Law & Courts

Budgets, Testing Commanded State Lawmakers’ Attention

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 07, 2015 7 min read
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, center, holds a signing ceremony in Las Vegas for a bill that allocates millions of dollars for low-performing schools in poor areas of the state.

State legislatures began their sessions this year as they did in 2011, on the heels of a year heavy on state elections—and victories by Republicans.

But for the most part, their recent K-12 action hasn’t set off shock waves the way Wisconsin lawmakers did four years ago when they and GOP Gov. Scott Walker curtailed collective bargaining for public school teachers and most other public employees.

Instead, legislatures continued to rebuild and revamp their K-12 budgets during a modest economic recovery, at the same time they re-examined how to deliver educational services and assess students’ performance.

As of early July, roughly 40 states had or were due to have adjourned their legislative sessions this year. Thirty legislatures are controlled by Republicans, compared with 11 controlled by Democrats and eight with divided power. One is nonpartisan.

Overall, the Common Core State Standards fared well despite ongoing political controversy, with no state voting to repeal them. However, federally funded tests that go along with those standards did less well.

Legislatures in Missouri and Maine voted to do away with the common-core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessment, while Ohio lawmakers did the same with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. The Louisiana legislature also voted to limit the share of test questions from PARCC on future exams.

And Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, drew headlines when she signed a bill granting parents the right to opt their children out of the state Smarter Balanced exam, despite a warning from the U.S. Department of Education that the measure endangered some federal aid.

Late last month, Delaware lawmakers approved a similar opt-out bill, and the legislation appeared to have garnered enough votes to override a veto by Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat who has opposed the bill.

Diverse Growth in Choice

As with 2014 sessions, legislators this year provided several boosts to school choice programs. In several states, parents will have access to new education savings accounts, or ESAs. In others, by contrast, state leaders will exercise more direct control over some local schools through new state-run districts.

“They can work hand in hand,” Adam Peshek, the state policy director of school choice for the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, said of the different policies. His group supports charter schools and private school choice.

“I don’t think they’re competing,” Peshek said. “I do think they’re trying to accomplish two different things fundamentally.”

Nevada made the most dramatic move to expand school choice by allowing all parents of public school students to use state K-12 funding toward private school tuition, homeschooling, and other expenses for nonpublic education.

In addition, Mississippi and Tennessee created new ESA programs specifically for special education students, bringing the total number of states with ESAs to five.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, vetoed a bill to create a similar program, although he did allow a bill creating tax-credit scholarships to become law without his signature. That brought the total number of states with tax-credit-scholarship programs to 16.

Texas lawmakers, meanwhile, again rejected bills to create the state’s first private-school-choice program, despite the efforts of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican and a former head of the Senate education committee.

In Arkansas, the legislature created a voucher program for special education students. And Alabama adopted a law in March permitting charter schools, becoming the 43rd state to do so.

State-Run Districts

At the same time, states are also showing an appetite for creating or expanding state-run districts to improve low-performing schools, like the existing turnaround districts in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Both Georgia and Nevada have created state-run districts this year. And Ohio has expanded the reach, and ability to authorize new charter schools, of its Academic Distress Commissions, which run struggling districts and have three of their five members appointed by state schools chief Richard A. Ross.

The ability of the nation’s 31 Republican governors to more directly boost the expansion of charter schools through these districts could explain some of their recent appeal, said Ronald W. Zimmer, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. But he stressed that state officials need to ensure these districts work with community members, such as engaged parents.

“All of this could create some tension at the grassroots level and at the state level,” said Mr. Zimmer, who studies school choice. “You really need to do the groundwork to create local buy-in in order for it to be successful.”

Path to Funding Formulas

In many states, the slow or moderate budget recovery for K-12 is continuing. Still, there are signs that the growth in spending on public schools might be a little more sluggish than last year’s.

A survey published last month by the National Association of State Budget Officers showed that during fiscal 2015, 16 states made midyear cuts to their spending on schools. Although the association projected a 3.1 percent increase in general fund spending for fiscal 2016, that’s below the 4.6 percent mark in fiscal 2015. The survey also notes more generally that education “spending pressures” often exceed state revenue growth.

“Are legislators trying to get funding back to 2008 levels, or are they trying to get increases [compared to the] past year? It seems like it’s the latter,” said Daniel Thatcher, a senior policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures who studies K-12 finance.

Two states seeking to revamp how they pay for schools have taken two different approaches.

Instead of adopting a new formula wholesale, Nevada is trying out categorical funding for low-income students and English-language learners to inform how the state ultimately retools its K-12 finance system.

“It allows us to calculate actual costs and not just draw on other states’ experience,” said state schools Superintendent Dale Erquiaga.

For the 2013-15 biennial budget, the state created a $50 million program (known as “Zoom Schools”) to target schools with high shares of ELLs. That program will now receive $100 million for the 2015-17 budget. It will also serve as the model for a new $50 million program for low-income students, called Victory Schools, for the 20 poorest ZIP codes in the state, from Las Vegas to schools on Native American reservations.

Pennsylvania took a different approach when a panel of state legislators proposed a new basic-education-funding formula that would direct additional aid to students from low-income backgrounds and those living in districts with high concentrations of poverty. Students attending charter and rural schools would also receive additional money.

Pennsylvania’s K-12 finance has relied heavily on local property taxes, and lawmakers have distributed state funding for years without a codified formula. The Republican lawmakers sent Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, a budget that included the new formula and made it effective immediately. But Gov. Wolf vetoed that budget, leaving the status of K-12 funding in the state up in the air as of late last week.

Keeping an Eye on the Courts

And then there are the education funding battles tinged with legal drama.Last week, after weeks of special legislative sessions, Washington state adopted a biennial 2015-17 budget that increased education spending by $1.3 billion for reductions in class sizes in K-3, an expansion of full-day kindergarten in the state, and other school services. But it’s unclear if that amount will pass muster with the state Supreme Court.

The court justices last year found the state in contempt for failing to adequately respond to its 2012 McCleary v. Washington ruling, which found the state to be underfunding public schools. The court agreed, however, to hold off on imposing any punishment until it could examine the state’s 2015-17 budget.

Proposals from Democrats and state Superintendent Randy Dorn would have provided bigger increases in K-12 spending.

Earlier this year, Kansas adopted a budget that replaced the state’s previous funding formula with a block grant for districts. Several large districts sued the state, however, contending that the switch to block grants would hurt poor and minority students.

A county district court panel sided with the districts in a ruling last month, although the state Supreme Court stayed the lower court’s ruling until it heard the case.

A separate case, Gannon v. Kansas, which deals with the overall adequacy of education funding, is still making its way through the courts.

A version of this article appeared in the July 08, 2015 edition of Education Week as Budgets, Testing Issues Took Legislative Stage

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