The nation’s governors convened recently in Washington as the economic picture in their states gradually improves—and as state officials continue to debate how large or how small a role the federal government should have in shaping education policy.
Many state leaders attending the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association, long a high-profile political and policy event, said they were encouraged by the increased flow of revenues they’re seeing, which is almost certain to benefit schools.
States are crawling out of the “abyss” of the recent recession, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, told reporters at the meeting, held Feb. 24-27.
Not so long ago, “things were absolutely in free-fall,” Mr. Markell said. Now, he said, “I don’t think anybody’s feeling great, but I think we’re feeling better.”
The data support Gov. Markell’s optimism. State revenues have risen for seven straight quarters, according to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, a research center at the University of Albany, in New York.
And overall state general-fund spending is expected to rise by about 3 percent for fiscal 2012—a sharp turnaround from the dark days of the downturn, fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010, when that spending fell by 3.8 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively, according to a recent report by the NGA and the National Association of State Budget Officers.
States received significant help during the bleakest stretch of the recession and postrecession period from Congress and from the Obama administration. The 2009 economic-stimulus program poured billions of dollars into emergency aid to save school jobs and into education grants. States
and schools received another cash infusion later through the federal Education Jobs Fund. On the last day of the governors’ meeting, President Barack Obama met with governors and urged them to avoid making substantial cuts to K-12 and college programs, as some did during and since the recession.
Much of that money has been spent. But the federal influence has also been evident in many states that approved changes in teacher evaluation, charter school policy, data use, and other areas as they competed for money through the stimulus-funded Race to the Top competition.
The Obama administration has also encouraged states to participate in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, provided financial support for common tests, and made adoption of college- and career-readiness standards a condition of receiving waivers of certain No Child Left Behind Act provisions. Eleven states have received waivers so far; 26 more and the District of Columbia met a round-two deadline last week to apply for them.
Some state officials and other observers have said the conditions the administration has attached to states’ receipt of waivers are heavy-handed. Others, like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, and some lawmakers in that state, have raised objections to the common core, saying it could weaken schools’ say over curriculum.
“While I understand and agree with looking outside South Carolina for ideas to improve educational outcomes,” Gov. Haley wrote in a letter to a state legislator last month, “I firmly believe that our government and our people should retain as much local control over programs as possible.”
How Much Federal Sway?
At the NGA event, governors offered a range of opinions on the administration’s influence over state school policy.
Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, the Republican who chairs the NGA, acknowledged that the emergency aid has proved valuable, but he cautioned against any attempts by Washington policymakers to promote a single agenda across diverse states.
“It’s a limited role,” he said of federal involvement. “We appreciate the funding, but [there should be] as few strings attached as possible.”
Gov. Markell rejected any notion that the common-core standards had emanated from the federal government. He noted that the initiative had grown out of state-level work directed by the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington. Delaware is determined to raise its overall academic standards, even though it will result in new, tougher benchmarks for judging students and schools, he said.
“Our view was, a day of honesty was in order,” Mr. Markell said. “We knew there would be a lot of pushback.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, said he did not see evidence of federal overreach in the Obama administration’s education policies.
“We had that with No Child Left Behind, frankly,” Gov. Branstad said of the law crafted under the administration of President George W. Bush, a Republican. Iowa last week applied for a waiver of provisions in the decade-old federal law.
Mr. Branstad said Iowa, which long resisted state academic standards, would benefit from the common core, which it has adopted, as well as from other education policies he is backing this year.
“We were once best in America,” the governor said of Iowa’s schools. “Now, we’re middle of the pack. We’ve been complacent too long.”
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican whose state last year approved far-reaching policy changes to expand private school vouchers and public charter schools and overhaul teacher evaluation, said the Obama administration’s imprint on state education policy was political, not financial.
“The money and the carrots and so forth have probably helped,” Gov. Daniels said, “but if that went away tomorrow—and some of it will probably have to because the nation’s broke—they still would have made a great contribution, by simply telling the truth about failing schools, the inadequacy of teacher preparation.”
Having a Democratic administration promote charter schools and tie teacher evaluation to student performance, he said, “helped make a broader set of reforms respectable among a wider group of people.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Governors Cautiously Optimistic as Revenue Tide Begins to Rise