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Lawmakers Gear Up for Action on K-12 Issues

Education Week

By Andrew Ujifusa

State lawmakers will attempt to tackle a range of issues in legislative sessions getting under way this month, from making common academic standards a reality and funding schools based on performance, to allowing armed teachers and staff members on school grounds.

Their task may be complicated by the still small and spotty economic recovery in many places, and by federal education funding uncertainties posed by the continued wrangling in Washington over the nation’s fiscal future.

To the extent that K-12 issues need to be handled on a bipartisan basis, the increasingly polarized nature of state government could make that work more difficult. In 2013, only 14 states have divided government—a governor of one party and at least one chamber of the legislature controlled by another party—compared with 20 after the 2010 elections. Half the states will have veto-proof majorities in their legislatures in 2013, when new governors in Indiana, Montana, and New Hampshire begin their terms.

And a rebound in state tax revenue hasn’t prevented lawmakers from thinking about new strings to attach to school funding.

While 36 states increased K-12 spending in fiscal 2013, to the tune of $4.9 billion, and states’ collective general fund revenues grew 2.2 percent from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2013, “full recovery remains elusive in many places across the country” and eight states still project budget deficits in fiscal 2014, a fiscal survey of states by the Washington-based National Governors Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers reported in December.

Just how much federal money states will have to augment their revenues is still uncertain, thanks to the two-month delay of federal sequestration that would eliminate 8.2 percent from Washington’s K-12 spending. The delay by Congress could disrupt the timeline for states crafting their budgets for fiscal 2014 and beyond.

The overall funding situation has caused governors and other lawmakers to rethink K-12 investments that have left many high school graduates unprepared for higher education, where they rack up debt, leave without degrees, and don’t contribute to states’ economies, said Richard Laine, the director of the education division for the National Governors Association.

“They’re rightly saying, we need to do better on behalf of the taxpayers and on behalf of the students that are going through the system,” he said.

Proposal Eyed in Michigan

One state exploring the issue, if in general and uncertain terms, is Michigan, where Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, is considering proposing an overhaul of K-12 schooling that would feature more performance-funding measures.

In a memo authored by Richard McLellan, an attorney in Lansing who is overseeing the proposed changes, one proposal would be to change the basic school funding formula over time, gradually expanding the weight of student performance and growth in the formula. Mr. McLellan called performance funding “the most challenging task we have,” but added: “I think the financing law can be redesigned to facilitate a greater and more effective use of student achievement and assessment data as it becomes available.”

Common Ground

In a National Conference of State Legislatures survey of 20 state lawmakers on education committees and 39 K-12 staff members in legislatures, the new assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards were listed as the biggest challenge by the highest number of those responding. So far, 46 states have adopted the standards in English/language arts, and 45 in math. The November results from the first statewide assessments based on the common core, in Kentucky, where proficiency rates dropped by a third or more, have made lawmakers alert to the tests’ consequences. (“Ky. Road-Tests Common Core,” Nov. 7, 2012.)

A state senator in Indiana plans to introduce legislation that would withdraw the state from the common core, a political dynamic lawmakers around the country will continue to watch. But more generally, state lawmakers are looking to counterbalance the tougher standards and tests by creating more ways to help students meet the demands of the new standards, advertised as more rigorous than the current ones.

“They want to give more kids the opportunities for reaching the higher bar,” said Mr. Laine of the NGA, which helped to create the standards along with the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers.

The response in 2013 could be an expansion of virtual and online learning programs, as well as new dual-enrollment programs that allow high school students to take college-level courses, and these plans could help ease worries over traditional labor resources.”A number of states and governors continue to see technology as a path to get more kids greater access to improved instruction. You can only have so many good physics teachers, really good math teachers,” Mr. Laine said.

States also could show additional concerns about the immediate costs of implementing the standards, following the lead of a Kansas audit released in December stating that its districts would have to spend $30 million annually over the next two years to put the common core into effect. For example, state lawmakers could require a technology audit by the state department to determine what is necessary for the new assessments, said Daniel Thatcher, an education policy specialist at the NCSL who has tracked legislation related to the common standards.

“A lot of state legislators feel as though this was thrown upon them. They, of course, hold the purse strings, and the sense we get is that the legislators would like their departments of education to communicate with them about what the needs are,” said Mr. Thatcher.

Aside from the Indiana proposal, bills directly related to the common core had been pre-filed or formally introduced in four states (California, Florida, Illinois, and Washington) for the 2013 sessions as of Jan. 3, two of them related to testing.

Lone Star Voucher Push

Although Mr. Laine indicated that most states probably would not look to implement vouchers, Texas lawmakers are planning a major push to establish a private-school choice program in that state, which has about 5 million students enrolled in public schools. Sen. Dan Patrick, a Republican who is the new Senate education committee chairman, buttresses his support for vouchers by pointing out that 300,000 students go to “unacceptable schools” rated as failing in Texas.

Legislators have introduced voucher bills in Texas every year since 1995 and they have failed to pass, but this year could be different due to the bigger majorities Republicans have in the legislature, and the passage of a voucher program in neighboring Louisiana, said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, an Austin-based group that opposes vouchers. Louisiana’s program, however, has run into legal challenges. (“Louisiana’s Ambitious Voucher Effort Unclear Following Judge’s Ruling,” Dec. 12, 2012.)

But Mr. Quinn added that skeptical rural Republicans, as well as House Republicans who demonstrated opposition to vouchers in 2007 and 2009, could derail Mr. Patrick’s plans.

“Frankly, most rural folks are pretty happy with their schools. These are the identities of communities in many ways,” he said.

Secure Locations

To respond to increased concerns about school security, lawmakers in Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia, have publicly discussed the idea of allowing teachers and other school staff to carry concealed firearms in schools after the shooting deaths of 26 students and school workers in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. But Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne—the state’s former schools superintendent, for example, has said that while allowing one person to be armed in each school may be a good idea, installing more armed police officers in schools, may not be financially feasible.

“States are going to be looking, I imagine, for the cheaper option, especially in hard economic times,” said Lauren Heintz, a research analyst for NCSL who studies school security.

In recent years, such bills faced hurdles in several states. Bills that would have let faculty and administrators carry concealed weapons on K-12 campuses failed in Nebraska and Oklahoma in 2011, while a proposal that would have allowed the same privilege for school board members and county commissioners at K-12 schools in Florida was also rejected by lawmakers in 2011.