For more than a decade, state legislators say they’ve stood on the sidelines while their education departments followed the federal government’s blueprint in rolling out demanding accountability systems.
So legislators let out a collective sigh of relief when President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act last month. The first new version of the nation’s main K-12 law since 2002 rolls back the direct federal role in improving student outcomes and hands much of that power to governors and legislatures.
And with the 2016 state legislative season about to begin in 46 states, lawmakers throughout the country will be looking closely at that opening as they wrestle with a range of K-12 issues, from academic standards and teacher evaluations to testing and the turnaround of low-performing schools.
With their legislative sessions about to launch, state lawmakers nationwide are taking aim at a range of education-related issues. Among the hotspots of expected activity and the forces behind it:
(Wyoming, Alaska, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Dakota, West Virginia)
Several states that have tied their education funding to coal and oil revenue have in recent years dipped into their slush funds to avoid education cuts as oil prices have plunged and the coal industry has largely collapsed. But now those coffers are emptying and state officials will have to decide whether to raise taxes or send down cuts to school districts.
While most states regularly make periodic adjustments to their funding formulas that determine how they distribute state education dollars among districts, some are scrapping their school funding formula wholesale or making significant changes.
Washington: The state’s supreme court is fining it $100,000 a day until the legislature can figure out a more equitable way to fund the school system.
Kansas: Legislators last session ditched the state’s funding formula in response to a lawsuit and replaced it with temporary block grants until it comes up with a new formula. The governor has said he wants the legislature to put those grants into a permanent formula but stopped short of saying block grants are a long-term solution.
Delaware: A special commission is expected to deliver to the state’s board of education a report that will recommend fundamental changes to the state’s funding formula, which has gone largely unchanged since the early 1940s. The state faces a $100 million deficit this year.
Nebraska: A legislative committee recommended in December several changes to the state’s funding formula after farmers and ranchers complained about soaring property taxes. Several legislators have already proposed new bills.
Montana: A legislative commission is reviewing ways to address several funding issues brought to the state in a 2005 lawsuit and could make recommendations as soon as 2017.
(Oklahoma, Indiana, Wisconsin, and California)
Several states are struggling to recruit and retain teachers, resulting in thousands of students stuck with long-term substitute teachers. Lawmakers in some places have discussed easing demands on their teachers by tweaking certification requirements or making wholesale changes to teacher evaluations.
At least 16 states’ legislatures created assessment task forces in 2015 to make recommendations on what tests should be used to measure how well their students grasped learning standards. Legislators in Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Tennessee are expected to debate those recommendations in 2016.
Sources: Education Commission of the States; National Conference of State Legislatures
“Legislators are super-excited,” said Michelle Exstrom, the education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “They’ve been asking for a decade for some of these changes, and they have been very frustrated that we’ve been limping along with the [No Child Left Behind Act] waiver system that enticed states to put in place policies they wouldn’t put in place otherwise.”
At the same time, many states will have more locally specific concerns to address, such as reversing teacher-staffing shortages, fixing school funding formulas that courts have deemed unfair, and, in a handful of cases, cutting state money bound for school districts’ budgets.
“We need to take a step back and look at what we’re doing well and what we’re not doing so well,” said Alice Hanlon Peisch, a Massachusetts state representative who chairs that state legislature’s joint education committee.
Most states are currently operating on yearlong waivers from the NCLB law, the previous version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Those waivers are set to expire in August under ESSA, the new version of the law.
Because ESSA was passed so late in 2015, observers say many legislators will use the next few months pulling together task forces to study what flexibility they have and where constituents want to make adjustments. ESSA will take full effect in the 2017-18 school year.
“I’m not anticipating that they’ll start passing legislation in the new year,” said Jennifer Thomsen, a policy researcher for the Education Commission of the States. “It’s so new, a lot of them are still sort of digesting it.”
There have been tensions in the past between state and local officials on who calls the shots on education policy. While district advocates expect a move away from a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach to improving schools, they encourage state legislators to include them in the conversation when making policy.
“This can’t be just a check-the-box mentality, that we had a meeting,” said Tom Gentzel, the executive director of the National School Boards Association. “We’re going to be looking for and promoting meaningful and substantive consultation with state and local officials. This model is one that can spur innovation and collaboration at the local level.”
With state waivers, the federal Education Department required states to design plans to turn around their worst-performing schools and include test scores in teachers’ evaluations.
In 2015, four states—Arkansas, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania—laid the groundwork for state-run districts to turn around low-performing schools. But districts will have more power under ESSA to design their own turnaround models. Several urban districts will be lobbying their legislatures to roll back punitive turnaround measures.
Separately, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, said last month that he would be willing to abolish that state’s controversial state-run district if the legislature adopts his proposed turnaround model.
On the teacher-evaluation front, teachers’ unions nationally have complained for years that test scores are not accurate reflections of a teacher’s abilities.
A task force in New York recently recommended that the state place a four-year moratorium on factoring tests into teachers’ evaluations. The state board of regents followed suit, and The New York Times has reported that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who once advocated that scores be incorporated into evaluations, could call on the legislature to permanently decouple evaluations from state tests.
And South Carolina’s state superintendent, Molly Spearman, proposed late last month that teachers be judged on incremental tests taken throughout the year rather than one end-of-year test, the Associated Press reported—a response, Spearman said, to the passage of ESSA.
Legislators in California, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin are studying ways to pacify anxious teachers who are leaving the classrooms in droves, causing staffing shortages.
“The researchers say there’s no silver bullet in fixing teacher shortages,” the NCSL’s Exstrom said. “One area that kept coming back over and over is that teacher working conditions have to be steadied. We have to understand what makes teachers leave.”
Testing, Standards Showdowns
Lawmakers in states such as Colorado and New York will be looking to quell opt-out movements led by parents who are demanding fewer high-stakes tests.
At least 16 state task forces that convened in 2015 recommended that legislatures make dramatic changes to the tests they give and how often they give them.
Massachusetts’ board of education decided in November to mix its state assessments with questions from PARCC and local standards, a move Peisch said the legislature will review this session.
“We have not completely abandoned common core,” she said.
Indiana replaced PARCC last school year with its homemade ISTEP exams, but several district superintendents called the scores “botched.” After an Indianapolis Star investigation revealed a possible testing glitch, House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, said he will push to scrap the test this year.
While states will still be forced to track how well minority and disabled students perform on tests, states can now determine how much to factor those scores into school, district, and teacher assessments. That has civil rights organizations on edge.
“I’m excited about states having more autonomy, but we need to make sure we don’t move backward,” said Joyce Elliott, a former NCSL education chairwoman and an Arkansas representative who is leading a task force to study new indicators to measure.
At least 19 states are in the process of reviewing their state standards after parent advocates complained that their common-core standards were not locally designed. Oklahoma is in the process of a full rewrite. And in West Virginia, legislators said they would review recently passed standards to make sure they are different from common-core standards.
Education takes up a lot of states’ budgets, and with 30 of the 50 statehouses controlled by Republicans, many of them looking to cut taxes in 2016, school funding will likely dominate the discussion in many capitols.
In Pennsylvania, GOP legislators and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf were still struggling to hammer out a long-overdue budget for the current fiscal year—a standoff that’s lasted since July and has districts taking hundreds of millions of dollars out in emergency loans and, in some cases, laying off staff.
Several oil-dependent states, such as Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas, last year dipped into reserve funds to avoid cuts to their education departments. But many of those funding pools are now empty, and with tax revenues off because the oil industry is still hurting, legislators in Louisiana and Oklahoma will have to decide whether to make cuts or raise taxes.
A recently released study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a center-left think tank, says at least half the states still provide less education funding than they did in 2008, before the recession took hold.
And a handful of states will look to make major changes to their school funding formulas.
On the legal front, Washington and Kansas are still attempting to answer their state supreme courts’ demands to craft a new funding formula after districts there successfully sued. Washington is being fined $100,000 a day by its state supreme court until it can come up with a new formula.
In Delaware, Montana, and Nebraska, task forces recently recommended drastic changes to their funding formulas to more equitably distribute state funding.
The fiscal picture is not all gloomy, however.
One standout example: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, proposed in December adding $1 billion to the state’s $17 billion K-12 and higher education budget, in part to hire at least 2,500 new school teachers.
“Overall … it’s going to be a good year, not a great year,” said Michael Griffith, who tracks school finance at the Education Commission of the States. “For the rest of the states, you’re going to see increases in spending in education. The question is how much is it going to be?”
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2016 edition of Education Week as New K-12 Law Adds to Buzz as State Legislatures Set to Convene