Voters in 11 States Set to Pick Governors

By Michelle R. Davis & Joetta L. Sack — October 26, 2004 9 min read
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A battle over whether Utah should pay for vouchers to help students cover the cost of tuition at private schools is dividing the two candidates for governor in the Beehive State.

While candidates in 10 other states debate teacher salaries and test requirements, vouchers could be the make-or-break issue for Democrat Scott Matheson Jr. and Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. The candidates are seeking the seat held by Gov. Olene S. Walker, who was blocked from even running in the state’s GOP primary for the nomination to keep her job, in part because of her veto earlier this year of a voucher program for special-needs students. (“Utah Passes Special Education Voucher Bill,” March 17, 2004.)

“Education is one of the defining issues here,” said Elisa Clements Peterson, the executive director of the Parents for Choice in Education Political Action Committee, a group pushing for vouchers and tuition tax credits. “There aren’t a lot of other issues where the candidates diverge so much on their positions.”

Education has been a less dominant issue in the 10 other gubernatorial elections taking place Nov. 2. The economy and health care have become more urgent themes, along with homeland security and the war in Iraq, observers say.

But with states still rebounding from a nationwide economic slump, any discussions about how they set priorities for spending are sure to ripple across the world of K-12 schools.

“Education hasn’t gotten as much play as you would expect in a governor’s race,” said Charles Merritt, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver. But, he added, “it’s still playing a role.”

Still, the candidates in the 11 states with gubernatorial races all have education platforms. Themes include disagreements over state testing systems, teacher salaries, and how much should be spent on public schools.

“Depending on what state you’re from, there are probably certain issues that play better in some places, but education is always on the minds of people who are running for governor, and those who are voting,” said Scott Montgomery, the chief of staff for the Council of Chief State School Officers, based in Washington.

Among the surprises so far, at least to some observers, is that incumbent Govs. Craig Benson of New Hampshire, a Republican, and Joseph E. Kernan of Indiana, a Democrat, find themselves in tight races.

Opting Out

While at least five new governors will take office next year, none of the governors who chose to depart is leaving because of term limits.

Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, lost his primary election, and the campaign of Gov. Walker of Utah, who succeeded to the job after serving as lieutenant governor, never made it out of the state’s Republican convention.

Of the remaining three, Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a popular two-term Democrat, is stepping down to spend more time with his family, while West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, decided not to seek re-election after a scandal over an extramarital affair tarnished his term. And in Montana, Republican Judy Martz declined to run after her popularity faded in the wake of several ethics scandals and questionable business dealings.

Meanwhile, incumbent governors who are favored for re-election are Jim Douglas of Vermont, a Republican; Michael F. Easley of North Carolina, a Democrat; John Hoeven of North Dakota, a Republican; and Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware, a Democrat.

In North Carolina, Gov. Easley is touting his progress in expanding programs for disadvantaged 4-year-olds and reducing class sizes in the early grades—all while struggling to close one of the largest budget deficits in the state’s history.

The Democrat has pledged to expand the pre-K program even further, to again push for a state lottery to benefit the state’s 1.6 million-student school system, and create smaller high schools.

His Republican opponent, Patrick Ballantine, a lawyer and former state legislator, has criticized Mr. Easley’s fiscal management during the state’s budget crisis. Mr. Ballantine proposes a 5 percent increase in teacher salaries to improve teacher recruitment and retention as the state struggles with teacher shortages in many districts. He opposes a state lottery.

The two men running for governor in Utah are both wealthy and well-connected. But when it comes to education, the differences between them are stark.

Battle in the Beehive State

Mr. Huntsman, a Republican former ambassador and son of a prosperous chemical company owner and philanthropist, supports the Carson Smith Special Need Scholarship bill, which the legislature passed only to see it vetoed in March by Gov. Walker. The scholarships, named for a Utah boy with autism, would have been the nation’s second state voucher program for students in special education. The Utah measure would have provided more than $5,000 in public money per participating child to attend private or religious schools.

Gov. Walker said she would instead study ways to put more money into special education. Proponents weren’t impressed and vowed revenge. They got it at the Utah Republican Party’s convention in May, where the quirky political system allows only the top two vote-getters in a close contest on the primary ticket. Ms. Walker finished fourth, becoming the first Utah governor in 48 years to fail to win her party’s nomination.

The voucher issue “really resonates with the right wing in Utah,” said Ronald J. Hrebenar, the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Mr. Huntsman says that the Carson Smith bill should be passed and used to determine whether to open the door for additional tuition-tax-credit or voucher programs.

That idea sits well with M. Royce Van Tassell, the executive director of Education Excellence Utah, a Salt Lake City think tank devoted to school choice issues. “There’s a growing concession that parental choice is needed in Utah and across the country,” he said.

On other education issues, Mr. Huntsman supports higher salaries for first-year teachers and has questioned whether the state should fully comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The sweeping education law has been unpopular in Utah, where many politicians on both sides of the political aisle see it as usurping local school control.

Mr. Matheson, the Democrat is the dean of the University of Utah Law School and the son of the state’s last Democratic governor. His campaign materials say he favors choice within school districts and supports expanding charter schools, but objects to voucher programs. He has been endorsed by the Utah Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

Mr. Matheson’s detailed education plan also includes proposals to raise entry-level teacher salaries; provide incentives to lure teachers to hard-to-staff schools; expand college-loan-repayment assistance for teachers; and establish a “teacher academy” program in each high school to encourage students to pursue teaching as a career.

When it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Matheson hopes Congress will address problems in the law, but “he’s not willing to abandon” it, said his campaign manager, Mike Zuhl.

A secondary issue also sets the two candidates apart: Utah state law allows concealed weapons in public places such as college campuses and K-12 schools, but the law is facing legal challenges.

Mr. Matheson has said he would ask lawmakers to exempt schools and churches. Mr. Huntsman has said he wouldn’t make modifications to the law a priority.

Voter turnout will be the critical factor in the outcome of several gubernatorial elections, analysts say, perhaps especially in New Hampshire.

Close in New Hampshire

Though New Hampshire traditionally has been seen as solidly Republican, recent polls show the GOP incumbent, Gov. Benson, who was elected in 2000, holding a slight edge over challenger John Lynch, a multimillionaire with business interests in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

Mr. Lynch has accused Mr. Benson of misusing his power by tapping friends and family members for political jobs they weren’t qualified to fill. While Mr. Benson’s combative management style and personality have also hurt his image, the determined foe of taxes is fighting back by saying that Mr. Lynch has proposed massive new programs with no way to pay for them.

The state’s school aid formula has also been a big issue in the campaign.

A 1993 state supreme court decision forced New Hampshire to step up its contributions to K-12 schools. In 1998, the state adopted a controversial statewide property tax to meet those requirements. Because of the finance plan, some towns with low incomes but higher property wealth are seeing their tax revenues go to towns that have less property wealth but much higher income levels.

Subsequent plans put forth by state legislators have been overruled by the court, leading many lawmakers to call for a constitutional amendment to broaden their powers to change the state’s tax system.

“Every candidate who’s run for office in the last six years has talked about changing the system in one way or the other,” said Charles M. Arlinghaus, the president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, an independent think tank in Concord that focuses on New Hampshire issues.

Gov. Benson has supported amending the constitution to give state leaders more control over methods of funding, and he wants to lower the state property tax over five years.

Mr. Lynch hasn’t called for a constitutional amendment, but he too wants to eliminate the disparities in the statewide property tax and target more state funds to low-income school districts. He also supports a “modest” tax increase on tobacco products to pay for education, but has pledged not to support an income or sales tax.

“For the last six years, most of the debate is not about what we should do, but what the court will let us do,” said Mr. Arlinghaus. “The governor and Mr. Lynch have very similar ideas about education: Both want to eliminate the statewide property tax and target more aid to poor towns.”

Although the race does not appear to be as close in Delaware, underdog Republican candidate Bill Lee is hoping to use education as a pivotal issue to win over voters from Gov. Minner, who is seeking a second term.

Delaware’s Testy Debate

Specifically, he is challenging the state’s three-tiered diploma system, which grants diplomas based on a student’s performance on 10th grade reading and mathematics assessments.

The system was slated to go into effect this past spring, but Gov. Minner, who has been a strong supporter of the state’s accountability system, and the legislature suspended it for one year. They have appointed a panel of experts to examine the system’s merits.

Ms. Minner has seen some criticism for her support of the test, and, later, for appearing indecisive on that issue.

“At this point, she has said she’ll look at [the panel’s] recommendation,” said Greg Patterson, the governor’s campaign manager. “The question is, how do you ensure colleges and businesses that a Delaware diploma has given students the skills they want?”

Mr. Lee, a state judge, wants to eliminate the mandatory test. Susan Reefer, Mr. Lee’s campaign manager, said he would seek to replace it with a shorter test that would not be used as a graduation requirement. It would also be less expensive, take less time to administer, and be comparable to tests in other states, she added.

Ms. Reefer said that dozens of students, parents, and advocates have gotten in touch with her office to express their opposition to the state’s current testing system.

“This has been the number-one question I get,” she said. “I’ve never seen such consistent widespread opposition to an idea, and the governor has been unresponsive to these concerns.”

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