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:
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.
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.
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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