School & District Management

Governors Push Hard on K-12 Agendas

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 27, 2012 6 min read
Lawmakers applaud Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal as he addresses the state legislature at the opening session in Baton Rouge. The Republican governor is pushing for changes to teacher tenure, expansions to charter schools, and school voucher programs, among other initiatives.
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As legislators push to wrap up business for their current sessions, governors in Louisiana, Maryland, South Dakota, and other states have sunk significant political capital into signature legislative and policy initiatives on a range of education issues, including teacher tenure and evaluation, education funding, and charter schools.

From a fight in Louisiana over Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposals to expand the role of charter schools and vouchers, to a new South Dakota law involving teacher evaluations, tenure, and bonuses, the governor-driven education legislation brings to mind last year’s raucous battles over collective bargaining that prominently featured governors in Ohio and Wisconsin.

The various proposals reflect governors’ growing desire to consolidate control over schools in their state, as well as a desire to implement advancements in research, said Richard Laine, the director of the education division of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.

“We’ve learned a lot more about the impact of quality teachers and quality leaders, so I think the policies you’re seeing are starting to reflect what the research shows,” said Mr. Laine.

In February, for example, the National Governors Association released a report that pointed out that states are still hampered by their limited capacity to measure student outcomes.

But those wary of the teacher-related measures, in particular, fear political and policy forces are uniting against them nationwide.

One example: the teacher evaluation bill passed in South Dakota, which had prominent backing from Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

“This was bigger than South Dakota,” said Sandy Arseneault, the president of the 7,000-member South Dakota Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association. “It is a national drive.”

Louisiana Skirmishes

In addition to the law enacted in South Dakota, which will eliminate state-backed teacher tenure in 2016, tenure is at issue in Louisiana, in a measure being pushed Gov. Jindal.

Under that proposal, teachers would not be eligible for tenure if they had not been rated as “highly effective” on the state’s performance-evaluation system for five consecutive years under the proposed law. The Louisiana bill also would make teachers paid with federal funds ineligible for tenure.

A separate bill in Louisiana also would significantly expand the playing field for both charter schools and voucher programs.

In addition to creating a scholarship fund for students to attend nonpublic schools, the measure would create a charter school Start-Up Loan Fund to encourage the development of charters. It also would require the state school board to set up a process for authorizing multiple charter schools from individual charter operators with a strong track record.

Education committees in both the House and Senate passed the charter and teacher-tenure bills. The House subsequently passed both bills.

Not surprisingly, teachers’ unions in Louisiana are protesting these legislative pushes, with Louisiana teachers even using a professional-development day to protest the measures.

Steve Monaghan, the president of the 21,000-member Louisiana Federation of Teachers, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, compared Mr. Jindal with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for his pugnacious approach toward education issues.

“I think after this session, there are going to be a number of legislators that are going to find themselves in a situation of recall,” Mr. Monaghan said.

Armed with a large re-election margin and Republican majorities in both the Louisiana House and Senate, Mr. Jindal has also taken advantage of popular (and union-free) charter school experiences in New Orleans in the school reorganization effort after Hurricane Katrina to build support for his initiatives, said Kevin Kane, the president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a conservative Louisiana think tank.

“These proposals are bolder than what had come before,” said Mr. Kane, who testified in the Louisiana House in favor of both bills.

In states such as Iowa and Connecticut, governors’ legislative packages are linked to their states’ waiver applications from the No Child Left Behind Act. Iowa’s application, for example, calls for legislation that would have to add a growth-model accountability system and create statewide teacher evaluations.

Backlash in Connecticut

But in Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has seen his own major education initiative stalled by state politics and a significant backlash from teachers.

The Democrat’s legislative package would create direct support for struggling schools with a Commissioner’s Network through which struggling schools could be managed by nonprofit groups and charter-school-management organizations. The number of slots open to new charter schools would also increase. (“Conn. Governor Eyes Aggressive Steps on Tenure, Low-Performing Schools,” February 22, 2012.)

The bill also seeks to boost the quality of teachers by requiring college graduates, for example, to have a B-plus average before enrolling in teacher-preparatory programs, instead of the current requirement of a B-minus. It also would tie tenure for teachers to specific ratings on a new evaluation system—one that includes student achievement—that was approved by the state school board in February.

The proposals have met with a hostile reaction from the Connecticut Education Association, an NEA affiliate, and some Democratic legislators.

The governor and his supporters “didn’t necessarily go as far as other states have gone because the teachers, the teachers’ unions, are so powerful here,” said Ben Zimmer, the executive director of the Connecticut Policy Institute, which backs significant changes to public schools. “They may have thought that doing that may have appeased the unions. But evidently it hasn’t.”

Pensions in Maryland

Maryland, meanwhile, is attempting to enact changes to teacher-pension obligations and local education funding in one legislative session.

In a move intended to address a structural budget deficit, Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, proposed shifting the cost of teacher pensions from the state’s books to counties, a move that would cost counties about $250 million in fiscal 2013. Counties would have to incorporate their share of pensions into education spending.

But Mr. O’Malley’s push for a pension shift sparked a response from the state’s school boards and others that the pension shift must be accompanied by other legislation that safeguards school funding at the local level. Under a separate bill making its way through the state legislature, counties would have to maintain per-student spending from year to year unless they receive a waiver from the state school board. Counties could override local property-tax caps to maintain spending on schools. But they could also be punished by having the state withhold tax revenues and other money due to them if they were to fail to maintain sufficient school spending, and redirect those revenues to county school boards.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Nancy J. King, indicated that the two issues started out separately this year, but legislators inevitably linked them together.

“We at the state level had to show that the pension costs could be shared and education could still have the funding that they needed to have,” she said.

Abstinence Measures

Around the nation, other prominent legislation this year has included abstinence-only sex education bills approved by lawmakers in Utah and Florida. However, Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican, subsequently vetoed the legislation in his state, arguing that it would have taken away the choice most parents now make of having their children receive information about—but not advocacy for—contraceptives.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as Governors Press Hard in Legislative K-12 Battles

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