Education Reform Wins Big

By: - November 21, 2002 12:00 am

Candidates for governor who stumped for education “reform” won big in the midterm elections, but voters didn’t always see “reform” in precisely the same way. The overall results on November 5 amounted to a mixed verdict for such issues as education spending, learning standards, charters and school choice.

Voters replaced Democrats Jim Hodges and Roy Barnes, the sitting governors of South Carolina and Georgia, who had strong education records, with candidates who are expected to promote vouchers and charters. But, at the same time, school choice advocates lost big in Michigan and Wisconsin.

The only certainty from the midterm elections: all the candidates who vowed to improve education will have to do it with it less because as governors, they will inherit cash-starved states.

“Education was a particular issue in state races because once you got past homeland security, which was a big federal issue, what all the candidates were talking about was education, health care and roads,” according to Kathleen Lyons of the National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers’ union.

Ballot initiatives also lead many to go to the polls in California, Florida, Massachusetts and several other states where voters approved education measures affecting class size, funding and other issues.

But voters had different ideas of reform for their own states. In South Carolina, Hodges made education a central theme of his re-election campaign and lost.

Hodges, who pushed for an education lottery, more construction for schools and more pre-school dollars, lost to Mark Sanford (R) who advocated more accountability for school results and more choice. Sanford’s school choice package is similar to Florida’s in that it would allow students to use public money to pay private school tuition.

Georgia’s Gov. Barnes (D) had been president of the Southern Regional Education and had taken the lead on school accountability among the nation’s governors, but that didn’t matter to voters who opted for Sonny Perdue (R). Perdue is expected to breathe new life into Georgia charter schools.

“Overall it was a big win for education reform,” says Anna Varghese of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that supports charters and vouchers. About half of the pro-charter and voucher candidates for governor won in this month’s midterm elections, according to a tally of election results from the center.

In addition to the wins in Georgia and South Carolina, charter supporters were heartened by wins in Maryland, New Hampshire and Hawaii.

In Maryland, Gov.-elect Bob Ehrlich (R), is expected to give the extra push needed to finally put a charter school law on the books. New Hampshire has a law allowing charter schools, but doesn’t actually have any schools and proponents are optimistic that Republican businessman Craig Benson will change that once he becomes governor. And Hawaii’s incoming governor, Linda Lingle (R) is expected to beef up that state’s charter law. All three also support vouchers.

Michigan and Wisconsin, however, delivered huge blows to advocates of school choice and charters. In Michigan, voters opted for Democrat Jennifer Granholm, an active opponent of charter schools and all forms of public choice, even though critics note that she sends her daughter to a Catholic school.

Granholm defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumous who was one of the original authors of the charter school bill and a strong advocate of vouchers and school finance reform.

Wisconsin was another upset for school choice with the defeat of Republican incumbent Gov. Scott McCallum. McCallum had endorsed the Milwaukee voucher program and was a chief advocate of charter schools.

Incoming Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D), on the other hand, would abolish the Milwaukee school choice program “in a heartbeat,” according to the Center for Education Reform, although he will have a hard time doing that on his own.

Voucher and charter supporters also lost in Pennsylvania with the election of Democrat Edward G. Rendell, who opposes both. On other issues in the Keystone state, Philadelphia residents will be watching carefully to see how their former mayor fares as governor and caretaker of Philadelphia’s public schools since the state took control in 01.

Rendell defeated State Attorney General Mike Fisher (R) by calling for more money for education, preschool and smaller classes. Fisher instead sought to spend smarter. But the flip side was the winning ticket in Vermont, where Republican Jim Douglas (R) vowed that the state would be able to improve education without spending more money. Douglas said that the state already spends $10,000 per children and needs to spend more wisely by focusing on high standards and qualified teachers. Douglas beat out Lt. Gov. Doug Racine (D) who called for more money for education.

In other races, voters in Florida told Gov. Jeb Bush (R) he could continue his overhaul of the state’s education programs, but he would have to go along with a ballot initiative mandating smaller class sizes that he opposed.

Other education developments to watch: In Massachusetts, Gov.-elect Mitt Romney (R) said he would push for full-day kindergarten for troubled school districts, merit pay and tenure reform. In Tennessee, former Nashville mayor Phil Bredesen (D) was elected as governor campaigning to raise standards and ensure literacy by the third grade.

And in Maryland, it’s interesting to note Gov.-elect Ehrlich already has a rapport with the state’s superintendent of schools, Nancy Grasmick. Ehrlich asked her to be his running mate, but she declined.

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