With Time Running Out, States Debate Education

Time flies—just ask the legislators in the 11 states who have to get their business wrapped up in the next few weeks. (New Mexico has already adjourned.) Most of the states began the year with fairly extreme education reform agendas, in terms of both funding and policy. Since then, with pushback from teachers groups, most of those efforts have been watered down considerably. With only weeks to go, key education bills remain up in the air in most of the places, leaving the roles of charter schools, teacher protections, and school funding in the balance.

Efforts at education reform are hardly new, but with the Obama administration giving states waivers for No Child Left Behind requirements, there's even more emphasis on teacher evaluations and student performance. While Indiana, among the states with legislative sessions almost over, already received its waiver, other states are working to make themselves more appealing to the U.S. Department of Education. The applications process for waivers favors states that link teacher evaluations with student performance—which means West Virginia lawmakers are under pressure to pass a measure requiring annual evaluations of both teachers and principals. They adjourn March 10.

Oregon is also applying for a waiver, and Governor John Kitzhaber is fighting for a measure to create "achievement compacts" between schools, universities, and community colleges that would better define outcomes for students. Kitzhaber argues the compacts would be a key to getting a waiver (although some disagree). The compacts, however, are only part of the governor's plan. It also includes an emphasis on early education, through both centralizing Head Start authority and focusing on at-risk children in a new Early Learning Council, according to The Oregonian. Oregon's legislative session ends on March 6, and with time running out, Kitzhaber held back-to-back press conferences this weekend to push his reform agenda.

Then there's Florida, where the legislature only has more a couple weeks to finish up business, and is considering some extreme measures. The state legislature there is considering a "parental trigger" bill which allows parents to shut down a traditional school and turn it into a charter if a majority of parents sign on. California passed such a measure, which has created considerable controversy in the last few months. According to the Gainesville Sun, the measure would also allow parents to immediately see teachers' performance evaluations and ensure students would not have low-performing teachers twice in a row. Florida has been a major player in the reform movement, with former Governor Jeb Bush one of the country's most vocal proponents. If the measure passes, it will likely put Florida front and center in the reform debate.

Wyoming is coming a bit late to the reform party. There a bill, expected to pass this week, will set up a state school ranking system. The rankings will be based not only on test scores but on evaluations by a panel of state and local eduation officials, as well as parents, teachers, and community. Those schools that got low ratings would have to offer improvement plans and principals in those schools could be fired for not meeting goals two years in a row, according to the Casper Star Tribune.

Elsewhere, efforts to create more punitive evaluations or more privatized education efforts are getting watered down. Take South Dakota, where Governor Dennis Daugaard began the legislative session with a hardline education agenda, in which teachers would lose teacher tenure and get bonuses based on student test scores. Since then the bill's been rewritten twice, and one teacher managed to get lawmakers' attention when she explained the governor's plan had her considering leaving the profession. With only a couple weeks until the session ends, the new versions of the bill give districts more leeway around merit pay and teacher tenure. 

Utah has a similar story of moderating; lawmakers have cooled down what might have been the biggest move towards turning education into a marketplace. An original bill sought to give high school students complete control over the money states allocate towards their education; in other words each student would get an annual amount they could spend on anything from courses at traditional public schools to private and charter schools, as well as college or online courses. The Salt Lake Tribune reports, the program has now been limited to a pilot program of just 500 junions and seniors who will get $6,400 a year in education savings accounts if the measure passes. The implications for such a program are hard to over state—the concept of community schools and public education institutions would have to be largely redefined. 

In other states, the central education debates have focused on funding—or lack thereof. In Kansas, uber-conservative Governor Sam Brownback has been pushing a plan to get rid of funding formulas that provide more money for low-income students or those learning English. Instead he wants to let districts raise property taxes as much as they want. Both policies would effectively widen the gap between rich and poor districts. (That's in addition to his tax agenda which would raise rates on the poorest Kansans while slashing them for the wealthy.) Lucky for those who believe in education as a place to level playing fields, the funding plan has stalled in the state Senate.

Indiana may actually put more money into education with a bill, which will allow families to send children to full-day kindergarten programs without having to pay sometimes exorbinant fees.

With only weeks left for these state legislatures to finish their agendas, we won't have to wait long to see what happens.

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