K-12 a Key Topic for State Legislators as Sessions Gavel to a Start

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, kicks off the 2018 state legislative session, which once again will wrangle over school financing.
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, kicks off the 2018 state legislative session, which once again will wrangle over school financing.
—Thad Allton/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
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All but three states this year will be in full legislative swing by the end of this month, and education policy will be at the top of several governors' agendas—with election-year politics and the Every Student Succeeds Act hovering in the background as they go about their business.

More than three-fourths of state lawmakers nationwide are up for election this year, along with 36 governorships. And last year already had proved a hyperactive one for school officials and lobbyists with an interest in education issues, mostly as a result of the looming deadline for accountability plans under ESSA, which gives state legislators great leeway in crafting testing, school ranking, and school turnaround policies.

This year, states such as Kansas and Washington return to the challenge of formulating new ways to distribute money to schools, prompted by court rulings in some cases. States including Oklahoma and Wyoming also will be struggling to overcome big budget deficits, which could put pressure on education funding.

Debates over school accountability systems could flare up again, as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team continue to review and sign off on state ESSA plans.

Legislators in states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin took issue with the plans their state education departments turned in to the federal government and asked DeVos to reject them or threatened to introduce legislation to defang the plans before they could go into effect. Lobbyists in California and Florida are using recent feedback from DeVos as fuel to push those states' legislatures to rewrite their accountability systems.

School Report Cards

State education departments this spring also are drafting new report cards to better display how schools stack up on ESSA accountability systems. That process has proved to be especially contentious. Many state legislatures decided last year to switch from letter-grade-style report cards to dashboard-style report cards, which display several indicators.

In recent months, debates over the look and technicalities of school report cards have flared up between state superintendents, state boards, and legislatures in Alabama, California, Michigan, and Ohio.

"Ohio's school-report-card letter grades have become increasingly questionable, inconsistent, difficult to understand, frustrating for educators, and confusing for parents," Rep. Mike Duffey, a Republican, said in a memo to his House colleagues. He plans to propose legislation that would scrap the state department's current report-card design and get rid of state letter grades for schools.

A large number of states—at least seven—last year set up commissions to study new ways to distribute money among their schools. Those studies are past due in some cases.

States where revenue is heavily dependent on commodity prices, such as Alaska and Oklahoma, are looking for ways to cut school funding.

Meanwhile, Kansas and Washington are under court deadlines to come up with new funding formulas.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who could soon leave the state to work for President Donald Trump, tasked his legislature with coming up with $600 million but gave few clues as to where to find that money. He later said he expects the money to come from revenue growth.

"Kansans expect to see students in every school in our state thrive and achieve, particularly our students who the court cited as being inadequately served under our current funding," said Brownback in his state-of-the-state speech last week.

Election-Year Tensions

In a year when so many legislators are up for election, some legislative observers say it's not likely that they will attempt to propose especially controversial legislation or do something voters will remember when walking into the voting booth.

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But with DeVos placing school choice on the radar of so many voters, many Democrats plan to exploit moderate conservative voters' hostility toward charter schools and vouchers. That could affect how GOP legislators treat the issue during this year's session. Already, in Tennessee, Rep. Harry Brooks, a Republican who has been a leading voucher advocate in the state, has said he and his colleagues won't pursue voucher legislation this year and instead will focus on boosting teacher pay and school technology.

Severe teacher shortages in many states also have led to calls both from teachers' unions and from school accountability hawks for legislators to rethink their approaches to teacher certification, evaluations, and pay, with a mind toward making it easier to go into the profession. In states' ESSA plans, departments have been tasked with defining "ineffective teacher," setting off a debate in states such as California and Minnesota over what that should mean. Several states' plans were criticized for having insufficient definitions, and legislatures could end up weighing in.

Vol. 37, Issue 17, Page 24

Published in Print: January 17, 2018, as K-12 Key Topic for State Legislators
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