“Every governor wants to be the education governor, and every President wants to be the education President.”
National Conference of State Legislatures
Improving U.S. 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.
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.
These were some of the notable new policies put in place by several states last year.
California passed a landmark school aid package that guarantees every California student with good grades a chance to attend college, and also provides funds to recruit teachers and reduce class sizes. Democratic Governor 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 Governor Christie Todd Whitman (who now serves in the Bush administration as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.) The money will be spent over 10 years. Lawmakers approved the bill in response to a court order to repair school buildings in 30 needy districts, but went beyond the order to make aid available to all districts regardless of wealth.
The standards movement started out slowly, with only 14 states signed on in 1996, but it has gained remarkable momentum. Now, 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.
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 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.
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 Governor Roy Barnes pushed his reforms through the legislature despite the resistance of education unions, parents, and activists. Among his reforms are proposals that will increase testing, reward high-performing schools, cut class sizes 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.
Delaware Governor Tom Carper signed a teacher accountability law he had urged lawmakers to pass for the past 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.
Raising Teacher Quality
Spurred by the need to raise the quality of teaching to meet higher standards, and faced with a teaching force rapidly shrinking because of retirements, cuts in class sizes, 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.
Connecticut and New York raised teacher salaries and threw in home loan and tuition reimbursement enticements.
California approved a substantial pay raise for teachers. Because of the high cost of living in Northern California, the San Francisco school system is providing housing for teachers.
Maryland, Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Colorado, Indiana, and Nebraska approved education packages that included teacher pay raises and college scholarship programs for would-be teachers. Many of those programs target teaching candidates who will commit to working in low-performing schools.
Georgia passed a law that gives a signing bonus to teachers willing to work in rural schools. The state also put more money into professional development opportunities.
New York’s $25 million “Teachers of Tomorrow Act” gives a $3,400 bonus to teachers with three years’ experience who are willing to work in impoverished schools or can teach subjects in shortage areas: math, science, and computers.
Reducing class sizes is another strategy states are employing to help students meet more rigorous academic standards. But implementing this policy at a time of burgeoning student enrollments can cause massive teacher shortages, as California has learned.
California needs 300,000 more instructors by 2010. Yet former Governor Pete Wilson signed class-size reduction legislation before leaving office two years ago, stretching the state’s existing teaching force to the limit and leaving 30 percent of new teachers practicing on emergency credentials.
A review of the 1999-2000 school year conducted by the Fresno Bee showed that one in seven elementary school teachers in California worked without credentials that 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 children to have a teacher without credentials.
Voters in Michigan and California rejected school voucher initiatives 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.
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.
Maine Governor Angus King continued his efforts to put a laptop computer in the hands of every seventh grader in the state, while Pennsylvania lawmakers considered creating an online charter school and other states put money into technology for their schools.
Tiffany Danitz is a staff writer of Stateline.org, an Internet publication. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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This material is excerpted from “State of the States 2000,” Stateline.org’s annual report on state policy highlights. To obtain a free copy of this 56-page book, e-mail your postal mailing address to [email protected].