Stateline Story

Education Remains Top Item For State Legislators

Improving US public education was a top priority for state governments last year, and is again in 2001. The issue was a major focus of nearly every governor's state of the state address, and at least 6,000 school-related bills were introduced in state legislatures. "Education is such a major political issue right now. Every governor wants to be the education governor and every president wants to be the education president - the rhetoric at the federal level is unlike anything we have ever seen before. And the American pubic is ranking it (the issue) as number 1, too,"says Julie Bell, who heads the education department of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Several states put in place notable new policies last year, California and New Jersey chief among them. These were some of the year's highlights:

  • California passed a landmark school aid package that guarantees every student in the state with good grades a chance to attend college and also provides funds to recruit teachers and reduce class size. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis made the plan the number one item on his legislative agenda, and some experts call it the most ambitious education reform measure in the nation.

  • New Jersey embarked on a $12 billion school construction plan under the leadership of Republican Gov. Christie Todd Whitman. The money will be awarded over ten years. Lawmakers approved the bill in response to a court order to repair school buildings in 30 needy districts. Then the legislature went beyond the order, making aid available to all districts regardless of wealth.

  • Delaware Gov. Tom Carper signed a teacher accountability law that he had urged lawmakers to pass for the last two years. The comprehensive plan relaxes testing demands on students, but it doesn't let teachers off the hook. Instead of punishing or rewarding students for their performance, the law makes teachers accountable by linking their job evaluation to student scores. It includes a teacher-mentoring program that enlists veteran teachers to help rookies. (KANSAS, which has a similar program, decided to give mentor teachers a $1,000 pay bonus this year.)

  • Voters in Michigan and California rejected school voucher initiatives financed by wealthy conservatives that would have entitled parents of students in failing schools to send their children elsewhere at full or partial state expense. Teacher unions opposed the plans. A federal court in Cleveland struck down that Ohio city's five-year-old voucher plan, but Florida's statewide program -- the only one of its kind in the country -- continued to operate despite a legal challenge. In 2001, however, there will be no new vouchers awarded in Florida.

  • Colorado and Georgia passed education reform bills that impose higher standards and require more accountability. Colorado's law focuses on grading the performance of schools and tying rewards and sanctions to the rankings. Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes pushed his reforms through the legislature despite the resistance of education unions, parents and activists. Some of his proposals will increase testing, reward high-performing schools, cut class-size for grades K-3, and set up an office of accountability to monitor reforms. The most controversial aspect of Barnes' plan ends teacher tenure. Every state except Georgia has teacher tenure laws.

  • Texas saw its chief measure of student achievement, the Texas test, upheld in court. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund had sued to overturn it, arguing that the exam discriminates against minority students. U.S. District Judge Edward Prado disagreed, backing the state's right to set education policies if they are fair and improve education. His decision was watched across the states as governors and lawmakers brace for more lawsuits against their newly developed tests.

  • Arizona voters opted to end bilingual education. A ballot initiative passed in November requires an immersion curriculum for public school students in the state who speak English as a second language. Education experts believe the move could start a trend.

  • Maine Gov. Angus King continued to try and bring every seventh grader in the state a laptop computer. Pennsylvania lawmakers considered creating an online charter school and other states put money into technology for their schools. Universities also expanded online efforts, many offering distance learning programs over the Internet. Yale, Stanford, Oxford and Princeton universities joined forces to offer alumni online continuing education classes.

    Improving Public Education

    Throughout the states, phase II of the standards-based reform movement kicked into high gear as legislators debated how to make schools accountable, what types of tests to use and what rewards and sanctions should be placed on student performance. Debate also swirled around how to fund schools and what is an "adequate" education. Most states require by law that students receive an "adequate" education, but lawmakers are struggling to define what that means before the courts do.

    All but one state, Iowa, has adopted standards that define what a student should learn at each grade level. Twenty-four states impose an exit exam that students must pass to graduate, according to Achieve, Inc. a nonprofit organization that tracks progress on standards-based reforms.

    The standards movement started out slowly, with only 14 states signed on in 1996, but it has gained remarkable momentum and is starting to effect the way schools are governed. Education Commission on the States' (ECS) Clearinghouse Director, Kathy Christie says school board control of schools is giving way in some large urban districts to the mayor or an appointed CEO.

    Lawmakers and state education departments are asking themselves tough questions about governance, such as: "How can we improve school boards or change the governance system so that school boards can play a role? Should the mayor have some control, or all of the control? Should there be a different form of governance for under-performing schools? Should state superintendents be appointed or elected?" Christie told Stateline.org.

    Lawmakers Dogged By Quality Teacher Deficit

    Spurred by the need to raise the quality of teaching to meet higher standards and faced with a declining teaching force, which is rapidly shrinking because of retirements, cuts in class size and rising enrollments, lawmakers placed greater emphasis on teacher recruitment and training in 2000.

    Twenty states now offer bonus pay, sometimes in the form of signing bonuses, but also for mentoring new teachers or getting students to perform well on tests. Some 2000 highlights:

  • Connecticut and New York raised teacher salaries and threw in home loan and tuition reimbursement enticements.

  • Because of the high cost of living in Northern California, the San Francisco school system is providing housing for teachers.

  • California approved a substantial pay raise for teachers.

  • Maryland, Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Colorado, Indiana and Nebraska approved packages that included teacher pay raises and college scholarship programs for would-be teachers. Many of these programs target teaching candidates who will commit to working in low-performing schools.

  • Georgia passed a law that gives teachers willing to work in rural schools signing bonuses. The state also put more money into professional development opportunities.

  • New York's $25 million "Teachers of Tomorrow Act" gives teachers with three years experience who are willing to work in impoverished schools or can teach subjects in shortage areas (math, science and computers) a $3400 bonus.

    Becky Fleischauer, a spokesperson for the National Education Association (NEA), a 2.5 million member strong teacher union, is not surprised by the flurry of legislation to make the teaching profession more attractive.

    "Standards-based reforms involves investing. State legislatures are realizing that you have to do more than just raise the bar and teacher quality is certainly part of helping all kids reach high standards," she says.

    Reducing class-size is another strategy states are employing to help students meet more rigorous academic standards. But employing this policy at the same time that student rolls are bursting can cause massive shortages, as California has learned.

    It needs 300,000 more instructors by 2010. Yet former California Gov. Pete Wilson signed class-size reduction legislation before leaving office two years ago which stretched the state's existing teaching force to the limit and left 30 percent of new teachers practicing on emergency credentials.

    The Fresno Bee newspaper did an analysis of the 1999-2000 school year showing that one in seven elementary school teachers in California worked without credentials last year compared to 1 in 63 the year before Wilson signed the law. Reporters also found that poor students were five times more likely than better-off kids to have a teacher without credentials.

    The preceding was excerpted from the education chapter of "State of the States 2000," our annual report on state policy highlights. To obtai8n your free copy of this 56-page book, email your postal mailing address to managingeditor@stateline.org.
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