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In Off-Year Elections, Ky., Miss., Drew Spotlight

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 10, 2015 5 min read
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The biggest potential shake-up for education policy at the state level during last week’s handful of off-year elections may have occurred in Kentucky, where Republican Matt Bevin’s victory in the hotly contested race for governor could trigger a major expansion of school choice and make the political environment for the Common Core State Standards less comfortable.

Mr. Bevin, a proponent of vouchers as well as charter schools, will be tested in his opposition to the common core by a state education establishment that in many respects is held up as a model of how the standards and aligned assessments should be implemented in schools. He won a Nov. 3 victory over state Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat who followed the lead of others in his party and made early-childhood education a top priority. Bevin won by a margin of about 9 percentage points, 53 percent to 44 percent; he will replace incumbent Stephen L. Beshear, a Democrat, who was term-limited.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, GOP Gov. Phil Bryant cruised to re-election that same day over Democrat Robert Gray in an outcome many took for granted. Bryant will have a chance to expand on an education agenda that in his first term included his approval of a new education savings account program for children with special needs, and a mandate for students to demonstrate literacy by the end of 3rd grade.

A third race for governor, in Louisiana, won’t be decided until Nov. 21, and will feature Democratic state House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards against Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter. Both advanced to a runoff election last month against two other main opponents. State legislative elections will also take place on that date.

Republicans will now control at least 31 governorships next year, compared to 17 for Democrats, and one independent. Virginia Republicans kept control of the state Senate, and therefore the legislature, as a result of last week’s elections, as did New Jersey Democrats in that state’s legislature. The partisan control of state legislatures, therefore, is slated to hold steady, with Republicans controlling 30 statehouses, compared to 11 run by Democrats, eight that are split, and one nonpartisan body, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Money, More or Less

School funding advocates, meanwhile, had a mixed night at the polls last week.

In a relatively close vote in Mississippi, a ballot initiative tailored to bolster K-12 spending through court oversight fell short—it was defeated by a margin of 8 percentage points, 54 percent to 46 percent, according to preliminary results.

Initiative 42 was placed on the ballot after a petition drive, and would have required an “adequate” system of public schools. Perhaps the most controversial provision in the measure was that it would have specifically given the state’s chancery courts the power to oversee the legislature’s attempts (or lack thereof) to create that system.

Supporters said the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the state funding formula created in 1997, has only been fully funded twice, and was shortchanged by $200 million in fiscal 2016 alone. The initiative, they argued, would hold legislators accountable for K-12 spending.

But conservatives in control of the state legislature, as well as Bryant, balked at Initiative 42. They argued that it would only serve to undermine lawmakers’ rightful role in state government. GOP legislators successfully placed an alternative measure, Alternative Initiative 42A, on the ballot to require an “efficient” system of public schools at the legislature’s discretion. (In a two-part process for voters, they were asked to vote “yes” and then pick which of the measures they supported, which led Initiative 42 supporters to charge that the alternative only existed to sabotage their measure. Initiative 42 would have changed the state constitution, but the alternative would not.)

Republican legislative leaders said after the vote, however, that they want to change Mississippi’s education funding formula to try to push more money into classrooms and less into administrative expenses.

“It’s a constant source of conflict and dispute,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn. “We need to find a way where the school systems can get what they need and in some way that doesn’t result in an argument every year.”

Marijuana Revenue

In Colorado, meanwhile, voters approved Proposition BB by a wide margin. That measure will allow the state to keep $66 million in tax revenue generated by marijuana sales in fiscal 2015. The majority of that revenue, about $40 million, will go toward school construction, while the remainder goes toward drug education and other educational programs.

Colorado voted to legalize marijuana under certain conditions in 2013, along with Washington state. But because total revenue from marijuana sales exceeded projections, the proposition to allow the state to keep the proceeds or to return them to taxpayers was required under state law.

Turning Point in Kentucky?

In the last week of the Kentucky gubernatorial race, during which Bevin overcame Conway’s lead in the polls, Bevin stated in a television ad that he would repeal the common core as part of his efforts to improve education in the state.

“We did it because we were going to do what?” he asked about the state’s adoption of the common core during a July debate with Conway. “We were going to ‘Race to the Top’ and get some free money from the federal government. … It’s our own money, let’s not kid ourselves.” Bevin was referring to the federal competitive-grant program that rewarded states for adopting the standards, but didn’t mandate it.

Bevin argued instead for looking at Massachusetts’ standards before that state adopted the common core, and expressed concern that Kentucky was turning teachers into mere “test administrators.”

The state education department is already overseeing a review of the standards after several months of taking public input. Any revisions to the common core in Kentucky wouldn’t occur until the 2016-17 school year, according to that review’s timeline.

Bevin doesn’t have the power to unilaterally rewrite or toss the standards. But he does appoint the 11 members of the state board of education. The earliest Bevin can act on that power is next April, when the terms of four of the 11 members of the board expire. The state board voted to adopt the common core in 2010, and despite undertaking the review of the standards, has otherwise stood by them.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as In Off-Year Elections, Ky., Miss. Drew Spotlight on K-12

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