Ambitious Legislative Agendas Move Ahead

By Michele McNeil — April 10, 2007 7 min read
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Months after laying out plans for new education programs and more money for public schools, policymakers in several states have begun to deliver during their 2007 legislative sessions, passing bills to expand prekindergarten, improve children’s health care, and raise high school graduation requirements.

With most states now past the midway points of their legislative sessions—and 19 scheduled to wrap up by the end of this month—two already have enacted record-setting school funding increases. The Mississippi and New York legislatures each passed a budget boosting K-12 spending by 9 percent for 2007-08.

But other education initiatives, including teacher merit pay and vaccination of preteens for human papillomavirus, or HPV, have received a more mixed reception. As the legislative calendar begins to run out, this is the time when the grand proposals touted earlier in the year intersect with the politics of the legislative process.

“With any issue, it seems to take two or three cycles before an idea gains traction,” said Scott R. Jensen, the national consultant for state projects for the Washington-based Alliance for School Choice, which scored a big victory this year when the Utah legislature approved a statewide, publicly financed program to provide private school vouchers. (“Utah’s Broad Voucher Plan Would Break New Ground,” Feb. 14, 2007.)

The decisions come at a time when states, though enjoying a fairly robust economy, expect revenue to grow more slowly than last year. The political landscape also is different in light of last November’s elections: Democrats now control a majority of governors’ mansions and hold both statehouse chambers in 23 states. Eleven governors are new to the job. (“States to Weigh Education, Fiscal Priorities,” Dec. 20, 2006.)

Already, some proposals have hit roadblocks because of squabbles over money.

In Oklahoma, Democratic Gov. Brad Henry was so dissatisfied with the budget legislators handed him—particularly because it didn’t spend enough on education—that he vetoed it, a move that is forcing lawmakers to rethink their spending plan. In Indiana and Oregon, proposals to raise cigarette taxes to expand health insurance for low-income children have hit resistance, in part because of questions over how new money would be spent.

Other proposals have foundered over ideological differences. A plan to expand prekindergarten to all of South Carolina’s 4-year-olds, for example, is mired in a fight over school vouchers.

Pre-K Debates

The vehemence of such debates illustrates the central role that states, and particularly legislatures, play in education policy, even as Congress begins to consider reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“My belief is that every decision [on education reform] has come from an elected official,” said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat, who is now the president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that works to improve high schools. “Whether you’re deciding to ratify a curriculum change or where to allocated precious dollars, that decision is made by elected officials.”

One of the highest priorities for governors and legislators alike is expanding prekindergarten programs, especially for children in poverty.

Over the past two years, states have put $1 billion into prekindergarten programs, and that amount will grow, said Stephanie B. Rubin, the state-program director for the Washington-based advocacy group Pre-K Now. The list of states that this year have approved such spending increases, or are considering them, includes Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, and Tennessee.

But not all states are aboard the prekindergarten bandwagon. In Idaho, which has wrapped up its legislative session, the Senate passed a bill to lower the school entrance age to 4—only to see the House reject it and declare, in a nonbinding resolution, that the state shouldn’t be involved in prekindergarten and instead should work to help parents help their children.

While many states start by implementing pre-K for children from low-income families, some move on to make the programs available to all children, said Kathy Patterson, the group’s federal-policy director.

“It’s an economic boon,” Ms. Patterson argued. “The more kids you serve well, the more savings you have down the road.”

That’s the same rationale behind the idea of increasing the number of low-income children who receive taxpayer-subsidized health care. California, New York, and Ohio are among the states with proposals to expand children’s health-insurance programs; Washington state already has done so.

School Choice

Though Utah’s new voucher program will go down as the year’s biggest victory for school choice supporters, advocates point to incremental progress in other states.

New Mexico and Virginia saw private-school-choice bills pass either one or both chambers, said Mr. Jensen of the school choice alliance. Georgia is debating vouchers for special-needs children. The South Carolina legislature debated—but didn’t approve—tax credits or vouchers to parents to help pay for private school tuition.

Midterm Report Card

As many states wrap up their 2007 legislative sessions in the coming weeks, a number of key education issues have emerged.

• Iowa is considering spending $60 million over four years to phase in prekindergarten for 90 percent of 4-year-olds.
• The Arkansas legislature approved an increase of $40 million for preschool programs.
• In Illinois, the first state to have voluntary prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, is pushing for $60 million to continue funding it.

• New York’s just-passed fiscal 2007-08 budget gives schools an extra 9 percent, $1.76 billion, over the previous year. New York City will get $715 million of that new money. The deal also raises the cap on charter schools to 200 from 100.
• Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, vetoed much of the budget sent to him, in part because he said the legislature didn’t provide enough for K-12 education.
• Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, wants to increase the cigarette tax by 40 cents and use most of the proceeds for public schools.

• The Florida legislature, with the support of Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, revised the state’s teacher-merit-pay program to give school districts more control over which teachers get the raises, and to make student performance on standardized tests less of a factor in allocating them.
• Across-the-board teacher-salary increases are being debated in North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Michael F. Easley wants a 5 percent increase, and in Iowa, where the legislature is debating an average annual increase of $2,000.

• New Mexico increased graduation requirements to four years of math from three years, and to three years of science from two.
• Colorado defeated legislation that would have required high school students to take more math and science.
• In her budget address, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, called on the legislature to increase the number of math and science classes, and institute a high school exit exam.

• The Washington legislature approved an expansion of children’s health insurance to cover those whose families earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
• Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, issued an executive order requiring 6th grade girls to be vaccinated against the virus that can cause cervical cancer; however, the legislature is likely to overturn his mandate.
• New Mexico and Virginia have passed legislation requiring middle-school-age girls to get the cervical-cancer vaccine, which protects against strains of the human papillomavirus. The legislation later raised concerns from governors in both states.

• Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, called on the legislature to eliminate a voucher program for students in struggling schools and to halt any new charter schools.
• Utah approved the nation’s first universal voucher program, which would give students statewide up to $3,000 a year toward private school tuition. Opponents are trying to overturn the new law.

SOURCE: Education Week

But the school choice movement also took a step backward in Ohio, where freshman Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, wants to repeal a voucher program for students in struggling schools. He also wants to place a moratorium on charter schools.

States have taken vastly different stances on the issue of charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely independent of the regular school system. New York, in the recently approved budget, doubled the cap on such schools, from 100 to 200. But in Minnesota, like Ohio, a proposal is pending to place a moratorium on new charter schools.

Teacher compensation is also an area that’s run into some legislative back-pedaling.

The Texas House last month voted to repeal a merit-pay program the legislature approved last year, in favor of using the money for across-the-board teacher raises. Florida this year retooled its system of performance-based pay, enacted under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, to give school districts more control over who gets raises, and to place less emphasis on students’ test scores. (“Legislature Votes to Replace Merit-Pay System in Florida,” March 28, 2007.)

And that’s the trend in many states—to spend money on raises for all teachers, rather than for top performers. Iowa, for example, is considering a measure that would give teachers an average pay hike next year of $2,000.

In many cases, the fate of policy proposals is bound up with decisions about overall spending.

One of the biggest school funding transformations occurred in New York state, which radically changed how much money districts get, how the additional money is given to schools, and how schools are held accountable for spending it and showing academic results.

Under a budget deal reached April 1 by first-year Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, and top lawmakers, schools will get an additional $1.76 billion, or a 9 percent increase, in 2007-08 over the previous year. About $715 million of that will be directed to the New York City public schools.

“That’s a huge amount of money. That’s historic,” said Geri D. Palast, the executive director of the New York City-based Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which successfully waged a 13-year court battle to get more money for the 1.1 million-student district.

The budget deal also requires failing districts that receive at least a 10 percent increase in their school aid to sign a “contract for excellence” with the state. Those districts would agree to use the money on approved educational strategies, such as smaller class sizes, and to show improvement in student achievement.

Ohio’s budget situation isn’t so rosy, and its lawmakers are struggling with how to fix the state’s school finance system, which has been deemed unconstitutional four times by the Ohio Supreme Court. The biggest problem, said Sen. Joy Padgett, the chairwoman of her chamber’s education committee and a former teacher, is Ohio’s languishing economy.

“The way we’re going to resolve this problem,” said Ms. Padgett, a Republican, “is with a booming economy.”

High School Changes

Lawmakers in a number of states are concentrating on student achievement at the high school level, with varying results.

South Dakota, for example, raised the mandatory school attendance age to 18. New Mexico also raised its attendance age—and was part of a push to stiffen the academic requirements for graduation, mandating three years of science, instead of two, and four years of math instead of three.

But Colorado lawmakers balked at requiring more math and science for graduates. (“Colo. Rejects More Math, Science Requisites,” April 4, 2007.)

Amid all the talk of budgets and high school redesign, some states also are turning to improving standards and literacy instruction in the middle grades so students are better prepared for high school.

Gale F. Gaines, the vice president for state services for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, pointed to Delaware, which is putting math specialists in middle schools, and Georgia, which is considering placing graduation coaches, now only in high schools, in middle schools too.

“You can’t drop a student into a rigorous high school curriculum,” she said, “if they haven’t had that preparation.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2007 edition of Education Week as Ambitious Legislative Agendas Move Ahead


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