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In Races for Governor, Education Out in Front

By Bess Keller — October 18, 2000 9 min read

The front-runner in the North Carolina governor’s race agreed to just two televised debates this election season, and one of them focused exclusively on education.

In Missouri’s contest for chief executive, both major contenders made a point of appearing at the state PTA convention this month, eager to underscore their concern for education.

And when the gubernatorial challenger in Indiana saw his proposal for a 25 percent property- tax cut bomb with voters, he redoubled his efforts to convince them that the incumbent had failed at improving Hoosier schools.

Almost everywhere even a casual voter would look in the 11 states picking governors on Nov. 7, education gets top campaign billing—TV advertisements, Web sites, and stump speeches. Candidates believe they ignore the issue at their peril, especially when it comes to women voters.

Political calculations aside, however, the stakes for the future of education in next month’s state elections are high. The winners will help determine education funding and shape school improvement efforts for years to come, since governors now play a major role—often the major role—in steering education policy. This year’s crop of governors will also be among those presiding over next year’s state and federal legislative redistricting.

And though the chief executive posts in only about a fifth of the states are up for grabs, Democrats say they could pick up as many as three seats for their side. Republicans predict that the party tally is likely to remain about as it is. Republican governors now hold a hefty 30-18 edge over Democrats, with two states in the hands of Independents.

Whether and how that balance shifts this year could provide a sign about the 2002 vote, when 36 states will elect governors. Of the states with gubernatorial elections this year, only North Carolina is among the nation’s 10 most populous.

Most Critical Concern

The attention to education on the campaign trail in part reflects the interests of voters. “With the economy being relatively strong, voters seem to be focusing a lot on quality of life, including education,” said J. Bradford Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research in Washington.

In North Carolina, it’s at the top of the list, according to a poll taken in the spring by Your Voice, Your Vote, a partnership of 15 North Carolina news organizations. In the poll, when asked an open-ended question to cite the most critical issue for the state to address, 34 percent of the respondents picked education; no other topic drew more than 6 percent.

In addition to the voters themselves, gubernatorial candidates seem to be taking cues from the presidential contest. Not only are they echoing the concern for education being voiced by Republican nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, but they have also followed the lead of the presidential hopefuls in jettisoning some of their parties’ traditional differences over the subject in the past.

“The old belief that you can do more for less doesn’t work if you want to make your mark,” as Gov. Bush has shown, observed Michael P. Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

In an era of generally flush state treasuries, most gubernatorial candidates, and most voters, say they are willing to spend on schools. In the past, Republicans often demanded to see improvements before taking out the state wallet. Likewise, Democrats have claimed state tests and accountability systems—once a particular favorite of Republicans—as a cornerstone of their education plans.

Apple Pie and Education

In some ways, as Mr. Griffith points out, education has become a safe issue for candidates. “Other issues are seen as too controversial to touch, such as gun rights and abortion,” he said, “but the one you can talk about and debate and attract a lot of positive attention with is education.”

And that leaves some political analysts wondering whether any particular stand on education is likely to make a big difference at the ballot box.

In a poll last week, Indiana University’s Public Opinion Laboratory found that a sample of Indiana likely voters favored the incumbent governor, Democrat Frank O’Bannon, over his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. David M. McIntosh, by a ratio of 2-to-1.

But why? “They just like him, or he’s the incumbent, or it’s his party identification,” said Brian Vargus, the director of the laboratory. “Only 26 people out of 736 mentioned education as their reason, about 3.5 percent.” That’s true even though much of the debate in Indiana has centered on education, particularly whether Mr. O’Bannon has done enough to improve public schools.

Vouchers may be one of the few issues that have the power to distinguish candidates and perhaps harm them at the polls.

In Missouri, the Democratic candidate for governor, state Treasurer Bob Holden, has repeatedly attacked his GOP opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, for favoring vouchers for private school tuition during his eight years in Congress. Mr. Talent has tried to downplay that support and specified that in Missouri, vouchers should be an option only for students in the poorly performing districts of St. Louis and Kansas City, and then not the only option. His Web site features a section on school choice called “Setting the Holden Attack Straight.” Still, with the race for a successor to Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan—who is seeking a U.S. Senate seat—too close to call, Mr. Talent’s pro-voucher past might haunt him on election night, according to Kenneth F. Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University.

“If you are running for governor, it is not a very good position to be in” to have supported vouchers, Mr. Warren said. “Most people send their children to public school.”

Contrasting stands on vouchers have also played a role in North Carolina, where the latest poll favors the Democrat, former state Attorney General Michael F. Easley, in a match with former Mayor Richard Vinroot of Charlotte, a Republican.

Mr. Vinroot has made no secret of his support for vouchers, but from the beginning, he has presented it as part of a larger proposal modeled on Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s school accountability program. Under the Florida plan, which is being challenged in the courts, only students attending schools that have failed on the state’s rating system for two out of four years are eligible for vouchers.

“Vinroot’s running hard on that,” said John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, noting that all four Republicans running for statewide office are espousing vouchers.

Mr. Easley condemns vouchers in any form, saying that private schools are not publicly accountable.

But the candidates agree that many of the reforms engineered by four-term Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat, should stand. They also agree that the state should do more in prekindergarten education, although Mr. Vinroot wants the program to have a tighter academic focus than Mr. Easley does.

Overall, Mr. Vinroot’s platform includes several planks favored more often by GOP candidates than Democrats, such as merit pay and competency testing for teachers already on the job. At the same time, Mr. Easley takes the socially conservative position of advocating school uniforms and favors alternative programs to get disruptive students out of regular classrooms.

Three Close Races

In contrast to most of the nation, three of the 11 states choosing governors next month have struggled economically over the past four years. Perhaps as a result, Republican leadership in all three is threatened by competitive races.

In Montana, where the most recent poll shows a dead heat, Lt. Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, and state Auditor Mark O’Keefe, a Democrat, are battling to succeed popular, term-limited GOP Gov. Marc Racicot. While both candidates say that education is needed as part of a strategy to attract more high-tech jobs to the state, Ms. Martz emphasizes economic development and Mr. O’Keefe stresses education.

“He talks about putting more money into K-12 education, while she talks more about forgiving the loans of teachers and volunteering,” said Charles S. Johnson, the chief of the Billings Gazette‘s bureau in Helena, the state capital. Both candidates have put forward plans to meet growing teacher shortages in the state.

A teacher drain has also drawn the attention of both of North Dakota’s gubernatorial candidates, Republican John H. Hoeven, a former president of the state-owned bank, and state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat. Observers believe the race is a close one, although Mr. Hoeven was ahead in a mid-September poll. The winner will succeed Republican Gov. Edward T. Schafer, who is retiring.

The closest contest of the three is probably West Virginia’s, where Gov. Cecil Underwood, a Republican, might lose his seat to U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, a Democrat. In nearly every stump speech, Mr. Wise has criticized Mr. Underwood for failing to implement a college-scholarship program approved by the legislature last year.

While Republicans are fighting to keep hold of three states with soft economies, the Democratic incumbents in two relatively prosperous New England states are threatened by Republican contenders.

In Vermont, where the political waters have been roiled this year by enactment of a law that Gov. Howard Dean signed that allows same-sex “civil unions,” Mr. Dean is facing former state Rep. Ruth Dwyer. And in New Hampshire, former U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey, a Republican, is said to be gaining on Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Ms. Shaheen is under fire from Mr. Humphrey for failing to reveal her plans for reworking the state’s school aid formula, which has been rejected by the courts.

In Washington, incumbent Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, is enjoying a comfortable lead over Republican challenger and former talk-show host John Carlson. Both support alternative routes to teacher certification and a charter school initiative on next month’s statewide ballot, but they differ over two other ballot measures. Mr. Locke supports initiatives that would guarantee teacher pay raises and direct state money to districts for lowering class sizes. Mr. Carlson opposes the measures.

Also in the West, a low-budget challenge from former U.S. Rep. Bill Orton, a Democrat, is seen as unlikely to unseat Republican Gov. Michael O. Leavitt in Utah.

In Delaware, Lt. Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, is favored over former state Rep. John Burris, a Republican, to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Thomas R. Carper. Both candidates have made education central to their campaigns, and neither wants to undo the teacher-accountability bill that Mr. Carper got through the legislature this year after a long fight. Ms. Minner won the endorsement of the state teachers’ union, even though the group declined to endorse Mr. Carper in his current race for the U.S. Senate because of the legislation.

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