New Governors Stick To Their Schoolwork

By Alan Richard — November 05, 2003 7 min read
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As 25 of the nation’s governors approach the end of their first year on the job, they can claim a mixed record of success in passing their K-12 education agendas.

While Gov. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat, won new money for education, voters in Alabama dealt Republican Gov. Bob Riley a major defeat on school funding. And while Democrat Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania has faced months of legislative gridlock, Republican Linda Lingle of Hawaii and other governors are hopeful the coming year will be the time they advance their plans for education.

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See the accompanying table, “The ‘New’ Governors on Education.”

A complicating factor for many education-minded freshman governors, like their veteran colleagues, is the uncertain economy. Most states face revenue shortfalls in the coming budget year, which means there isn’t much new money to spend on school programs.

Win or lose, some of the newest governors, and political observers in state capitals, say that many governors’ involvement in education policy debates couldn’t be thicker right now.

“I didn’t expect it would take this much time, but now I am spending more time on education than anything else,” Gov. Richardson said in an interview.

In Hawaii, Gov. Lingle is doing much the same thing. After the Democratic- controlled legislature blocked many of her education plans last spring, the first-year Republican went to work even harder.

Her main goal: split Hawaii’s centralized, one-district school system into seven or more local districts with their own elected school boards. She has appointed a citizens’ committee to build support for the plan and to hammer out its details.

“The governor is taking this straight to the people,” said Randy Roth, Gov. Lingle’s senior education adviser. “She has declared this to be her highest priority.”

Gov. Lingle contends that her state’s test scores are not up to expectations, and that too many middle-class families dodge the public schools. Fifteen percent of Hawaii’s students attend private schools—one of the highest rates in the nation.

Local school boards could help guide schools better than state officials, Mr. Roth argued. The state would still oversee school finances, keep track of student achievement, and offer help for individual schools and districts, he said.

Headed South

In Alabama, Caroline Novak confesses that she didn’t fully know what to expect when Gov. Riley was elected last year as a tax-cutting, waste-finding Republican. Instead, she found a man willing to visit schools and meet with education groups—and who ultimately proposed a sizable tax increase because he passionately argued that schools in Alabama needed it.

Then, after the proposed tax increase was soundly defeated in September, Gov. Riley impressed Ms. Novak and others with how he handled the defeat.

“In his own way, he let the people know the problems were not going away,” said Ms. Novak, the president of the A-Plus Education Foundation in Montgomery, Ala.

The defeat of Alabama’s school tax referendum, however, has resulted in cuts of millions of dollars for textbooks, teacher training, and other education items. Deeper cuts are expected in the upcoming legislative session as the state faces a $700 million budget shortfall. (“As Promised, Cuts Follow Failed Alabama Tax Vote,” Oct. 8, 2003.)"The challenge for serious governors of both parties will be the ability to have reasonable and rational discussions” with leaders and policy groups of various political stripes on cutting budgets while maintaining important state services, Ms. Novak said.

Meanwhile, money is also the matter in Arizona. Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat elected last year, is urging school districts to increase the proportion of state funds spent in the classroom from 58 percent to 63 percent. The governor’s move toward efficiency in schools could help her find the political capital to push through her education plan and tax reforms in the Republican-controlled legislature.

Gov. Napolitano is working under the shadow of a huge budget deficit. Her plan to add full-day kindergarten statewide could by itself cost $300 million a year, said Panfilo Contreras, the executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, who backs the governor’s plans.

Elsewhere, Gov. Rendell has run into trouble in Pennsylvania. A Democrat and former mayor of Philadelphia, he pledged more state spending on K-12 schools and a pilot program that could lead to preschool for all 4-year-olds.

But the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature cut most of Mr. Rendell’s proposals last spring, and the governor vetoed the state budget. Schools have been caught in budget limbo ever since. (“Pennsylvania Schools Wait, Worry as Budget War Continues,” Oct. 8, 2003.) Still, the fact that Gov. Rendell has kept the fight going could lead to some victories ahead.

“If it were not for the governor’s leadership on these issues, it’s unlikely that there would be much discussion in the legislature right now ... on some important [school] finance initiatives,” said Ron Cowell, the president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a nonpartisan institute in Harrisburg, Pa.

School Choices

South Carolina might have been a major battleground for school choice this year had Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, had his way. Running for governor last fall while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Sanford’s education platform closely resembled Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida’s school choice agenda.

While Gov. Sanford’s goals for choice found little traction in this year’s South Carolina legislature, that could change in early 2004, said Dennis Drew, an education adviser to the governor.

The state could see a plan to establish a statewide charter school district with its own governing board, as part of a goal of expanding charter schools dramatically in the state, Mr. Drew said.

Also, legislation may be filed to provide tax credits or even Florida-style vouchers that low-income families could use for private school tuition, he said.

In Kansas, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, has tried to garner public interest in education at eight recent town-hall-style meetings held across the state. The forums were designed to help the governor’s education task force learn what the public wants improved in schools, said Sylvia Robinson, the governor’s education adviser.

Hundreds of surveys from the forums are being compiled to help the task force make recommendations to Gov. Sebelius for the next legislative session. She campaigned on investing more money in K-12 education and starting state-sponsored preschool classes.

In New Mexico, Gov. Richardson won approval of a set of education reforms last spring, including a teacher-pay plan that offers $30,000 starting salaries and quickly bumps accomplished teachers up to $40,000 a year.

He also persuaded voters to approve two ballot measures on Sept. 23—a state constitutional amendment that provides $600 million over 12 years for the teacher-pay plan and other changes, and a separate amendment that creates an all-elected public education commission and allows the governor to appoint an education secretary.

Currently, the state has a partially elected state board that appoints the state superintendent

The governance question passed easily. The finance measure, which will increase the amount of money New Mexico is allowed to spend from its $7 billion permanent education fund, which is collected from oil and mineral revenues on public lands, barely passed. (“Gov. Richardson Notches Latest Political Win,” Oct. 22, 2003.)

“I went to four schools a day for three months campaigning, and we pulled it out by 122 votes,” Gov. Richardson said of the funding measure, which actually passed by 195 votes.

Business leaders supported the plan and helped raise about $1.5 million for advertising. “If we hadn’t done that,” the governor said, “we would have lost.”

Elsewhere, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota—a Republican who replaced a flamboyant Independent, Jesse Ventura, who did not seek re-election—has announced that he would pay up to $100,000 in salaries and bonuses for “super teachers” in some low-performing schools. He also wants to suspend the driver’s licenses of teenagers who quit school or have frequent absences.

In Georgia, Republican Sonny Perdue won last year after teachers’ unions refused to endorse the incumbent Democrat, Roy Barnes. But Gov. Perdue has riled the unions by supporting a constitutional amendment that would allow religious groups to receive more state money and that could lead to private school vouchers.

“The jury’s still out on what Governor Perdue is, relative to public education,” said Merchuria Chase Williams, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “It’s our hope that he will not disappoint us.”

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