Policy, Fiscal Challenges Confront State Officials

By Sean Cavanagh — January 04, 2011 10 min read
Governor Jerry Brown addresses the audience after he was sworn-in as California's 39th Governor in Sacramento, Calif. on Jan. 3. Brown has warned school officials to expect deep reductions as the state struggles with a $28 billion two-year deficit.
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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 insulated 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 fiscal 2011 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.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, a newly inaugurated 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 at the University of California, Los Angeles. The governor, 72, is returning 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.”

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.

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.

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.”

Election Aftershocks

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 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.

In Florida, incoming Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, 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 public funding for private school choice, through an approach described as “education savings accounts.” Those accounts would provide taxpayer funding of up to 85 percent of traditional per-student aid to families to pay for private school tuition, as well as for private tutoring and virtual education services, among other options.

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

The state’s speaker of the House, Republican Dean Cannon, would like to see 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 last month.

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. The FEA is an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

“Right now, everyone is playing nice,” said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow. “Everybody’s saying they want to gather input. ...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 said publicly that he would like lawmakers to approve a private-school-voucher system. Along with the state’s elected Republican superintendent of public instruction, Tony Bennett, the governor also has backed 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.

“We have to have the courage to provide flexibility and authority to local officials to operate in a highly accountable system,” Mr. Bennett, who also supports vouchers, said in an interview. “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 thorny 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, a major focus of many elected officials and school reform advocates across the country recently. Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has feuded with the New Jersey Education Association, has also called for changing tenure provisions, saying the current system protects ineffective teachers and fails to reward talented ones.

“If we all come together and coalesce, ... we can make dramatic, positive change,” Ms. Ruiz said at the hearing. While she spoke of “supporting and respecting teachers across the board,” she added: “Something must change. Our students can’t wait any longer.”

The NJEA has said the state should consider some changes to tenure rules, which would make the dismissal of ineffective teachers less costly and less time consuming. But it also has said the process must ensure that teachers are not pushed out unfairly, or 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, Illinois 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. Illinois was not named a winner, but it was one of at least 34 states to approve new education laws or policies as a result of the Race to the Top, according to the Obama administration, which initiated the competition.

Following up on that legislative effort by giving school districts more authority to hire and fire teachers based on performance is “the next logical step,” 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 the legislature to approve legislation that is fair to teachers, and he predicted that any proposals that emerge from his committee’s work will go through several iterations, when it comes to provisions dealing with strikes and other issues. While Mr. Eddy said there have been relatively few teacher strikes in Illinois, he also believes the 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 voiced concerns about such a proposal, telling its members in a statement on its website that they should “insist that the voices of Illinois teachers be heard in this process,” and fight plans that would “diminish the collective bargaining rights of education employees.”

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 tabs 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, and in 2009, 11 made similar changes.

One such state was New Jersey, where lawmakers approved a proposal, signed by Mr. Christie, that increased required contributions and cut some benefits, including those of teachers, and was designed to reduce the state’s pension and health-care 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, according to recent estimates.

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 Policy, Fiscal Challenges Confront State Officials


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