State lawmakers are keen to address narrow issues or challenges they see in the K-12 world in many instances, but they often don’t take the chance to enact sweeping education policy changes to drive school improvement and remove barriers to opportunity.
That’s the main conclusion in a policy report from the Center for Mental Health in Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles. “State Legislation to Address Barriers to Learning and Teaching: A Sample of 2018 Annual Summary Reports of Legislation for Prek Through High School” took a snapshot of legislative activity in 10 state education committees last year to determine trends about what bills focused on.
But it’s also important to highlight what can make such policy analyses difficult, and the various political and statutory environments that impact how state lawmakers operate.
For now, let’s look at the report’s criteria. In 10 states, the center looked at whether legislation addressed the following concerns (using the group’s own words):
- ending the marginalization of efforts to address barriers to learning and teaching
- minimizing fragmentation of interventions for learning, behavior, and emotional problems
- developing a unified, comprehensive, and equitable system of learning supports.
Overall, the center determined that “the body of legislation does not reflect a broad vision for school improvement nor an appreciation of the critical role addressing barriers to learning plays in enhancing equity at school” and elsewhere. “As long as this is the case, it seems unlikely that schools will play a sufficient role in reducing the opportunity and achievement gaps,” the report states.
The solution? The report’s authors say legislation to improve schools should include multiple components—they give a rough prototype for such legislation on page four. They also say lawmakers can at the very least hold hearings that address “barriers to learning and teaching.”
To be clear, it’s not that the researchers didn’t find any bills that address those three main issues in some way. Rather, they say, their concern is that they addressed them in a “narrow and highly delineated” fashion, and that lawmakers were being reactive instead of proactive. They also give examples of where states did attempt transformative legislation, such as 1999 and 2007 bills in Hawaii and California, respectively. And they examine the question of whether “transformation” can occur without legislation in Alabama, Louisiana, and Iowa.
What are some possible responses to the report or challenges with such research? Here are a few:
- Because of their broad scope, sweeping bills that address such fundamental education issues might by definition be fewer in number than bills tailored to address issues like corporal punishment, special education, and school start times in a piece-by-piece fashion.
- Not all legislatures meet in even-numbered years like 2018. And some states have standing interim or special committees that have looked at these education issues from a systems perspective; Idaho and Maryland are two such examples.
- Aside from a handful of past efforts, the report looks in-depth at only one year of state legislative activity. What might a five- or seven-year study of legislatures uncover? It’d be particularly interesting to see how states responded in the first few years after the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted, versus what they’ve done in the years since the Every Student Succeeds Act became law. Are some lawmakers fatigued, so to speak, after years of battling over testing and standards and evaluations?
- Legislation that addresses K-12 issues in a narrower fashion can be easier to implement. And it can be easier to create regulations for them. Such bills can also address individual topics in a more in-depth and multi-faceted way (although whether that ultimately helps schools and educators might depend on the topic, the approach, and input from educators).
- In at least some states, ESSA might have given state K-12 officials more leeway to remold their public schools in a way that leaves less running room for state lawmakers.
The authors studied and published findings on legislative activity in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Oregon, New York, Tennessee, and Washington.
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