Jane Krentz stepped away from the elementary classroom and into the thickets of state lawmaking 10 years ago after deciding that students were shortchanged by education policy she had no control over.
Since winning a Minnesota Senate seat in 1992, the teacher-turned-legislator has become a prominent advocate for equitable school funding and a leading voice for improving public schools.
Now, as with many state lawmakers across the country, legislative redistricting has left the Democrat with a tough race this November that could knock her out of that now-familiar role.
It’s the kind of political drama that is playing out nationwide: More than 6,000 state legislative seats are up for grabs this fall. But this isn’t a typical election year. The combination of massive redistricting and the legislative term limits that have been enacted in many states could create the most significant turnover in state legislatures in a decade, which was the last time census data forced redistricting.
“I’m in the battle of my life,” said Ms. Krentz, who will face a Republican fellow incumbent in her new, heavily Republican district just east of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
Every state legislative district in the country, with the exception of districts in Maine and Montana, has been redrawn based on the 2000 U.S. Census.
Meanwhile, in 11 states, some 350 legislators will step down because of term limits. In Michigan, 27 of the current 38 senators are prohibited from running. House members in Missouri will lose almost half their colleagues.
The new electoral landscape is already taking a toll.
Experienced lawmakers—some of whom have spent years on education committees and helped design their state’s systems of academic standards and testing—have found themselves facing forced retirements from office, face-offs with other incumbents, or the task of tailoring a message to a new crop of voters.
Some have already failed.
After her district’s boundaries changed, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the powerful Democratic chairwoman of the Senate budget and taxation committee, lost her primary bid on Sept. 10. Five years ago, Ms. Hoffman helped broker a compromise in a long-running fight between the Baltimore public schools and state leaders over increased school funding. She also spearheaded a landmark decision by Maryland lawmakers this spring to boost state spending on schools by $1.3 billion annually.
It’s not clear how the legislative turnover nationally will affect the direction of state education policy.
But some political analysts predict that first-time lawmakers will be challenged more than ever. For starters, new lawmakers are likely to have their hands full with severe budget problems, just as a new federal education law requires more of states when it comes to holding schools accountable.
“It’s a real difficult political environment for newcomers,” said Julie Bell, the education program director for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “There’s a real learning curve, and the issues are complicated and serious.”
At the same time, she said, legislators who have spent years developing a level of expertise on education issues will be sorely missed. “Unfortunately, that is a huge amount of knowledge headed out the Capitol door,” Ms. Bell said.
For advocacy groups, the tidal wave of change provides a chance to affect the ideological tone of state legislatures.
Greg Brock, the executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project in Michigan, a conservative political action committee, said the changes triggered by the first Michigan Senate elections under term limits are welcome.
“It’s creating a tremendous opportunity to get new blood,” Mr. Brock said. “What we’re watching closely is the possibility to influence the election and get school choice supporters elected.”
Mr. Brock’s organization has supported 40 House and Senate candidates in the primaries and spent about a half a million dollars so far backing candidates who support, among other ideas, lifting Michigan’s cap on the number of public charter schools.
The organization targeted several state legislators for defeat, including Leon Stille, a Republican who was term-limited out of the Senate and who ran for the House in the Republican primary. A former chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on K-12 education, Mr. Stille was backed by the state’s largest teachers’ union.
He was defeated in the primary by Rep. Barb Vander Veen, a freshman member of the House backed by the Great Lakes Education Project. The organization was less successful going after two-term Republican Rep. Mike Pumford, who was targeted for defeat after twice voting against GOP bills to lift Michigan’s cap on charter schools.
Mr. Brock said state lawmakers are powerful players when it comes to education and can’t be ignored. “Money and school funding drives a lot of debate over reform,” he said. “Legislatures have dominance over school funding.”
Federal Law’s Impact
Ms. Krentz, the veteran Minnesota lawmaker, also worries about how newcomers and veterans alike will handle the mandates of the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, the federal education law that places new requirements on states to test students and raise teacher standards.
For the record, Ms. Krentz agrees with the broad goals of the federal law, though she doesn’t like what she sees as micromanagement from the federal level.
But the law has had a more immediate impact on her campaign. She believes the sheer magnitude of the new law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has kept her from rolling out original education proposals on the campaign trail.
“It’s very restrictive,” she said of the federal measure. “Most of my colleagues have no idea what’s hitting them. I had some more creative ideas prior to the federal legislation.
“I’m not sure I would have invested in testing children in every year,” Ms. Krentz continued. “I think there are better ways to spend dollars.”
Meanwhile, an Ohio incumbent, Sen. C.J. Prentiss, who also has been hit by redistricting, is revising an old message for this fall’s race.
The Cleveland-area legislator and chairwoman of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators’ education committee, has made the academic-achievement gaps between African-American and white students the central issue of her 11-year legislative career. Now that she is up for re-election in a district that is not as heavily African-American, Ms. Prentiss, who is a former teacher, must find a new way to talk about what for her is an old issue.
“The challenge I have is the black-white achievement gap now needs to be worded differently in terms of the suburban-urban gap,” she said. “My language on explaining the gap will be broader, but still extremely honest.”