Opening Gavel: Your Guide to States' 2018 Legislative Sessions
Seventeen states this week kick off their 2018 legislative sessions. By the end of this month, all but three states will be in full legislative swing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And all that activity just so happens to coincide with what promises to be a heated election year at the state level, with more than three-fourths of state lawmakers nationwide up for election, along with 36 governorships.
Last year proved a hyperactive one for school officials and lobbyists with an interest in education issues, mostly as a result of the looming deadline for accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives state legislators great leeway in crafting testing, school ranking, and school turnaround policies. And many states started crafting new ways to distribute money to schools after so many of them missed their revenue targets.
So what are some issues we can expect state legislatures to debate this year?
- ESSA: Debates over school accountability systems could flare up again, as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her team continue to review and sign off on state ESSA plans, two of which are still pending. Legislators in states such as Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania took issues with the plans their states' departments of education turned in to the feds and asked DeVos to outright reject them or else they would propose legislation to detooth the plans before they go into effect. Lobbyists in California and Florida are using recent feedback from DeVos as fuel to push those states' legislatures to rewrite their accountability systems.
- School Funding: An unusual number of states (at least seven) last year set up commissions to study new ways to distribute money among their schools. Those studies are past due in some cases, and legislatures could soon act to institute school funding formulas. States to watch this year are Kansas and Washington, which are under court deadlines to come up with new funding formulas. And keep an eye on states where revenue is heavily dependent on commodity prices, such as Alaska and Oklahoma, as they look for new ways to cut school funding.
- Report Cards: State education departments this spring are crafting new school report cards to better display how schools stack up on their accountability system under ESSA. This process has proved to be especially contentious. Many states decided last year to switch from letter grade-style report cards to dashboard-style report cards. In recent months, debates over the look and technicalities of school report cards have flared up between state superintendents, state boards, and legislatures in Alabama, California, Michigan, and Ohio. As departments start surfacing drafts in the coming months for what their report cards under ESSA will ultimately look like, legislatures could attempt to overwrite those actions..
- School choice: With DeVos placing school choice on the radar of so many voters, many Democrats plan to exploit moderate conservative voters' hostility toward charter schools and vouchers on the campaign trail. That could impact how Republican legislators treat the issue during this year's session. Already, in Tennessee, Rep. Harry Brooks, a Republican who has been a leading voucher advocate in the state, has said that he and his colleagues won't pursue getting voucher legislation passed this year and instead will focus on boosting teacher pay and school technology.
- Teacher Shortage: Severe teacher shortages in many states have led to calls from both teachers unions and school accountability hawks for legislators to rethink their approaches to teacher certification, evaluations, and pay. In states' ESSA plans, departments have been tasked with defining "ineffective teacher," setting off a debate in states such as Minnesota and California over what that should mean. Several states' plans were dinged for having insufficient definitions and legislatures could weigh in on what that means.
Some policy onlookers have told me to lower my expectations this year. With so many legislators up for election, it's not likely that they will attempt to propose especially controversial legislation or do something voters will remember when walking into the voting booth. We'll have to see how the election jitters play out when it comes to education policy.