Politics

How Elections Will Affect State School Superintendent Seats in 2014

A look at several states where elections could change K-12 education policy.
by | January 21, 2014
Oklahoma's Republican superintendent, Janet Barresi, faces a long list of potentially credible Democratic opponents in the 2014 election.
Oklahoma's Republican superintendent, Janet Barresi, faces a long list of potentially credible Democratic opponents in the 2014 election. AP/Evan Vucci

In November, voters in several states will help influence the direction of K-12 education policy either by electing new school superintendents directly or by electing governors or the boards of education that set policy in their states.

In a column last week, I looked at the big picture - how state school chief officers are elected or appointed and which party controls the levers of power in state education policy. Now, I'll look state-by-state at significant races where elections in 2014 may result in a change in control and thus a change in K-12 policy.

Arizona: Republican John Huppenthal, elected by the voters in 2010, has courted controversy by challenging the Tucson Unified School District's ethnic-studies curriculum. He's facing a challenge from Democrat David Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State University who has served as the state's associate superintendent of public instruction for standards and accountability.

Arkansas: In Arkansas, the governor appoints a majority of the state school board, which in turn appoints the chief state school officer. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is term-limited out, and two former U.S. representatives, Democrat Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson, are the frontrunners to meet in the November general election for governor.

Ross and Hutchinson "are both somewhat conservative -- many think they will not be that much different in their policy positions and will push for things like more college graduates and continuing access to college for those with limited ability to pay," says Gary Ritter, a professor of education reform and public policy at the University of Arkansas. "However, I do not see them taking hard or new positions on issues like charter schools and school consolidation."

A wild card in Arkansas, as in many states, is the controversy over Common Core standards that have been adopted by all but a handful of states.

"There appears to be a consensus among centrists on the left and centrists on the right that is supportive of the standards in Arkansas," Ritter says. "In our view, the anti-Common Core argument in Arkansas is being carried by independent conservatives, perhaps associated with Tea Party groups. While this group leans Republican, it definitely has an independent streak to it, filled with concerned, involved parents."

Given this dynamic, some of Hutchinson's Republican primary challengers may use opposition to Common Core as a way of securing support from Tea Party backers within the GOP primary electorate.

Colorado: Voters in the Centennial State choose members of the state school board, which in turn selects the chief state school officer. The board is currently under Republican control by a 4 to 3 margin. Board members serve six-year terms, and two Democratic-held seats along with one Republican-held seat are up for election in November 2014.

On Election Night 2013, Colorado voters soundly rejected Amendment 66, backed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, which would have sought nearly $1 billion in tax increases to support school reform and changes in how the state distributes money to school districts.

"The amendment contained significant reform elements, such as school choice, merit pay, accountability and transparency," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. "Education reformers will be trying to get some of the reforms enacted within the current budget. Democrats tend to insist on more money. Common Core continues to come up especially in rural and smaller school districts but is low-key as of now."

Florida: The governor appoints a majority of the state school board, which in turn appoints the chief state school officer. First-term Republican Gov. Rick Scott is seeking re-election, but former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Independent-turned Democrat, is mounting a serious challenge.

Over the past dozen years, education policy "has been one of the most important issues in Florida," says University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett. "When the economy went south, economic issues became the most important to most Florida voters. But since the economy is improving, I suspect that education funding, student testing and standards will be issues on which some voters make their voting decision."

Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist, says she expects key issues to be "funding for both K-12 and higher education, teacher pay, school safety, student testing, grading of schools and Common Core. I do foresee a change in the priorities should a Democrat win the governor's race. They would be much more in lockstep with the teacher's union community."

Crist's education team has been in flux, with Scott's handpicked superintendent, Tony Bennett, choosing to step down in August 2013 due to a grading controversy dating back to his tenure as Indiana's schools chief.

Georgia: Republican Superintendent John Barge is running for governor, leaving a crowded, wide-open race to succeed him. Two of the five Republicans expected to make a run have previously served as school board members -- Nancy Jester of DeKalb County and Matt Schultz of Bartow County. Two others, Kira Willis and Richard Woods, ran for superintendent in 2010, Willis as a Libertarian. The fifth Republican looking at the race is Fitz Johnson, a retired Army officer and community activist.

While Democrats have had trouble fielding successful statewide candidates in recent years, the party does have an intriguing candidate for superintendent in 2014: state Rep. Alisha Morgan, who is described as a dynamic legislator.

Morgan is "pro-school choice, including vouchers and charter schools, and pro-Common Core," says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the pro-school-reform Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "She's very solid on education reform," which could enable her to appeal to centrists in both parties.

Idaho: Republican Superintendent Tom Luna has had a wild ride since he was re-elected in 2010.

Just a year after the election, "Luna took a lot of people by surprise by proposing a series of sweeping measures involving the mass purchase of computers for students, requirements that part of instruction be online, and limitations on teacher organizing," says Randy Stapilus, a political analyst who follows Idaho politics. "They became controversial enough that at the 2012 general election, three referenda to repeal the measures all passed. That was remarkable, because the measures had been passed by the Republican legislature, mostly with support from Republicans and opposition by Democrats."

After this across-the-board defeat, Luna has touted Common Core. He's indicated that he's running for another term, and in a state as Republican as Idaho, it's unclear whether a Democrat could mount a credible challenge. More likely is a Republican primary challenge. One potential challenger is GOP state Sen. Steve Thayn, who has been critical of education reforms, including Common Core.

Illinois: The governor appoints a majority of the state school board, with the consent of the state Senate, and in turn the board appoints the chief state school officer. First-term Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has low approval ratings and is facing a large field of Republican hopefuls. The leading GOP candidates are state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.

Political observers say they have been hearing increasing discussion of Common Core in the early stages of the contest, particularly given the wide-open GOP primary field. Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Springfield, speculates that Brady would be most attractive to the critics of Common Core, , while Rauner would take the most aggressive position in support of education reform.

"Rauner was an active supporter and funder of the Stand for Children group that pushed school reform before the 2012 election, although he now says the reform did not go far enough," Redfield says. "He would make school reform one of the key issues in his campaign, and would be the Republican candidate most likely to generate public employee and teacher union support for Gov. Quinn, which is pretty weak at this point."

Redfield adds that, because the legislature is expected to remain under Democratic control after 2014 regardless of who wins the governorship, "a Republican governor would have trouble making dramatic changes."

Maine: The pick of superintendent is up to the governor, first-term Republican Paul LePage, who was elected with barely more than one-third of the vote in a three-way race in 2010. He's been a lightning rod for controversy, both in substance and style, and is expected to face a three-way race again in 2014 against U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Independent Eliot Cutler. LePage is considered one of the nation's most vulnerable Republican incumbents.

He's "known to be hostile to teacher unions, and has instituted a process of grading all high schools, which is controversial," says University of Maine political scientist Kenneth Palmer. Mark Brewer, another University of Maine political scientist, adds that he expects "a lot of discussion regarding education funding, charter schools, teacher accountability and overall school performance. The governor has been very popular with some, wildly unpopular with others."

Michigan: The state board of education chooses the chief state school officer, and the board itself is directly elected by the voters. Currently, the Democrats have a 6 to 2 edge in seats, with two Democratic-held seats up for election in 2014.

"The current superintendent, Mike Flanagan, is one of those rarities -- he was appointed by a Democratic state board about 10 years ago under a Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, who wanted his predecessor out, yet he's getting along well with the current Republican governor, Rick Snyder, and the GOP-controlled legislature," says Bill Ballenger, founder of Inside Michigan Politics. Flanagan is "politically adroit and personable," Ballenger said.

Though Snyder faces a tough re-election bid in 2014, Ballenger says, "education is likely to be a hot topic in 2014 only if Democrats can make the public believe Snyder and the GOP legislature have endangered both higher and K-12 education with funding cuts that the Republicans insist were needed to balance an out-of-whack state budget. Stay tuned."

Oklahoma: While Oklahoma is a solidly red state, education policy there is a more ideologically diverse subject than one might imagine.

The popularly elected superintendent, Republican Janet Barresi, is running for a second term in 2014, but it's no slam dunk. By all accounts, Barresi has pursued an aggressive agenda.

"Barresi started her tenure in office battling the Oklahoma State School Board," says one political observer in the state. "Then she created an A-F grade for each school -- that was very controversial. The grading methodology had some problems, causing the grades to be recalculated."

Not only could Barresi face a spirited primary challenge from Joy Hofmeister, a former state board of education member, but she also faces a long list of potentially credible Democratic opponents, including Bennington Public Schools superintendent Donna Anderson, superintendent John Cox, charter school CEO Freda Deskin, former assistant state superintendent Jack Herron and former state Democratic chairman Ivan Holmes.

Pennsylvania: The governor appoints the chief state school officer and first-term Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is considered by many to be the most vulnerable Republican governor in the nation. So if he loses to a Democrat, it could affect state education policy in a significant way.

Education "will be an issue" in the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, says Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler. Among other things, he says, "urban school districts believe he is not funding those districts enough, and charter schools and education reform are also topical issues."

South Carolina: Superintendent Mick Zais -- a Republican, a former general and a former college president -- announced in December that he would not seek a new term. Zais had been elected narrowly in 2010 following a long run of Democratic state superintendents, and he had taken an aggressive approach that has irritated some in the state. It's created an unusual opportunity for the Democrats to win statewide office in a solidly conservative state.

In 2011, Zais turned down the chance to seek $50 million in competitive federal grants and $144 million in federal funds for teaching jobs. He also initially proposed eliminating caps on classroom size and mandatory staffing for most grades and subjects, before backing off after public opposition. In addition, Zais expressed skepticism about Common Core and has backed school vouchers.

On the Republican side, state Rep. Andy Patrick is considering a bid. The Democratic field could include Montrio Belton, an ex-teacher and administrator who worked under Zais administration, and state Rep. Mike Anthony, a former teacher. A wild card is former Democratic Superintendent Jim Rex. Rex has helped establish a new third party, the American Party, and he has said it may run its own candidate for the education vacancy.

Wyoming: Superintendent Cindy Hill, appointed by GOP Gov. Matt Mead, has had a rocky tenure. Mead and the legislature stripped her of most of her duties (though not her title) following a series of controversies over policy as well as allegations of erratic management; she's now filing a lawsuit and running a long-shot campaign against Mead for governor. In announcing her gubernatorial bid, she "characterized herself as pro-Constitution, anti-government secrecy and against the Common Core set of education standards," according to the Casper Star-Tribune.

2014 Outlook

Elections to be held for chief state school officers this year include one seat currently held by a Democrat in California, and five seats currently held by Republicans in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Governorships that appoint the chief state school officer that are up for election in 2014 include four currently held by a Democrat (Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Vermont) and nine currently held by a Republican governor (Iowa, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming).

Governorships that appoint a majority of the state school board (in states where the school board chooses the chief state school officer) that are up for election in 2014 involve six state where the seat is held by a Democrat (Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) and three states where the seat is held by a Republican (Alaska, Florida and Nebraska).

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