Governors Elected on Mixed School Agendas

By Alan Richard & John Gehring — November 13, 2002 8 min read
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Voters in 36 states sent a powerful mix of messages last week when they selected governors who back a blend of more money for schools, softer tones on high-stakes tests, and greater support for expanded school choice.


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Campaigning to bolster school spending, Democrats replaced Republicans in Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

In the South, a voucher-backing GOP challenger defeated the incumbent governor in South Carolina. And a strong education record was not enough to help Democratic Gov. Roy E. Barnes of Georgia fend off Republican state Sen. Sonny Perdue.

In the battle that drew the most intense national attention, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush won handily in Florida, giving him four more years to keep his state’s school choice programs alive.

In total, the GOP performed well enough to keep the Democrats from gaining a majority of governors’ seats. Preliminary results showed 24 seats going to Democrats and 26 to Republicans. Currently, the GOP holds 27 governorships, the Democrats have 21, and Independents hold two.

Elections 2002

Now the work begins, analysts say.

Paying for new education programs during sour economic times will be a major hurdle for virtually every governor elected last week, said Jim Watts, who monitors education policy for the nonpartisan Southern Regional Education Board, based in Atlanta. “No one has handed any of these folks a bouquet of roses,” said Mr. Watts, a vice president of the SREB, which works with governors and legislators in 16 states.

Bush Repeat

In Florida, Gov. Bush launched into his plans for education nearly in the same breath as he declared victory: an emphasis on reading, better early-childhood programs, and more research-based training for teachers.

“I will not let you down. I will work as hard as I can,” he declared, then finished the short speech in Spanish.

The president’s brother tallied 56 percent of the state’s 4.9 million votes to Democratic challenger Bill McBride’s 43 percent.

Mr. Bush’s opponent, a Tampa lawyer, had the help of volunteers and $1.5 million from the Florida Education Association, the state teachers’ union. But it wasn’t enough to overcome strong Republican showings in most of the state, and low turnout among African-American voters that Mr. McBride needed in the Tampa Bay area and in south Florida. (“Education Issues Hit Home in Florida Election,” Oct. 23, 2002, and “Governor’s Race Tests Power of Merged Teachers’ Union,” Oct. 30, 2002.)

“We really think we are responsible for putting education on the front page in this election,” said Maureen S. Dinnen, the president of the teachers’ union, putting a positive spin on the Democrat’s defeat.

Gov. Bush didn’t get all he wanted. Florida voters approved new limits on class sizes that the governor had opposed—and that he had sharply criticized Mr. McBride for supporting, given the uncertainty about its cost. The addition of new teachers and classrooms could cost the state up to $3 billion for next year alone, Republican leaders have said.

Vouchers and Upsets

Another Republican who supports vouchers was elected in South Carolina. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, after a campaign in which Mr. Sanford touted an education plan that includes vouchers for students in low- performing schools.

Gov. Hodges, for his part, had made education the central theme of his campaign, pointing to a term that included higher student test scores, a new lottery for education, and an early-childhood-education program.

Mr. Sanford’s victory could make South Carolina the next major battleground over school choice. He patterned his education plan after Florida’s assortment of school choice programs, which include public money for students to pay private school tuition.

Thousands of Florida students now use some part of the state’s school choice menu, which includes vouchers for students in the lowest-performing schools, scholarships for students with disabilities, and business-funded scholarships that allow needy students to attend private schools.(“Florida Sees Surge in Use of Vouchers,” Sept. 4, 2002.)

In an interview last week, Gov.-elect Sanford said voters in South Carolina had rejected TV ads that portrayed his Florida-style plan as too radical. “This is just one more step in the process of accountability,” he said.

“We’re saying, ‘Let’s try something different,’” Mr. Sanford continued. “Let’s try this limited, pilot program to see if it would be helpful.”

Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina’s state education superintendent and one of the few Democrats who survived an onslaught of Republican victories in her state last week, said vouchers won’t help improve struggling schools.

She suggested that Mr. Sanford’s good looks and a recent visit in his behalf by President Bush probably helped in his win, overshadowing the Republican’s education plan. “I don’t think vouchers can pass in South Carolina,” Ms. Tenenbaum said.

The Democrats suffered what may have been the day’s biggest gubernatorial upset when Mr. Perdue beat Gov. Barnes in Georgia.

In his campaign, Mr. Perdue used the incumbent’s formidable accomplishments on school accountability against him. Mr. Barnes, during his term, has established himself as one of the governors who is most focused on accountability in education, and he was the president of the SREB for the past two years.

“Standards and accountability are fine goals,” Mr. Perdue’s education plan says, but “these extra burdens and regulations ignore the varying needs of our children around the state, stifle teacher creativity, and endanger the true education of our children.”

Oklahoma was the scene of another upset. Democratic state Sen. Brad Henry edged former U.S. Rep. Steve Largent, a Republican, who is also well known as a former professional- football player, to succeed retiring Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican.

Mr. Henry stressed that he has a real interest in education because his wife teaches in public schools, and he backed a lottery to help pay for college scholarships, teacher pay raises, and expanded early-childhood programs.

Gwen Nisbett, a spokeswoman for Mr. Henry’s campaign, said, “People really trusted that he wanted the best things for their children.”

Maryland Goes GOP

In another surprising turn of fortunes, Maryland elected its first Republican governor in 36 years. U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Both candidates said that despite the state’s current budget crisis, they would back the legislature’s plan to raise $1.3 billion a year for schools.

Mr. Ehrlich overcame tall odds in Maryland by portraying himself as a seller of fresh ideas, and as a political moderate who chose an African-American running mate for lieutenant governor, state GOP chairman Michael S. Steele. The governor- elect also supports raising money for education by allowing slot machines at the state’s three horse-racing tracks.

Campaign spokesman Henry Fawell said Mr. Ehrlich plans to make school aid his top priority, but not at the expense of new ideas. “For the first time, we have a governor who is willing to go to bat for charter [schools] and more freedom for parents,” he said.

The Republican’s victory could shake off the heavy influence of teachers’ unions and open the door for Maryland’s first charter school law, said Nancy S. Grasmick, the Democratic state schools superintendent, who earlier this year considered switching parties to be Mr. Ehrlich’s running mate.

“He is a very capable person who has great respect for the efforts of local school systems and the state department of education working in tandem,” she added.

In Alabama, election results remained uncertain late last week, when each candidate declared himself the winner. The airtight race pitted Democratic Gov. Donald Siegelman, who had emphatically called for more spending on public schools, against Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Riley, who held a slight lead in the race in unofficial results late last week.

Capitol Gains

Republican gains in state legislatures brought more good news to the GOP on an Election Day that resulted in Republican control of both houses of Congress.

The party gained about 200 seats in legislatures across the country. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the elections left the GOP in control of 21 legislatures, up from 17, and the Democrats in charge of 17, down from 18. Control is split in 11 legislatures, down from 14. Nebraska has a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature.

In all, 6,214 of the nation’s 7,382 legislative seats were up for grabs in 46 states.

Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidates won in Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, and Michigan by emphasizing more money for public schools and a gentler tone on school accountability—all in states where Republicans have been governors for at least the past four years.

Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, and State Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas—all Democrats—were among four women elected to governorships last week.

The fourth woman governor-elect is a Hawaii Republican, former Mayor Linda Lingle of Maui County, who defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono. Her winning platform included breaking Hawaii’s single-district school system into seven school districts with their own elected boards.

In Illinois, U.S. Rep. Rod R. Blagojevich gained a seat for Democrats with an education plan that promises to raise the state’s share of education funding.

Another prominent Democratic winner was former Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, who defeated Republican Attorney General Mike Fisher in Pennsylvania by promising more aid to schools through higher cigarette taxes.

Philadelphia residents will watch their former mayor to see how he positions himself on the year-old state takeover of the city’s 206,000-student school district.

Regardless of the issues that helped propel the winning candidates, they will be sharing the stage with President Bush, whose “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 places a host of mandates on states for years to come.

Still, say education watchers, governors may be the most important policymakers on education.

“Governors have set education policy agendas for both parties for the last decade,” said Charles Merritt, a policy analyst for the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States, based in Denver. “The most significant problems facing governors will be how to fund these education promises.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Governors Elected on Mixed School Agendas


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