States

What 2024 Will Bring for K-12 Policy: 5 Issues to Watch

By Libby Stanford — December 29, 2023 7 min read
The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. President Joe Biden on Tuesday night will stand before a joint session of Congress for the first time since voters in the midterm elections handed control of the House to Republicans.
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Educators should expect debates over school choice, teacher pay measures, artificial intelligence, and standardized testing in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill in 2024.

Politicians and lawmakers used 2023 to set the course for 2024, a presidential election year when voters will most likely choose between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. For education policy, that meant more attention to conservative parents’ rights bills that often seek to limit how schools can teach about race, gender identity, and sexuality, and a push for raising teacher pay and improving student mental health.

Those topics will likely be at the forefront of education policy debates in 2024, too, especially in state houses and on local school boards. But education will likely not play a major role in the 2024 election as issues such as the economy, immigration, health care, and wars in the Middle East and Ukraine take precedence with voters.

Even so, 2024 will likely bring legislative changes that will affect schools in significant ways and the year will see some hot topics begin to cool off. Here are five issues educators will need to pay close attention to in the year ahead.

1. Private school choice to dominate legislative agendas again

The past year appeared to be a watershed for the private school choice movement. At least six states passed universal education savings account policies, which use public money to provide parents with a student’s per-pupil funds to pay for education expenses, including private school and homeschool costs.

While ESAs have been around for years, they’ve mostly been limited to students with disabilities or students in low-income families. The onset of universal ESAs opens the program up to all students regardless of their disability status or family income. Advocates say the savings accounts allow more students to have the ultimate personalized education experience, so they can learn in the environment that best works for them.

More states will likely try to pass universal ESAs or other similar policies in 2024, but the success in 2023 doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing, education policy experts have told Education Week. Voucher programs in several states, including Georgia and Texas, failed to pass in 2023, and public school advocates in Arkansas and Nebraska are working to collect signatures for referenda that would ask voters to reject newly passed private school choice programs in the 2024 election.

Some state officials, including Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, have warned that the cost of ESAs is growing far past initial projections. And critics of ESAs and vouchers argue the programs allow public funds to be spent on unregulated schools and don’t actually lead to improved academic performance.

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2. More attention to raising teacher pay

Lawmakers in at least 26 states introduced bills to raise teacher pay in 2023, according to FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank that tracks education policy.

Eleven of those bills have been signed into law in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington. The bills often have bipartisan support and signal that teacher pay could continue to be a priority in 2024.

In some states, however, teacher pay laws come with strings attached to other issues. In Arkansas, the state’s LEARNS Act raised the minimum salary for starting teachers from $35,000 to $50,000. The law also established funds for the state’s universal ESA program. At the time of its passing, teachers told Education Week they found it difficult to support a law that expanded private school choice even if it raised their pay.

It’s unlikely that teacher pay will gain any federal momentum in 2024 with a divided U.S. House and Senate. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Reps. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., introduced bills at the start of 2023 to incentivize states to raise teacher salaries to a $60,000 minimum. Neither of those bills have made it through the House or Senate, and Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chair of the House’s education committee, told Education Week that responding to teacher shortages is the responsibility of state and local governments, not congressional lawmakers.

3. Big questions and policy challenges over AI to continue

The introduction of generative artificial intelligence like ChatGPT was perhaps the most consequential development for schools in 2023. A year later, many educators and lawmakers are still unsure what to do about it.

Earlier this month, lawmakers in the U.S. House introduced the “Artificial Intelligence Literacy Act,” a bipartisan bill that would make it clear schools could use existing federal grants to support AI literacy, or the understanding of the basic principles of AI.

The next year will likely mean the introduction of similar bills as well as efforts to curb AI’s impact on society. The National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, has already delayed its upcoming writing exam to give researchers time to understand how AI will impact writing instruction in schools.

4. Less attention on curriculum and policies related to gender identity, sexuality, and race

Debates over curriculum and school policies related to gender identity, sexuality, race, and racism dominated education conversations in 2023, including among the field of Republican candidates for president who faced off in a series of debates.

Many conservative-led states enacted laws, often referred to as a parents’ bill of rights, that limit or prohibit teaching about sexuality and gender identity, require parent permission for student name or pronoun changes, and limit how teachers talk about the history of race and racism. Republicans in the U.S. House also passed a federal parents bill of rights, but it has not made it through the Senate.

Educators in states with the laws have said that their implementation has led to confusion and chaos in schools. In Florida, the education agency went back and forth with the College Board over whether the Advanced Placement Psychology course violated its state law because of mentions of gender identity and sexuality. In Indiana, parents had to seek approval for their students to be called common nicknames, such as Kate or Jim, to abide by a law intended to prevent schools from keeping students’ gender identities a secret by requiring parent approval for name and pronoun changes.

2024 may see less of a focus on the parents’ rights policies, especially as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has been the political face of these policies, fails to gain any serious momentum over Trump in the 2024 primary. Parents rights’ candidates also struggled to secure as many wins in 2023 school board elections as they did in 2022.

5. Rethinking measures of student success

Over the past year, state education leaders have taken steps to redefine what it means to be a successful graduate.

At least 17 states have adopted a portrait, or profile, of a graduate, a guiding document to define what characteristics or competencies make a successful student as they leave high school. In some states, the portraits have led to a more robust restructuring of the public education system.

This year, Wyoming became the final state to adopt a law allowing for competency-based learning, in which student progress is evaluated based on mastery of a subject rather than the amount of time a student spends in class. The state will be starting a pilot project to see if it would be possible to shift its education system to a competency model.

Other states have looked to change standardized testing practices. In August, Montana received a rare federal waiver to pilot a through-year testing model and, in Missouri, the state education department has given waivers to at least 20 districts to pilot through-year testing. State officials hope the testing model, in which students are given standardized exams multiple times throughout the year, will give teachers, school leaders, and policymakers a more accurate sense of students’ skills by not relying on an end-of-year exam that requires students to demonstrate everything they know at one moment in time.

The movement away from traditional seat time and standardized testing measures of performance will likely continue in 2024 as more states look to recover from pandemic-induced learning loss.

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