Six States To Elect State Schools Chiefs
By Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
While Al Gore and George Bush spell out their education agenda, telling voters how they would allocate the seven- percent of the U.S. public education budget that is the federal government's share, the people who actually carry out education policy in the states are often forgotten in the election haze.
Next Tuesday, voters in six states -- Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, North Dakota, Montana and Washington -- will select a Superintendent of the Schools, the official who runs the education department, lobbies the legislature and advises the governor.
Brenda Welburn, Executive Director of the National Association of State Boards of Education , says it isn't unusual that the races for schools chief aren't getting a lot of play. "Offices like this really don't attract a lot of attention - particularly in a Presidential (election) year. People don't even know what the state superintendents race is," she says.
"Education is a continuum," North Carolina US Rep Bobby Etheridge, A Democrat, tells Stateline.org. Etheridge, who was the Superintendent of North Carolina's schools for two terms, says it takes 8-10 years to see any changes in the education system.
Etheridge was succeeded by Michael Ward, who is currently battling to keep his office in the face of a challenge from Republican Michael Barrick, a Caldwell County school board member and businessman.
In Florida, Republican Governor Jeb Bush has been stumping for Charlie Crist, a former Attorney General for Central Florida, is running against Crist in an increasingly negative campaign.
In North Carolina and Indiana, challengers are trying to capitalize on a growing anti-testing sentiment by drawing a line in the sand with one of the few education reform issues that is contentious. Indiana Republican Superintendent Suellen Reed has been attacked by Democratic rival Gerald McCullum, a county superintendent, for supporting a state graduation test. But Reed's stance on testing hasn't prevented the Indiana State Teachers Association a 47,000-member union -- from endorsing her. Her own party has criticized her for working closely with the Democratic Governor Frank O'Bannon.
Etheridge says it isn't odd for a superintendent of education to cross party lines since the issue has traditionally been bipartisan.
State superintendents of schools, who make a salary of $100,000 annually, on average, work closely with the board of education, the governor and the legislature to implement education policy and lobby for the schools budget. The position is appointed in some states and elected in others.
Funding for rural schools has been an issue in North Dakota, which is hemorrhaging students at a rapid pace. Republican challenger Ray Holmberg, a career politician, is running against Democrat Wayne G. Sanstead.
Montana's Superintendent of Schools, Democrat Nancy Keenan is running for Congress, and her party's nominee to succeed her, state Rep. Linda McCulloch, is believed to be leading Republican Elaine Sollie Herman.
Herman is a former teacher who raised eyebrows last month when she suggested that teachers pack a gun and shoot trouble-making students. She said it was a joke. Otherwise the campaign has focused on school spending.
In Washington, where the Superintendent position is considered non-partisan, Terry Bergeson won her race in mid-September during the primary. She will be the only candidate listed on the Nov. 7 ballot.