School Climate & Safety

No Election-Year Lull for State Lawmakers on K-12 Issues

By Daarel Burnette II — June 19, 2018 5 min read
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signs bills tightening gun restrictions in the Garden State, passed by lawmakers this year in the aftermath of deadly school shootings in Florida and Texas.
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During election years, governors and state legislators generally try to avoid pushing aggressive K-12 policy agendas.

It’s probably best, the thinking goes, not to rattle parents and teachers—a massive coalition of voters who, when it comes time to head to the polls, rarely forget.

But after a convulsive start to 2018 marked by school shootings, teacher strikes, and fiscal uncertainty in many states, legislatures stepped into high gear, scrapping governors’ budget proposals, scrambling to address school security, and—at breakneck speed—forking over generous pay raises to teachers.

“The big surprise this year was teacher compensation and school safety legislation,” said Daniel Thatcher, who analyzes K-12 legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Both became focal points this year for legislatures across the country.”

To date, all but 14 state legislative sessions have wrapped up business in a year when all but Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas were in session.

In Florida, where 17 students and teachers were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the state’s legislature passed a law that restricts who can buy guns, allows some employees to carry handguns in school, and expands school health services. New Jersey tightened existing gun statutes, and various states took steps that included adding school resource officers, paying for secure locks around schools, and requiring schools to do more frequent lockdown drills.

In Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, where teachers struck, legislatures levied new taxes in order to raise teacher pay in moves that ultimately will cost those states tens of millions of dollars.

Wave of Activity

Policy and budget analysts had predicted this year would be relatively calm in contrast to prior sessions because of election-year caution with the prospect of 36 governors and three-fourths of state legislative seats on the ballot this fall.

States also were coming off a busy 2017 legislative season on K-12 issues, spurred in part by efforts to remake school accountability and teacher-evaluation systems to take advantage of new flexibility under the Every Student Succeeds Act. State ESSA plans are set to go into effect this fall.

In addition, state tax revenue has stabilized for the most part after volatility that last year caused more than half the states to miss their revenue targets, which had a disproportionate effect on public schools.

“What we expect to see in most cases is for budgets to look somewhat similar to what governors originally proposed at the beginning of the session,” said Kathryn Vesey White, a senior policy analyst for the National Association of State Budget Officers.

But the tragic school shootings earlier this year and the wave of salary and funding-driven teacher activism put school issues back on the front burner.

In late February, teachers in West Virginia, upset over their pay and a series of other budget cuts to schools, went on strike. The legislature, though visibly irritated with the teachers, responded by giving them and other school employees 5 percent raises, a cost of $110 million a year.

That inspired teacher-led movements in other states including Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Raising teacher salaries is a politically and legally divisive process, legislatures in those states said during the protests.

State legislators must balance more money for teachers against competing financial pressures, including rising health-care and pension costs and fallout from tax cuts passed over the last decade in order to spur the economy back to life.

“When you’re talking about giving a raise to a workforce of that size, it’s going to require significant funding that’s phased in over several years,” White said.

While teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona received raises after changes were made to those states’ tax structure, teachers in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina lost the fight to get pay raises and avoid changes to their pension plans.

Other funding battles took place in the courts.

Washington’s supreme court earlier this month, for example, put an end to more than a decade of legal wrangling over how much the state should spend on public schools, finding that the legislature has complied with its 2012 ruling that the state must provide an adequate education to students.

Kansas’ legislature, on the other hand, risks for the second year in a row having its entire school system shut down by the state supreme court after it pledged to spend more than $500 million more on its schools over the next five years. That’s several hundred million dollars short of what plaintiffs in a long-standing school adequacy lawsuit have demanded. The court is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks.

School Safety Legislation

Teacher strikes shared the stage with student protests when in March tens of thousands of students across the country walked out of their classrooms in order to protest gun violence. Activists blamed a series of violent acts in schools across the country on lax gun-control laws and school security measures and demanded that state legislatures do something about it.

President Donald Trump, who convened a national task force chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, suggested teachers be armed in order to make schools safe.

In response to the high school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and in Sante Fe, Texas, more than 348 school safety bills were proposed, and 59 of those bills had been enacted into law as of June 11, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A law in Maryland, for example, will provide more than $10 million to, among other things, provide a school resource officer in every high school in the state. Similar laws were passed in Connecticut, Vermont, and Washington.

New Jersey was one of the few states, along with Florida, to enact substantive gun legislation. Garden State lawmakers passed a law that bars people who have tried to harm themselves from possessing guns, requires background checks for private gun purchases, and then asks buyers to provide the state with a “justifiable need” to get a carry permit.

“The majority of America’s youth know we need this change to survive in our own schools,” said Alfonso Calderon, a student from Stoneman Douglas, who was on stage with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey when he signed the bill last week.

Many of the battles over teacher pay and school safety are expected to spill over into this year’s midterm elections. More than 100 teachers have filed to run for legislative offices in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. And in Florida, the National Rifle Association has pledged to oust several legislators behind that state’s school safety law.

A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2018 edition of Education Week as No Election-Year Lull For State Lawmakers

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