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State-Level Races Shape Education Landscape

By Michele McNeil — November 05, 2008 6 min read
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In pivotal state races that will affect education, voters in Tuesday’s elections legalized slot machines in Maryland to help fund schools, flipped the Missouri governor’s office from Republican to Democrat, and defeated ballot measures in Oregon that would have limited English-language learners’ programs and tied teacher raises to classroom performance.

Although Democrats generally saw gains with President-elect Barack Obama and several congressional races, voters delivered mixed messages in state legislative races: Five legislative chambers switched to Democratic control, four switched to Republican, and two chambers were still undecided this morning.

And in what could turn into an upset in a state schools’ chief race, Washington state Superintendent of Education Terry Bergeson, whose office is nonpartisan, was trailing this morning by about 22,000 votes. Half of the precincts still weren’t tallied, though.

In an election year dominated by a historic race for president, state-level candidates and issues struggled to compete for attention. But the stakes were high. The gloomy economic climate will pose big challenges for governors and legislatures in crafting state budgets, which typically allocate about half of their spending to K-12 and higher education. Already, at least a dozen states have made targeted cuts to K-12 education.

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In all, voters elected governors in 11 states and state legislators in 44.

If incumbent Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire is able to hold on in Washington state—she was declared the winner by several television networks and the Associated Press, but had not officially declared victory herself—Democrats will have picked up one governor’s office, bringing their total to 29. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat who campaigned on improving college affordability, among other issues, beat Republican Kenny Hulshof. Outgoing Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, decided not to seek re-election.

Unions Pitch In

In North Carolina, Democratic Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue edged her opponent, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican, in what was probably the most competitive governor’s race in the country in the weeks leading up to the election.

Teachers’ union volunteers from North Carolina and other states, as well as the National Education Association’s main office, descended on the state to help drum up support for Ms. Perdue. The former teacher campaigned on expansion of college scholarships for low-income students, more money for prekindergarten, and expansion of the state’s teaching-fellows program as a teacher-recruitment tool.

The Washington state’s governor’s race was a near-repeat of four years ago. Gov. Gregoire faced Republican Dino Rossi, a businessman and former state senator, whom she beat in the last election by fewer than 200 votes. This year, the margin appears wider: With 55 percent of precincts reporting, Gov. Gregoire had 54 percent of the vote to Mr. Rossi’s 46 percent.

In Delaware, Democrat Jack Markell, now the state treasurer, beat Republican Bill Lee to fill the seat being vacated by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, who was term-limited. The winner already will face tough decisions: The state’s budget deficit has reached $200 million and school cuts could loom.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, easily won his re-election bid, as did fellow Republican Govs. Jim Douglas of Vermont, John Hoeven of North Dakota, and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah. Democratic Govs. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, John Lynch of New Hampshire, and Joe Machin III of West Virginia also won their contests.

Democratic Gains

Though it may be days before results are final in every state for the approximately 6,000 legislative seats up for grabs, Democrats already have built on their successes of four years ago.

Before the election, Democrats held 55 percent of seats in state legislatures nationwide; the party also controlled both chambers in 14 states, compared with Republicans’ control in 10 states. The two parties had split control of statehouses in 25 states, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures’ tally. (Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature.)

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee declared its first victory of the night around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday when it reported that the party had picked up the Delaware House, shifting both chambers to Democratic control. And less than three hours later, the committee celebrated capturing the New York state Senate for the first time in nearly 70 years. Now, Democrats will control both the House and the Senate in that state.

Democrats also picked up the Ohio House, the Wisconsin Assembly, and the Nevada Senate. The Alaska Senate, once controlled by Republicans, is now tied, according to NCSL.

However, Democrats had a setback in Tennessee, where they lost control of the Senate, and lost more seats in the House. They also lost control of the Montana Senate and Oklahoma Senate. Still up in the air are the Indiana House (now controlled by Democrats), and the Montana House (now controlled by Republicans), according to the NCSL.

Races for Schools Chief

Five states also elected chief state school officers, but Washington state had by far the most heated contest—and was still close early Wednesday.

Three-term incumbent Terry Bergeson squared off in Washington against her opponent, union official Randy Dorn, in a nonpartisan contest. Ms. Bergeson has clashed with the state teachers’ union (of which she used to be president) over the issue of high-stakes testing, and was not endorsed by the Washington Education Association in 2004 or again this year. Over the summer, Ms. Bergeson, who was first elected in 1996, sought to catch attention by shifting her stance on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which she previously had defended.

Indiana and Montana voters elected new state schools chiefs. In Indiana, Republican Tony Bennett, currently the superintendent of the 11,000-student Greater Clark County school system in southern Indiana, beat Democrat Richard Wood, a former district superintendent of the Tippecanoe School Corp. Mr. Bennett will replace Suellen K. Reed, who decided not to seek re-election for a fifth term.

In Montana, Democrat Denise Juneau, the state’s director of Indian education, was leading Wedneseday morning against Republican Elaine Sollie Herman, a retired teacher. Democrat Linda McCulloch was term-limited after eight years in office.

In North Dakota, Wayne G. Sanstead, the nation’s longest-serving superintendent, won a seventh term.

Ballot Measures Mixed

Meanwhile, at least 15 states had ballot measures that affected education.

In Maryland, voters approved a proposal to legalize slot machines, which is expected to bring in an estimated $660 million a year in additional general aid for schools.

The state was one of six that had a question on the ballot to either create new revenue sources for public schools or alter the flow of gambling-related money earmarked for education. Gambling measures were approved in Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, and Missouri, but voters turned down a proposal in Maine. They also rejected an Oregon proposal that would have redirected lottery money away from education and toward public safety.

Also in Oregon, voters defeated a pair of highly contentious ballot questions, including one that would have put strict limits on bilingual education and another that would have tied teacher pay raises explicitly to classroom performance. A coalition of groups, including state affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, along with the Oregon PTA, mobilized against both of those proposals.

In California, a proposal to ban same-sex marriage drew strong opposition from the California Teachers Association, which donated more than $1.3 million in an effort to defeat it. Wednesday morning, Proposition 8 was leaning toward passage, with supporters casting 54 percent of the votes with about 95 percent of precincts reporting. Supporters of the proposal had argued that schools would be forced to teach about same-sex marriage unless the constitutional amendment were passed.

Massachusetts voters also turned down a proposal to eliminate the state’s income tax, which education groups had warned would hurt school programs and services.

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as State-Level Races Shape Education Landscape

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