MONROE – What should we be watching most closely in the 2006 election cycle?

I had two occasions to discuss this question in the past week, both in the Charlotte area. On Tuesday, Almanac of American Politics co-author Michael Barone spoke to an attentive John Locke Foundation crowd of about 160 people at a Charlotte hotel. And on Saturday, I talked a little North Carolina politics with the Union County Republican Men’s Club.

In both cases, the chatter covered President Bush’s falling approval ratings, his problem with his conservative base, and prospects for Democratic gains in Congress. (Barone thinks that despite some serious problems for the GOP, Democrats’ own internal conflicts and message problems will preclude much electoral progress for them in 2006. I’m not so sure.) In the Union County discussion, there was also a lot of interest in the handful of competitive races for North Carolina House and Senate, and more generally in the changing face of state political competition in advance of the 2008 elections for president, governor, and U.S. Senate.

Little or no attention was paid, however, to what I suspect may be one of the political biggest stories of 2006: votes on huge school-construction bonds in several of North Carolina’s largest districts. A new Department of Public Instruction survey is slated to come out in a few weeks claiming that the current price tag for needed school construction statewide is roughly double the $6 billion DPI estimate just five years ago. With Wake County talking school needs over the next 10 years in the $5 billion range, Charlotte-Mecklenburg still working from a $2 billion plan, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth considering a half-billion-dollar bond on the November ballot, it’s obvious that the DPI estimate is in-line with the expectations of individual school districts. Whether it is in-line with reality is another matter.

As I’ve written before, there are a number of alternative approaches to school construction used in other jurisdictions and available to North Carolina districts long on enrollment and short on cash. Terry Stoops, JLF’s education policy analyst, just released a paper last week summarizing the ways that Forsyth has managed to bring its recent schools in below the cost of facilities in comparable communities. The savings aren’t mind-boggling, admittedly, but they do add up.

Still, rethinking space standards and making creative use of existing buildings will only take you so far. The magnitude of the fiscal challenge here should push policymakers towards policies they have previously eschewed, such as expanded choice for parents. The alternative is to put a bunch of expensive school bonds on the ballot this November, with implications not just for education policy but also for turnout and electoral outcomes in other races.

Some big political news, in other words, may come from far down the ballot in 2006.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.