Select K-12 Issues Gained State Legislative Traction
Other topics broke through despite common-core debates
In a year when 46 states will hold legislative elections and 36 will select governors, lawmakers in various states pushed ahead on education priorities, including pre-K education, teacher evaluation, and revisions to school funding formulas.
Those issues and others managed to break through despite continued ferment around the Common Core State Standards, including passage of a law repealing the standards in Oklahoma and a potential scaling-back of them in such states as Missouri and North Carolina.
All but four states—Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, and Texas—held regular legislative sessions this year. As of the end of last month, 38 states had concluded their regular legislative sessions for 2014, while eight states were still in session in some form, including Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
The Common Core State Standards may have been a dominant K-12 issue in many state legislatures in their recent 2014 sessions, but other public school issues also had their turn in the spotlight in a number of states. Among them: school choice, early-childhood education, and student-data privacy. Some highlights include:
In addition to signing legislation creating an additional 1,000 slots for pre-K in May, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, approved a new law that will provide funding for preschool programs to operate in K-12 facilities. The law also formally established the state Office of Early Childhood. Legislators in Indiana, Oregon, and elsewhere also continued to focus attention on early-learning programs.
Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, signed a bill to broaden access to the state’s tax-credit scholarship program. The maximum annual income for households to be eligible for scholarship money is now $44,100, but in the 2016-17 school year the income cap will rise to $62,000. Students will earn partial scholarships on a sliding scale depending on their economic backgrounds. However, the new law has been criticized by some who say that the tax-credit program starves public schools of crucial revenue, and the Florida Education Association has filed suit to overturn it. Arizona also expanded its own school choice program modeled on education savings accounts earlier this year.
In an attempt to bolster the state’s protections for student data, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed legislation that directs the state school board to create regulations governing access to student data. The law also requires the state to publicize what types of student data are collected, and bans the collection of certain types of information. Student-data privacy and security has been a newly prominent topic in several states, including Idaho and New York.
As tax revenues rise and post-recession state budgets continue to slowly improve, legislators in several states have focused on how best to target resources to specific populations—particularly, low-income students—as they look to revamp K-12 funding formulas.
"There's a lot of movement right now, I think because of pent-up demand. There weren't a lot of changes made during the recession," said Michael Griffith, a senior school finance analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "Probably half the states right now are thinking about or reviewing possible changes to the school funding formula. That would be the most that I think have done this since the recession."
This year, Illinois lawmakers, for example, have advanced legislation that would institute a new K-12 funding formula that has similarities to what was approved by California lawmakers in 2013. Illinois is re-examining the way the money reaches students with socioeconomic or linguistic challenges and is trying to reduce the state bureaucracy overseeing various funding streams. The number of categorical-funding programs would be reduced in the bill now under consideration, for example.
However, unlike in California, which used a tax increase to boost education aid at the same time that it shifted more power over spending from the state to districts, Illinois legislators are putting off the idea of significantly increasing total state aid to K-12.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to settle a complicated debate over Pennsylvania's education funding system, Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, signed a measure last month that requires a legislative task force to craft a new method for the state to distribute aid to districts.
States are also moving beyond a general targeting of disadvantaged students to considering factors like the density of low-income residents as they weigh their K-12 spending approaches. And just as funding formulas for special education have increasingly sought to identify the cost of services rather than to simply categorize students, Mr. Griffith of the ecs said, finance debates now often involve identifying the extra services students like English-language learners need.
In Nevada, for example, although lawmakers didn't have a regular legislative session this year, a legislative panel recommended in June that the state increase its aid for low-income students and English-language learners by 50 percent next year. Nevada has among the fastest-rising populations of ell students in the country.
Many of the bills dealing with teachers that were signed into law this year have altered the systems through which they are evaluated—a response to growing concerns about the nature of new state assessments.
Both Colorado and Ohio have given districts more flexibility in deciding how much student performance on common-core aligned tests will count in evaluations. New Jersey decided last month to shift to a more gradual approach for using test scores in evaluations over the next two school years.
And after a contentious battle between unions and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in June, New York legislators approved a plan (sponsored by Gov. Cuomo) to remove the impact of student test scores on teacher and principal evaluations for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years if those scores cause them to be rated "ineffective" or "developing."
But Rhode Island lawmakers took a different approach when they approved legislation that ends the annual evaluation of teachers. Those getting "effective" ratings will be evaluated once every two years, and those rated "highly effective" will get an evaluation every three years.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat, who allowed the bill to become law last month without his signature, said he was worried that the policy change would gut an "important and relevant annual process" and decrease teachers' motivation to improve, since 95 percent of Rhode Island teachers received one of those two ratings last year.
Preschool Push Continues
Early-education programs also remained high on the legislative agenda in many states.
The Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures reported that as of late last month, legislators had approved 42 bills in 26 states that address preschool funding, quality, and access, while passing 36 bills in 26 states dealing with preschool governance or overall systems.
Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group, is encouraged that states with a very different political leanings, such as Georgia and Connecticut, have used federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants as well as state revenue to focus on ensuring the quality of early learning, in addition to the broader focus on increasing access.
"It's happening in both red and blue states across the country," Ms. Perry said, citing the leadership of governors in particular.
States have shown a willingness to experiment in how they emphasize early education. In Utah, for example, Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, signed a bill in April that allows public and private preschool programs to enter into contracts to receive loans from private entities.
With the oversight of a new School Readiness Board, which would handle a maximum of $15 million in outstanding loans at any one time, those private entities would be repaid, plus an additional return on investment, if students from the preschool programs met certain academic-performance targets specified in the contracts.
Colorado took a relatively straightforward approach to early-education expansion by funding 5,000 more slots—for a total of 28,400—for children to attend the state preschool program, beginning in the 2014-15 budget year. And California also expanded its state preschool program to the tune of $155 million.
However, sometimes such expansions depend on other conditions being met. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, signed a bill last month that will expand preschool aid for most districts only when the state fully funds its base K-12 formula. Right now, the state underfunds that formula by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Vol. 33, Issue 37, Pages 18, 20Published in Print: August 6, 2014, as Select K-12 Issues Gained Traction In Recent State Legislative Sessions