‘No Child Left Behind’ to Test States’ Rookie Lawmakers

By John Gehring — December 04, 2002 6 min read

Call it the great brain drain.

Politics Page

When state lawmakers return to their capitals next month, many will do so without colleagues who for years took the lead on complex school funding issues, state testing systems, and teacher-quality initiatives.

Underscoring the challenge they face on school issues, at least a third of the education committee chairs will be new when legislative sessions begin early next year.

A mix of wide-scale redistricting and term limits has brought the most state legislative turnover ever. Every state legislative district in the country, with the exception of those in Maine and Montana, has been redrawn based on the 2000 U.S. Census. That process helped open the door for the departures of many incumbents.

In 11 states alone, meanwhile, about 350 legislators must step down because of term limits. The Michigan Senate, for example, lost 27 of its current 38 members to term limits. House members in Missouri lost about half their colleagues.

The absence of many veteran lawmakers, observers suggest, will leave a void not easily filled by eager, if untested, newcomers just as a new federal law—the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001—is raising the bar for states’ educational performance. In addition to requiring that students be tested annually in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and one year in high school, the law mandates that states break down test scores by demographic subgroups and show “adequate yearly progress” by students.

State legislators will be in the thick of debates over how their states should respond to the law’s demands.

The housecleaning caused by term limits is generally supported by voters weary of lawmakers growing too cozy in the corridors of power. But the turnover also means many battle- tested legislators who have forged important connections with education groups will be gone.

Some lawmakers and education observers say those losses will challenge legislatures to fill the vacuum in leadership.

“Turnover does make a huge difference,” said Jim Watts, who monitors education policy for the nonpartisan Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. “Legislators who have lengthy experience have been educated over time as to what state policies are working.”

The challenge now, he said, is fostering a new cadre of education leaders who bring fresh ideas while at the same time preserving what works. And state lawmakers, he added, will be figuring out how their states’ existing testing systems fit with the new federal education law’s accountability provisions.

“We have been traveling the road of accountability for some time,” Mr. Watts said. “It’s a question of fine- tuning. There is a lot of curiosity among state legislators as to how this is going to work.”

Federal Focus

But Julie Bell, the education program director for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, believes the demands of the new federal education legislation will help first-time lawmakers focus more specifically on education.

“An advantage is No Child Left Behind lands on legislators’ desks immediately, and in a way it will force legislators to immediately pay attention and get up to speed,” she argued.

Ms. Bell said her organization would be working closely with the lawmakers who serve on education committees.

“The learning curve is very big,” she said. “It’s the largest turnover we’ve ever seen.” The NCSL will hold workshops in Washington this month for lawmakers and their aides on what the federal law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, means for states. “Legislative staff become huge informational players,” she said. “They are the folks who have been around a long time.”

After two decades in the Arkansas legislature, Sen. Jodie Mahony was just term-limited out of the upper chamber, but won a seat in the House Nov. 5. He said that his state’s turnover leaves the Senate with 16 new members. And in Arkansas, where the legislature meets only for two months every other year, green lawmakers don’t have a lot of time to learn on the job.

Arkansas lawmakers will face an additional challenge this coming year responding to the state supreme court’s recent decision that declared the school funding system unconstitutional. (“Court Orders Arkansas to Fix K-12 Funding,” this issue.)

“We’re going to be a good case study,” Mr. Mahony said. “The new legislators we have seem plenty bright, but this experience thing is a real problem.” Mr. Mahony, a Democrat has served on education committees for much of his tenure He advises new lawmakers to listen and learn."You can’t learn in one day all you need to know,” he said. “The first thing I’d tell them is don’t make a commitment to anything until you have an opportunity to listen. As important as anything is listening to other legislators.”

Some analysts, though, don’t seem too concerned about the legislative changes.

“In the short run, I don’t think it makes much difference,” said James W. Guthrie, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy there. “States will be so swamped with fiscal issues that it wouldn’t matter if Horace Mann just came into office. He wouldn’t have a chance to do anything.”

A report released last week by the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Business Officers, both in Washington, noted that 23 states already expect to cut from their current budgets before the end of fiscal 2003.

Mr. Guthrie, who consults with the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies on a range of education issues, said that while some lawmakers ultimately become specialists in education, they are the exception.

Because legislators have to deal with a diverse range of issues, he said, they can’t possibly have the same level of information and responsibility as state school board members and staff members in state departments of education. “In education, most leadership comes out of the executive branch,” he said.

But Mr. Guthrie acknowledges that a growing number of lawmakers are more deeply involved with education issues, such as school finance or testing, than they have been in the past.

A few decades ago, he said, school funding was an “arcane endeavor” that only a few lawmakers dealt with in any detail. Not so today.

“State finance has moved out of some dull, boring backroom right into center stage,” Mr. Guthrie said. “Whether it be knowledge of testing or research, there is in a sense more technical knowledge to know today.”

‘Guns Ablazing’

Others worry that state lawmakers are at times becoming both rhetorically and legislatively too bold.

For Joseph Erickson, a professor of education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and a newly elected Minneapolis school board member, legislators often meddle too deeply in school issues they know little about.

“A lot of people in Minnesota ran on education issues, and one thing that constantly frustrates me is very often they know little about education,” said Mr. Erickson, a former high school teacher.

He said new lawmakers in particular are often so eager to get things done that they take on more than they can handle.

“There are a lot of folks who come in with guns ablazing,” he said. “They really don’t know what they are talking about.”

Michigan Rep. Wayne Kuipers agrees that lawmakers are often guilty of legislative overreach. The Republican head of the House education committee, who was term-limited out of that body but just won a seat in a state Senate, worries that legislative turnover in Michigan could erode local autonomy in school districts if new lawmakers take too aggressive a legislative role.

And all lawmakers, he pointed out, will have much to learn about the requirements of the new federal education law. With about 60 percent of the House members in Michigan new and 27 out of 38 state senators freshmen, the learning curve could be steep.

“There’s a lot of talk about it,” Mr. Kuipers said of the new law. “The biggest thing for us is what does our annual yearly assessment look like. We will have to fill in the blanks.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2002 edition of Education Week as ‘No Child Left Behind’ to Test States’ Rookie Lawmakers


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