Governors Batted Just Under .500 in 2001
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
Every year between January and March, governors get an opportunity that most of us only dream about: a microphone, a captive audience and as much time to share their thoughts as they like. Most state of the state speeches paint a rousing picture of the world the governor wants to live in, often in meticulous detail. But how much of their vision becomes reality?
Judging by the results on putting programs in place to improve teacher quality, the top priority for many governors in 2001, slightly less than half.
Governors in 29 states each made at least one specific teacher quality proposal last year, giving that issue more widespread prominence than any other, according to a Stateline.org analysis of the session kickoff speeches delivered to the 50 state legislatures.
Often straightforward, at times controversial, the governors' recommendations ranged from pay raises and development of performance or merit-based salary scales to the recruitment of new teachers from outside the profession, mentoring programs and statewide teacher testing.
In raw numbers, governors collectively pushed through 24 of their 63 teaching quality initiatives, scored a partial success on 12 others and failed outright on the remaining 27 ( see chart ).
"The state of the state speech is the most widely publicized speech that a governor makes. . . . It is the governor's best opportunity to communicate with the public on topics that the governor can choose," says Pennsylvania State University political scientist Dan DiLeo, who has studied governors' speeches for more than a decade.
Thad Beyle, a University of North Carolina scholar of gubernatorial power, agrees. "When you include an issue in the state of the state speech, you're saying it's really important," he says.
The typical speech is a committee effort drafted by the governor, speechwriters and agency heads, often in tandem with the preparation of the budget, after several months of debate. Diana Carlin, a professor of communications at the University of Kansas who wrote three state addresses during the 1980s, says writing a state of the state speech is among the taller rhetorical challenges.
"There is no way a state of the state is going to talk about everything. . . What a state of the state really needs to do is identify those issues that are going to be in the headlines. They're the things that you want to generate public interest in, that are responding to public concerns. . . The choices of what you put in there are often very consciously made [based on] what your odds are for success," Carlin says.
Some governors clearly had a better year in 2001 than others. Despite budget problems that may delay this year's phase of the first statewide pay-for-performance program in the nation, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) saw three of his four teacher quality measures emerge from the legislature looking much the way he described them in January.
Vilsack's fourth proposal, an effort "to strategically increase teacher pay by fixing base pay at levels linked to the national labor market for teachers," was approved in part when lawmakers agreed to raise base salaries from $23,000 to $28,000 per year.
But Tennessee, where Gov. Don Sundquist asked legislators to "dream a dream" for students by investing more in teachers, was a different story.
Sundquist's teacher quality plans, the centerpiece of an address dedicated exclusively to education policy, foundered when the provisions of the Education Reform Act of 2001 failed to turn up in the state's deficit-ridden budget, state education officials said.
The two-term Republican didn't go empty-handed, however. Tennessee plans to launch a Web site listing every open public school teaching job in the state this spring, fulfilling one of Sundquist's six 2001 proposals to keep the state teacher -competitive.
Analysts say they're unaware of any formal efforts to track the governors' rate of success in transforming state of the state rhetoric into reality. Fred Antczak, a political speech expert at the University of Iowa, says a thorough evaluation of the governors' wins and losses "would require a considerable database" accounting , among other things, for the influence of the economy, the proximity of an election and a governor's relationship with the legislature.
But analysts agree that the success rate of the teacher quality initiatives in 2001 is probably about par for the course, considering the political and economic environment.
"It's not lower than I would expect in a fairly severe recession year," said Antczak, who ballparks the success rate for the average governor during a normal year at about 60 to 70 percent.
To use a baseball metaphor: giving the governors a hit for each full victory and a base on balls for a partial success, they batted a collective 24 for 51 on teacher quality in 2001, for an average of .471.
If 2001 was a challenge, 2002 may prove even trickier for governors and their policy teams. Fiscal woes are no longer just a looming possibility but they are now the central story in a high-stakes election year. And homeland security, a virtual non-issue before Sept. 11, adds new question marks and financial burdens to the complex processes of policy and politics.
Antczak says too much accomplishment could actually be a liability for a governor. "Sometimes you want to lay out an agenda with an edge," he says, a strategy that may have driven last year's highly publicized but unfulfilled calls for drug law reform in New Mexico and New York.
Improving education policy has topped the governors' collective agendas for the last two decades. "I listen to a lot of these [speeches] and they're the same things I was writing about 16 years ago," Carlin told Stateline.org
More than one in four of the nearly 840 specific proposals laid out in last years' state of the state speeches involved some element of education policy. Education specialists cite two factors behind the strong emphasis on teacher quality.
One is the national teacher shortage, a serious threat in some states and a painful reality in others. Another, according to Barnett Berry of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, is the coming of age in state policy circles of more than a decade of research placing teachers' skills at the core of classroom achievement.
For Dane Linn of the National Governors Association, education is more important to the governors today than ever before. "If you look at what the governors introduced and what the governors passed, I think governors made significant investments and lived up to the promise that teacher quality is an important part of helping improve student performance," he said.
Despite their successes, Berry says it is too soon for any governor to declare victory in education, particularly on the issue of teacher quality. He says there are big differences between what a governor envisions and what actually happens when the program is put into place.
"A lot of times we're very quick to mandate a change without creating the conditions that allow that change to occur. There have been a lot of unfunded mandates out there and they are filling up a very large, ever-growing graveyard of school reform efforts," he says.