States Spar Over School Funds, Reforms
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
As a state-led revolt against federal education standards intensified, the nation's state legislatures this year passed laws making high school harder, students' diets healthier and school funding schemes fairer.
Dozens of bills impacting state education policy were enacted in 2005, but no single education issue dominated legislative sessions, said Julie Bell, an education analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
This year it's very spread out because (President Bush's) No Child Left Behind law has put so many pieces of education reform on the table," Bell said.
Setting education policy is a perennial battle for state lawmakers, who struggle to meet costly education goals and reform mandates while balancing state budgets. Elementary and secondary education takes up one of the biggest chunks of tax payers' dollars and lawmakers' time during legislative sessions.
State governments pay the largest portion -- just under half -- of the nation's nearly $500 billion annual public education tab. The federal government funds less than 8 percent of education and local taxpayers pay the rest.
The No Child Left Behind Act
Nearly two dozen states considered - and four passed -- legislation challenging the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law or asking Congress for more money to carry out the law's mandates. The federal law, signed in 2002, aims to close achievement gaps that separate minority and low-income students from their peers, including through mandatory testing in math and reading.
- Utah lawmakers passed the sharpest rebuke to date of Bush's signature education law by ordering schools to ignore NCLB mandates that conflict with state education policy.
- Maine lawmakers ordered the state attorney general to sue the U.S. government if federal funding for NCLB is insufficient, voted to withhold state funds to carry out NCLB mandates and called for a study of the cost and penalties if Maine were to opt out of the federal law.
- New Mexico's Legislature passed and Gov. Bill Richardson (D) signed a resolution urging Congress to increase funding for NCLB.
- Colorado lawmakers passed legislation upholding the right of school districts to opt out of NCLB. The law is considered symbolic because schools already can opt out of the law if they're willing to forgo federal funding.
School finance battles
At least 30 states considered changing their education financing systems in 2005. Sixteen of those states currently are embroiled in lawsuits challenging the way the state funds public schools. Three states -- Kansas, Montana and Texas -- were given deadlines by their Supreme Courts to boost education funding or overhaul education finance schemes this year.
- Texas lawmakers have deadlocked in four special legislative sessions in the past two years over a court order to overhaul the state's education finance system. After failing last week to find a solution before the end of the fourth special session, state lawmakers indicated they would await a final ruling from the Texas Supreme Court before resuming the debate.
- Kansas lawmakers are trying to get around a court order to boost education funding by more than $700 million. State lawmakers averted having the Kansas Supreme Court shut down schools this fall by making a $148 million down payment towards schools. The deal also bought lawmakers time to wait for the release of a new education cost study, due by the end of the year, that they hope will lower the amount of education funding demanded by the high court.
- Montana lawmakers appointed a committee to respond to a state Supreme Court order to overhaul the state's education funding scheme. The committee will make recommendations by October and the Legislature will hold a special session in December to adopt a plan.
Student nutrition laws
Fighting childhood obesity was a major issue for states in 2005.
- School nutrition legislation to curb snacks and soda in schools was considered by 38 states and adopted by 14: Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (R) vetoed legislation that would have banned most junk food and boosted exercise in schools.
- Laws requiring more physical activity and physical education for students were weighed in 35 states and adopted by eight: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, South Carolina and Texas.
- Two states -- Tennessee and West Virginia -- adopted laws requiring schools to measure students' body mass index, joining Arkansas in weighing students to analyze the aggregate health of pupils and to alert parents to dangerous trends in a child's weight.
High school redesign
Both Bush and the National Governors Association (NGA) targeted high schools this year, and nearly a dozen states took steps to make high school a more challenging experience for students, according to NCSL. The NGA spearheaded a year-long national campaign to push stricter high school standards to better prepare students for college and the workforce, prompting much of the legislative activity.
- Lawmakers in six states -- Arkansas, Delaware, Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma and Oregon -- adopted tougher course requirements for students to get a diploma.
- Four states -- Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and South Carolina -- passed legislation requiring high school students to create individual graduation plans to match course work with college or career goals.
- Six states -- Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas -- created or expanded dual enrollment programs that allow students to take college classes towards an associate degree while still in high school.