Based on what one sees in the 2010 midterm elections, politicians in the Southern states aren’t even engaged in the school reform conversation. This bodes poorly for a region whose politicians and chambers of commerce helped foster the modern school reform movement — and needs that old energy more than ever.
In Alabama, both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Ron Sparks and Republican Robert Bentley, took donations from the National Education Association’s state affiliate, each receiving more than $100,000 either directly or through lobbyists and PACs affiliated with the teachers union. It easily explains why neither candidate has taken up efforts to allow the formation of charter schools — an effort taken up by outgoing governor Bob Riley — and have had little to say about any other reforms. By the way: Alabama’s Promoting Power rate of 68 percent is the lowest of the 11 southern states surveyed by Dropout Nation earlier this year.
Across the border in Georgia, former governor Roy Barnes is learned the wrong lesson from his 2002 re-election defeat; he abandoned his previous support for such measures as abolishing near-lifetime teacher employment and kowtowed to the Peach State’s teachers union interests who were partly responsible for tossing him out of office eight years ago. But it isn’t working: Barnes now trails the equally lackluster candidate (on school reform issues and everything else) Nathan Deal, by as much as 10 points in some polls. No matter who wins, there is little chance that they will address the state’s low levels of literacy (37 percent of Peach State fourth-graders read Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress) and even less possibility of them taking up any sort of systemic reform.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe will likely keep office. This means that he will continue to do little when it comes to reforming the state’s K-12 school system. In Texas, Rick Perry, who has generally presided over a less-dynamic school reform environment than the pioneering times under previous governors Ann Richards and George W. Bush, will coast to re-election. Again, save for declaring that he’s opposed to one-size-fits-all reform efforts and a general campaign position that doesn’t address the state’s abysmal literacy rates and gamesmanship by school districts over graduation numbers, Perry will continue to do nothing.
There are some exceptions. In Oklahoma, the Republican candidate, Mary Fallin, seems to have something of a robust school reform agenda, while the likely winner of South Carolina’s gubernatorial campaign, Nikki Haley, may reverse the longstanding unwillingness of state officials to confront its status as one of the cellar-dwellers in student achievement.
Meanwhile Florida has had a strong reform environment championed in both houses of the state legislature and the presence of former governor Jeb Bush, who continued a long effort of reform that began with his predecessor, Lawton Chiles. Whether the strong reform agenda will continue may depend on who is elected to succeed current governor Charlie Crist. The Democrat, Alex Sink, isn’t considered a strong backer of any reform, according to the Center for Education Reform’s EducationFifty project; in fact, her current agenda would be considered a backward slide. Her opponent, Rick Scott, is committed to the same path taken by Bush and the Sunshine State’s school reform activists.
Let’s be clear: School reformers need to do a better job of making education a key issue in general election and primary campaigns. It would also help that voters are more-concerned with an economic downturn that hasn’t abated despite more than $1 trillion in federal stimulus funding. But as political leaders in a region that has long struggled with bolstering economic growth because of the low quality of education among its citizens, a few thoughtful positions on reforming American public education would be the sensible thing to do, especially once one has to get into office and actually go from issuing talking points to actually producing measurable results. None of this is happening in any meaningful way.
Whatever happens on November 2, the winning candidates will need to confront the reality that their education systems are abysmal. As shown in a study released last week by the American Institutes of Research, South Carolina would be the only southern state whose 8th-grade math standards would rank high on a benchmarking against TIMSS, the international test of math skills. Most of the other southern states have 4th and 8th grade math and reading standards that would be rated C or lower. This doesn’t bold well for a region in which blacks and Latinos (who need and deserve high-quality education and strong reform efforts) now make up the majority of its student enrollment.