Across the country, Republican governors seeking reelection this year are proposing new investments in education after facing criticism from Democrats for cutting school budgets during their first terms. At the same time, Democrats, including potential future presidential candidate Andrew Cuomo of New York, are opening a new front in the battle over education, backing universal pre-kindergarten.
It's all part of a nationwide trend: emphasis on education—and for Democrats, economic inequality—now that the economy is recovering in many states.
Cuomo on Tuesday proposed using existing state funds to extend universal pre-K statewide. The proposal comes after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made universal pre-K a theme of his campaign. De Blasio had advocated increasing taxes on wealthy New Yorkers to pay for it, but Cuomo said that increased revenues and decreased expenditures made the money available for the state.
Democrats in other states, including Hawaii, Maryland, and Massachusetts, have taken pages out of de Blasio's book and focused on expanding universal pre-K programs, and many of those mounting challenges to GOP governors have made education spending a centerpiece of their campaigns.
Meanwhile, Republican governors across the country are claiming credit for the economic recovery in their states, but rising income inequality and education's role in leveling the playing field is poised to become a bigger part of the debate over continued prosperity. Democrats have been hammering Republican Govs. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Nathan Deal of Georgia, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Sam Brownback of Kansas particularly hard for cuts made to state education budgets during their first terms, and their vocal opposition has prompted the four to take action to blunt the criticism.
Sources close to Corbett say he will unveil a plan next month to invest $200 million in Pennsylvania schools, and last week he attempted his first-ever visit to a Philadelphia public school since taking office. In Georgia, Deal dedicated a major chunk of his State of the State address to pledging to put more than half a billion dollars in new revenue toward schools. Two of Deal's challengers, Republican John Barge, who is Georgia's state school superintendent, and Democrat Jason Carter, have decried past cuts and pointed to the low prioritization of education spending as one of the main causes of the state's poor economy.
Haley also proposed this month to put 80 percent of new state revenues toward education in South Carolina, even explicitly recommending that new spending be directed toward districts with the neediest students.
And Kansas's Brownback made an effort to stymie the narrative that he doesn't care about education by unleashing an $80 million plan to fund all-day kindergarten in his annual State of the State address delivered last week, as he faced blowback from a court battle. The state Supreme Court is set to rule any day on whether Kansas has to cough up an additional $600 million for local school districts after the Kansas State Board of Education claimed Brownback was underfunding schools by roughly as much for 2014. Brownback was defiant in his speech, stating that "[t]he Constitution empowers the Legislature—the people's representatives—to fund our schools."
State House Minority Leader Paul Davis, Brownback's likely general-election opponent, has been using the issue to portray the incumbent as slashing budgets in a way that's doing real harm to the state and turning some members of his own party against him.
In Texas, Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis and GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott have sparred over $5.4 billion in cuts to public schools, which Davis tried to block in her lesser-known first filibuster a few years ago. In his capacity as AG, Abbott has been responsible for defending the cuts in court, and both candidates have unveiled competing plans in an effort to claim the high ground.
Democrats will try to frame this as election-year politics, arguing that Republicans have come under fire before but waited until now to reverse course.
Danny Kanner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association, called these "election-year gimmicks."
"For the first three years when nearly all of these governors were in office, they decided that tax cuts for the wealthiest and corporations were more important than spending on education," said Kanner. "[T]o the extent that there is money to spend now on education, it's because they cut it in the first place. They demonstrated their values and priorities, and no election-year headline will change that."
On the other hand, every state was forced to slim down budgets during the recession, though some made steeper cuts than others. Republicans argue that coming out of the recession, renewed investment in education is a sign that the states are rebounding and able to replenish their stocks with new funds. "In 2014, improving education is a top priority" of Republican governors, said Jon Thompson, press secretary of the Republican Governors Association. "Not investing in education can impact a pro-growth agenda."
Thompson believes that when it comes to education spending, it's "usually welcomed and not framed as an election issue."
"No one ever gets on the stage and an opponent's going to say, 'Shame on you for raising teacher salaries and investing in education,'" said Thompson. "It really does depend on what states are coming back from the brink and had deficits when they made these cuts, and if they're able to afford it they'll do it."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Corbett visited the Philadelphia school. He actually "abruptly canceled the appearance" after protestors gathered outside the school, the Philadelphia Daily News reported.
This article appears in the January 24, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.