Stateline Story

Education Reform Preoccupies Governors, Legislators

America's governors are sprinkling this year's State of the State speeches with phrases like "teacher quality," "exit exams" and other education buzz words, making them sound like so many schoolmasters.

"Improve Public Schools Now!" is the battle cry of virtually every state leader. Why? Because in the post-Industrial Age we live in, states compete in a knowledge-based economy, and the schools aren't producing workers with the skills required. Governors are feeling the heat from business leaders and parents, though this latter group is often conflicted about higher standards, especially when it's their kids who have trouble measuring up.

Dane Linn, Education Policy Studies Director of the National Governors Association, says: "The business community is playing a leading role in helping drive these education efforts. They have a vested interest" in having skilled employees.

What Governors Are Proposing:

  • "In the next eight years," Gov. Gray Davis told the California Legislature. "We must recruit and train more teachers than there were troops in the Allied forces that stormed Normandy on D-Day...we must not meet that demand by lowering standards or by sacrificing quality." Davis would offer up to $11,000 in forgivable college loans if a college-bound student agrees to teach in a school ranked in the bottom 50 percent. If the student graduates near the top of his or her high school class, he or she would be eligible for a $20,000 teaching fellowship. Davis would give current teachers $2,000 to become credentialed and add the further incentive of up to $10,000 in forgivable loans for a home down payment. Teachers with National Board certification would qualify for $30,000 loans.
  • "New York's destiny is being written in our schools, and its watchword is knowledge," Gov. George Pataki said. Pataki offered a five-point plan to attract new teachers and raise teacher quality in the schools. The plan proposes that the state pay college tuition for teaching candidates who promise to work in troubled schools and calls for college juniors to work as student mentors and classroom aides in city summer schools. Pataki would also recruit people working in other professions into the teacher workforce and he wants the legislature to provide more training and education for the 10,000 New York teachers who have failed the state certification test.
  • Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci gave his State of the State address at a public high school instead of the traditional Beacon Hill, and chose one in the working class town of Lowell where the state committed to spending more than $300 million to renovate or build schools. Cellucci zeroed in on math, emphasizing the need to improve student test scores. He has asked the Board of Education to set up teams to evaluate chronically failing schools. If the teams find schools where more than 30 percent of the students are failing math he wants to require the teachers to take a math test.
  • Ohio's Gov. Robert Taft shared the spotlight with a third grade student whom he invited to speak on the importance of reading programs. "My friends, we have entered an era where the future of our children is at stake. A good education is not just important; it's a matter of survival!“ he said. Taft emphasized the need to improve reading skills by the fourth grade and proposed deploying 12,000 literacy teachers. He also wants to give an optional practice reading test in the third grade. Taft plans to convene a Higher Education Reading Summit in the Spring.
  • Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes wants to abolish teacher tenure, increase testing, reward high-performing schools and teachers and cut class size in grades K-3. In 1988 Georgia ranked 27 in the nation in teacher-pupil ratio with one teacher for every 15.8 students. Barnes proposed signing bonuses for teachers in rural schools as well as for those who teach critical subjects, and he wants to allow students in chronically failing schools to be allowed to transfer to other public schools.
  • Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles is pushing a $550 million bond package for school construction to help reduce class-size and provide more after-school programs.
  • South Carolina's Jim Hodges praised ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers football star Jeff Davis, for encouraging African American men to become teachers in South Carolina and invited Davis' program, "Call Me Mister, " to share in a $1 million teacher recruitment programs.
  • "Lets look at additional school days, lower class-sizes, summer school courses and better teacher preparation," Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull urged her legislature. "I want to make sure that Arizona students graduate with a diploma that means something. There can be no excuses."
  • New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson made another push for school choice and vouchers. Last year, Johnson's voucher proposal failed in the legislature during a special session.

Making And Meeting Goals

Most states have been setting standards (benchmarks defining what they want students to know at what age) and developing tests to measure whether students are learning. But adhering to them is another matter in the face of a political outcry from parents whose kids are held back or required to attend summer school.

Wisconsin bowed to parental pressure last summer and nixed a graduation test for high school seniors. Virginia's dismal scores on its Standards of Learning exam led the Board of Education chief to suggest last week that he was open to relaxing the rule that requires every school to achieve a 70 percent pass rate to remain accredited.

New York and Massachusetts have been accused of lowering the passing grade students are expected to get on state tests.

Of the 49 states with standards in place, 14 were written in the last three years. Some parents and educators think states moved too quickly with standards without providing the resources needed to achieve them.

Tags: Education