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Stateline Leadership and Education Governors.

GOVERNORS have used their clout in this legislative session to push for some big changes in education. Some have made progress with their proposals, others have found the political terrain rough and unpredictable, and in a few instances the outcome is still in doubt. In all cases, though, the ability to compromise with the state legislature has been an essential part of the mix. There might even be some unspoken competition to be the first governor to reel in a prize policy catch of something as big as a statewide voucher program.

Back when this type of strong education policy leadership was rare, a governor who got actively involved in education could pick up the title "Education Governor." Today, a "hands-on" interest in education on the part of the governor is often assumed, and only rarely is it seen as a liability. While it may be a stretch to call all of them Education Governors, there is little doubt that education plays a central role in decisions about managing state government. In at least one state this year, these education issues have intersected with budget and tax concerns and a century or more of political history.

Leadership in the Granite State

The New Hampshire citizen's traditional loathing of broad-based taxes, coupled with a school finance system tagged as unconstitutional by the state supreme court, has boxed Gov. Jeanne Shaheen into a corner. Like every other gubernatorial candidate in recent memory, she had to take the "no-tax pledge" in her last two campaigns; she won both of those races, a rare event for a Democrat in New Hampshire; and the court gave the state an April 1 deadline to put equity into a funding system that has over 90% of K-12 expenditures coming from local property taxes. All of these pressures form the sides of the box in which the governor finds herself.

So far this session, in early March, the 400-member House, which is controlled by Republicans, passed a 3.5% income tax by four votes, with 60 Republicans voting in favor. The first Democratically controlled Senate since 1912 passed its own version of an income tax a few weeks later. But just before the deadline, the House rejected the Senate version. Some say the governor's threat of a veto put pressure on the Democrats in the House to vote no on the second go-round. The state needs, by some estimates, $1 billion of new money to meet the court order, and raising this kind of money can't be done easily without some form of income, sales, or statewide property tax.

Since 1972, New Hampshire's largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader, has been the conservative voice leading the state's anti-tax forces. Any candidate who wishes to gain the endorsement of the paper must take a pledge to oppose any sales or income tax. In former times, this also would have included a statewide property tax, but Gov. Shaheen has at least tentatively included a statewide property tax in her plan, along with a new 5% capital gains tax, an increase in the cigarette tax, and the introduction of video slot machines in four state racetracks. A counter legislative plan is still trying to revive the 3.5% income tax and couple it with a statewide property tax. Meanwhile, the legislature is looking into every corner for new tax ideas, such as a 2% tax on rental cars.

Some political observers feel that the anti-tax mood is shifting in the state and that some Republicans in the House sensed that or else they would not have voted for the income tax back in March. Some even speculate that Gov. Shaheen is popular enough with the voters that she could break the no-tax pledge and get elected again in two years.

Meanwhile, the hoopla surrounding New Hampshire's Presidential primary has started, and there is a danger that in the "say anything to get a vote" climate, some out-of-state candidates will demand the right to take the anti-tax pledge just to gather enough support to look good in other state primaries. How to lead the state out of the box is the issue now, especially when a few want to gut the state constitution of any responsibility for education and give the whole problem to cities and towns.

A New Era in California

In some ways the Golden State may be starting to live up to its nickname. Newly elected Gov. Gray Davis hit the ground running after the November election (see Stateline, February 1999) by proposing a massive summer program to train new teachers in math and reading instruction. As the legislative session got under way, he was pushing a package of reform bills, and by early April a collection of them had been passed and signed into law. Included in the list were:

$75 million for summer reading academies;

professional development for some teachers of reading;

the establishment of a system of peer review and teacher mentoring by the year 2001;

a new accountability plan that ranks schools in groups of 10 percentage points, based on student performance (60%) and nonperformance (40%) factors; and

a new state high school exit test in reading, writing, and mathematics by the year 2004.

The total price tag for this reform package was put at $470 million, but what was even bigger news was the speed with which the governor and the legislature reached agreement. In the education community there is concern about the infrastructure needed to implement this package and even some concern that, if visible results are not produced quickly, all of this could set the stage for such alternatives as vouchers.

New Voucher Proposals

Voucher ideas have been strongly endorsed by a number of governors this session. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush has his "A+ for Education" idea that would grade schools on student test scores and other factors. Those receiving an A and those showing improvement would receive per-pupil financial incentives. In those schools labeled as failing, students would receive a voucher of up to $4,000 to attend a qualified public, private, or religious school. As this was written in late April, the idea had passed the Republican-controlled House and was scheduled for Senate debate in late April.

Meanwhile, brother Gov. George W. Bush, Jr., of Texas has a pilot voucher plan for the state's six most populous urban counties. The scholarships would be worth $4,000 a year for the five-year pilot effort, but Democratic opposition looks strong at this point. Of course, as in the New Hampshire finance situation, Bush's interest in Presidential politics could play a role in determining the future of this idea.

In New Mexico, the legislative session has turned into a standoff between Gov. Gary Johnson and the Democratically controlled legislature. Gov. Johnson opened the legislative session with a plan to give up to 100,000 poor students a state voucher worth approximately $3,000 that would be good for private and religious schools. The legislature countered with a $300-per-student tax credit, which the governor turned down. By late March the governor had vetoed the $3.3 billion state budget, saying he would call a special session and in essence hold the state legislature and the budget bill hostage until he got his voucher idea approved.

As this was written, a special session was scheduled for early May. New compromise ideas were being sought, but the new budget year begins on July 1.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge has been pushing his Academic Recovery Act, designed to rescue students in academically distressed school districts by offering them more educational options and by giving those school districts powerful new tools to help them turn themselves around. Under Gov. Ridge's proposal, students in "recovering" school districts would be eligible for a "super voucher" to help pay tuition at a school of their choice - public, private, or parochial.

Also on the voucher bandwagon is Gov. Jane Hull of Arizona. There, H.B. 2279 started out to give "parental choice grants" of up to $4,900 for low-income students. After the bill moved through the House, the Senate amended it, making students already enrolled in private schools ineligible, but this caused another group to say that such an arrangement would be unconstitutional. Meanwhile, critics were working to gather more votes to kill the whole effort. But this cliffhanger may stay hung up till later in the session.

While governors push their ideas, the private children's scholarship fund started last year by John Walton and Theodore Forstmann announced in late April the award of scholarships worth $600 to $1,600 a year for four years to 40,000 students across the country. With $170 million raised, the call for scholarship applications brought in 1,237,300 names from across the country. From New York City alone, 168,184 public and private school students met the family income cutoff and took the time to apply. Chicago and Los Angeles each had over 50,000 applicants. The program is turning out to be one of the largest private scholarship programs in the country.

A Potpourri from Other States

Indiana. Gov. Frank O'Bannon has been pushing hard for the legislature to pass a full-day kindergarten option for all school districts. The $111 million idea was running into some difficulty in the Senate Finance Committee in late April.

Oklahoma. Gov. Frank Keating is working on legislative approval for his 4 x 4 plan. This reform initiative would require all high school students to take four years each of mathematics, English, social studies, and science.

Michigan. In late March, Gov. John Engler signed into law a bill to shift control over the Detroit Public Schools to Mayor Dennis Archer. As the legislative session ground along, the governor picked up support from civic and community leaders that helped bring about a legislative compromise.

The Job Ahead

For educators, the most alarming feature of the activities in this legislative session has been the rapidly growing interest in vouchers, scholarships, and similar programs. While politics may be a root factor, the large numbers of parents who applied to Forstmann and Walton's private scholarship fund is another force pushing these ideas along. And one can only wonder if school violence and the safety of children won't also play a role in causing many parents to want to explore more options for their children.

Governors, be they "Education Governors" or not, are the chief state officials who must lead the interpretation of their states' constitutions in creating a universal free public system of education. Swearing to uphold the state constitution should take precedence over campaign pledges, ideological missions, and partisan politics. Never has this leadership been more greatly needed!

CHRIS PIPHO is a research professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and senior fellow at the Education Commission of the States, Denver.
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Author:Pipho, Chris
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
Words:1802
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