State Legislatures Back, With Last Year's Battles Still in Mind
Lawmakers and governors may push education initiatives, but warily in this election year
As state legislatures go to work this year, one of the overriding questions is whether 2012 will bring a reprise of last year's frenzied work on education—much of it shepherded by newly elected Republican majorities and governors—or whether elected officials will take a more deliberate and cautious approach.
Last year, many governors and lawmakers set out to shape their states' education systems through bold and controversial expansions of private school choice, new efforts to link teacher pay and evaluation to student test scores, and, in some cases, the weakening of educators' collective bargaining rights.
Many observers say they expect this year's legislative sessions to bring a mix of far-reaching activity in some states and a careful recalibrating of policy in others. Governors and lawmakers may be inclined to avoid divisive issues, given that many will face elections in the fall, some suggest. State elected officials also may decide that they want new school policies to be allowed to work before they press for others.
The outlook also is uncertain for school funding. Many governors and lawmakers, coping with dire budget conditions, approved deep cuts in K-12 spending last year. While state revenues have improved recently, many state budgets are a long way from recovering to levels of four or five years ago, before the Great Recession took hold, analysts say.
Those choices will play out in states that made dramatic changes in education policy last year, like Indiana, where Republicans expanded private school vouchers to some middle-income families, overhauled teacher evaluation, and provided new financial aid to high school students who graduate early and attend in-state public or private colleges, among other efforts.
This year, Indiana lawmakers likely will consider a number of smaller, though still significant measures, such as trying to ensure student enrollment is accurately counted so that schools receive the proper amount of state funding, and making it easier for the state to intervene in struggling districts, said state Rep. Robert Behning, the GOP chairman of Indiana's House Education Committee. The state's schools chief, Tony Bennett, is also asking lawmakers to consider expanding online education options.
But even as they take on new issues, Mr. Behning said state officials need to make sure the policies they adopted last year are implemented effectively at the state and district level.
"We made a lot of major changes. You can't be doing that every year," he explained. Otherwise, "it's like playing musical chairs," he added. "No one knows where the music is going to stop. ... We have to allow the system to breathe a little."
Last year's state legislative sessions played out in the wake of the 2010 elections, in which Republicans took a majority of governors' offices and the most state legislative seats held by the party since the 1930s.
Two Republican governors elected in 2010, Ohio's John Kasich and Wisconsin's Scott Walker, drew national attention when they promoted and signed into law measures that restricted collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees. Both governors argued that the laws would give districts more leverage in union negotiations over contracts and drive down costs for taxpayers.
But those laws also brought a political backlash. Opponents of Ohio's measure, including teachers' unions, organized a public referendum last November and were successful in overturning the law by a wide margin. In Wisconsin, anger over the bargaining law sparked a series of legislative recall elections last year that resulted in Democrats gaining two seats in the state Senate. Opponents of Mr. Walker have also launched an effort to recall him from office.
Several states also made sweeping changes to support vouchers in 2011. About a dozen approved laws to establish or expand private-school choice, either through vouchers, tax credits, or other means, said Robert Enlow, the president and chief executive officer of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis organization that supports such endeavors. He expects at least a dozen states to consider private-school-choice legislation in 2012.
"Traditionally, in an election year, things get slower, but we still foresee a lot of efforts in a lot of states," Mr. Enlow said. "We're near a tipping point here in understanding that parents need to have more choice."
That view is not shared by Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers. She described the wave of voucher measures as a "partisan attack on public education" that GOP officials were "dressing up as choice."
Ms. Weingarten argued that voters who supported Republicans in 2010 because they made broad promises to change government are now recoiling at attempts to expand vouchers, slash K-12 spending and school jobs, and dictate how teachers should be evaluated and paid at the state, rather than local, level.
The public "voted for change, but they didn't vote for the overreach," she said. "They want positive solutions, and they want government to work with the people who are doing the work" in classrooms.
Many states faced budget shortfalls in 2011, and subsequent efforts to reduce government spending by cutting K-12 created major partisan rifts. Many Republican governors and lawmakers were elected on promises to cut the size of government and not raise taxes—and upon taking office, many of them sought to fulfill those pledges. At least 37 states are providing less state funding for elementary and secondary education in fiscal 2012 than last year, when adjusted for inflation, and at least 30 states are funding schools below 2008 levels, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington organization that advocates for low- and middle-income Americans.
Some Democratic state leaders have also called for making major changes to teaching and how schools operate. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, for instance, asked for lawmakers' support in changing a 2010 law that tied teacher evaluation to student performance—which continues to face legal and political obstacles—and he called for demanding more accountability in school district spending.
While states' budgets are improving, their finances continue to be hampered by the overall weakness of the national economy, and by the drying up of federal stimulus funds—a significant portion of which flowed to schools.
Some state officials have indicated they want to devote more money to schools in 2012. Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who was heavily criticized by educators for pushing for substantial cuts to K-12 last year, recently proposed raising per-student funding next year by more than 2 percent, to $6,372.
Some states also face major questions about the structure of their school finance systems, which will be resolved in statehouses or the courts.
In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, is asking lawmakers to approve an overhaul of the state's school finance system, which he says will give districts more stable funding, more control over setting taxes for schools, and end the cycle of legal challenges brought against the state's curent funding system.
Meanwhile, in Texas, where lawmakers approved deep and historic cuts to school funding last year, a number of lawsuits have been filed challenging the state's funding system, on the grounds that it treats both affluent and impoverished districts, among other populations, unfairly.
In 2011, 30 states made changes to their pension systems for public workers, including teachers. In many cases, legislators required educators to chip in more money to their pensions in an effort to drive down state costs, said Ron Snell, a senior fellow for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several states are likely to take up the issue in 2012, though probably not as many as last year, he predicted.
Despite uncertain election-year dynamics, some states are expected to take on a full basket of education issues.
In Iowa, GOP Gov. Terry Branstad is asking lawmakers to reduce the role of seniority-based preferences—a policy change addressed by several states in 2011—and speed up the process for dismissing ineffective teachers, said Jason Glass, the director of the state education department, in an interview. The governor also wants to set higher standards for entry into the state's teacher colleges and rework the state's testing system, said Mr. Glass, an appointee of Mr. Branstad.
In addition, the governor supports having students demonstrate adequate reading skills before they move beyond 3rd grade, another policy adopted by a handful of states over the past two years. Many state officials trace the concept to a policy adopted by Jeb Bush during his tenure as Florida's Republican governor.
While the idea of retaining elementary school-age students is controversial—Mr. Glass called it an "awful prospect"—the alternative is also unappealing, he said. "We're not doing students any favors by promoting them to the next grade and just hoping something happens" to help them academically, he said.
The 3rd grade proposal concerns state Sen. Herman C. Quirmbach, a Democrat who chairs his chamber's education committee. He said Iowa would be better off devoting more resources to tutoring struggling students. The senator said he also wants teacher legislation to give educators more time to collaborate on lessons during the regular school schedule—as opposed to having to wait for out-of-school professional development.
Iowa Democrats control the state Senate by a narrow margin, while the GOP controls the House. While Mr. Quirmbach predicted that the upcoming elections would weigh on legislators, he hopes members of both parties will look at the toll of the fights in Wisconsin and other states and try to work together.
"I'm hoping that lawmakers will recognize that the public is pretty unhappy" with partisan divides, Mr. Quirmbach said, and that "their best hope for re-election is to show some positive results. Elections are won in the middle."
Vol. 31, Issue 15, Pages 1, 21Published in Print: January 11, 2012, as Legislatures Reconvene With Last Year's Battles Still in Mind