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State Legislators Shape Agendas for Next Year

In statehouses across the country this year, the action was fast and frenetic as lawmakers pushed through sweeping, and often divisive education policy changes in teacher evaluation, labor rights, pensions, and other areas.

Should we expect more of the same next year?

One place to look for a preview is the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which is being held this week in San Antonio, Texas. It's a forum that allows lawmakers from around the country to exchange information and pick up ideas from their counterparts in other states.

NCSL, a nonpartisan group based in Denver, sets the agenda based on what its officers and staff are hearing from lawmakers and aides around the county about the topics they're interested in pursuing, or at least learning a lot more about.

During the past year's legislative sessions, states "put a whole of issues on the table that weren't there before," said Julie Bell, NCSL's education program director. "They're contentious issues, but I don't see any reason why they would retreat."

Much of the discussion at this year's meeting reflects the financial pressures facing states, many of which have struggled to close budget shortfalls. At least 23 states have cut funding for K-12 for the coming fiscal year. "K-12 Education: Are States Getting What They're Paying For?" is the title of one session. Another workshop focuses on the high cost of teacher pensions, and whether states' recent cuts to retirement plans will hurt states' ability to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers.

Lawmakers will also be examining policies that could have a major impact on classroom practices, such as interim assessments for evaluating teachers and improving student learning. They'll be looking at issues affecting student health, such as bullying, and looking at the challenges of implementing common standards, a process underway in more than 40 states.

The conference also features several prominent speakers, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a possible White House candidate who has been sharply critical of common standards, and who has had a lot of bad things to say about federal stimulus spending, which has been a major resource for cash-strapped districts in recent years.

NCSL's rough estimate is that the conference will draw 4,500 attendees, including 1,300 legislators and staff, said Meagan Dorsch, a spokeswoman for the organization.

I'll be reporting from the conference throughout the week, so check back for my dispatches from the Lone Star state.

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