Federal Opinion

Chat Wrap-Up: In the Wake of the Midterm Elections

November 28, 2006 6 min read
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On Nov. 10, readers explored with reporters from the paper the implications of the midterm election results for education. The guest panelists were Associate Editor David J. Hoff, Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson, and Staff Writers Michele McNeil and Jessica L. Tonn. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Question: What will happen now with the No Child Left Behind Act? Will there be more funding, a change of standards?

Read the full transcript of this chat.

McNeil: That question came up at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ post-election meeting here in Washington. The thought from this state-based group is that everyone seems to agree we need increased standards and accountability, but that the federal law needs more money behind it. And the Democratic-controlled Congress will likely come through there. In addition, the states will continue to push for increased flexibility in implementing the law. Some of what happens will be determined by the makeup of the congressional education committees.

Question: How will Democrats be likely to influence the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act?

Hoff: How the Democrats handle the law will be very interesting to watch. Rep. George Miller of California and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who will chair the education committees in January, are committed to the basic tenets of the law, such as accountability, annual testing, and highly qualified teachers. Many rank-and-file Democrats see the law as too prescriptive and unworkable. It’ll be interesting to see how these two factions work out their differences.

Question: Was school finance at issue on state ballots, and if so, what happened?

Jacobson: In California, the school finance question was a bond issue to build and repair school facilities. It passed. Several states had measures that sought to protect or increase funding for schools, and many of these failed, including a 1-cent sales tax increase in Idaho, and two gaming proposals, in Ohio and Nebraska. And in Michigan, a plan that would have set minimum funding levels for schools was also rejected. One state, Colorado, had two different measures that sought to require 65 percent of every education dollar to be spent in the classroom. But both of those measures failed, possibly because voters didn’t understand the difference between the two plans.

Question: What were the big issues in the state chiefs races? And which races were the closest?

Tonn: The closest race by far was in South Carolina. The margin between the two candidates was fewer than 300 votes, out of more than 1 million votes cast. In that race, the biggest issue was tax credits for private school tuition. Observers have said that the race was more about school choice than the candidates. The Democrat, Jim Rex, who is opposed to the tax credits, held a razor-thin lead after Election Day in the heavily Republican state. In Idaho, another close race, teaching experience played a major role. The Republican, who won by 2 percentage points, was opposed by educators for his lack of experience in the classroom. His Democratic opponent was a deputy superintendent in the state department of education and a former teacher. Incumbents held on to their seats in all the other races, which were relatively quiet.

Question: Will the change to Democratic control of Congress lead to the development of a pre-K system that is an extension of the existing K-12 compulsory system?

Jacobson: This certainly creates an opportunity for the concept of “universal pre-K” to get more attention at the national level. Right now, as I’m sure you’re aware, most of the growth of pre-K has been at the state level. The question will probably remain, however, how to blend any new early-childhood initiative with the existing Head Start system.

Question: In your election coverage, you indicated that 10 states are now completely controlled by Democrats, with the party taking the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature. How is this complete control likely to alter education policy in those states?

McNeil: Actually, I have updated numbers—courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats are now in control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in 15 states. Republicans have complete control in 10 states, and 24 states are divided (Nebraska is a nonpartisan legislature). Such Democratic dominance will mean that education initiatives deemed priorities will move swiftly through the process. That’s especially true in states with new governors, who will have their greatest political capital in their first legislative session. This also means that you’ll hear more talk about increasing public school funding, expanding early-education programs, and providing more college financial aid. With more Democrats in control, you’ll probably hear less talk about vouchers and new rules governing school spending, such as the “65 percent solution” requiring that that amount of funding be spent directly in the classroom.

Question: Do you know if any of our new leaders have any real interest in or understanding of the issues that affect special education students, specifically standardized testing that demands they perform exactly the same as their “regular” counterparts?

Hoff: When Congress looks to make changes to the No Child Left Behind Act next year, the testing of special education students will be one of the top five or six issues members consider. I don’t know what specific ideas they have to address the issue, but I think they’ll give it serious consideration. But I can tell you this: The supporters of the federal law want to make sure that all students progress in their academic careers. Whatever changes they make to the special education testing rules, the law will still require schools to demonstrate that their students with disabilities are making academic progress from year to year.

Question: Obviously, the Democrats won the day. But what bright spots emerged for the Republicans?

McNeil: Republicans won some key governors’ races in states that are both important to education and important on a national level. Gov. Tim Pawlenty hung on in Minnesota, which often has been a leader on education reform issues. It’s also a swing state in presidential races. In Florida, an important education state, Republican Charlie Crist, a former education commissioner, will replace outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush. California, which re-elected Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was also an important win, since it’s generally considered to be Democratic territory. On the legislative side, Montana was a bright spot for the GOP, which added legislative seats there. More Republicans won in state chiefs’ races, too, and the party also had a strong showing in state board of education contests.

Question: What common themes, if any, emerged from the results of the state ballot initiatives?

Jacobson: In turning down “taxpayer’s bill of rights” initiatives in three states, I think voters showed that they don’t want government to be tied down by strict spending formulas. But at the same time, they were a little wary of approving new funding sources for schools, except when it came to early-childhood-education programs.Issues of fairness were also at play in this election, with the affirmative action ban passed in Michigan as well as the initiative in Arizona that prohibits illegal aliens from taking advantage of adult education programs.

Question: Will the Democrats give more or less money than the Republicans?

Hoff: Democrats will probably give more money to the No Child Left Behind law and other education programs. But there may be several factors that make major increases to K-12 education difficult. First, Democrats are promising major increases in student aid and tuition assistance in higher education. How much will be left for K-12 programs? Second, Democrats have said they will address the budget deficit. The last time they did that, in the 1990s, the increases for K-12 education were small, barely exceeding the cost of living. We’ll see the first indication of how much Democrats will give to K-12 education in the late spring.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: In the Wake of the Midterm Elections


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