School Spending Is Center Stage in Governors' Races
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
New education proposals are rare in the country's 11 governors' races, but struggles with school spending remain center stage along with job creation, health care and other economic issues.
Gubernatorial candidates are reluctant to propose expensive new school programs as states continue to recover from the last recession and worry about another economic slowdown, said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy.
The No Child Left Behind law, the nation's most sweeping education reform in 40 years, is being hotly debated in just one gubernatorial campaign this year -- in Utah -- despite mounting pressure on states to meet the federal education requirements.
Still, there are some candidates with big ideas for schools. In Washington state, gubernatorial candidate Chris Gregoire (D) is proposing higher teacher pay, expanded early-childhood education, programs to prevent students from dropping out of high school and more capacity at the state's colleges and universities.
Gregoire's opponent, Dino Rossi (R), also is calling for increased school funding and higher academic standards for public schools. The winner of Washington's race will succeed two-term Gov. Gary Locke (D), who is not running for re-election.
Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan (D) wants full-day kindergarten statewide. Kernan failed earlier this year to get that proposal through the Legislature because of disagreements over how to pay for it, said campaign spokeswoman Tina Noel.
Mitch Daniels, Kernan's GOP challenger, also is proposing to phase in full-day kindergarten for public schools as the state can afford it. Daniels also wants to increase the number of publicly funded charter schools and make the state superintendent of schools an appointed rather than an elected position.
In other races, just maintaining money for education is the central issue.
For instance, cuts in Missouri school spending were central to the primary-election defeat of Gov. Bob Holden (D). State Auditor Claire McCaskill (D), who won the August primary, is taking credit for forcing schools to be more efficient and moving money to the classroom.
Missouri Attorney General Matt Blunt (R), McCaskill's opponent in November, also is proposing more efficient school spending, but in addition wants better-trained teachers and a curriculum that encourages more math and science.
No Child Left Behind is an election issue in one state, Utah. Republican gubernatorial nominee Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), one of two candidates who defeated Gov. Olene Walker at the state GOP convention, is proposing that the state disregard the federal education mandates and forfeit nearly $100 million in federal aid.
Opposition to No Child Left Behind has been strong in Utah, where the state Legislature considered a bill this year to opt out of the federal education requirements. After negotiations with U.S. Department of Education officials, state lawmakers passed a bill to study the costs of the law, which requires states to annually test reading and mathematics for all students in grades three through eight and 10th grade. More than half of the nation's state legislatures considered bills criticizing the added costs or intrusiveness of the law.
"It's an unfunded mandate that we simply can't afford," said Jason Chaffetz, a Huntsman spokesman, echoing a common concern.
Scott Matheson Jr. (D), running against Huntsman in Utah, has promised to reduce the burdens of the federal law, increase teacher pay and professional support and install programs to improve parental involvement.
But aside from complaints about an under-funded mandate, the other 10 gubernatorial campaigns have made little ado over No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush's domestic policy.
That is hardly a surprise considering that the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on education reveals that 68 percent of people know "very little" or "nothing at all" about the 2002 law. More than half of those polled said they did not know enough to have an opinion about the law.
Although public school advocates and Democratic-leaning groups continue efforts to elevate discontent with No Child Left Behind, more than half of people who were polled think the law will help improve academic achievement. Half of the people who said they knew a great deal about the law held a favorable opinion, compared to 41 percent of that group with unfavorable opinions.
Michael Pons, a spokesman for the National Education Association, said No Child Left Behind is like a Rorschach blot test: People see in it what they want. Earlier this year, the NEA issued an invitation for states to join in a lawsuit against the education law, but no state has come forward with a court challenge.
The NEA and several progressive non-profit groups, including MoveOn.org, the Campaign for America's Future, ACORN, the NAACP Voter Fund and the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, are mobilizing to raise education as a campaign issue this fall.
But with No Child Left Behind, the president and the Republican Party have somewhat blunted the traditional Democratic advantage on education issues, said Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.
Forty-two percent of those polled said that the Democratic Party was more interested in supporting public education, compared to 35 percent who chose Republicans on that question. But Bush and Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry were tied at 41 percent on the question of who would do more to strengthen public schools.
"To his credit, Bush dragged his party along in passing a national law to improve public schools," said Jennings.