Why Education Is the Big Issue in Gubernatorial Races

Governors across the country — Democratic and Republican — are putting renewed emphasis on education as the economy improves in their states.

Children look at books at a day care center for children aged 12 months to six years on December 22, 2011 in Munich, Germany.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Jan. 23, 2014, 10:54 a.m.

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.

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