K-12 Scorecard Mixed as State Lawmakers Finish
Some states hike aid amid policy battles
As state legislatures sprint or stagger down the homestretch of their 2012 sessions, a variety of K-12 issues are capturing their attention, with lawmakers in some states wrapping up major changes to education-related finance, while others trade blows over policy overhauls.
And as budgets in a number of places emerge from the dark recession years—California, with its projected $16 billion shortfall, is a notable exception—legislators in Kansas and Maryland have pushed to increase school aid or at least stabilize per-pupil spending.
A few states, though, have seen significant resistance to policy initiatives that have gained traction across the country. Both 3rd grade retention and school grading systems, for example, are getting pushback from those who think some of the big policy changes need doses of moderation or are misguided.
Funding vs. Tax Cuts
In a departure from recent years, when education took sizable budget hits in Kansas, legislators there are fighting this session over how much they should raise education funding.
But the move to begin making up for years of decline may not mix well with a proposal from Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, who wants to lower state income taxes significantly in the face of a state analysis that the tax cuts could greatly increase Kansas' long-term budget shortfall.
The Kansas House of Representatives has proposed boosting basic aid to K-12 education by $25 million in fiscal 2013, while the Senate has proposed increasing per-pupil funding for aid to schools by $50 million in each of the next two budget years.
In relative terms, neither increase would be earth-shattering.
The House proposal would increase per-pupil spending by $37, while the Senate proposal would increase per-pupil aid by $74 in each of the next two years. In the last three years, however, per-pupil state aid dropped by $620, from $4,400 in fiscal 2009 to $3,780 this fiscal year.
Dale Dennis, the deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative services at the Kansas education department, said that districts would likely use the money in part to fund teacher pay raises.
Asked if the idea of raising per-pupil aid was controversial, Mr. Dennis responded, "Not for the amount of dollars we're talking about."
What remains to be seen is to what extent states will follow the trend of the late 1990s of combining increases in education spending with tax cuts during robust economic times, said Mike Griffith, the senior school finance analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
"The discussion that's going on in Kansas is one that's going on in a bunch of other states," Mr. Griffith said.
In Colorado, lawmakers enacted a property-tax cut for senior citizens while holding per-pupil funding steady after the state saw higher-than-expected revenues in March.
This year, 35 states have revenues that still fall below those of fiscal 2009. Next year, Mr. Griffith said, the expectation is that nearly all states will have revenues matching prerecession amounts.
In Maryland, a special session that wrapped up last week produced sharply contrasting results: tax increases, but major structural budget changes that worry local school officials.
Lawmakers moved swiftly, as part of a budget deal that included an income-tax increase, to shift $136 million in annual teacher-pension costs to counties starting in fiscal 2013. That annual local cost is scheduled to rise in later years. The long-term worry among school board members is that such costs eventually could affect the levels at which counties fund schools.
But the state also has good short-term news for districts: Maryland's per-pupil spending is slated to increase by $67, up to $6,761, in fiscal 2013.
Like other states, Oklahoma is overseeing the implementation of several new education policies enacted recently that in a few cases have generated political resistance, even after the laws behind the policy are on the books.
One prominent piece is the new A-F school grading system, which was approved last year by state lawmakers but is encountering resistance now that rules for carrying out the law are being developed.
In late April, state Rep. Mike Shelton, a Democrat, introduced a joint resolution, approved by the House rules committee on a 9-1 vote, that disapproves of the rules surrounding the grading system approved by the state school board and signed May 2 by Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican. The system was included in the state's successful application for a waiver of some key provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Mr. Shelton's opposition to the rules also extended to the A-F system itself.
"We need to take into account how schools improve their performance, rather than simply looking at the bottom line," Mr. Shelton said in a statement discussing the resolution.
Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi said that as the state implements policies aimed at improving classroom results in various ways, "I understand that that's going to bring some anxiety. I understand change is difficult."
But she also stressed that the state department had moved its focus to details: "This is not about broad policy sweeps. This is about getting the practice into the classroom. And that is a tall order."
Meanwhile, in Ohio, GOP Gov. John R. Kasich's proposed 3rd grade retention policy, which would hold students back if they didn't achieve a passing score on a reading test, has run into opposition from the Republican-controlled Senate, which Mr. Kasich is accusing of blunting the policy's effectiveness.
The Senate's changes to the governor's original proposal included allowing 3rd graders to move to 4th grade if they showed "portfolio mastery" of reading standards. It also lowered the minimum score for avoiding retention.
An analysis by the Ohio education department showed that if the Senate-approved version of the 3rd grade retention policy had applied to students in the 2010-11 school year, a maximum of 5,700 3rd graders could have been retained based on Ohio Achievement Assessment results, excluding exempted students, such as those with limited English proficiency.
Under Gov. Kasich's proposal, a maximum of 17,000 students could have been held back, in theory, on the basis of test results alone.
But state education department spokesman Patrick Gallaway stressed that the actual number of retained students would have been smaller in both cases, since the proposals each would offer other ways for students to advance to 4th grade.
Ohio senators also want to delay new report cards on schools and called for a task force to determine how schools are graded instead of adopting the A-F system Mr. Kasich championed. ("NCLB Waiver Plans Push School Grading Systems ," May 9, 2012.)
In a May 8 statement before the Senate approved its changes, the governor said, "The legislation being considered in the Senate would let principals promote kids even if they're struggling with reading, micromanage how struggling readers are helped, strip parents of the chance to seek outside reading help for their kids, and simply lower reading standards."
House lawmakers were set to discuss the Senate's revisions to Mr. Kasich's proposals last week.
See You Next Year
Recent education policy changes in Connecticut, signed last week with fanfare by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, include more slots for low-income students in early-childhood programs and a turnaround "network" of schools overseen by state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor.
But one national advocacy group says its activities will continue in Connecticut.
StudentsFirst, a Sacramento, Calif.-based group led by former District of Columbia schools chief Michelle A. Rhee that lobbied in support of Gov. Malloy's proposals, said next year it plans to push for a limited voucher program in Connecticut. ("New Advocacy Groups Shaking Up Education Field," May 16, 2012.)
The school "turnaround" process can take several years, StudentsFirst argued in a statement last week, and added, "No child should be forced to wait that out because they have limited options."
Asked to comment on StudentsFirst's plans, Mr. Pryor said, "It is certainly premature to talk about a next round of legislative activity."
Vol. 31, Issue 32, Pages 19-20