Candidates for governor will be sharpening education platforms on the campaign trail in the coming months, as voters in more than half the states prepare to go to the polls this year to choose new state executives.
Well into the primary season, the elections, including those in the populous states of California, Texas and Florida, are unfolding against a backdrop of new federal education legislation that asks more of students and schools at a time when state budget deficits threaten to compromise ambitious education agendas.
In all, 36 states will elect governors in November. Of those, at least 20 will see a change in their top elected officials; in the other 16, incumbents are expected to run again.
Republicans have more to lose than Democrats do: The GOP has 22 governorships to defend in 2002. Democrats are hoping to add to the 12 seats they hold that are on the ballot this year. Independents hold the other two governorships.
Despite a strong focus on homeland security and economic insecurity, education remains a top issue of concern for voters. In a poll released last month by the Public Education Network and Education Week, respondents said that education above all other programs should be protected from state budget cuts. Seventy-three percent called federal aid to schools a priority. (“Poll: Public Sees Schools as a Priority,” April 24, 2002.)
Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of PEN, a Washington-based network of local education funds, expects debate over education funding, student testing, and teacher quality to play a significant part in the 2002 campaigns.
“Education matters a great deal in these state races,” Ms. Puriefoy said. “The public really understands how much a core issue education is, and they have gotten very smart about what it takes to improve schools. I can’t imagine any of the governors’ races where education won’t be a major issue.”
Many of the chief executives, along with having their states’ bully pulpits and a key role in determining education spending, appoint state school board members, as well as state superintendents or commissioners of education.
Several incumbent governors are already touting education records in their re-election bids. In South Carolina, for example, Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges is boasting his success in bringing a state education lottery that he hopes will finance college scholarships.
In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush made a campaign swing through the state last week with visits to elementary and high schools.
The Republican governor will be challenged in a closely watched race by one of two Democratic contenders for that party’s nomination.
The better-known of those hopefuls, former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, has criticized the governor as doing little to relieve crowded classrooms and as relying too heavily on standardized tests to measure students’ academic success.
Other challengers also are stumping with an education message.
Last week in Texas, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez, who is running against Republican Gov. Rick Perry, called for revamping the state’s student-testing system, raising teacher salaries to the national average, and phasing in a universal prekindergarten program.
Georgia’s state superintendent of schools, Linda C. Schrenko, a Republican, is hoping to use her experience as the state’s highest-ranking education official in her bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes.
And in Massachusetts, Senate President Thomas Birmingham, the state senate president who also helped write the state’s education reform law, will face former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in the Sept. 17 Democratic primary. Mitt Romney, who was the president of the organizing committee of the 2002 Winter Olympics, is the top Republican candidate to replace acting Gov. Jane Swift, who bowed out of the race. Many states are also bidding farewell to governors who have dominated the legislative landscape for years. Contemplating a 2004 presidential bid, Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont plans to step down after 11 years as the chief executive.
Meanwhile, several other incumbents are being forced out by term limits. They include Republican Govs. John Engler of Michigan, Gary E. Johnson of New Mexico, and Frank Keating of Oklahoma, as well as Democratic Govs. Parris N. Glendening of Maryland and John A. Kitzhaber of Oregon.
Mark S. Musick, the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, said that gubernatorial candidates have already been pounding home a clear message.
“We see in the South what you see around the nation: education, education, education,” he said. But he added that the recession would likely prompt many candidates to temper their education promises.
“I don’t look for any big-ticket programs,” Mr. Musick said.
Along with the gubernatorial races, hundreds of state legislative seats are open. In addition, voters in Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Wyoming will elect state schools chiefs.
While in many cases it’s too early to say specifically how education issues will play out in state legislative races, observers say education will likely garner plenty of attention.
Julie Bell, the education program director for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said a number of state policymakers are clearly grappling with a stronger federal role in education.
Earlier this year, President Bush signed the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which among other provisions requires annual testing in mathematics and reading in grades 3-8. Many states will have to revamp their testing systems to meet that mandate, which could cost millions of dollars.
“We’re going to be watching closely how states and state budgets will react to the federal education legislation,” Ms. Bell said. “States are not happy. This is a new federal role, and it’s a big one.
“There are some pretty significant mandates on states, and it’s costly for them,” she continued. “It seems clear this will dominate discussions for the next year or so.”
The legislators are not alone on that point. Governors have already spoken up about wanting to maintain state flexibility when it comes to fulfilling the federal education requirements. The National Governors Association wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Education in February calling for flexibility in developing or retooling state testing systems to comply with the federal law, which overhauled the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
But Robert Dion, a professor of education at the University of Evansville in Indiana who follows political races, said despite those greater demands, the role of the federal government in education remains small.
“Education is really a state and local political issue, and there isn’t anything more local than education,” Mr. Dion said. While Democrats for years seemed to own education as a campaign issue, he added, that is beginning to change as Republicans like President Bush build strong education records.
Mr. Dion said that after the president signed the new education act and traveled to schools to promote the law, polls showed voters did not give either party an edge on education issues.
So will Republicans running for governorships or state legislative seats get a boost from Mr. Bush’s success? Or is it safe to strike a tone of independence by criticizing the president?
“The jury is still out on that one,” Mr. Dion said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as State Candidates Fine-Tune School Rhetoric for Fall Runs