Published Online: August 7, 2012
Published in Print: August 8, 2012, as K-12 Policy in Play, Along With Legislatures

Legislative-Control Fights Up Ante on K-12 Policy

Changes made after elections in 2010 could spread

The fate and scope of state education policy changes passed in the last two years may well hinge on a few hotly contested—and precariously balanced—legislatures this fall, in an election cycle that will see 44 states with lawmakers going before the voters.

In states such as Iowa and Wisconsin, where statehouse control is split between Republicans and Democrats, the stakes are immediate and concrete: a chance to extend, or scale back, dramatic changes in areas such as collective bargaining, school choice, and teacher accountability enacted after the GOP wave that swept over states in 2010.

And the November outcomes could also have broad implications in other policy areas, including debates over adequate funding, at issue in Colorado, where the legislature is also split along party lines.

This election year, 81.3 percent of all state legislative seats, or a total of 6,004 positions, are up for election. Only Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia don’t feature such races in 2012.

Even though Republicans could largely maintain their hold on statehouses (they control 26 legislatures, compared with 15 led by Democrats, eight that are split and one, Nebraska, that is non-partisan) turnover of legislative seats could top 25 percent due to term limits and redistricting, well above the normal rate of 17 percent to 19 percent in two-year election cycles, said Tim Storey, the director of leaders services and legislative training at the National Conference of State Legislatures, who analyzes state elections.

Party Split

Republicans hold the edge when it comes to control of state legislatures going into the fall 2012 elections.

Advocacy groups that are pushing for major overhauls in school policy covering school choice and collective bargaining could pick up key seats even if Republican majorities largely hold. But advocates for school funding boosts may be disappointed, said Dick Carpenter, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who studies educational leadership.

“We’re not going to see much enthusiasm for increasing spending on something that can take up 40 percent or more of a state budget,” he said.

Iowa the Bellwether

Iowa is one state where major policy changes could hinge on just a few legislative seats. Republicans claim 60 of the 100 seats in the Iowa House of Representatives, while Democrats control the Senate by a slim margin, 26 seats to Republicans’ 24.

Both Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, and state education chief Jason Glass (appointed by Mr. Branstad) are seeking big transformations in education policy. Proposals backed by Mr. Glass that failed to pass the divided legislature intact have gained traction in various other states. They include requiring all high school juniors to take a college-entrance exam, such as the ACT, and requiring students to demonstrate reading proficiency in the 3rd grade or repeat the grade.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education in June declined—for now, at least—to grant Iowa a waiver from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act because state lawmakers reserved the right to approve changes to Iowa teacher evaluations. That highlights a policy gap between state lawmakers and Mr. Glass, who wanted students’ academic growth to be considered in state teacher evaluations.

However, some ideas supported by Mr. Glass did have some success in the legislature. For example, lawmakers approved a bill allowing school districts to award competency-based high school credit to students. And despite legislative setbacks in 2012, Mr. Glass said it was only the first year of a long process of changing state education policies.

“It is safe to say that we’re not satisfied with even that progress, and we will go back to the legislature next session with another bold set of proposals,” Mr. Glass said.

For skeptics like state Rep. Cindy Winckler, the Democratic chairwoman of the House education appropriations subcommittee, the policy initiatives from Mr. Glass were in many cases not grounded in evidence, and merely created “an opportunity for polarization,” regardless of whether other states have adopted them or not.

She also cited the presence of out-of-state political groups in state races as a key development. For example, StudentsFirst, a Sacramento, Calif.-based advocacy group run by former District of Columbia schools chief Michelle A. Rhee, backed the successful primary campaign of state Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck in June. (Mr. Hamerlinck also received financial support from the Iowa State Education Association, the state teachers’ union, according to the Helena, Mont.-based National Institute on Money in State Politics.).

Teachers worry that if Mr. Glass can work with a GOP-controlled legislature, Iowa could follow the lead of states like Wisconsin in curbing collective bargaining for public-sector workers, said Mary Jane Cobb, the executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents 34,000 educators.

“If that balance of power changes, the education policy in the state would change dramatically,” Ms. Cobb said.

Even though Colorado has a closely divided legislature (the GOP has a one-seat advantage in the House, while Democrats control the Senate by five votes), major legislative action next year could hinge on a different branch of state government: the courts.

Attention is focused on the 7-year-old Lobato v. Colorado court case, in which several districts have argued that the state has not adequately funded public education as required by the state constitution, said Jane Urschel, the deputy executive director and chief lobbyist for the Denver-based Colorado Association of School Boards.

The state constitution simultaneously contains the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which requires a popular vote for tax increases and places strict caps on taxes, and requires that state aid to public education must increase annually at the rate of inflation plus enrollment growth. The Lobato suit claims education has been underfunded annually by about $1 billion (although estimates about the impact of the lawsuit’s claims vary). That’s money that Ms. Urschel said the state doesn’t have. The Colorado Supreme Court could issue a ruling on the case by the end of the year.

The funding issue could complicate implementation of recent education policy changes. The state overhauled its teacher-evaluation system in 2010. Previously, in 2008, Colorado changed its entire approach to the education system from prekindergarten through graduate school, and in 2009 passed the Education Accountability Act, specifying academic goals and the consequences of not meeting them for schools and districts.

But in a December 2011 ruling favoring the plaintiffs in the Lobato case, Colorado District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport stated: “Insufficient funding prevents the school districts from accomplishing the ambitious goals of educational accountability.”

Wisconsin Developments

Meanwhile, with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, firmly entrenched after surviving a June recall election, state Rep. Steve Kestell, also a Republican and the chairman of the House education committee, said there would be “a lot in the hopper” for both new legislators and the governor to deal with in the 2013 session. The subjects could include potential expansion of voucher programs, a broadening of authority for authorizing charter schools, and other policy shifts that could benefit from a bipartisan approach, he said.

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“I don’t think it’s going to be a ‘my way versus highway’ kind of thing,” Mr. Kestell said.

Still, Democrats, who now control the Wisconsin Senate by a 17-16 margin after the June recall elections, could feud with Republicans like Mr. Kestell in the GOP-controlled House on state aid to schools.

The Democrats’ precarious grip on the state Senate was highlighted in late July, when Sen. Tim Cullen announced he planned to leave the Democratic caucus. Mr. Cullen soon after agreed to remain with the caucus.

Asked about K-12 funding as an issue in statehouse races, Rep. Kestell said in part, “It would be foolish for anyone, although I’m sure some will make that mistake, [to promise] big new chunks of money.”

Vol. 31, Issue 37, Pages 23,26

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