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Election 2010: Don't Forget the States

While much of the political discussion this fall is focused on handicapping the upcoming congressional races, the ballots in state elections, which will go a long way to shaping education policy across the country, are jam-packed.

Thirty-seven states are hosting governor's races this fall, and seven of them have state superintendents' contests on the ballot. But as is typical, the vast majority of the action will occur in state legislative races, the results of which always have the potential to produce serious shifts in school policy.

Democrats currently control 60 legislative chambers around the country, Republicans control 36, and two of them are tied. The partisan majorities could shift in between 15 and 20 of those state chambers as a result of this year's election, with most of them likely to turn over to the GOP, explained Tim Storey, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of 7,382 seats held by state lawmakers, about 83 percent of them, or 6,115, are up for election this fall.

Upheaval in state legislatures could also shape federal education policy, by giving the GOP much greater sway in the once-a-decade congressional redistricting process. State legislatures control how districts for the U.S. House of Representatives are drawn.

Turnover during a presidential mid-term election is typical, as Storey noted. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the party holding the White House has lost state legislative seats in every mid-term except two of them: in 1934, as the nation was staggering through the Great Depression under the presidency of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and in 2002, a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Republican George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office.

Of the states hosting state superintendents' races in November, one of them has already seen an incumbent go down in defeat: Wyoming schools chief Jim McBride, a Republican, who lost a primary last month. Republican Cindy Hill and Democrat Mike Massie are contending to replace him.

Yet most of the public's attention is likely to focus on governors' races. One of the more interesting contests is playing out in Florida, where Democrat Alex Sink faces Republican Rick Scott. The flow of federal funding to schools is one dividing point between the two candidates, as Sink has been a supporter of the state's Race to the Top application, while Scott has pledged to oppose federal stimulus funding.

Another one to watch is playing out in Georgia, where former Gov. Roy Barnes is trying to win his seat back in a race against Republican Nathan Deal, a one-time congressman. At a forum this week, Barnes and Deal debated vouchers—they both said they oppose them, though Barnes challenged his opponent's commitment to that stance—and school spending, at a forum this week.

Lest they feel inclined to celebrate, the victors in governors' and legislative races will be taking office as their states face major budget shortfalls, Storey told me. And they'll almost certainly face major questions about what to spend on K-12 education, given its major impact on state budgets.

"Whoever wins this selection will walk into a continuing budget crisis," he said. With a few exceptions, "there's no sign of a resurgence in state budgets."

UPDATE: I've corrected this item to say that there are seven superintendents' races on the November ballot, according to a count of Council of Chief State School Officers. One race I'd originally counted, in Oregon, was decided earlier this year.

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