Education Issues Had Top Billing In 1999

 

Improving U.S. public education was a top policy priority in 1999 with governors and legislators working on setting standards, raising accountability, dealing with teacher quality, and equalizing school funding.

Landmark legislation passed in two states. In California, lawmakers approved the first-ever-statewide teacher peer review program, and Florida's legislature passed the first statewide voucher program.

The issue of school violence also became a major part of the policy agenda after two gun-toting youths went on a murderous rampage in their Colorado high school. While studies show that violence occurs less frequently now than in the early '90s the Littleton massacre sparked a frenzy of bill passing in the state legislatures.

Education policy highlights in 1999:

  • California held a special session on education reform.
  • Florida passed a statewide voucher program.
  • Michigan lawmakers gave Governor John Engler and Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer control over the Detroit school district.
  • New Hampshire lawmakers came up with a funding solution to their school finance crisis, only to have the state Supreme Court reject it.
  • Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold put school violence on the national agenda when they walked into Columbine High School in suburban Denver and killed 12 students, one teacher and themselves on April 20, 1999.

California took action soon after Gov. Gray Davis assumed office in January. Davis summoned lawmakers to Sacramento for a special session dedicated wholly to education reform.

The legislature ultimately passed a $470 million reform plan that includes a peer-review process for teachers, exit exams for students, and the ranking of the state's 8,000 public schools. Money also was earmarked to pay for the state to intervene in failing schools, and cash was set aside for rewards.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush was successful in pushing the legislature to pass the first statewide program that pays for students in low performing schools to attend private schools.

Michigan followed the lead of lawmakers in Maryland, Ohio and Illinois to give Gov. Engler and Mayor Archer control over Detroit's schools.

David Adamany, the official appointed by the governor and mayor to run the schools, is now urging lawmakers to reconsider the law. They failed to give the mayor the same authority that Illinois gave Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, particularly power over the unions, and the proposed reforms have been stymied.

As other sessions opened last winter, all eyes were on New Hampshire legislators who had to design a school funding formula that would satisfy the courts by April 1. They missed their deadline, and the court rejected their belated formula this past autumn.

By late spring, pro-gun legislation was frozen in most states as lawmakers scrambled to calm parental and student fears about school safety. Bogus bomb threats proliferated throughout the states. Schoolhouses closed repeatedly and students were sent home several times before classes ended for the summer.

Bursting Budgets And Raising The Bar

With many states enjoying budget surpluses, requests for more education money tended to fare well.

"When states have surpluses it is sort of an easy year, " said Chris Pipho, an education analyst for the Education Commission on the States (ECS). It is easier for everyone to get an ornament on the Christmas tree than it is in the tight years."

The bulk of Texas' $6.4 billion surplus is going to education over the next two years. Gov. George W. Bush and the legislature also have ensured that 75 percent of new state revenue is earmarked for education.

South Carolina's Gov. Jim Hodges said it was "the best budget year for education." And the neighboring state of North Carolina dedicated more than half of its budget to education.

State dollars for public education make up more than half of local school budgets. The amount that states spend on public education has increased from nearly 40 percent in the early 1970s to almost 50 percent in 95-'96, according to the National Commission on Education Statistics.

"States have more than doubled K-12 appropriations over the last decade and revenues continue to grow," said Terry Whitney, school finance analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Local districts pay roughly 45 percent of the school budget and the federal government picks up somewhere between six and seven percent. Dollars are doled out on a per pupil basis as well as categorically for programs. Last year, the average per student cost was $6,624. In Kansas, lawmakers raised per pupil spending by $50.

As state purses swell, lawmakers have become more interested in matters of education policy and have taken a more active role in funding, discipline and curriculum.

For example, Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci wants school districts to spend 90 percent of the state's reform dollars in the classroom and not on administration.

Lawmakers are becoming heavily involved in policy by setting standards that define what students should learn at each grade level.

Three years ago, only 14 states had adopted such standards, according to Achieve, Inc. a nonprofit board of governors and CEOs concerned with standards. Currently, there are 49 states with standards and nearly 40 have created tests to measure whether the goals are being met.

Iowa, traditionally deferring to local control, refuses to pass standards legislation.

Once standards have been set, states are able to measure student achievement and then begin passing laws that will hold teachers, students and schools accountable for meeting those goals.

One of the biggest education news stories in Virginia this past year was the failure of an overwhelming majority of students to pass the new Standards of Learning, or SOL statewide test.

"In Minnesota as many as 71 percent of the kids aren't on track to pass the graduation test," Pipho said. "As high stakes testing comes in, we will have a residue of students still below grade level at the beginning of the school year going into transitional grades (for students not ready for promotion to the next level) and for Saturday school."

Exit exams are one way of assessing both student learning and teacher performance. Eight states plan to join the 19 that require exit exams for students to graduate from high school, according to Quality Counts '99, an annual survey produced by Education Week.

In an effort to hold students accountable for learning, Texas Gov. Bush ended the practice of social promotion. California joined Texas in prohibiting schools from automatically passing students to the next grade even if they haven't learned the material. Students who are not promoted can go to summer school or be held back until they pass the state test.

A number of other states passed or at least considered similar bills against social promotion including Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Oregon.

In several states, a backlash against standards is developing as parents who are for rigorous standards in the abstract have second thoughts when it means that their son or daughter might be held back or required to attend summer school. Organizations dedicated to fighting the new expectations and tests have sprung up in Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Another way that states are holding schools accountable is to grade or rank them. In Florida, lawmakers approved Gov Jeb Bush's plan to grade school performance. The Sunshine State joined 36 states that issue report cards on the schools. Once rating systems are in place lawmakers can pass laws to take over the chronically failing schools and reform them.

Twenty states use a rating system to identify low performing schools and then provide assistance to help the schools improve. Sixteen states have sanctions for schools that do not improve and 14 states reward schools that make significant progress.

Pennsylvania lawmakers approved Gov. Tom Ridge's Academic Recovery Act, which frees the state's eight worst performing schools from state mandates on hiring and contracting. But if they fail to improve, the schools will be placed under the direction of a state-appointed control board.

North Carolina has a similar plan that helps low performing schools by providing a team of teachers and administrators to get the schools back on track.

In the last decade, 23 states have passed laws giving them the power to take over failing schools and about a dozen, New Jersey being the first, have used the power.

In urban districts, the reform trend has been to disband the school board and give control of the schools to the mayor who then appoints a chief executive officer. Michigan was the only state to do so in 1999, acting to try to save Detroit's troubled schools. But a number of mayors have talked about seeking reform power.

Indiana, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas are the only states that rate schools and issue school report cards, require exit or graduation exams for students, provide assistance to struggling schools and have rewards and sanctions in place, according to Achieve, Inc. and Quality Counts '99.

North Carolina and Texas were recognized as shining stars by participants at the 1999 National Education Summit for creating comprehensive reforms that focus on standards, assessment and accountability and sticking to the policies when political leadership changed.

The Hunt For Quality Teachers

The teacher shortage remains a burden for many states. As the baby boom echo generation makes its way through the school system and states try to shrink class size, baby boomer educators are retiring Massachusetts raided other states in 1999, offering a $20,000 signing bonus to teaching candidates.

The impending shortage is already being felt in the two most populous states, California and Texas. Former California Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation that required class size reduction and now 30 percent of the state's new teachers are on emergency credentials.

"California is being watched as the teacher shortage escalates," Pipho said.

States started offering various incentives to teaching candidates, such as paying for moving and housing costs and providing college loan forgiveness plans -- anything to ensure a cadre of 2 million new teachers for the next century. But states want quality teachers who are going to improve education, not just instructors.

North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt has a plan in place to raise teacher and principal salaries to the national average by next year as part of his Excellent Schools Act. In addition, the state is spending more than $14 million for veteran teachers to mentor new educators.

Some state lawmakers raised teacher pay. Last year, the national average teacher salary was $39,347. In Texas teachers were given a $3,000 raise (this was in addition to incentives such as homeowners' relief from property taxes). Legislators in Oklahoma and Virginia raised teacher pay as well.

Nevada's teachers weren't as fortunate. A proposed five percent tax on business profits to pay for an increase for them failed.

Connecticut ranked first among the states, paying teachers an average $51,727. South Dakota paid teachers the least amount, $27,839 on average. Connecticut started paying teachers more in the 1980s. Since then, there has been a marked improvement in the students' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

States are starting to respond to research that shows the best way to improve student performance is to improve the quality of teaching. Some states are approving money for professional development for teachers. Montana approved a $3,000 bonus to any teacher who becomes certified through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Debate has also swirled around linking bonus payments to student performance on state-mandated tests.

Denver Public Schools have launched a pilot program that ties teacher pay to student achievement in 12 schools, affecting about 10 percent of the school district's teachers. For the first year, teachers and principals set two student performance goals. If they are met by the year's end, the teacher gets a $500 bonus. The following year the bonus increases to $750. The unions are backing the program.

California's landmark legislative package passed in special session last April included a peer review system for teachers to ensure professional standards. Fellow teachers will make salary and tenure decisions for each other, instead of leaving it to administrators and prescribed schedules.

School Choice Takes Off

Debate over vouchers, tax credits, and charter schools preoccupied state legislators more in 1999 than in any previous year.

Florida sparked the discussion. Gov. Bush was barely in office when he was able to sign the first -ever statewide voucher program. Under the law, Florida's students who attend chronically failing schools will be given their per pupil money in the form of a voucher to go to a private school.

"Florida really spurred discussion in a lot of states," said Eric Hirsch, school choice policy analyst at NCSL. "The debate changed across the states, it was a lot more serious than it had been," he added.

New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson went so far as to hold the state budget hostage to force lawmakers to pass his voucher proposal. When that didn't work, he called a special session to pass his state-wide voucher agenda but the legislature said no.

But Hirsch said that Johnson's vouchers were different than those considered by other states. "It is not a sanction against bad public schools anymore and it is not just for poor kids anymore-it is a pure free market approach," he said.

In contrast to his brother, Jeb, George W. Bush failed to convince lawmakers to fund a pilot voucher program in the Lone Star State.

A voucher plan pushed by Gov. Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania also failed. He could not surmount anti-voucher critics who fear loss of revenue for public schools and a blurring of lines separating church and state. Ridge tried to win votes with an assortment of proposals, but the legislature rejected them.

Illinois legislators addressed the debate over public financing of private education from a slightly different angle, offering people who send their kids to private school a tax break. Almost immediately after passage, the Illinois Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the plan. In round one of what is certain to be a long and bitter legal battle, a state judge in early December handed the teacher's union a setback, ruling that the plan is constitutional.

Hirsch says many lawmakers question tax credits for private education because they see it as a middle class tax cut. Iowa has a $250 credit and Arizona gives up to $500 back. "In no cases are you really getting more than $500 back. The debate that always comes up is how many folks enroll in private schools because of these [tax breaks]?" Hirsch asked.

Once upon a time, before vouchers and tax credits, charter schools were the main focus of the education policy debate, but no longer. In 1999, two more states, Oregon and Oklahoma, added charter schools to their list of education options to increase the national number to 36. Several states came close to passing similar bills including Washington, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska and Tennessee.

"This was the first time since 1992 that at least three states didn't pass charter legislation so that may indicate that the trend is slowing down," Hirsch said.

While Oregon allows an unlimited number of charter schools, they cannot enroll more than ten percent of a district's student population. Oklahoma on the other hand, chose to restrict the charter schools to 13 districts.

States that already had charter school legislation broadened their policies. Colorado changed the financing of charters to provide more money for facilities.

New Mexico raised the cap on the number of charter schools allowed from five to 100 over the next half decade. They also gave public schools more money for construction, as did Arizona and Minnesota.

New Hampshire passed an alternative approval process for charter schools.

Courts, Legislatures And School Finance

A new wave of school funding lawsuits targeting school construction issues has hit the states. Idaho became the latest defendant in November.

Searching for the perfect way to fund schools has been a vexing task for lawmakers since the first case was filed in 1972 in California. States walk a political and financial tightrope in trying to equalize spending on schools in low and high-income communities.

The courts dismissed a 1990 case against Idaho that claimed the state wasn't funding schools equally across districts, but a new case focusing on the school building issue plagues the state.

School construction costs are paid for by property taxes, and plaintiffs argue that states should shoulder more of the capital costs. North Carolina, West Virginia and Connecticut are also dealing with adequacy cases. New Mexico joins Colorado, Ohio and Texas in suits brought in part or whole on school construction issues.

Whitney says Virginia and Illinois opted to spend more on school construction without the threat of a lawsuit, because of their strong economic situation. And in 1999 New Jersey and Delaware were more generous with school construction dollars than in the past.

Old arguments over how to equalize funding of schools in rich and poor communities still exist. New Hampshire was the prime example in 1999. When the legislature convened in January, lawmakers were faced with finding a new way of paying for the schools by April 1. Although the legislature finally did pass a bill, the courts struck it down, leaving legislators back at the drawing board as the year ended.

Fifteen other states are now in the throes of school funding litigation or fashioning a response to court decisions. The states include: Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Minnesota, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Mississippi and Nevada are the only states that have not been sued over school finance, according to NCSL. Hawaii, New Mexico and Washington provide the most state-level funding for education in the nation.

In the fall of 1999, some Rhode Island suburban communities decided to sue over inequalities in school financing.

School House Violence

Although two armed Colorado teens blasted their way through Columbine High School, leaving 15 people dead last April 20, and a month later an Atlanta youth shot six people at his school, the American Medical Association found that school violence was actually on the decline.

In the early 90's, legislatures passed a number of anti-violence laws and outfitted schools with video cameras and metal detectors. But the Columbine shooting spree and ensuing media convinced lawmakers that more needed to be done politically it wasn't enough and a wave of school safety laws spilled out of statehouses.

Pro-gun bills that had been working their way through the state houses were frozen. More zero tolerance laws passed, school dress codes were debated, and swift punishments were promised for those who made bomb threats.

New York considered laws that would inhibit video game makers. Louisiana passed a law requiring students to pay respect to their teachers and use "Ma'am" and "Sir" when addressing them.

North Carolina approved a safe schools initiative that penalizes students who bring guns to schools. Parents were made liable with a fine of $25,000 if their child makes a bomb threat and $50,000 if their child detonates a device.

Another initiative passed in Raleigh was called "Lose Control, Lose Your License." Students have their driver's license revoked for up to one year if they commit certain acts of violence on school grounds.

Finally, Gov. Hunt, like many governors, set up a task force on youth violence and school safety that is to develop a set of recommendations on how to prevent youth violence and make schools safer.

NCSL is advising lawmakers to pass programs to curb school violence that combine mental health services, education, and criminal justice.

Other Education Policy Legislation

While violence, lawsuits and vouchers were hot news items, states did address other education issues in '99.

  • Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn started his Millennium Scholarships program by giving $2500 a year in scholarships for college bound high school students with at least a B average. Community college students get $1250. Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan asked for $1.5 million for an A Plus program to encourage students to attend college.
  • In 1999, at least seven states approved scholarships for A and B students. According to the Education Commission on the States, those states are Alabama, Alaska, Louisiana, Maine (amended a former grant), Maryland, Michigan and Nevada. Alabama's Gov. Don Siegelman pushed hard for a lottery to pay for the scholarships and a pre-K program, but voters rejected the plan in October.
  • Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon urged the legislature to approve all-day kindergarten and charter schools, but he failed to get either.
  • Washington Gov. Gary Locke won unanimous approval for a $7 million measure for school safety programs. Lawmakers increased teacher pay and are spending nearly $1 billion more on public schools and higher education than in the prior biennium.
  • North Carolina expanded Smart Start to every county in the state. Georgia is funding its pre-K program with state lottery money. The Peach State expects to expand the program to another 1500 children.
  • Idaho approved spending $4.4 million on a new literacy initiative for grades K-3.
 
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