Ed Week: State Legislatures Notch Major K-12 Policy Changes

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The frenetic legislative season now finished or wrapping up in many states has brought big changes to education policy, some forged through bipartisan compromise, others only after hyperpartisan battles.

Republican leaders who swept into office last fall—when the GOP won a majority of governorships and took control of both legislative chambers in 25 states—wasted no time pushing through ambitious and often controversial education agendas.

Their hardest-fought victories include the passage of laws that curb teachers’ collective bargaining rights and tie educators’ tenure, advancement, and pay to their performance, including their ability to improve student test scores.

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s successful push to strip teachers and most other public employees of many bargaining powers drew strong objections from Democrats and massive protests from teachers and other public workers, who took part in some of the largest demonstrations the state had seen since the Vietnam War. Similar Republican-backed laws that passed in Indiana, Ohio, and Idaho also drew major protests.

Yet many states, with much less fanfare, passed significant measures in areas including the creation or expansion of voucher programs, academic standards, teacher certification, and charter school expansion—in some cases with the backing of both major political parties.

“It’s pretty unprecedented, when you look at how much education legislation has been enacted around the country,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. “Rare is the state that was not legislating on education issues.”

Budget Backdrop

Lawmakers went to work during bleak financial conditions, with the vast majority of states facing budget shortfalls in the coming fiscal year. Some states responded by cutting money for K-12 education—which makes up a huge chunk of state budgets—while others protected school funding.

In some states, the impact of new laws may not be known for months. The Wisconsin, Ohio, and Idaho collective bargaining measures face challenges on a variety of legal and political fronts. And officials in many states confront difficult questions about crafting and implementing specific regulations to meet the broad requirements of new laws, particularly in areas like teacher evaluation.

More than half the states have completed or are scheduled to finish their regular legislative sessions by the end of this month, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Republicans emerged from the 2010 elections in control of 29 governors’ offices and of more state legislative seats than at any time since the Great Depression. Although education was not a dominant theme in either the state or federal races last year, numerous governors and lawmakers, upon taking office, unveiled proposals to bring dramatic changes to school policy.

The most contentious was almost certainly Gov. Walker’s plan to restrict collective bargaining by teachers and many other public employees to wage issues, rather than working conditions, and to limit wage increases. (“State-by-State Battle on Bargaining Rights Continuing to Unfold,” March 9, 2011.)

After a prolonged legislative standoff with Democratic state lawmakers, Republican Wisconsin legislators muscled the measure through, although a legal action filed by a county district attorney is challenging the legality of the procedure used to pass it.

Other measures that restricted teachers’ collective bargaining rights, such as an Idaho bill that became law last month, received less attention, despite their potentially broad impact. The Idaho law limits bargaining to wages and benefits, phases out tenure for teachers, and ties teacher evaluations to student performance.

It was part of a broader, three-part legislative package that changes school funding, links teachers’ and administrators’ pay to performance, and emphasizes virtual learning—moves that supporters say will help provide schools in the rural, Western state of 280,000 students with more stable financing.

“We had to act,” said Tom Luna, the Idaho state schools chief and a Republican, who backed the measures. “We couldn’t just sit back and have our education system collapse under its own weight.”

Unions’ Role in Debate

The Idaho Education Association, an affiliate of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, and individuals are making a push to collect enough signatures to have the measures placed on the state ballot in 2012, in the hope that voters will overturn them.

The whole process of promoting and approving the legislation “felt very degrading and dishonest,” said Sherri Wood, the president of the 13,000-member state teachers’ group. “Our hope is that … we can bring people to the table, including teachers, who know what’s needed to improve schools.”

Other states approved major education legislation with bipartisan support.

A measure in Illinois, which will link teacher tenure, advancement, and layoff policies to teacher performance rather than seniority, won overwhelming approval from both parties in the Democratic-controlled legislature. Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, has voiced support for the proposal.

The Illinois measure also won the backing of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association, although the Chicago Teachers Union withdrew its backing because of what it said were unacceptable changes made late in the bill’s passage through the Statehouse.

Nonetheless, the legislation won praise—including from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a former chief of the Chicago schools—as an example of unions’ willingness to collaborate with lawmakers from both parties in the name of school improvement.

Jonah Edelman, the chief executive officer of Stand for Children, an advocacy organization that backed the Illinois legislation and similar measures around the country, said passage of the Illinois proposal offers a far more useful blueprint to other states interested in making changes to teacher policy than do laws such as Wisconsin’s.

“There are some states where these reforms weren’t a particularly heavy lift,” Mr. Edelman said. By contrast, legislative efforts like the one in Democratic-dominated Illinois are “encouraging, because of their transferability to other states,” he said.

“Were these just about red states making reforms,” he said, “they wouldn’t be anything to write home about.”

Mr. Edelman and others said the momentum behind some of the state activity on improving teacher quality around the country could be traced to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which invited states to put forward plans to improve schools in exchange for a share of $4 billion in federal cash.

Illinois lawmakers last year approved a law that tied teachers’ and administrators’ evaluations to student performance. The recently approved measure is a logical extension of that law, Mr. Edelman said, because it links decisions about hiring, firing, and tenure to educators’ on-the-job ability.

Fiscal Squeeze

Forty-four states faced projected budget shortfalls for fiscal 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research organization, and those issues loomed over many of the policy decisions and political arguments this year.

Many new Republican governors, like Florida’s Rick Scott, were elected on promises to cut the size of government. Florida lawmakers have passed a $70 billion fiscal 2012 state budget, which the governor has yet to approve, that makes reductions across programs, including cuts of 8 percent to K-12 education, or roughly $540 per student.

Others states have sought to hold the line on school funding. California Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers agreed to a budget for next year that will keep state funding level, as they made deep cuts in other areas of government. But the state still faces a $10 billion projected budget shortfall. The governor, a Democrat elected last November, says the state will be forced to cut K-12 budgets unless voters are given the chance to support a series of tax increases and extensions. Republican lawmakers so far have refused to support that plan. (“Georgia Ruling Leaves Charters’ Fate Uncertain,” May 20, 2011.)

California and other states have seen an increase in tax revenues recently. But, overall, those cash infusions will do little to make up the vast ground states lost during the recent, deep recession, said Kim Rueben, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, in Washington. Total state revenues might not return to 2008 levels until 2013 or 2014, and as a result, school district face the potential for layoffs and program cuts over the next few years, she said.

Despite difficult conditions, a number of states also approved major changes to their systems of standards and testing. New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah approved policies that will assign schools letter grades of A to F, based on academic performance, a policy pioneered by Jeb Bush during his tenure as Florida’s governor.

State Rep. Dennis J. Roch, a Republican who helped craft the New Mexico legislation, said letter grades give parents much more digestible information on school performance than is offered through the labels assigned by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“No one, except people in academia, know what they mean,” Mr. Roch said of the federal descriptions. “Everyone knows what A through F means. They know it’s an authentic measure of what schools are doing.”


Republished with permission from Education Week. Copyright © 2011 Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. For more information, visit www.edweek.org.