In three states long dominated by Democrats, a trio of new Republican governors are testing the limits of their political clout with potentially divisive K-12 initiatives and tough budget proposals that could significantly affect public schools.
All three—Charlie Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland, and Bruce Rauner in Illinois—are among the large class of Republican governors elected last November, but face a particularly strong check on their ambitions from legislatures in their states that Democrats control and have controlled for a long period of time:
• In Massachusetts, Gov. Baker campaigned on a pledge to lift the current cap on charter schools, but it’s uncertain whether such a bill would actually be sent to his desk by lawmakers. His focus on K-12 could instead end up focusing on education improvement in a group of midsized cities.
• In Maryland, Gov. Hogan also is pushing to put charters on a stronger footing, as well as set up a new school choice program. But he has already run afoul of Democrats and unions over proposed changes to how growth in education spending is calculated.
• And in Illinois, Gov. Rauner has already tried to fulfill his election-season pledge to cut down the power of labor unions in the state by proposing dramatic public-pension overhauls, including one that could shift some burdens to school districts in certain cases.
Nationwide, there are now 31 GOP governors—two more than before the 2014 election—and 18 Democratic governors. (Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an Independent.)
But Govs. Baker, Hogan, and Rauner are the only Republican freshmen who will have to face down legislatures controlled by the other party.
One state in that group offers an example dating back to the 1990s of legislative action involving education under similarly divided government, according to Michael J. Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington that supports school choice programs.
In 1993, he noted, Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. William F. Weld also working with a legislature controlled by Democrats—signed the Education Reform Act, which altered standards and accountability in the Bay State, while also increasing spending on public schools significantly.
“There is a history of major education reforms getting done with that kind of lineup,” said Mr. Petrilli. “They should definitely aim high, because it is possible to come to some consensus.”
Perhaps the most prominent part of Gov. Baker’s education platform during his 2014 campaign was lifting the cap on statewide charter schools that is now set at 120. Restraints are also placed on charters’ growth related to districts’ payments to charters and where they can be open based on an area’s population. He also picked James Peyser, a charter school proponent who most recently worked at the NewSchools Venture Fund, to be his education secretary, a cabinet position. (Mitchell D. Chester, the state education commissioner, is appointed by the state school board.)
But last year, Democrats in control of the legislature rejected a bill to lift the statewide cap on charters, and observers say they expect the cap to remain where it is this year as well.
In the meantime, Gov. Baker’s K-12 focus might be shifting to workforce issues. In remarks at a meeting of the National Governors Association last month, he cited difficulties in overhauling the administrative workforce in the 13,900-student Lawrence district, after it went into state receivership in 2011, as well as the challenges of trying to increase the number of good teachers working in high-poverty schools.
“It’s not so much about teaching per se, as much as something to do with the runway that goes into teaching,” Mr. Baker said.
Lawrence is among the state’s “gateway cities,” a term used by state government and other groups to describe several midsize urban areas including Brockton, New Bedford, and Springfield that have high rates of poverty and unemployment. With sweeping K-12 policy legislation likely not in the cards this year, Gov. Baker may be poised to use those cities as a model of how the state could push changes to public schools and how to connect K-12 improvement to business communities in those areas.
“I think they’re going to be very open to innovative and bold strategies that are focused on specific geographic areas and concentrate resources across areas of education and economic development,” said William H. Guenther, the chairman of Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based group that works to improve low-performing schools, referring to Gov. Baker and his administration.
But that strategy, even if it’s successful, could take time to unfold, especially if the governor emphasizes district-level turnarounds as opposed to emphasizing individual low-performing schools, said James Stergios, the executive director of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, which supports school choice and virtual education.
“You’ve got to make sure you get your ducks in a row and have those conversations at the local level,” Mr. Stergios said. “You don’t just throw things in front of people, unless you want to fail.”
For now, he added, there is “a blinking red light, if not red light” for the prospects of a higher cap on charters.
Maryland’s Mixed Picture
In Maryland, by contrast, regional K-12 issues could become a hindrance for Gov. Hogan.
As part of his efforts to cut overall statewide spending in the next budget, he wants to freeze the inflation-based growth of the state’s Geographic Cost of Education Index, which provides additional funds to districts where the cost of maintaining public schools is higher than the state average. Mr. Hogan would cut $143 million out of that education funding stream in his fiscal 2016 budget. The governor stressed in his budget that K-12 spending would still be a record $6.1 billion.
"[Gov.] Hogan is just trying to be realistic in terms of the money the state has to pay for different parts of the budget,” said Marta H. Mossburg, a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a fiscally conservative think tank in Rockville, Md., that also support charters. “I think Hogan was elected to make those kinds of choices.”
Democrats in charge of the Maryland legislature and others have quickly lined up against the plan. The Maryland State Education Association, for example, says on a website it created that the governor’s plan would cost Baltimore schools $21.8 million in projected state aid, or $8,720 per classroom.
That is not Gov. Hogan’s only controversial move regarding K-12 spending. What makes his proposed change to the cost index particularly problematic for Delegate Eric Luedtke, a Democrat and public school teacher, is the governor’s separate proposal to establish tax-credit scholarships for students.
In his scholarship proposal, the governor said in a statement that “parents need realistic and better alternatives, and children need rigorous and challenging curriculums that prepare them for the jobs of the future.”
But Mr. Luedtke said the plan ultimately is about “shifting money from public to private schools.”
There could be more chance for bipartisan cooperation on charters than on other issues, though the details could make negotiations tricky. The governor wants charters to have access to a bigger range of state funds and be exempt from certification requirements and local collective bargaining agreements.
Mr. Luedtke, meanwhile, said charters that focus more on specific populations could find broad support. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable to let charters focus more on high-needs populations, which is difficult to do under our current laws,” he said. “There are, I think, things we can do.”
Illinois Showdown Looms
In Illinois, Gov. Rauner’s early moves on labor issues already have unions harkening back to predictions that he would be the Land of Lincoln’s version of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who eliminated collective bargaining for most public-sector unions in 2011.
On Feb. 9, the governor signed an executive order that state agencies can’t enforce “fair share” contract provisions, which deduct fees from the agencies’ employees’ salaries to cover activity by the contracting labor unions. Gov. Rauner justified the move in part by stating in the order that “state employee collective bargaining is an inherently political activity” that contributed to the $111 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, including an estimated $62 billion in such liabilities to the state teachers’ retirement system.
Just over a week later, in another push that could weaken local teachers’ unions, he signed a separate executive order that set up a task force that will examine how to consolidate and eliminate branches of local governments, including school districts, in order to “reduce overall costs” and “increase efficiency.”
In addition to calling for a dramatic shift to a defined-contribution retirement plan for public employees—a 401(k) plan is an example of such a plan—the governor also wants to require districts to shoulder the pension obligations of pay raises above the rate of inflation that teachers receive just before they retire. Gov. Rauner has called the practice “pension spiking.”
Unions, including the Illinois Federation of Teachers, have announced plans to sue to stop the fair-share executive order. And they’ve also said his plans for “gutting” the state pension system are unconstitutional. A lawsuit over pension changes that reduce benefits for younger workers, signed into law in 2013 by former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, is still in court.
On the other hand, Gov. Rauner’s proposal to boost K-12 funding by $300 million next year could find traction among Democratic lawmakers, who are also mulling a major shift to a new funding formula based on weights for different types of students, such as those from low-income backgrounds.
Education advocates should watch that bill and the budget closely, especially since other major K-12 initiatives are highly unlikely to get traction early in Gov. Rauner’s tenure, said Robin Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, a bipartisan K-12 advocacy group.
“If those two things [pass], that’s huge,” Ms. Steans said.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Partisan Winds Loom for Some GOP Governors