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Published in Print: December 10, 2014, as Legislatures Set to Tackle Hot K-12 Issues

State Leaders Confront Full Plate of K-12 Issues

Curtain to Rise on 2015 Sessions

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After a strong showing by Republicans in state-level elections last month, lawmakers and governors—new and re-elected—are turning their attention to the 2015 legislative sessions, where such issues as common standards, testing, and school choice are likely to dominate the education policy debate.

Added to the political mix is a generally improving economic climate that could turn up the heat on lawmakers in many states to raise K-12 spending at a time when some are already re-examining how they allocate money for public schools.

In broad terms, the political momentum going into next year's sessions has a clear direction: The GOP will control 30 legislatures, up from 27 before the midterm elections, compared with just 11 for Democrats, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL. (Eight legislatures are split.)

On the Horizon

New and re-elected governors and state education leaders will grapple with a range of heated issues as the 2015 legislative season gets underway. A few states to watch:

Arizona

Although state superintendent-elect Diane Douglas, a Republican and vocal opponent of the Common Core State Standards, can’t repeal the standards on her own, she’ll have a nominal ally in Republican Gov.-elect Doug Ducey, who has said the state should reconsider its relationship with the common core. Although the state recently announced that it had selected a common-core aligned test for 2014-15, Republican lawmakers who rejected anti-common-core bills in 2014 could change their minds next year.

Illinois

The state’s pension-overhaul law approved in 2013 was struck down last month by a state judge, and the case is now headed to the state Supreme Court. That could complicate matters as Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner pushes his own plan to alter pensions for public employees, which could draw vigorous opposition from Democrats in control of the legislature.

Michigan

Perhaps the highest-profile K-12 issue facing re-elected Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is how to deal with the Detroit school district. The city’s charter schools have been subject to intense scrutiny and criticism over the past year, while lawmakers could alter the Education Achievement Authority, the state-run district that operates several low-performing schools in the Motor City. The district has a $127 million budget deficit.

Oregon

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was re-elected last month, released an ambitious K-12 agenda for 2015 that includes additional resources for early education, early literacy, and English-language learners. The governor also wants more support for low-performing districts.

Wisconsin

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, fresh off re-election, has identified repeal of the common core, a new school accountability system, and expanding vouchers as priorities. His hand will be strengthened by Republican majorities in the state legislature that were increased as a result of the November elections.

The Nov. 4 elections gave the Republicans new, undivided power over legislative chambers in New Hampshire and West Virginia, while they took control of one chamber each in Colorado, Minnesota, and New Mexico.

The number of Republican governors will also rise next year, from 28 to 31, compared with 18 Democrats.

Testing Gets Scrutiny

Although GOP lawmakers in several states might push hard to expand choice and revamp education governance and spending, changes to assessment policies could attract significant bipartisan interest.

In Colorado, for example, a Standards and Assessment Task Force established through legislation this year is planning to make recommendations about statewide and local assessments by the end of January. A November study commissioned by the task force found that local assessments cost between $16 million and $25 million in the state annually, while statewide assessments cost between $45 million and $53 million, or roughly $70 to $90 per student.

And last month, members of the Colorado state school board called for a reduction in testing down to the minimum required by federal law. (Gov. John Hickenlooper is a Democrat, but control of the legislature is split between the parties.)

The ways states rethink their testing policies could take them in other directions. During its lame-duck legislative session last month, the Ohio House of Representatives passed legislation to cap the number of hours schools can spend administering standardized tests. "We might see more states pass time limits," said Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Issues include whether high-performing districts should be allowed to opt out of certain tests, and whether districts should be permitted to pick tests they believe are better than those aligned with the Common Core State Standards and being developed with federal money by two multistate consortia, said Michelle Exstrom, a program principal at the NCSL.

"We're really going to see how the states and the feds and the locals begin to move on the issue of assessment," she said.

Then there's the issue of whether states will seek to cut back testing programs below federal requirements in the No Child Left Behind law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and dare Washington to challenge them.

"I don't think we've seen anything that says a state is getting rid of summative statewide tests," said Lynn Jennings, a legislative-affairs associate with the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group. "But there is so much rhetoric going on about testing that it is something to keep an eye on."

States may also re-evaluate the extent to which standardized tests, and other measures, factor into their teacher evaluations, she added.

In some states, new curbs on testing could feed off a pushback to the common core—a state-led initiative with bipartisan support that has recently run into sharp opposition, especially on the political right.

Bills that would require states to ditch the common standards have already been filed for 2015 in South Dakota and Tennessee, both of which rejected anti-common-core legislation in their 2014 sessions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who was re-elected last month, has made repealing the common core a top priority for 2015. Arizona Gov.-elect Doug Ducey and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, both Republicans, have also expressed skepticism about or opposition to the standards.

Pushback to the common core could also surface in legislatures that have switched to Republican control, as in New Hampshire and West Virginia.

Outlook for School Finance

For fiscal 2015, the current budget year, 46 states raised spending on K-12 education, and the average increase was 4.6 percent after adjusting for inflation, said Dan Thatcher, a senior policy specialist at the NCSL who studies school finance. The number of states that choose to do so for fiscal 2016 should come close to that number, he said: "We'll probably see around 4.6 percent [growth] again, maybe higher."

This fiscal year, he said, education spending increases in many states were tied to rising student enrollment, as well as formulas that provide additional resources to traditionally disadvantaged groups, such as English-language learners, whose numbers have grown.

But not all states face a smooth path to more-robust school budgets.

Kansas lawmakers, for example, are still waiting for a state supreme court ruling in Gannon v. Kansas, a case about whether the state adequately funds its public schools. The decision, expected soon, could dramatically affect budget plans, at a time when most recent estimates put the fiscal 2015 budget deficit in the Sunflower State at $278 million.

Lawmakers in Washington state, meanwhile, were held in contempt by the state Supreme Court earlier this year over what the justices deemed to be insufficient effort by the legislature to increase K-12 spending following a 2012 court ruling. The court ordered legislators to substantially increase funding in 2015 or face sanctions. Last month, state voters approved Initiative 1351 to reduce class sizes, which Mr. Thatcher said might take pressure off the budget decisions facing Washington's legislature.

Nevada is poised to overhaul a school funding formula that hasn't been significantly altered in decades. Earlier this year, a legislative panel recommended that lawmakers change the formula in 2015 to focus more resources on English-language learners, a fast-rising group of students in Nevada.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a newly re-elected Republican, has pledged to revisit how money is spent on K-12, and the funding weights for different groups of students could change.

And after several years in which Pennsylvania failed to adhere to a K-12 funding formula, lawmakers continue to debate the basics of a new formula, even as Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has pledged a big school spending increase.

New Territory for Charters?

On a key aspect of school choice, charter schools, the new year could bring new state action.

Of the eight states without laws permitting charter schools, Alabama, Nebraska, and West Virginia are prime candidates to change their positions in 2015, said Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy at the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Discussions about allowing charters in Alabama have been getting prominent attention in recent months. In Nebraska, Republican Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts has expressed support for charters, as well as tuition vouchers. West Virginia Republicans who now control the legislature have previously pushed for a law authorizing charters, Mr. Ziebarth said. (Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, has expressed skepticism about charters in the past.)

Still, it's unclear to what extent elected officials' support for charters will translate into legislative success, Mr. Ziebarth said. For one thing, he said, "people overestimate the amount of support in the Republican Party for charters."

Related Blog

He also cited complicated politics in Massachusetts, which he named as the state where a charter school cap is likely restricting the most growth for charters. Gov.-elect Charlie Baker, a Republican, campaigned on lifting the cap, but Democrats who remain in control of the legislature declined to do so in the 2014 session.

One state where initiatives could bring together multiple policy strands, including charters, is Indiana. In addition to a plan to expand the role of charters, GOP Gov. Mike Pence announced a proposal last week to lift the statewide cap on funds available for vouchers, increase the state's base per-pupil spending level, and allow the state school board to elect its own chairperson.

The latter move would reduce the power of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who has often battled Gov. Pence and other GOP state leaders on education.

Vol. 34, Issue 14, Pages 1,19

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