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Election 2014 Caravan of Delights: Michigan Gubernatorial Race

As we get closer to the Nov. 4 general election, I will take a look each day at a state election of interest. (If you've missed my election reporting from CaliforniaFlorida, and Georgia, you've still got time to catch up!) I'll look at polling numbers and the candidates' general positions on K-12 issues, and I'll also highlight the political and policy environments that are influencing the debate about public schools. For the sake of brevity, I'll only focus on the Democratic and Republican candidates. Today I'll look at the race for governor in Michigan.

If you're looking for a state where a variety of education policy fights have gotten attention, Michigan is a strong andidate. Since an investigation into charter schools published in June by the Detroit Free Press, the charter school sector has been in the state education department's crosshairs. Last year, there was a fight over the Common Core State Standards. And the fate of the Education Achievement Authority, the state-run district of low-performing schools, hinges on the contest between GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and Mark Schauer, the Democratic candidate and a former member of Congress. Did I mention collective-bargaining rights?

Snyder had enjoyed a lead for several months in the polls until Schauer caught up briefly in September. Since then, Snyder has once again opened up a small lead, according to the most recent average of polls from Real Clear Politics:

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RCPMichGov.PNGMark Schauer

Schauer, who served in the state legislature before his time in Congress, has a multipart plan for K-12 in Michigan. Here are his key proposals:

• Establish new laws capping teacher-to-student ratios in classrooms as well as class sizes.

• Allow districts to choose to operate on a year-round basis instead of on the traditional K-12 calendar.

• Require charter and virtual schools to participate in the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System. (He also wants for-profit companies barred from managing charter schools in Michigan.)

• "Streamline" standardized testing, although Schauer doesn't specify what that means.

One thing Schauer doesn't mention in that blueprint, but has supported elsewhere, is the accusation used by teachers' unions in Michigan that Snyder cut more than $1 billion from state spending on public schools. (I'll get into this when I discuss Snyder further down, but if it sounds like the same issue that's cropped up in Florida's gubernatorial race, you're right.)

He's racked up major endorsements from unions that, in addition to unsuccessfully fighting the passage of a right-to-work law in Michigan, also failed in their bid to have the right to collective bargaining enshrined in the state constitution.

Rick Snyder

That right-to-work law I mentioned above had Snyder's explicit backing, and he hasn't run away from the law. But he's also denied that he kept his support for a right-to-work law under wraps until the 2012 special session, when it passed. 

Now, about that claim that the incumbent slashed $1 billion from K-12. It has touched off an argument between the two campaigns, and has been deemed misleading or inaccurate by the media in Michigan. It's a complicated picture. Snyder has approved cuts to districts' operating budgets, which is what many would focus on when discussing cuts that directly affect classrooms. But state contributions to the retirement system for public employees have concurrently gone up, an increase that's generally counted when overall spending levels under Snyder are discussed.

Like many incumbent governors who took over right as states began digging out from the Great Recession, Snyder's keen to highlight increased per-student spending on his watch. 

You may recall that in 2012 and 2013, a non-profit group called the Oxford Foundation worked with Snyder's aides to formulate what he called an "Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, and Any Pace" model to revamp Michigan public schools. It would feature K-12 "debit cards" for parents and students to use in a voucher-like system to pay "tuition" costs in public schools, and would include performance funding for schools. Opponents derided it as a "skunk works" project and it hasn't really gotten off the ground. Will Snyder attempt to revive portions or all of it if he wins re-election?

Other Delights in the Caravan

The U.S. Senate race in Michigan to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin pits U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D) against Terri Lynn Land, a Republican and former secretary of state in Michigan. Recent polling numbers could provide a down-ballot boost to Schauer.

The Peters-Land race was tight for much of this year, but Peters has pulled away in recent weeks and now leads by double digits according to the latest polling averages. In a year that could be tough for many Democrats, a win for Schauer and Peters could be considered a good haul in the Wolverine State for the Democratic Party. 

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