State Lawmakers Tackle Broad Basket of Issues on Parent Checklist
Safety, data privacy draw fresh attention
School security, the charter school sector, and student-data privacy were among the issues of interest to parents that drew significant attention from state lawmakers in this year's legislative sessions, the majority of which have now wrapped up for 2019.
Among the highlights, with at least 42 legislatures either adjourned or set to adjourn by the end of June:
• Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in May signed a bill allowing trained, screened public school teachers to be armed in the classroom. The new law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, expands the state's so-called "Guardian program," which was enacted in 2018 in response to the fatal shootings of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last year.
• Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill this month that removes caps on the number of school personnel who can serve as armed marshals at any school through the state's school marshal program. That program was enacted after 10 people died in shootings at Santa Fe High School near Houston in 2018.
• California, which as of last week continued to wrestle with a package of bills aimed at reining in the state's charter schools and checking the expansion of that sector.
• New Mexico, where lawmakers sought—but failed—to put a moratorium on charters and to impose an enrollment cap on them.
• Montana, where lawmakers passed a bill to govern the activities of third-party internet service providers to protect students' personal information online.
Wide Range of Bills
But the sheer range of bills—and the fact that parents are far from uniform in their own policy prescriptions for the issues facing public education—make any single scorecard for legislation elusive.
The National PTA, which describes itself as the nation's largest volunteer child-advocacy association, with more than 4 million members, focuses its legislative activity at the national level, including on issues such as federal funding for family engagement. That leaves it to state-level organizations to grapple with the specifics of proposals that can vary widely from state to state.
School safety is a prime example.
The Education Commission of the States reports that 396 bills concerning school safety were introduced this year across 47 states, and 65 of them were enacted. Many of those bills, 153, included provisions related to emergency preparedness. That covers such factors as building security and safety drills. More than 30 of them had been signed into law as of late last week.
About a third of the school safety bills introduced dealt with school resource officers, and 88 of them related to guns in schools. Among those signed into law were a bill allowing private or religious schools to employ armed guards in Virginia, and New Mexico legislation designating that only local school boards can authorize law-enforcement officers to carry guns on campus.
"With the number of unfortunate incidents that have happened in recent years, state leaders are starting to see that they can take a role in addressing school security, and I think this year you've seen such a variety of approaches because states are still wrestling with what approach they should take," said Zeke Perez Jr., an analyst with ECS.
He flagged Florida's law as the broadest enacted so far this year.
"That one really encapsulates a lot of the different efforts that states are taking," said Perez. "It provides training to district personnel on conducting building safety and risk assessments. It has statements related to school safety plans, and those are many of the key components of [legislation] across the country."
In the area of charter schools, ECS was tracking more than 400 bills this year.
He points to actions taken in Florida, Idaho, Tennessee, and Utah as encouraging signs for supporters of charter schools. In Florida, lawmakers provided more funding for charters this year, and Tennessee legislators created a new statewide panel to hear appeals for those denied charter approval.
But Ziebarth argues the outlook isn't as rosy for charter supporters in Illinois and California with new governors that are not thought to be as supportive of charters as their predecessors.
"Charter school opponents for years have been introducing bills to put moratoriums and caps in place to reduce the number of authorizers, to change funding mechanisms to reduce money that goes to charter schools," said Ziebarth. "What's different this year is the political context in these states is different now."
He described the situation in California as particularly troubling for charter advocates. Lawmakers there were considering bills that would, among other things, cap the number of charter schools at current levels starting next year and eliminate the ability of charter schools to appeal to state and county authorizers petition denials by districts.
"These bills are not only a threat to new schools that might open up, but they're a threat to existing schools that might be facing closure now irrespective of their performance," said Ziebarth. "That's very concerning, and we're hopeful that we'll see a bipartisan coalition of legislators in one or both chambers that step up and defeat these bills or then the governor steps up and vetoes these bills if they get to him."
The California State PTA has a policy of supporting school choice, but the advocacy group's director of legislation, Lea Darrah, also said the PTA supports bills that would make sure that charter schools operate on a level playing field with traditional public schools.
"We would expect them to have the same amount of oversight as the traditional public school," said Darrah. "The bills that we did support were bills that were requiring similar oversight. They were not allowing loopholes that traditional schools cannot take advantage of."
In New Mexico, where a proposed charter moratorium and enrollment cap failed, the state affiliate of the National Education Association supported that effort. But Charles Goodmacher, the union's government and media relations director, said its focus wasn't really on charters this year.
"We did wind up with an overall increase in funding for the public schools of 16 percent overall, and teacher salaries went way up," said Goodmacher. "We were fighting bigger-picture fights this year."
And Goodmacher stressed that the gains in those areas will benefit charter school teachers as well. Lawmakers did adjust a funding formula to prevent some charters from getting more funding than many traditional public schools.
"We're very happy that the community schools are getting more funding and attention in our state, which we think should actually alleviate some of the demand that arises for charter schools in the communities where there is a community school," he said.
Data and Privacy
While it's certainly not as controversial as arming teachers or regulating charter schools, lawmakers around the country also continue to try to figure out how best to protect students' private information online.
The Data Quality Campaign, a national nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy group focused on the use of student data in education, reports that more than 300 bills had been introduced in 46 states that deal with how education data are utilized. Of those, 50 were student-data-privacy bills, and nine of them had been passed as of this month.
That's a smaller number of bills dealing with student data than the group has tracked in the past, however.
"It's not because states think privacy is any less important," said Taryn Hochleitner, a senior associate with the group's policy and advocacy team. "Already, 43 states have [put] student-data-privacy laws on the books just in the last couple of years, so we think where states are really focused now is on the implementation piece of really creating these new student-data-privacy policies at the state level."
Those laws tend to fall under one of two camps. They either regulate the data practices at the state or local level or they regulate the activities of internet-service providers.
Even though protecting students' digital privacy tends to have bipartisan support, there have been debates over issues such as the role of service providers in data privacy and the extent of parents' rights in consenting to have data shared, said Hochleitner. "There are smaller debates within the broader privacy conversation that maybe make the legislation move a little bit slower, even though I think people generally are on board with the importance of protecting privacy," she said.
Vol. 38, Issue 36, Pages 15, 17Published in Print: June 19, 2019, as State Legislators Tackle Broad Basket of Issues On Parents' Checklist