State lawmakers continue to grapple with high-profile K-12 issues as legislative sessions approach or cross the finish line nationwide. School choice, school safety, and education funding are prominent among them.
No single issue dominated legislatures this year, although some policy patterns have emerged.
Proponents of vouchers and tax credits for private school tuition, for example, have experienced a largely uphill battle in statehouses. Many states continue to sort out details of complicated changes to school finance, including a focus on the needs of disadvantaged students and performance on tests.
The possibility of teacher pay raises is also on the horizon in at least two states.
And despite setbacks in two Southern states for efforts to force withdrawal from the Common Core State Standards, bills that would do so are alive in three states in the Midwest.
All 50 states convened their legislatures this year.
‘Terrified of a Mouse’
Compared with the last two years of statehouse activity, school choice advocates have less to celebrate so far in 2013, said Matthew Ladner, the senior adviser for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a policy and advocacy group based in Tallahassee, Fla., that supports vouchers.
One of the biggest setbacks for choice proponents occurred in Texas, where the House of Representatives voted 103-43 earlier this month to effectively ban vouchers and tax-credit scholarships. The vote was a rebuke to Republicans like Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Dan Patrick, the chairman of his chamber’s education committee, who has introduced a tax-credit-scholarship bill and held a hearing on it last week despite the House vote.
Mr. Ladner said the failure of tax-credit scholarships and vouchers can be attributed, in part, to rural districts’ decision to frighten Texas House members into believing that vouchers and the tax credits are a dire threat to those districts’ financial lifeblood, even as Texas public school enrollment steadily grows.
“They have pulled off a framing of the issue that reminds me of the cartoonish elephant that was terrified of a mouse,” he said.
The news hasn’t been entirely dour for school choice: A tax-credit-scholarship plan was approved in Alabama after a brief but vigorous court challenge.
But in Wisconsin, GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s push to expand the state’s voucher program has run into resistance from some of his Republican allies in the legislature. And Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, another Republican, withdrew his voucher proposal this month.
Christina Brey, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a state teachers’ union with about 72,000 members, ascribed much of the pushback against vouchers in her state to superintendents and school board members and lauded their advocacy.
In contrast to two years ago, when Gov. Walker successfully pushed to cut collective bargaining rights for teachers as part of an effort to slash the state budget, she said, the conversation in Wisconsin has turned to the state’s $1.3 billion surplus.
“We’ve seen Senate GOP leadership saying school funding to public schools needs to be addressed,” Ms. Brey said.
Not so, says state Sen. Glenn Grothman, a Republican and assistant majority leader who wants tax breaks for private-school tuition as a compliment to Mr. Walker’s voucher plan. “Scott Walker is doing nothing to help parents whose children don’t go to schools in certain cities,” he said.
One of the most ambitious efforts to recast K-12 finance is under way in Colorado, where a plan that aims to help districts with low levels of property wealth, but high concentrations of low-income students and English-language-learners, has cleared one key legislative hurdle with just under a month to go in the 2013 session.
The plan, proposed by Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat and a Teach For America alumnus, would require the state to provide a higher share of education funding for districts with high enrollments of low-income and English-language-learner students, and would also provide funds to help districts address major K-12 policy changes passed three years ago.
Mr. Johnston, who represents the Denver area, has said that the plan, which passed the Senate this month, would stop rewarding districts with relatively high costs of living and would instead focus on students who need more academic help.
But the plan would require a tax increase of about $1 billion, and therefore under state law must be passed as a ballot measure.
Republicans have complained the bill is unfriendly to charters and would ultimately be a major tax hike. All GOP senators voted against it, but Democrats control the legislature.
One open question is the extent to which Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who is up for re-election in 2014, would actively campaign for the proposed tax increase even if he signs Mr. Johnston’s bill, said Jane Urschel, the deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.
It’s also unclear how, or whether, the state supreme court, which is considering a K-12 funding lawsuit, Lobato v. Colorado, would let the bill’s progress affect its own decisionmaking.
Noting that the state’s last K-12 finance overhaul was in 1988, Mr. Urschel added: “The current school finance act just isn’t aligned with any of the reforms that have been passed in the state, or any of the reforms passed by Congress.”
In a similar vein, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, wants districts with more than 50 percent of their enrollments consisting of English-learners and low-income students to receive additional per-student state aid, up to $2,600 for each student that puts them over the 50 percent threshold.
But a general appetite in California for higher school funding—in the wake of the ballot-box victory last fall for Proposition 30, which boosted support for K-12 through tax increases—hasn’t meant universal acclaim for Mr. Brown’s plan.
For example, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Oakland-based advocacy group Education Trust-West have said the plan should be strengthened to ensure that more state aid translates to more targeted help for students.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office, for example, says that the plan would allow for the new funds to be used on broad teacher pay raises, and that this “does not result in additional services for the students with additional needs who generated the additional funding.”
In Maryland, in a move to both maintain existing schools and open new ones in the Baltimore city district, the legislature approved a plan to allow $1.1 billion in bonds for capital spending. Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso praised the state’s emphasis on “modernized school buildings.”
Arizona lawmakers are considering a very different plan. Under a bill backed by Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, the state would allocate $54 million for fiscal 2014 (and more in future years) to reward districts whose students perform well on standardized tests. The fiscal 2014 amount would include $18 million in reallocated funds from basic K-12 aid.
But the proposal has drawn criticism. “For most students, performance funding favors wealthier local education agencies,” argue David R. Garcia, a professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and Anabel Aportela, the director of research and evaluation at the Center for Student Achievement, a program of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, in a report on the proposal.
Raises for Teachers?
The mechanics of education finance play a big role in an Iowa bill that focuses heavily on teacher pay and professional development, areas that have received relatively less attention in state capitals than in past years.
Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, has been pushing for increased teacher pay this year as part of broader changes to the teaching profession that he is seeking. State senators want to raise the minimum starting teacher salary from $28,000 to $35,000; their House counterparts want a raise to $32,000.
“The House is really mostly focused on accountability, the Senate is more focused on the dollars,” said Mike Cormack, the policy liaison at the Iowa education department.
In Florida, a call by Gov. Rick Scott to increase teacher pay by $2,500 has met with agreement from fellow Republicans in control of the legislature—up to a point.
The House budget proposal for fiscal 2014, for example, includes a $676 million pot that districts could use to negotiate pay increases if they chose. Speaker of the House Will Weatherford is also advocating that some of that money to be used for performance pay.
Bills to require states to drop the common-core standards in English/language arts and math have recently failed in Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas at various legislative stages.
However, the battle to stop the standards continues in Indiana, where Sen. Scott Schneider, a Republican, is overseeing two bills that would halt further implementation of the standards pending public hearings this summer.
Mr. Schneider said he hopes the previous opposition by first-year Gov. Mike Pence to the federal No Child Left Behind Act as a member of Congress will lead him to approve an anti-common-core bill that reaches his desk.
“He shares concerns about intrusion, federal involvement in states’ education matters,” Mr. Schneider said of the Republican governor.
Although creation of the common core was led by groups representing state leaders, the Obama administration has encouraged adoption of the standards and provided federal aid for developing related tests.
Bills opposed to the common core are also alive in the Michigan and Missouri legislatures. (The Missouri legislature adjourns May 30, but Michigan doesn’t have a scheduled final day for its regular session.)
Divergent Paths on Safety
Following the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., in December, hundreds of bills related to school security have been introduced in legislatures around the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
So far, South Dakota is the only state since the Newtown shootings to approve legislation that allows districts to arm school employees, including teachers.
But Florida, Indiana, Texas, and others are considering allowing or increasing the presence of armed school employees, security personnel, or law enforcement.
Marc Egan, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said lawmakers in 27 states have introduced bills that would allow school personnel other than school resource officers to be armed, although those bills may not get far, he added.
“Most of the [bills] around arming personnel in schools seem to be dying on the vine or outright rejected,” Mr. Egan said.
In Connecticut itself, meanwhile, lawmakers passed new restrictions on firearms that include strict limits on the size of magazines for semiautomatic weapons like the kind used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
They also revived the state’s competitive-grant program for school security, and required state agencies to jointly develop new standards for school building security by the start of 2014.
Similarly, in New York state, new “school security improvement teams” will work with districts to improve emergency procedures.
Virginia and Arkansas have also mandated new assessments and procedures for security.