Reforming American Public Education in 2012: The States to Watch

Dec 28, 2011 by

by RiShawn Biddle –

Certainly discussions about the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act will be one of the big issues in the coming year — as will the Obama administration’s efforts to essentially gut the law’s accountability provisions through its less-than-thoughtful waiver gambit (which, as the Center for American Progress has shown in its recent report, hasn’t brought out much good from any of the states applying to escape the law). School reform will also be an issue in this year’s presidential election race.

But there will be plenty of action at the state level, especially when it comes to expanding school choice, overhauling teacher performance management, and forcing school districts to shut down or revamp dropout factories. School reformers and teachers’ unions will go after each other in state and congressional races; expect Democratic primaries for statewide and legislative offices to be venues in which centrist and liberal Democrat reformers clash with National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates, along with allies among progressive groups that have become beneficiaries of union largesse.

Certainly Michigan and Pennsylvania — the sites of action on the school choice front — will once again be in the headlines. So will New York State, where the education commissioner, John King, has proposed to cut off federal School Improvement Grant dollars to districts that have not enacted the Empire State’s teacher evaluation program. Expect Indiana to also be back in the news, especially with the proposed effort to put the state’s largest school district, Indianapolis Public Schools, into the hands of the city’s mayor. But there will be more. Here is Dropout Nation‘s small list of states where there will be plenty of action.

1) Connecticut: The Nutmeg State’s governor, Dan Malloy, has declared that the 2012 legislative session will focus largely on education reform — and has offered his own roadmap for the legislature to follow. Likely on the list is an effort to abolish the state’s reverse seniority law that essentially guarantees that veteran teachers keep their jobs during layoffs regardless of their performance at the expense of talented but-less senior colleagues; more money for early childhood education may also be on the table. Given the presence of the state’s new education commissioner, Stefan Pryor, a push for expanding the number of charter schools serving students in the state may also be on the table. All of this follows on a series of interesting, but vague proposals offered up in November by the state’s superintendent’s association, and the work of a school finance panel that Malloy put together earlier this year.

Whether or not any of his proposals come to fruition is a different story. For one, Malloy is squabbling with fellow Democrats who control the state’s legislature; some aren’t exactly too pleased with some of Malloy’s plans, including the consolidation of the state’s community colleges into one system akin to those in Indiana, and are even less pleased with Malloy’s success in gaining more authority to cut the state’s budget. Malloy is having particular trouble with Gary Holder-Winfield — who co-chairs the legislature’s education committee — and Roberta Willis (Holder-Winfield’s counterpart on the higher education panel); this will make it difficult for Malloy to pass any school reform legislation.

Second, there will be other battles over which Malloy will have to weigh in. Parent Power activists such as the Connecticut Parents Union are already gearing up for a fight with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association over expanding the reach of the state’s Parent Trigger law; the fight is particularly tinged by revelations earlier this year of the AFT’s presentation on how it unsuccessfully attempted to kibosh the passage of the Parent Power law and how it exacted revenge by ousting Jason Bartlett, the legislator who led the passage of the law and the neutralizing of his former colleague, Gary Holder-Winfield. (The revelations, by the way,so embarrassed the AFT that it forced national President Randi Weingarten to issue a series of non-apology apologies and meet with Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel and other activists.) Parent Power activists are particularly miffed that the AFT and NEA managed to exempt seven schools the unions control, called CommPACT schools, from the state’s Parent Trigger law by allowing them to not assemble school governance councils through which parents can exercise the Parent Trigger and push for the overhaul of failing schools.

Parent Power groups are also going to push the legislature to eliminate the state’s Zip Code Education policies, which essentially limit the ability of poor and minority families to provide their kids the high-quality education they deserve. Particularly motivated by efforts in Norwalk to convict homeless mother Tanya McDowell of what can only be laughingly called “stealing education” and a lawsuit filed by a Connecticut grandmother, Marie Menard, against the Stratford school district after it indicted her and her daughter for sending her grandchildren to that district’s schools. Parent Power activists will also likely have a few choice words for Malloy, who left those groups and other reformers off his school finance reform panel.

Then there are the efforts of ConnCAN, the state’s leading reform outfit, to revive a proposed overhaul of the state’s teacher evaluation system; the law had failed to gain passage last year. Also, ConnCAN will likely battle against the NEA’s effort to move teacher certification and accountability out of the purview of the state’s education department to a panel over which the NEA and AFT would likely have significant influence.

2) New Jersey: There is plenty of unfinished business for the state’s tough-talking governor, Chris Christie, and the reform-minded Democrats which control leadership in the statehouse. The first lies with Christie’s efforts to pass a law allowing for companies to get tax credits for offering school vouchers to poor and minority students. One of several bills that have been held up in the legislature since June, the NEA’s Garden State affiliate, along with suburban school districts, have strongly opposed its passage — and has been so controversial that it was a driving force behind an unsuccessful attempt by 13 lower house legislators to oust Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. The speaker, who is backed by state senate powerhouse and school reformer George Norcross, has all but said that the legislation will be considered whether or not she gets the full backing of the Democratic caucus; this, in turn, would require Oliver (and Christie) to win backing from the assembly Republican minority.

There is also a proposed teacher merit pay bill that has been the subject of negotiations between Christie and State Senate President Steve Sweeney. Sweeney announced earlier this month that he and Christie were close to reaching a compromise on that plan. There is also an effort to overhaul the state’s special education ghetto and a push to move school board elections from April to November; the state’s school board association backs both measures, especially the latter (since it allows districts taxing below the state’s property tax levy to put budgets before voters for approval).

Meanwhile the NEA, along with suburban districts, are pushing for the passage of Assembly Bill 3582, which would require the charter schools to be approved by voters in the neighborhoods that the schools would serve. If the bill is passed (and supporters of the bill can override the likely veto from Gov. Chris Christie), it won’t actually do much to stop the opening of charters in big cities such as Newark (where families have been voting for charters with their feet for some time). But it will likely keep charters from opening in New Jersey’s tony suburbs, whose districts have long opposed any kind of school reform.

With only one month — next month to pass all these bills, expect a flurry of activity from state legislators. Of course, Christie can also call a special session and force the legislature to work throughout the summer on passing the reforms he wants. Either way, what happens in New Jersey may set the agenda for what happens in other states where there is divided control of state government.

3) Virginia: Over the past two years, Gov. Bob McDonnell has been an absolute disappointment on the school reform front. Last year,  he didn’t put enough pressure on the Democratic majority that controlled the state senate to pass a proposed school choice bill; this led to the bill’s defeat. His teacher pay differential plan, which will provide additional dollars to districts in order to lu  while all he succeeded in doing is passing a watered down charter school expansion bill. Meanwhile McDonnell gave his now-former Secretary of Education, Gerard Robinson, little in the way of political backing or cover to push for any significant reforms; instead of seeking out a strong reformer with national credentials (which he could have actually found living in the state’s northern region near Washington, D.C.), McDonnell chose as Robinson’s successor, Laura Fornash, who has more experience with higher education than with K-12.

But now, with Republicans in control of both houses of the state legislature, McDonnell can actually pass some meaningful reforms. One critical move would be to pass the voucher-like tax credit bill that was defeated in the state senate last year after passage by the lower house; pushing for the creation of a state commission to authorize and oversee charter schools (or requiring the state’s education department to take on that task) would also be sensible. Another move that McDonnell should undertake is to revamp the state’s teacher evaluation system. This means

The Dominion State also has other issues to tackle. Start with the state’s pension system, of which teachers make up 43 percent of both active members and retirees. It is underfunded to the tune of $14 billion (as of the 2009-2010 fiscal year). Given that employees make just one percent of the $1.9 billion in annual contributions into the pension (the rest, including contributions that are supposed to be made by teachers and civil servants, are handed by state and local governments), this state of affairs really cannot continue. But it appears that the state legislature may simply ignore the problem. And if the legislature follows the rather irresponsible advice of House Appropriations Committee Director Robert Vaughn, the state may shove its head further in the sand by ignoring stricter financial reporting standards being crafted by the Government Accounting Standards Board that will force states to fully acknowledge the high cost of their deals with teachers’ unions and other public-sector unions.

4) Alabama: Two years ago, the NEA succeeded in convincing the Yellowhammer state’s legislature to kibosh a plan to allow for the existence of charter schools, and managed to back one of the few anti-charter school Republicans in current Gov. Robert Bentley. But school reformers have been working actively on this issue. And now, they have an ally in Bentley’s education policy director, Emily Schultz, a protege of Michelle Rhee who recently served as a staffer at school reform outfit Mass Insight. This, along with the lack of a permanent chief executive at the helm of the state’s department of education, the retirement of the Alabama NEA’s longtime boss (and political powerhouse) Paul Hubbert, and the fact that Republicans control both houses of the legislature, could lead to charter schools becoming a reality in the state. But given the longtime resistance toward charters and Bentley’s own political considerations, expect this to be a fight to the finish.

5) Washington State: Its status as one of the few states that don’t allow for the existence of charter schools must certainly be an embarrassment to its most-prominent residents, Bill and Melinda Gates, and the school reform-minded foundation that also makes its headquarters here. The fact that nearby Oregon and Idaho has become the leading school reform states in this part of the American West is also particularly embittering. So this may be the year that the state actually embarks on systemic reform.

The state’s governor, Christine Gregoire, made some noise last year with her bungled effort to consolidate the state’s education agencies into one operation. This time around, she is proposing to expand a year-old pilot teacher evaluation program throughout the entire state; under the plan, teachers rated “basic” for two consecutive years would join those rated “unsatisfactory” on probation. At the very least, it would finally move away from a two-level rating system that Gregoire argues doesn’t work.

The rest of her package — including a proposal to put six dropout factories under the control of state universities — is rather uninteresting. But Gregiore’s plans, tepid as they may be, could be the start of more action. The National PTA’s Evergreen State affiliate has already announced its push for allowing for the existence of charter schools, rubbing the state’s NEA affiliate the wrong way. The presence of Stand For Children in the state also makes it likely that charters will end up on the state legislative agenda whether the NEA likes it or not.

The bigger school reform play may come with the state’s gubernatorial elections. With Gregoire leaving office, it will likely be a race between Republican Rob McKenna, the state’s attorney general — who is a strong supporter of allowing for the existence of charters — and Congressman Jay Inslee, who has garnered the NEA’s endorsement. Given that McKenna currently leads Inslee in the gubernatorial race — and the overall fatigue with the Gregoire regime among the state’s voters, the election offers an opportunity for reformers to actually put the lessons they’ve learned from past political successes and losses into practice.

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