With the curtain rising on what may prove a tumultuous state legislative season, 2017 could be a pivotal year for school funding formulas, accountability, teacher evaluations, and testing.
Skyrocketing K-12 education costs continue to dominate states’ budget debates, and conservative lawmakers in many states have long been itching to make dramatic changes to how much money they provide to school districts and how districts spend that money.
Adding to the stakes this year are the rollout of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which goes into full effect in the 2017-18 school year, and fierce political tensions in a number of states. Prime among them: North Carolina, where pitched partisan battles over who’s in charge of education policy could have long-term constitutional and political ramifications for district leaders.
All 50 legislatures will be in session this year, and Republicans now control both House and Senate chambers in 32 states, along with 32 governors’ seats. (Democrats have such legislative power in 13 states and they will hold 19 governor seats this year.)
But analysts say that while almost half the states are expected to have less money in their budgets this year due to shortfalls in sales tax revenue, that won’t necessarily end up penalizing education aid.
“If there’s an area that’s going to continue to get preferential treatment, it’s going to continue to be pre-K-12,” said John Hicks, the executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. “As states came out of the recession, K-12 education continues to be the recipient of the biggest share of any increased spending.”
Feeling the Pinch
While that may be true for many states this year, it’s not the case everywhere.
Legislatures in North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming will have to cut millions of dollars from their education budgets due to a plunge in coal and oil revenues, on which the states are heavily dependent. New Mexico’s legislature is considering allowing its school districts to pull millions of dollars from a special savings account to stave off anticipated revenue shortfalls. Oklahoma’s commissioner has proposed adding to that state’s education budget despite revenue shortfalls.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, wants to cut $20 million out of that state’s $4.1 billion education budget due to a revenue shortfall, but the state’s funding formula will force most of those cuts to come from wealthy districts. A state superior court judge ruled last September that Connecticut’s funding formula leaves poor, black, and Latino students trapped in underfunded schools that are disproportionately staffed with unqualified teachers. The state has appealed the decision, and the state’s supreme court is expected to hear the case in the coming months.
“Of course Connecticut should be spending lots of money on local education,” Malloy said during his State of the State address last week. “The question is, in a time of scarce state resources, are we spending this money in the best way possible?”
For Kansas and Washington, the bill is already past due.
In Kansas, where lawmakers are expected to replace the funding formula this session, the state supreme court last year threatened to shut down the state’s public schools after the legislature failed to more equitably distribute education dollars between wealthy and poor districts as determined in the 2015 Gannon v. Kansas ruling.
The court is expected to rule this year on a separate part of that lawsuit that addresses whether the state’s funding formula distributes an “adequate” amount of money. Losing that case could cost Kansas upward of $400 million, and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said he would have to raise taxes if the state loses. Brownback’s prior income tax cuts have plunged the state into a fiscal crisis.
Washington’s supreme court, which struck down the funding formula in its 2012 McCleary v. State of Washington ruling, is fining its state legislature $100,000 for every day it is in session and fails to come up with a way to increase its teacher pay.
Iowa and Delaware could also make big changes to their decades-old funding formulas during this year’s session because of already-filed or threatened lawsuits. Pennsylvania and Illinois are both dealing with ongoing budget issues that could affect their school funding.
The situation is slightly different in Georgia where Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican in his fifth year in office, will attempt to change the funding formula so that schools with more concentrated poverty get more money and offer incentives for schools to evaluate teachers based on test scores. Those changes were recommended by a panel he appointed last year.
Charters, Vouchers, and ESSA Plans
After an expensive ballot measure to expand charter schools in Massachusetts failed, many charter advocates are going the legislative route this year to try to expand school choice.
Kentucky’s legislature is expected to hear a bill to allow charter schools, a brewing fight that could have more legs this year now that both legislative chambers and the governor’s seat are controlled by Republicans after last year’s election.
And Maryland, Tennessee, and Texas lawmakers will again take up a push to allow for the use of vouchers in those states.
State legislatures also will be putting their stamp on the school accountability plans due to the federal government this year under Every Student Succeeds Act.
The new federal K-12 law, which gives states greater flexibility in shaping education policy, requires that legislators be consulted as states’ departments of education devise their plans, and governors are given 30 days to review the plans before they’re submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. (The clause was added in response to pitched battles over state superintendents’ decisions to adopt Common Core State Standards around five years ago without legislatures’ knowledge.)
States such as California, Nebraska, and North Dakota that never received waivers from provisions of ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, will see big changes this fall when ESSA goes into effect. And those states’ legislatures are expected to take up proposals from their education agencies that would usher in dramatically new school accountability systems and tactics to turn around failing schools.
North Carolina Turmoil
North Carolina is a special case of political dysfunction, with education issues among those in the crosshairs.
Local officials have fought with state officials over everything from school choice to teacher pay and transgender students’ access to public school restrooms.
Then, in a December special session, the GOP-dominated legislature and outgoing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory stripped the incoming governor, Democrat Roy Cooper, of many of his powers. That included limiting the ability of the state’s governor-appointed school board from hiring, firing, and managing department of education officials, and setting education policy in key areas.
The law, known as HB 17, instead hands those powers over to the state’s superintendent, recently elected Republican Mark Johnson. The state board sued and a judge put a temporary restraining order on the law going into effect.
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as School Funding, ESSA Hot Legislative Topics