Spring’s Coming Attractions—In the States, That Is

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, March 16, 2017

As winter draws to a close, officially anyway, a lot of education policy is happening in the nation’s capital. Within the last week, all three federal branches got into the act: the Senate prepared to join the House in voting to “disapprove” key Obama Administration regulations under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); the Trump Education Department issued new administrative guidance on ESSA accountability provisions; and the Supreme Court  returned a high-profile transgender rights appeal to the lower court without decision. Apart from the federal level, however, a recent report by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) presents, as its title suggests, “State of the State education policy trends.” The ECS analysis bears some attention, particularly in this season where ESSA has opened more space for individual state policy action while federal priorities and spending remain highly uncertain (compare here with here).

States of the States

The ECS report by Alyssa Rafa and Dave Rogowski is straightforwardly descriptive. The ECS for the past several years has tracked governors’ State of the State addresses, which are usually given around the time state legislative sessions begin in January and February. ECS policy researchers summarize and archive the texts to the extent each concerns education policy. They then look for common policy topics and proposals, which allows for counting and grouping states to identify broad categories of “emerging trends and priority issue areas.” The authors also selectively highlight those governors’ proposals they consider illustrative or otherwise noteworthy. The resulting report represents a more or less systematically derived starting point for following education policy issues during the legislative year, at least as framed by each governor in his/her political context.

When ECS released its report, 42 governors had given their respective speeches, from which the authors report the top seven education priorities in 2017. No surprise at the top: “At least 32 governors [76%] focused on improving K-12 education by increasing funding or changing funding strategies.” This year’s proposals around this perennial issue ranged from increases in overall education spending, to revising funding formulas to infrastructure investments.

Perhaps surprisingly in light of the new president’s and education secretary’s strong support, the seventh priority for state governors is school choice (10 states). Most of the governors highlighted in the choice area concern proposals involving education savings accounts. The middle five ECS categories are these: (2) “workforce development and career and technical education” (24 governors); (3) “teacher issues” such as recruitment, retention and compensation (17 governors); (4) “early learning (pre-kindergarten – third grade” (16 governors); (5) “postsecondary affordability” (15 governors); and (6) “technology,” such as providing high-speed internet expansion, especially in rural areas, and improving classroom technology (11 governors).

School finance really is number one. Virtually all the trends and priorities involve increases in, reallocations of, and struggles over money. As usual, the challenge for many states lies in somehow financing the desired level of state education aid, funding favored initiatives, and equitably distributing resources. The states of course vary widely in the particulars of their tax and funding structures, available revenues and competing expenditures—and that says nothing about the political interests, considerations, and processes that will ultimately determine the legislative outcomes in each.

 But Wait, There’s More

The ECS itself recognizes that not all states in each general category are equal when it comes to their political conflicts over education policy. In the always contentious school finance area, Education Week has reported (here and here) on no fewer than nine states facing their own funding formula challenges. Of these, one, Kansas, has to deal with a recent state Supreme Court’s ruling in a long-running school finance case (here and here). The court in its early March decision set June as the latest deadline for the state to fix a school finance system that still does not provide constitutionally adequate funding. State level litigation will likewise shape 2017 school funding legislation in Connecticut and New Jersey.

 

The story is similar in other ECS-identified priority areas. In the “teacher issue” category, for example, Governor Rick Scott has proposed ending Florida’s unique experiment of paying teachers bonuses based on their ACT and SAT scores with a new incentive program to attract teachers to the state. And, while school choice may rank last in the ECS report, Kentucky will likely make news as the 44th state to pass charter school authorization legislation. This comes with the elimination of long-standing Democratic opposition, since Republicans have taken full control of the state house and governor’s mansion. A new Democratic legislature in Nevada wants to largely undo a strong voucher program enacted by its predecessor, while in Texas, Indiana and Maryland, pro-voucher bills are moving forward (see here).

Stay Tuned

The current weather in much of the nation may seem willfully ignorant, but the vernal equinox is nigh. As more and more states finalize and submit their ESSA plans, and as state budget cycles start turning in earnest, stay tuned to the states as they step up their education policy-making.

Contact Dirk: zuschla2@msu.edu

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Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.