Education Remains Top Item For State Legislators
Improving US 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. “Education is such a major political issue right now. Every governor wants to be the education governor and every president wants to be the education president – the rhetoric at the federal level is unlike anything we have ever seen before. And the American pubic is ranking it (the issue) as number 1, too,”says Julie Bell, who heads the education department of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Several states put in place notable new policies last year, California and New Jersey chief among them. These were some of the year’s highlights:
Improving Public Education
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.
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.
The standards movement started out slowly, with only 14 states signed on in 1996, but it has gained remarkable momentum and is starting to effect the way schools are governed. Education Commission on the States’ (ECS) Clearinghouse Director, Kathy Christie says school board control of schools is giving way in some large urban districts to the mayor or an appointed CEO.
Lawmakers and state education departments are asking themselves tough questions about governance, such as: “How can we improve school boards or change the governance system so that school boards can play a role? Should the mayor have some control, or all of the control? Should there be a different form of governance for under-performing schools? Should state superintendents be appointed or elected?” Christie told Stateline.org.
Lawmakers Dogged By Quality Teacher Deficit
Spurred by the need to raise the quality of teaching to meet higher standards and faced with a declining teaching force, which is rapidly shrinking because of retirements, cuts in class size 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. Some 2000 highlights:
Becky Fleischauer, a spokesperson for the National Education Association (NEA), a 2.5 million member strong teacher union, is not surprised by the flurry of legislation to make the teaching profession more attractive.
“Standards-based reforms involves investing. State legislatures are realizing that you have to do more than just raise the bar and teacher quality is certainly part of helping all kids reach high standards,” she says.
Reducing class-size is another strategy states are employing to help students meet more rigorous academic standards. But employing this policy at the same time that student rolls are bursting can cause massive shortages, as California has learned.
It needs 300,000 more instructors by 2010. Yet former California Gov. Pete Wilson signed class-size reduction legislation before leaving office two years ago which stretched the state’s existing teaching force to the limit and left 30 percent of new teachers practicing on emergency credentials.
The Fresno Bee newspaper did an analysis of the 1999-2000 school year showing that one in seven elementary school teachers in California worked without credentials last 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 kids to have a teacher without credentials.
The preceding was excerpted from the education chapter of “State of the States 2000,” our annual report on state policy highlights. To obtai8n your free copy of this 56-page book, email your postal mailing address to [email protected].
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