2011: Already a banner year for education reform

Late 2009 and early 2010 saw state legislators virtually
nationwide all aflutter with education-reform excitement. Dangling a $4.35
billion Race to the Top carrot, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education lured policymakers
from both sides of the aisle to support some key reform-style initiatives.
These included adoption of the Common Core State Standards, creation of linked
data systems, implementation of meaningful teacher-evaluation systems, and
expansion of charter-friendly policies. Sure, they’re reforms states should
have embraced on their own, and maybe some would have without federal
inducement, but there’s little doubt that RTT sped things up and in some cases
likely changed the outcome.

What we’ve learned over the past six months, however, is
that education reform at the state level doesn’t necessarily depend on a big
red-velvet triple-decker on Uncle Sam’s cake stand. Maybe all it really needs
is voters willing to throw the establishment’s friends out of office. Aided and
abetted, perhaps, by budget shortfalls.

It’s good to know that when states step back into the driver’s seat, they press the gas rather than slamming the breaks.

 
   
 

For what’s happened since the November 2010 election has
been an intensification rather than a slackening of the pace of education
reform in state capitals across the land—without any evident regard for federal
carrots (or sticks).

Most of the big reform victories can be traced to the resurgence
of education-reform governors
(most but not all of them Republicans);
greater, more cohesive, and more urgent advocacy work by groups like the
American Federation for Children, Stand for Children, Democrats for Education
Reform, and the organizations under PIE
Network
’s umbrella; and, of course, states’ need to tighten their fiscal
belts and rein in their education budgets.

Let’s take a look at the movement so far this year on three
fronts:

Collective-Bargaining
and Related Issues
According to the National Conference
of State Legislators,  over 700 bills targeting collective
bargaining have been introduced in state legislatures this year. At least seven
states (of the thirty that allow collective bargaining) so far have enacted
legislation in 2011 limiting these district-union CBAs (the five noted below,
plus Oklahoma
and the Democratic stronghold of Massachusetts).
Several states also limited the rights of union members to strike, reformed
last in, first out (LIFO) firing policies, and changed teacher pension and
benefit structures.

  • Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels pushed through SB 0575, which limits teachers’ collective-bargaining rights to wage and
    benefits issues. It also forbids them from bargaining on working conditions.
  • Illinois’s nationally
    lauded SB 7 legislation
    (acclaimed for the bipartisan support it garnered) ends LIFO policies, makes it
    harder for teachers to strike, and bumps up requirements for tenure. This bill,
    dubbed Performance Counts, now sits on Governor Quinn’s desk for signature.
  • Wisconsin’s high-profile SB 13 stripped
    much off the collective-bargaining table; teachers are limited to bargaining
    over base pay—total compensation and wage increases over the level of inflation
    are no longer negotiable.
  • And in Ohio,
    SB 5 has cut collective-bargaining and union rights down dramatically and
    has denied public-union members the right to strike (though it conspicuously
    did not eliminate the right to bargain outright).
  • The Sunshine State
    passed SB 736 in March. It eliminates tenure for new teachers and limits the reach
    of collective-bargaining rights in the state (taking wages and terms and
    conditions of employment largely, if not entirely, off the table).
  • Alabama’s SB 310
    sits on the governor’s desk. With his signature, state teachers would have less
    time to appeal firing decisions and would lose the right to appeal if laid off
    because of budget shortfalls.
  • In Idaho,
    SB 1108 will phase out tenure for new teachers and eliminate seniority as a criterion
    when RIFs
    are unavoidable.
  • Similar
    bills are moving through the legislative process—keep a particular eye on Tennessee
    and Colorado.

School Choice
According to the Foundation for
Educational Choice, at
least fifty-one pieces of legislation
tying public funding to
private-education provision (spanning thirty-five states) have been introduced
this year. (NB: Voucher proponents can also add the reinstated D.C.
Opportunity Scholarship Program
and Douglas County, CO’s district-wide
program
—the first of its ilk—as notches on their belts.) Many of these
legislative bids have focused on expanding or creating voucher or tax credit programs.
While a handful of states have improved their charter-school laws since
January, charter legislation has taken a distinct backseat to the voucher
movement in 2011.

  • Indiana’s expansive voucher
    bill (HB
    1003
    ) opens private-school choice to 60
    percent of the state’s schoolchildren
    . But the Hoosier State
    also passed charter legislation (HB
    1002
    ), creating a new statewide entity to sponsor these schools as well as
    tougher academic standards and accountability requirements for charters.
  • And just
    this week
    , Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin approved SB 969,
    providing tax-credit scholarships to students in families with household incomes
    of up to 300 percent of the poverty threshold.
  • Special-education students are now eligible for “empowerment scholarships”—a form of tax-credit scholarship—in Arizona.
  • In Florida,
    HB 1329 expands the state’s special-education voucher program to students
    with lesser disabilities like asthma and allergies, while SB 1546 classifies
    and rates charter schools, allowing more effective schools more autonomy.
  • In other states, including Pennsylvania,
    Tennessee, Ohio,
    Minnesota, and Wisconsin, voucher initiation or expansion
    bills are working their way through the legislative process.

Teacher Evaluations
In 2009-2010, many states passed RTT-related
legislation allowing for the linkage of student achievement to teacher
evaluations. But these reforms often fell short of ensuring or mandating such
evaluations. Legislation enacted thus far in 2011 has gone further by requiring student achievement gains to
matter for teacher (and, in some cases, principal and superintendent)
evaluations. A few states have also begun to tackle performance-based pay.

  • Again from Indiana,
    SB 0001 requires districts to figure student-achievement gains when creating
    new teacher evaluations. It also requires that educators’ performance, not just
    their seniority, factor into decisions about salary increases.
  • Idaho’s Students Come
    First Package (SB 1110) ties 50 percent of teacher, principal, and superintendent evaluations
    to student achievement (as well as offers a performance-pay bonus to the most
    effective teachers).
  • Illinois’s SB 7 mandates that
    teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores.
  • Wyoming’s SF 146 ties
    evaluations—in part—to student achievement; while SF 70 in
    the same state sets out to define student achievement, creating a statewide
    accountability system to align with the definition.
  • Out of Florida,
    the Student Success Act (SB 736) counts
    student growth as 50 percent of teacher evaluations and requires districts to
    let-go low performers.
  • Next door, Georgia’s SB 184 awaits
    governor signature. The bill would end LIFO (and could equally fit in the
    CBA-bucket above) and would evaluate teachers based on performance—though the
    Peach State will leave the definition of that word up to districts.
  • Other states, like Texas,
    Utah, Washington, and New Jersey, have
    teacher-evaluation bills on the docket in one or more legislative house.
  • Along with these new initiatives, many states are
    beginning to flesh out teacher-evaluation systems set up through 2010
    legislation (mostly due to RTTT, but sometimes not). Recently, states like Tennessee, Colorado, Ohio, and Rhode
    Island released blueprints, recommendations, and
    plans of attack for crafting their states’ evaluation systems. And just this
    week, the New York Regents approved the state’s new eval plan.

To be sure, not all of these legislative wins are
praiseworthy; Florida’s
teacher bill (SB 736), for example, is problematic
in many ways
. Still, there’s been solid progress on multiple fronts, and
that’s worth cheering without hesitation.

The Obama Administration had reason to boast about the
remarkable movement we saw on the education-reform front in 2009-2010. But now
it’s time for governors and state legislators to take a bow. And since—for
political and economic reasons—we’re unlikely to see the feds play such a heavy
hand again anytime soon, it’s good to know that when states step back into the
driver’s seat, they press the gas rather than slamming the breaks. The Race to
the Top might be (mostly) over but the race for higher student achievement goes
on.

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