Gubernatorial Results May Signal Policy Shift

By Michele McNeil — November 10, 2006 8 min read
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If the winners in the 36 races for governor make good on their campaign promises, the next four years will bring renewed financial investments by states in their public schools, with emphasis on expanding early-childhood programs, improving teacher quality, and preparing students for college.

The outcomes of the three dozen gubernatorial contests Nov. 7 put a majority of the states’ highest offices, 28, in Democratic hands for the first time since the banner Republican year of 1994. The shift will strengthen Democrats’ role in shaping the future of education policy—at least for the next couple of years.

The Republican Party lost governorships in Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio to Democratic candidates who pledged to spend more money on public schools. Most of those offices were open because of term limits or retirements; the only incumbent ousted was Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The one-term Republican lost to Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who spent a big portion of his campaign defending the performance of his city’s struggling school system.

“You’re going to continue to see a very major focus on education by the governors elected,” said former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat who is the chairman of the board of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, in Chapel Hill, N.C. “They have the bully pulpit. They have to know these issues personally.”

The incoming governors will get an early opportunity to start directing the course of policymaking in their states, as many will give State of the State addresses and craft their first budget proposals in January.

Four Key Areas

Dane Linn, an education expert for the Washington-based National Governors Association, said new governors, and those who are returning and wanting to establish their legacies, will likely tackle four key areas of education.

They’ll want to create or expand prekindergarten programs, he predicted, and look at retooling high schools so students are better prepared for college. Battling adolescent-literacy problems is another probable focus, he said, and so will be improving teacher quality—especially in science, math, and technology—through measures such as performance pay. The NGA plans to jump into that controversial topic in the coming months by pushing states to look at alternative ways to pay teachers, Mr. Linn said.

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“All governors focus on education during their first and second years; some are more bold than others,” said Mr. Linn, the director of the education division of the NGA’S Center for Best Practices.

In addition, many of the winning candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, pledged to make college more affordable for families after tuition increases at many public universities nationwide, resulting from state budget troubles earlier in the decade.

Increasing financial aid was a prominent theme for Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat who won a tough fight for re-election, and for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who won an even fiercer re-election battle by the razor-thin margin of 1 percentage point. (“Minnesota Governor Struggles to Keep Seat,” Nov. 1, 2006.)

The NGA, Mr. Linn said, will also remind new and returning governors of the unanimous agreement in 2005 by the country’s governors to abide by a compact on high school graduation. The pact seeks to get all states to use the same formula to calculate graduation rates.

The 3.2-million-member National Education Association will have its own agenda for the new state leaders. It wants to deflect attention from pay-for-performance plans for teachers, which NEA President Reg Weaver said have been tried and put aside for years.

Instead, he said, the NEA will push state policymakers to look at “adequately and equitably funding schools.”

Even amid the Democratic victories there were bright spots for Republicans. Mr. Pawlenty’s win was valuable in Minnesota, considered a swing state in presidential elections.

In Florida, often considered a laboratory for education innovation, the GOP celebrated the victory of Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist, a former education commissioner. His race was, in some ways, a referendum on current Republican Gov. Jeb Bush’s record on education issues. Having served two terms as governor, Mr. Bush was barred from running for re-election.

“Charlie’s election is a strong sign that Florida voters want to continue down the path of lower taxes, economic strength, and higher standards in our schools,” said the Florida Republican Party’s chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan, in a statement after the election.

In addition, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won by 17 points in California, which is Democratic territory, a point he raised last week after the election.

“This was not a vote just for me or for any particular party. It was because the people saw that we were working together,” said Mr. Schwarzenegger, according to a transcript of his remarks, referring to cooperation between the two major parties.

Legislative Gains

In their efforts to improve education in their states, several of last week’s Democratic winners will have political support from legislatures that will also be dominated by their party.

Click to view interactive feature: Proposals to the Voters
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Democrats now have control of both legislative chambers in 23 states—four more than they had before the elections. The Republicans now control both chambers in 16 statehouses, five fewer than they had before. In 10 states, the chambers are now split between the two parties, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is nonpartisan.

The Democrats biggest legislative victories came in Iowa and New Hampshire, where they took control of the House and the Senate in those two states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats also took control away from Republicans in the lower chambers in Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon, and Indiana, and the Senate in Wisconsin.

Across the country, the elections turned 10 states into one-party powerhouses, with Democrats in the governor’s office and both legislative chambers—a situation that could pave the way for passage of new plans for education and other areas.

For the first time in 42 years, for instance, Iowa has a Democratic-controlled House and Senate and a Democratic governor-elect, in Iowa Secretary of State Chester J. “Chet” Culver, a former teacher.

That new political landscape has state teachers’ union President Linda Nelson almost giddy.

“To me, the people of Iowa have spoken. Education is truly a top priority,” said Ms. Nelson, who heads the 32,000-member Iowa State Education Association, an NEA affiliate. “This is truly going to be a great opportunity.”

She said that under Republican control, the legislature hasn’t acted fast enough to increase teachers’ salaries in Iowa to make them more competitive with those of neighboring states. She pointed to the NEA’s 2005 ranking of teacher salaries, which placed Iowa 41st in the country, with the state’s average salary at $39,284 a year.

Mr. Culver has said one of his top education priorities will be to set aside an additional $20 million in state funding to raise teachers’ salaries. He will succeed a fellow Democrat, Gov. Tom Vilsack, who decided not to seek re-election and who announced last week that he’s running for president.

Less Conflict Predicted

Democrats also now hold control in the legislature and the governor’s office in Arkansas, which is one of the six states whose governorships switched from Republican to Democratic control. Current Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is also mulling a run for president, could not run again because of term limits. His replacement will be Attorney General Mike Beebe, who campaigned on expanding state spending on prekindergarten programs by $40 million a year.

For Rep. Joyce Elliott, who chairs the education committee of the Arkansas House, having a fellow Democrat in the governor’s mansion will make education improvement efforts easier to get approved.

“There won’t be this constant push and pull,” she said.

She pointed out that although Gov. Huckabee worked well with legislators on education initiatives, he often clashed with them over rural school consolidation issues, and didn’t push the state to spend as much as many lawmakers would have liked on prekindergarten programs.

“We didn’t get the assistance we could have used,” said Ms. Elliott, a former high school English and speech teacher, who will give up her legislative seat in December because of term limits.

While Republican and Democratic governors alike will tackle broad policy areas such as early-childhood education, many will have challenges that are extremely local, observers said.

In Nebraska, for instance, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman won his race for his first full term, in part, by pledging to help re-establish small, rural districts, which were ordered to consolidate by the state legislature.

In New York—where Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer trounced his opponent, Republican John Faso—school finance issues played a prominent role. A lawsuit there seeking more money for the New York City schools emerged as a big campaign issue, with Mr. Spitzer pledging to boost funding for the city schools by up to $6 billion, phased in over four or five years.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Gubernatorial Results May Signal Policy Shift

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