School Funding, Common Core and 2016 Superintendent Races

Funding has replaced Common Core as the major education issue in most state contests.
by | June 13, 2016
Glenda Ritz, Indiana's superintendent, is running for re-election and faces two candidates -- one of whom has proposed cutting all federal funding to schools. (AP/Michael Conroy)

Just two years ago, Common Core was a major issue for the GOP in state races. So strong was the opposition to the K-12 education standards that several red states -- among them Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina -- backed out of them, and a number of potential Republican presidential candidates railed against them, including Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

These critics decried what they saw as creeping federal control of the nation’s schools -- even though Common Core was drawn up by the nonpartisan Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

But while Common Core has popped up here and there in this year’s campaign rhetoric, it has waned in importance. Part of the reason for the shift is that some states have already made changes.

Another reason is that Congress and President Obama enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. The law replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, which like Common Core was focused on testing and a federal role in K-12 education. The new law is considered a course correction, easing testing requirements and devolving authority from the federal government to the states.

With Common Core on the back burner, the focus has turned -- or, one could argue, returned -- to funding. Kristen Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, says several states, especially Illinois and Kansas, are locked in budget struggles over school funding. So contentious is the fight in Kansas right now that it faces a possible school shutdown this summer.

But neither of those states will elect a statewide schools chief in 2016. Instead, only five states are holding direct elections for school superintendents this fall, including several contests that are poised to be highly competitive. Several of those, including North Carolina and Washington state, will be home to debates over the amount and distribution of school funding.

Nationally, Republicans hold seven of the 10 partisan school superintendent seats that are directly elected by the voters, with Democrats holding the remaining three. (Many states give the governor the ability to appoint a schools chief; other states use varying methods.)

The GOP edge in partisan, elected schools chiefs is not surprising: Those states all voted Republican for president in 2012, often strongly so.

Indeed, the fact that Democrats have a foothold at all in these 10 states is likely a testament to the continuing influence of teachers unions, even among moderate-to-conservative voters. In the 2014 campaign cycle, Democratic superintendent candidates did well with voters in red states like Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma and Wyoming even though they were unable to overcome a strong pro-GOP tide on Election Day.

In this fall’s superintendent elections, the Democrats have the most to lose. Each of the three Democratic-held seats are up this year and will be fiercely contested. Democratic incumbents are at risk in Indiana and North Carolina, while a Democratic-held open seat is up for grabs in Montana. It’s not out of the question that Democrats could lose all three of their seats and hand the GOP a 10-0 advantage in elected, partisan school superintendent offices.

Two other 2016 superintendent contests are also worth watching. In one, a GOP incumbent faces an intra-party challenge (North Dakota), while in the other, a free-for-all is under way to fill an open, nonpartisan seat (Washington state).

Beyond these direct elections, there are four gubernatorial seats being vacated by Democrats that have appointment power for the superintendent’s office or the state board of education. Each of these contests is competitive to one degree or another. (Three other states have gubernatorial races this year that could impact the selection of a state superintendent -- Delaware, Oregon and Utah -- but none of these gubernatorial contests is considered competitive this year.)

Here’s a state-by-state rundown of the direct elections for school superintendent taking place in 2016, along with a few other states where elections for governor could shape the direction of education policy.

Indiana: Glenda Ritz (D) is running for re-election

Four years ago, Ritz upset Tony Bennett, a conservative whose efforts to expand school vouchers and heighten accountability prompted a backlash. Bennett lost by six-points to Ritz, an award-winning teacher who ran a grassroots campaign challenging several of his policy changes.

After Ritz won, Republican Gov. Mike Pence tried to do an end run around her, making the state Board of Education -- which the governor appoints -- more influential. But Pence’s moves backfired and he dropped the effort. Ultimately, the two worked together with the legislature to terminate a contractor running Indiana’s mandatory standards test after it drew increasing criticism. Now, whoever wins the office will have to draw up a new test, as well as address charter schools, vouchers, school-district consolidation, and funding fights between suburban, urban and rural districts.

In her re-election bid -- which followed a brief, abortive consideration of a gubernatorial run -- Ritz can look forward to solid funding and the backing of the Indiana State Teachers Association. Two Republicans are vying to face her. Jennifer McCormick, a small-district superintendent, is the establishment candidate, and her Tea Party-aligned opponent is Dawn Wooten, who has proposed cutting all federal funding to schools in the state.

Montana: Open seat; Denise Juneau (D) is running for the U.S. House

Montana’s open-seat contest pits recently retired elementary school teacher and Republican state Sen. Elsie Arntzen against Democrat Melissa Romano, a fourth-grade teacher.

Arntzen finished far back in the pack in a U.S. House primary in 2014, though it did give her some statewide recognition. She has assembled a low-key but strongly conservative record in the legislature. She’s a strong advocate for local, rather than federal, control. Romano, meanwhile, can expect strong backing from the state teachers union. While the GOP hasn’t held this seat for 24 years, observers expect a close race.

North Carolina: June Atkinson (D) is running for re-election

Atkinson, a Democrat first elected in 2004, has a reasonably high profile in the state and has experienced no significant scandals in her decade-plus in office. Atkinson faces Republican Mark Johnson, a lawyer and former school teacher who currently serves on the Forsyth County Board of Education. Johnson is pushing for curbs in testing and local control. While school funding has been a big issue, the superintendent race may struggle to attract attention, since this campaign cycle includes high-profile contests in North Carolina -- for the state’s presidential electoral votes, a U.S. Senate seat, and the gubernatorial race.

North Dakota: Kirsten Baesler (R) is running for re-election

Baesler, a first-term incumbent, has faced a significant backlash from opponents of Common Core. She was nearly upset by Joseph Chiang, a high-school teacher who opposes Common Core, at the Republican state convention in April. The two will face off in the June 14 primary, though Baesler is considered the favorite. The Democrats won’t be a factor in the race.

Washington: Randy Dorn (nonpartisan) is retiring

Washington state’s open-seat contest looks like it should be wide open. The candidates include state Rep. Chris Reykdal, as well as two officials who served under Dorn -- Erin Jones and Robin Fleming. Though the position is officially nonpartisan, all three are Democrats. Several other lesser-known candidates are running from both parties.

New Hampshire: Open governor seat (Democrat Maggie Hassan is running for U.S. Senate)

The gubernatorial race will be among the many hotly contested races in New Hampshire this fall. The governor appoints the state’s education commissioner, though historically the job has been a relatively nonpartisan, technocratic post. It remains to be seen how important education will be as an issue in the gubernatorial race.

Vermont: Open governor seat (Democrat Peter Shumlin is retiring)

If the Republicans nominate their strongest 2016 gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, then the Vermont governor’s race could be competitive. The governor appoints the state secretary of education, who becomes a member of the governor's cabinet. The position is not considered as powerful as it is in other states; education policy in Vermont tends to rest more on decisions made in local school districts.

Missouri: Open governor seat (Democrat Jay Nixon is retiring)

The open-seat Missouri gubernatorial race leans Democratic for now but should be competitive, particularly after a GOP nominee emerges from the Aug. 2 primary. The state board of education is appointed by the governor and, in turn, the board appoints the state commissioner of education, who has significant sway over how to divvy up a $5 billion budget. The winner of the gubernatorial race is expected to put their stamp on the board’s nominees.

West Virginia: Open governor seat (Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin is retiring)

The open-seat race is expected to be one of the nation’s hardest-fought gubernatorial contests, though Donald Trump’s presidential bid -- which is popular in the state -- could aid down-ballot Republicans, including Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Cole. Democratic nominee Jim Justice, however, has the backing of the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.