Published Online: January 7, 2014
Published in Print: January 8, 2014, as State Legislators Fire Up Engines
Includes correction(s): January 9, 2014

State Lawmakers Face Tough Choices on Common Core

Common core likely flash point

State legislators begin their 2014 sessions this month grappling with the best way forward on the Common Core State Standards in a tricky political climate, with a majority of governors and lawmakers up for election in the fall.

For many states, this year will be a key juncture for decisions about the standards—and related exams—before their full weight is felt in classrooms, district offices, and state education departments in the 2014-15 school year.

Many lawmakers will be working to help ensure that state accountability and assessment systems lead to students who are better prepared for study and work after high school, said Jeremy Anderson, the president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

"For many governors, this transition from secondary to postsecondary is all about the future of the workforce in their states," he said.

But the large slate of elections this year, including gubernatorial contests in 36 states and legislative races in 46, could tamp down many lawmakers' enthusiasm for bold policy proposals, Mr. Anderson said.

Indeed, on such issues as the common core and teacher evaluations, many might choose a cautious approach, said Iris Maria Chavez, the assistant field director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group.

"There will be a lot of playing defense over legislation that was passed the last several years," she said. "Some states are trying to do some improvements to them, but acknowledge that it might not happen."

But the common core won't take up all the oxygen in statehouses. As the general fiscal environment for states continues its slow improvement, several states could boost their general funding for education or target more specific, high-profile policies.

All but four states (Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas) will have legislatures in session in 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state with the earliest starting date for its session is Massachusetts; its lawmakers officially got underway Jan. 2.

Safeguards and Jitters

In 2013, according to the NCSL, a total of 270 unique bills in all states dealt with academic-content standards in some way, a number that could rise significantly this year. In 2012, the total bill count in that area was only 117.

Questions about assessments are likely to dominate common-core legislation in 2014, said Daniel Thatcher, a senior policy specialist with the Denver-based NCSL who tracks legislation related to the common standards in English/language arts and mathematics that all but a handful of states have adopted.

Of the 270 standards-related bills last year, 107 dealt with assessments. Two major multistate consortia are working to develop assessments tied to the standards.

Executive Challenges

Governors—some of them up for re-election, others still building their first-term records—face a host of political and fiscal hurdles in pressing their education agendas in the coming year. A few of those to keep an eye on:

Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.)
The fiscally conservative Republican recently announced an early-education plan that would boost state spending on full-day kindergarten by $80 million over five years and must marshal support for that funding. He also could get dragged into a brawl between state lawmakers and the courts over K-12 funding.

Gov. Tom Corbett (R-Penn.)
With relatively low approval ratings and a re-election campaign looming, Gov. Corbett could look to revamp his approach to school finance after years of tough budgets for districts. But the future of charters in the state and uncertainty about Philadelphia schools could complicate 2014 for him.

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.)
After the November defeat of a tax hike intended to boost education funding, Gov. Hickenlooper must oversee renewed efforts to tackle the state’s K-12 budget woes in a re-election year. Questions about union support for new teacher evaluations being implemented this school year could also cause him trouble.

Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.)
In his second year in office, Gov. Pence has announced a diverse education agenda that includes vouchers for preschool programs and a “teacher choice” program to encourage talent transfer. But he must deal with the fate of the Common Core State Standards, as well as a very thorny relationship with state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat.

Gov. Pat Quinn (D-Ill.)
Having signed a bill to overhaul the state’s troubled pension system, Gov. Quinn, who has low approval ratings as he stands for re-election, could face a political backlash from unions and other Democrats upset by the new law, which they have called the “theft” of public workers’ pensions.

Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.)
The Florida governor also is dealing with low approval ratings, as well as potentially strong challengers in his 2014 re-election bid. He must weigh concerns from a variety of quarters about common core, and decide if his state’s K-12 budget should grow for two straight years.

"It's around assessments where states will make the biggest changes," Mr. Thatcher said. "The budget is probably one of the best levers that legislators have to influence the direction of this."

As the composition of the assessment consortia remains in flux, state lawmakers in many cases could look through a financial lens at the question of what test to use. The results could fragment the testing market across states, as officials weigh relatively inexpensive options, or assessments from vendors they have the most experience with.

Lawmakers in states such as Minnesota, New York, and Oregon could also be feeling pressure about how teacher evaluations will be affected by the common core: This school year alone, 17 states are asking schools to fully implement new teacher evaluations, according to the Washington-based American Institutes for Research.

Ms. Chavez of the Education Trust said that legislators wishing to preserve the main thrust of those policies in 2014 could produce "a lot of modifications both on the timeline for implementation and the percentage of student-assessment scores that are included" to satisfy concerns from teachers' unions and others.

School Scores, Ratings

The common core's short-term impact on school ratings and student scores also could cause many lawmakers to try to hedge, at least for now, on some policies intended to protect the standards' purported long-term benefits.

The Arizona education department, for example, plans to ask its legislature for a one-year moratorium on both A-F grades for schools and its policy of retaining 3rd graders who can't demonstrate reading proficiency for the 2014-15 school year—the same year that assessments based on the standards are due to be administered across the country.

Arizona officials have said an extra year would help the state set new, more realistic targets for schools and students on the new tests. The common-core standards are widely expected to result in lower student scores on state assessments.

But such actions, if undertaken widely, could significantly hinder transparency about real student and school performance under the standards, regardless of common cutoff scores across states, said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst with the Washington-based New America Foundation. State legislatures, she said, could simply make things more complicated by "jumping into the mix" at this point.

"When it comes to what we should do to improve performance, that's still very much a state and local decision," Ms. Hyslop said.

And there continue to be state-level efforts to freeze or drop the common core altogether.

Legislation for a pause in common-core implementation has been introduced in such states as Florida and Ohio. Mr. Thatcher indicated that common-core repeal bills could also crop up in states ranging from Idaho to New Hampshire.

Although no state voted in 2013 to repeal its adoption of the common core, Indiana is continuing an official review of the standards following such a push for repeal in 2013. Some lawmakers' zeal for repeal will likely burn hot throughout 2014, even as legislative leaders in states such as Alabama and Wisconsin have thrown cold water on moves to back out of the common core.

On the financial front, the outlook is healthier for education after dramatic cuts that began in 2009 and stretched into subsequent budget years in many states. Forty-two states increased their education spending from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2014, according to a report from the National Association of State Budget Officers, published last month.

State tax revenues are projected to have increased by about $6 billion across all states from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2014

With most if not all states looking at more revenues available for K-12, legislators may feel pressure by "pent-up demand" from groups seeking infusions of cash for everything from general funding formulas to rural schools and special education, said Michael Griffith, the senior school finance analyst for the ECS.

Even in states like California, which has projected a $2.4 billion surplus for the end of fiscal 2014, "you'll never have enough money to take care of all these things," he said.

But some states have lingering, fundamental fiscal problems to grapple with. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican facing a tough re-election campaign, announced last month that his main goal for 2014 was to avoid cuts in basic K-12 funding after several years of cuts or largely flat spending levels.

A poll last month from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., showed that on education, 62 percent of Pennsylvania voters gave Gov. Corbett unfavorable ratings.

"On the local level, I'm not planning to see a dime more in our local budget. If we do, it'll be a pleasant surprise," said Larry Feinberg, a school board member in Haverford Township, Pa., and a co-chairman of the Keystone State Education Coalition, which lobbies for increased K-12 funding.

Boosts for Early Learning?

After a year in which President Barack Obama advocated new resources for early-childhood education—with little success in Congress—there are signs that positive momentum for such programs could continue in many states. In the current fiscal year, 28 states and the District of Columbia increased spending on prekindergarten programs, according to the ECS.

Given California's projected surplus, advocates for early-childhood education are optimistic that this year will see a dramatic reversal from the deep cuts to such programs in recent years. Since the 2007-08 school year, the total number of slots for both state-funded child care and state-sponsored preschool has dropped to 351,000 from 459,000.

Citing a "budget blueprint" released by California Assembly Democrats that called for increasing resources for early education, Ted Lempert, the president of Children Now, an Oakland, Calif.-based group supporting expanded early learning, said, "There seem to be some encouraging signs going forward."

Lawmakers in Indiana, Kansas, and Nebraska are also pondering efforts to expand early-childhood education, according to news reports.

Related Blog

"Early childhood is off the table at the federal level," said Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a Washington-based group that supports increased early-education investments. "If states push even harder than they did last year, we may begin to get to a better place."

Privacy Issues

In the area of privacy and technology, lawmakers in a number of states could also consider steps intended to protect student data, an issue rooted in discussions about both the common core and the online environment classrooms increasingly inhabit.

A model bill from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a pro-free-market, right-leaning policy group, provides a template for legislatures to create a state-level "chief privacy officer" and make sure a state publishes an itemized list of the types of student data it collects.

A bill to enhance protections for student data will be considered in 2014 in the Wisconsin legislature, for example, the Associated Press reported last month, and a bill with a similar intent was prefiled in the Washington state legislature.


Issues to Watch

Education policy and funding are sure to be hot topics for governors and state lawmakers in the 2014 legislative season—and in an election year in which 36 governorships and legislative seats in all but four states are up for grabs.

Common Core
Lawmakers will have to consider costs associated with the Common Core State Standards, along with its implications on technology, teachers' professional development and evaluation, and aligned assessments and their use in accountability. In some states, legislators may also wage war over whether to drop the standards altogether.
Potential Hotspot States: Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Idaho, New Hampshire

School Finance
General revenues flowing into state coffers continue to recover from the depths of the Great Recession, albeit slowly. As in 2013, many state leaders could be reluctant to rapidly boost education spending back to pre-recession levels, and could be looking for more targeted investments. Some governors might also feel pressure to boost K-12 budgets during the election year.
Potential Hotspot States: Pennsylvania, Kansas, Washington, Colorado

On the Horizon

• In New York, Republican Sen. John Flanagan, chairman of the Senate education committee, has proposed a one-year moratorium on the state's controversial agreement with the nonprofit inBloom to share student data. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (also a Democrat) has called for the deal to be suspended.
• In Wisconsin, a Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill to allow additional independent charter schools that aren't overseen by local school boards.
• A Missouri bill would allow some schools in the Kansas City area to set class size and student-to-teacher ratio caps, which would let them keep out students transferring from unaccredited school districts.

Vol. 33, Issue 15, Pages 1,18-19

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Correction: 
This story has been corrected to reflect that New York State Sen. John Flanagan is a Republican.

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