National Governors’ Group Raises Education Profile

By Alan Richard — October 22, 2003 6 min read
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For the first time, the National Governors Association has established a standing committee on education. The move signals how prominent education has become politically for the nation’s governors, and may strengthen the bipartisan group’s ability to reach consensus on school-related policy and help its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, the Republican who became the chairman of the Washington-based NGA two months ago, announced the formation of the education committee at the group’s annual meeting, held in Indianapolis in August. Recently, he appointed the committee’s first leaders.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat nearing the end of his second year in office, is the chairman. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican re-elected in 2002, is the vice chairman. The committee will work on K-12 education policy, early-childhood education, and workforce issues.

The names of the members of the committee were released last week.

Previously, the human-resources committee—one of three standing NGA committees before the new expansion—handled an array of subjects, including education and health care. Now, health care also has its own committee.

“One of our top priorities is, and must be, the education of our citizens from the youngsters to the adults. The fact that the National Governors Association had three standing committees, none of which is education, didn’t reflect that priority,” Gov. Kempthorne said in a recent interview.

The new panel will help focus the NGA’s positions on federal education issues, possibly giving the group a clearer voice in debates in Washington. With Congress taking up the reauthorizations of Head Start and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as other education-related matters that have a direct effect on states, the governors want to have a strong say in how those policies are shaped.

Governors also differ greatly in their reactions to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is sure to be another issue that the new committee will have on its plate.

“If we don’t have a bipartisan policy on an issue, we can’t take a position,” said Christine LaPaille, the NGA’s communications director.

A United Front?

The education committee also will give governors the chance to delve more deeply into education policy issues at their regular national meetings, and to hold special meetings on the subject when necessary.

While NGA officials downplay any political struggle within the group’s ranks, the diverse political views among its members may be hindering the group from having distinct views on education issues that can be made clear to members of Congress.

Gov. Warner said in an interview that NGA positions have not always been “sharply focused,” and that the NGA hasn’t always had the active participation of all governors in recent years. The new committee could help change that trend, especially on K-12 education and related topics, he said.

“Dirk Kempthorne is going to be a great chair of NGA. He is spending an awful lot of personal time in getting governors more personally invested,” Gov. Warner said.

Mr. Kempthorne said he was working to get more governors involved in the group. “It does make for a stronger organization,” he said.

Some education groups in Washington would like to see the NGA become a stronger lobby on Capitol Hill and in discussions with federal officials on issues such as the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“I know their power, and I’d love to have them at the table,” said Patricia F. Sullivan, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and a former NGA official.

Others speculate that political differences between the governors have played a major role in explaining why some of them are less active.

“I think this is an attempt on the part of NGA to head off a split and reconcile the conservatives with NGA,” said Jack Jennings, the executive director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, in Washington, and a former longtime aide to Democrats on the House education committee.

Mr. Jennings added that governors in general have been working to bolster their presence on federal education policy debates in the past decade. “Elected officials, whether they are governors or mayors or even county executives, are feeling the pressure from the public to make the schools better, and elected officials are taking more responsibility for what’s happening in the schools as a result,” Mr. Jennings said.

Greater visibility for education as a political issue also has required governors to become more knowledgeable about the details of education policy, Gov. Kempthorne added. “Part of the purpose of this committee,” he said, “will be to allow us to exchange views on the best practices taking place.”

Playing Ball

The leaders of the new committee are among the most active governors on education policy, and they are expected to take the lead in shaping policy ideas and making state issues better known in Washington.

In Virginia, Gov. Warner has been busy rolling out a set of education proposals on everything from strengthening the senior year of high school to more detailed state audits of school districts. He also backs a plan to significantly raise school spending in the state.

Re-elected last year, Gov. Bush has implemented one of the most ambitious and controversial sets of education policies in the country. His school accountability program requires the state to issue a letter grade for each public school based on standardized test scores.

Florida also has instituted voucher programs for students in schools labeled as failing, for special education students, and for students from low-income families. About 28,000 Florida students now use state money to attend schools of their choice, often religious schools. The state is also moving toward a central governance system for schools, from preschool through graduate-level university programs.

Even governors like Mr. Bush and Mr. Warner, from different political parties and with differing views on education and other matters, can learn from each other, Gov. Warner said. Closed-door chats or phone calls often help governors as they shape public policy, he said.

“There are a lot of areas where we can work together. We all want our schools to do well, we want our schools to be accountable, and we’re all dealing with tight fiscal times,” Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Kempthorne agreed that the state executives will do better when they hone policy ideas together. “There’s less partisanship as governors, just as [chief executive officers], are trying to help one another serve the citizenry,” the Idaho Republican said.

The other Democrats on the committee are Govs. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, Bob Holden of Missouri, Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, and Tom Vilsack of Iowa. Gov. Gray Davis of California also is on the committee, but is expected to step down in the wake of his Oct. 7 recall defeat. (“Educators Watchful as California Opens Schwarzenegger Era,” Oct. 15, 2003.)

The Republicans are Govs. Jim Douglas of Vermont, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Linda Lingle of Hawaii, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Sonny Perdue of Georgia, John G. Rowland of Connecticut, and Felix Camacho of Guam.

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