, said he wants to reduce the state government’s footprint.
“I believe in results and accountability,” Greitens said. “I pledge to shrink government, to eliminate waste and fraud, and to act as a budget hawk, who looks after your every dollar.”
In North Carolina, Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and Democratic nominee Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general, have sparred over whether teachers’ salaries have indeed increased over the past four years, when Republicans for the first time in decades controlled the state House, the Senate, and the governor’s mansion.
“For years, teacher pay in North Carolina had been declining and ended up near the bottom,” said McCrory in a widely distributed campaign ad. But now “average teacher pay next year will be over $50,000 and that’s just the start.”
The legislature, following the lead of McCrory, has expanded the state’s charter school sector and given the state department of education the authority to start taking over underperforming schools and running them directly—all actions that have upset teachers. The teachers’ union say the legislature has damaged morale, leading to a teacher shortage in many districts.
Cooper, who has been endorsed by the state’s teachers’ union, argues that, according to his staff’s calculation, teachers still make among the lowest average pay in the region.
“I have a plan to make education a priority, ... ensuring our classrooms have the resources they need and raising teacher pay to at least the national average,” said Cooper in a video posted on his website. “We’ve done it before and we can do it again.”
Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2016 edition of Education Week as Fresh Policy Leverage Awaits as Gubernatorial Races Heat Up