Governors, Legislators Face Music

By Sean Cavanagh — January 11, 2011 9 min read
Gov. Jerry Brown addresses the audience after he was sworn in last week as California's 39th governor. He also held the office from 1975 to 1983.
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Despite bleak fiscal conditions that could thwart some of their priorities, governors and state lawmakers—bolstered in some cases by new Republican majorities—are expected to press forward this year with ambitious education proposals that could include changing teacher job protections and expanding school choice.

Newly elected and returning officeholders go to work this month as states struggle to climb out of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, with many warning that K-12 education—historically shielded from the budget ax—is likely to face severe cuts.

While state tax revenues have improved somewhat recently, 15 states already have reported new budget shortfalls since the 2011 fiscal year began last summer, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And states are likely face continuing budget gaps over the next two years as well, according to the Denver-based research and policy organization.

Newly elected California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, already has warned school officials to expect deep reductions as his state tries to close a $28 billion, two-year deficit, out of a total yearly state budget of about $92.5 billion.

“This is really a huge challenge, unprecedented in my lifetime,” Mr. Brown said at a forum last month on education funding. The governor, 72, recently returned to the office he last held in 1983. “You’re looking at a lot of things that a lot of people care very deeply about, and very much depend on,” he added, “and those are the things that are going to be cut back, because we have no other choice.”

Midyear Cuts

California is hardly alone. So far in fiscal 2011, 13 states have made midyear budget cuts to K-12 schools, according to a recent survey by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers. Some elected officials argue that states and school districts will have to do more to justify spending, with little public money available in the years ahead.

Newly elected New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who projected his state’s deficit at $10 billion, last week proposed shifting a portion of state education spending away from formula funding for districts and creating a pair of $250 million competitions, to reward districts for academic improvement and cost savings, respectively.

“Competition works,” the Democratic governor said in a Jan. 5 speech to state lawmakers, adding: “When you just give people cash with no results, you take the incentives out of the system.”

At the same time, legislative sessions are convening during a period of rapid change in education policy at the state level, pushed along by forces that defy easy political categorization.

House Speaker John A. Boehner leads the GOP majority in that chamber of the 112th Congress.

Last year, legislatures in several states, including Colorado and Louisiana, approved potentially sweeping changes to teacher evaluation and other school policy areas with at least some degree of bipartisan support. And this year, Republicans and Democrats in several states have spoken in favor of making other potentially broad changes to teacher evaluation and tenure.

“We see people who really want to shake up the system,” said Julie Bell, the NCSL’s education program director, describing the mood in statehouses. “There’s an impatience with the way things are.”

The attitude among lawmakers in both major parties seems to be “we need better results,” she said. “Let’s experiment.”

The new sessions will play out in the wake of elections characterized by powerful anti-incumbent sentiment, which brought major turnover to governors’ offices and state legislatures—and historic gains for the Republican Party.

Before the fall elections, Democrats controlled a majority of governorships, 27, while the GOP was in charge of 23. On Nov. 2, voters upended that partisan split by electing Republican candidates to 29 governorships, leaving Democrats with 20, and choosing one Independent, former Republican Lincoln D. Chafee, in Rhode Island.

State legislative control also swung decisively to the Republicans. Heading into the elections, Democrats also held majorities in 60 state legislative chambers and Republicans controlled 36, with two chambers evenly split. Now, the gop controls 57 chambers, leaving just 39 to Democrats, with two split lawmaking bodies and a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature in Nebraska. Republicans now control both chambers in 25 states, 11 more than they had before the 2010 election, according to the NCSL, and they hold more state legislative seats nationwide than at any time since the late 1920s.

In some states, the emergence of new or stronger Republican majorities could embolden leaders to push for far-reaching policies in areas such as school choice and teacher evaluation.

Florida’s new governor, Republican Rick Scott, takes office with the GOP having built upon its majorities in both legislative chambers in November’s elections. Florida has long been a laboratory for voucher programs, and Mr. Scott’s transition team has called for a major expansion of those efforts. The team proposed creating “education savings accounts,” to provide taxpayer funding equal to 85 percent of traditional per-student aid to families to pay for a number of private-school options.

Mr. Scott has also voiced support for reviving a version of a bill approved last year that would have phased out teacher tenure for new hires and implemented merit pay, which was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican. That measure, Senate Bill 6, drew opposition from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, school district officials, and others who argued that it was rushed through the legislature with little input from the public.

Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican, favors a bill that addresses many of the goals of SB 6 but is also vetted by legislative committees, said his spokeswoman, Katie Betta. The speaker’s goal is to “move forward on how we want to reward our best teachers,” Ms. Betta said.

The FEA, which has 140,000 members, is wary of lawmakers’ claims that they will take a more inclusive approach to drafting another version of the bill. “Right now, everyone is playing nice,” said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow. “We expect to see the ‘Son of Senate Bill 6,’ or ‘Senate Bill 6.1,’ but we don’t know what form it will take.”

‘Flexibility and Authority’

In Indiana, where the GOP previously controlled one chamber but now controls both, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels has publicly backed a private-school-voucher system. Along with the state’s elected Republican superintendent of public instruction, Tony Bennett, the governor also has supported an agenda that includes performance pay for teachers and principals, charter school expansion, and allowing students who graduate early from high school to receive a college scholarship equal to the amount the state would have spent on them during their senior year.

The goal is “to provide flexibility and authority to local officials to operate in a highly accountable system,” Mr. Bennett said. “We have to approach this in a comprehensive nature. I’ve never been one to say it’s about school choice first, or it’s about teacher quality first.”

In other states, elected officials from both parties have shown an interest in tackling volatile issues.

In New Jersey, where Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat, held a hearing last month on making changes to the state’s system for granting tenure for teachers. Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has feuded with the New Jersey Education Association, has also called for changing tenure, saying the current system protects ineffective teachers and fails to reward talented ones.

Lawmakers are interested “supporting and respecting teachers across the board,” Ms. Ruiz said, but she added: “Something must change. Our students can’t wait any longer.”

For its part, the NJEA has suggested changing tenure rules to make the dismissal of ineffective teachers less costly and less time consuming, while also ensuring that educators are not pushed out without just cause.

In Illinois, lawmakers are also considering potentially big changes that would make it easier to fire ineffective teachers, fill new positions based on performance rather than seniority, and make it more difficult for teachers to strike. A pair of special, bipartisan committees that were created by Speaker of the House Michael Madigan and Senate President John J. Cullerton, both Democrats, are studying those issues.

Last year, state lawmakers approved a measure that ties teacher and principal evaluation more closely to student performance, a move that some lawmakers believed would help the state’s chances for winning some of the $4 billion in state grants under the federal Race to the Top competition—though Illinois was not named a winner.

Giving school districts more authority to hire and fire teachers based on performance is “the next logical step,” following last year’s law, said state Rep. Roger L. Eddy, a Republican, who co-chairs one of the special committees.

Balancing Interests

Mr. Eddy, who is also the superintendent of Hutsonville Community Unit School District 1 in eastern Illinois, said he wants lawmakers to craft a measure that is fair to teachers, when it comes to provisions dealing with strikes and other issues. But he also argues that while there have been relatively few teacher strikes in Illinois, threat of a walkout gives unions undue leeway in contract negotiations.

“We have to look at how we can improve the balance,” he said. “I don’t believe we have balance now.”

The Illinois Education Association has urged its members to become involved in the issue and to fight plans that would “diminish the collective bargaining rights of education employees,” according to a message on the union’s website.

Many new elected officials have pledged to reduce the costs of state pension plans, including those that cover teachers. A 2010 Pew Center on the States report estimated that states face $1 trillion in unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities, and a recent study by researchers at the University of Rochester and Northwestern University, which used a different methodology, puts states’ unfunded pension tab at $3 trillion.

During last year’s legislative sessions, 18 states either cut pension benefits or increased employee contributions in an effort to reduce liabilities, according to Pew.

One such state was New Jersey, where lawmakers approved changes last year to pensions and health care for teachers and other public workers aimed at bringing down state costs. The governor has called for lawmakers to take further steps this session to reduce state retirement expenses. New Jersey’s unfunded pension liability for its teachers’ retirement system stands at $24.5 billion; it is $54 billion for all state and local workers, combined.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, however, has said Mr. Christie should commit to having the state pay more than $500 million to help cover the state’s current retirement obligations, before the state makes more cuts.

Sen. Sweeney “is committed to working on further pension reforms, as that is what is needed to ensure workers who have been promised a pension get one,” said his spokesman, Derek Roseman, in a statement. But first, he added, the governor needs to “commit to paying the state’s long-overdue pension bill.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Governors, Legislators Face Music


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