Education Reforms a Hit in State Legislatures

Published May 23, 2011

Education reform became a defining issue in several state legislatures this session. Newly elected Republican governors, including Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, and John Kasich in Ohio, explicitly linked school reforms to their states’ fiscal health.

Legislatures across the nation passed a variety of reform bills that had foundered in years past, from expanding charter schools and virtual learning to establishing merit pay for teachers and vouchers for low-income or special needs children.

“2011 sets a new standard for education reform,” said Matthew Ladner, senior advisor for policy and research at the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education. “The teacher unions are still powerful, but their credibility approximates that of Big Tobacco’s claims regarding smoking and cancer.”

As the legislative sessions wind down in many states, the list of noteworthy policy accomplishments is long.

Sunshine State lawmakers expanded charter schools, scholarships for special needs students, public school choice, and implemented a far-reaching teacher merit-pay plan.

SB 736, the Student Success Act, passed both houses early in the session and was the first bill Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed into law, on March 24. The law revamps the state’s teacher and administrator evaluation system, making objective assessment of student performance 50 percent of the evaluation. It also establishes incentives for teachers and administrators.

“The Student Success Act helps Florida move to a higher standard,” said state Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island), who singled out Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville) for his efforts to attract votes from Democrats. “As [Scott] and lawmakers work on ways to improve the economy and attract people to Florida, the implementation of the Student Success Act will contribute to our competitiveness in attracting individuals to move to and stay in our state to raise families and build livelihoods.”

Ladner says Florida lawmakers made great strides on education reform this year, despite some Republican intraparty disagreements in the session’s waning hours. “[They] passed a very far reaching digital learning bill, a fantastic charter school law which will lead to a proliferation of high quality operators, and tenure and merit pay reform,” he said.

Utah Senate Bill 65 also passed this session, creating the Statewide Online Education Program. Reformers had worried that Gov. Gary Herbert (R) might veto the bill, but he ultimately signed it. The new law provides funding incentives based on test scores online students achieve.

The new law has no participation caps and allows both private and public providers to offer classes. The program will begin with students currently enrolled in public high schools (grades 9-12). Private high school students and homeschoolers will be able to use their education funding to attend online courses beginning in 2013.

Oklahoma State Rep. Lisa J. Billy (R-Lindsay) championed the passage of House Bill 1456, which mandates that state assessment tests give schools A to F grades and publish them publicly.

“This is an important reform. The letter-grading system will provide parents a measurable, concrete, and clear apples-to-apples comparison between local schools,” Billy said. “It will help identify both success stories and areas of need in our school system, and incentivize improvement.”

“I believe this reform will foster greater collaboration among schools so that successful strategies will be duplicated to the benefit of all Oklahoma students,” she said.

Amid a rancorous debate, Idaho State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna helped shepherd three major reform bills through the legislature. Senate Bills 1108 and 1110, which passed in March, phase out teacher tenure and phase in performance pay, include student achievement and parental input in professional evaluations, and limit the scope of public-employee union collective bargaining.

In April, Gov. Butch Otter (R) signed Senate Bill 1184, the final piece of Luna’s plan, which gives local districts greater flexibility in allocating funds previously designated for class-size reduction, modestly raises teacher base pay, and increases funding for digital learning and classroom technology.

“It’s a great start, and it’s the beginning of where we need to go,” said Briana LeClaire, an education policy analyst for the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “The labor reform particularly will cause a lot more openness and transparency.”

Arizona became the first state to enact an education savings account program designed specifically for K-12 schools. Under the new law, when an eligible student leaves a public school to attend another school, the state will fund an account equal to 90 percent of the state’s per-pupil expenditure.

“The account may be used for any educational expense, from private school tuition to distance learning to tutoring to software to community college tuition,” explained Clint Bolick, director of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute’s Center for Constitutional Litigation.

Bolick said the program saves the state and local districts money, allows students to harness technology and individualized academic programs, and “cuts out the [bureaucratic] middleman.” Bolick said the new law also complies with the state’s Blaine Amendment, which forbids the legislature from funding any religious schools or institutions, by funding individual parents’ accounts and letting them choose how to direct the spending.

The initial pilot program is limited to special-needs students. Several other states are considering ESAs, Bolick said. “This idea has enormous potential to change the way K-12 educational services are provided,” he said.
Ladner said reformers in other states should pay particular attention to Arizona’s education savings account plan. “I believe that this program will be found to be constitutionally distinct from vouchers and represents an important refinement of Milton Friedman’s voucher concept: parental control of education down to the last penny,” he said.

‘Best Is Yet to Come’
Ladner noted that lawmakers in Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are still considering major reforms.

“I’m not aware of anything especially bad going forward,” Ladner said. “As great as 2011 has been, I suspect that the best is yet to come.” 
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.