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States take lead on education

Former senior official at the US Department of Education discusses education reform trends.

7 min read




State and local education policymakers are more firmly in the driver’s seat of education decision-making than in recent memory. Starting with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act and accelerating under the Trump Administration, the federal role in education has shifted dramatically and is in full retreat. 

Indeed, a recent executive order signed by the president instructs the US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to examine how the US Department of Education may be impinging on state and local control of education and to rescind or revise any regulations or policies that overstep congressionally defined limits of federal power. 

The federal role arguably reached its apex under the version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind. This law wound up creating conflicting requirements, dueling accountability systems and widespread discontentment. ESSA was Congress’s response to pulling the federal government back, restoring state and localities to their more historical primacy, and allowing for greater consistency between mandates and systems.

This shift comes at a time when the productivity of the educational system is increasingly under strain. It is difficult to identify measurable, sustained improvements in student outcomes over the last 25 years, during which time the combined federal, state and local spending on education has exceeded $12 trillion. Many are asking what has been achieved with these huge amounts of spending.

An easily understood assessment of our educational success is whether students are prepared for life after high school. Unfortunately, studies show that one in four first-year college students require remedial coursework, which is costing the families of these unprepared students almost $1.5 billion every year. And it’s not just college. The number of open manufacturing positions has recently been the highest in the last 15 years because too many workers do not have the right preparation. More than one out of every ten 16 to 24-year-old students is unemployed, despite five million job openings.

What are policymakers doing with the newfound freedom — and responsibility — to address the educational outcomes of students in schools and school districts across the country?

An examination of state legislative activity so far this year shows that there has been the usual flurry of proposed bills, but far fewer actually enacted, clustering around:

   Teaching (retention and compensation);

   Accountability (school improvement and report cards); and

   Assessment (summative and college entrance exams).

It is interesting to note that the intense focus on Common Core assessments over the last few years seems to have quieted down. Also notable is the very small number of ESSA-specific and data privacy bills signed into law. While there may be a few more bills enacted, most state legislatures are now winding down and unlikely to do much more besides address funding (more on that below).

Yet there are significant issues that are gathering momentum and likely to result in more enacted legislation over the next few years.

One is school choice. Certainly this has been an area of focus with the Trump Administration and Secretary DeVos. The reality, though, is that the real action will be at the state level where the vast majority of education funding is provided. 

One particular emphasis in school choice among the states is Education Savings Accounts. An ESA is set up by the government for parents to withdraw money for approved education expenses such as private school tuition, as well as tutoring and other education-related expenses. ESAs are not vouchers and are an effort to avoid state constitutional issues. 

Over half the states have proposed or considered ESA legislation, an uptick from last year. However, the number of states addressing all forms of school choice — ESAs, vouchers, charters — has declined from the prior year. Two notable examples of school choice legislation enacted this year include Arizona, which opened up ESAs to all of the state’s students (over 1 million); and Kentucky, which is now the 44th state to allow for charter schools.

Another growing area of focus for states is personalized learning. A number of states are going “all-in” on models of personalized and competency-based learning, especially Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Others are working their way toward a more personalized approach like New Jersey and Idaho.

In these models, students learn at their own rates in different subjects and progress to more advanced work as they master standards-based content by integrating state-of-the-art technology to support teachers in individualizing instruction for all students.

Policymakers are increasingly considering how personalized learning can improve the productivity of their educational systems, something they are more able to do now than ever before. The related state activity is around allowing flexibility in how schools are funded and run, diplomas are awarded and curriculum is implemented.

Career and technical education is also getting more attention. As a corollary to getting students college-ready, many states are pushing to better align their educational systems with economic needs, so students will be better equipped to take more immediate advantage of career opportunities. Governors in Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee have focused on CTE alignment with current and future workforce needs.

Given that approximately 90% of every dollar spent on K-12 education comes from state and local sources, the state of the states on education spending is another major area of annual state focus.

States have had a difficult time with education spending. Surprising many economists, many states are facing tough budgetary environments, which comes at an especially challenging time as states reclaim their mantle of leadership of education issues and the pressure to produce results — especially for low-performing schools and districts —  increases. 

Over 50% of the states missed their revenue projections this year. In response, many legislatures are passing more conservative budgets. Other states (e.g., Maryland, Texas, and Utah) are considering significant alterations to funding formulas, including the use of performance-based funding concepts.

For a few states, budget battles have involved court cases and been tremendously controversial. In Kansas and Washington, policymakers are continuing to battle over how to respond to their state’s supreme courts, which have deemed their respective funding schemes unconstitutional.

The states’ funding woes come at a potentially difficult time for federal education funding. The new administration has proposed steep cuts in education spending — $9 billion — to help offset the cost of increased defense spending. 

The uncertain economic times and tight budgets will constrain some states from undertaking large new initiatives or undertaking radical change. However, there is still plenty for states to do, particularly with their newfound freedom from many federal mandates. New thinking about how public education is administered is needed to move the needle on school performance. States have been asking for unfettered freedom to address their educational challenges and they seem to be starting to take the opportunity.

Doug Mesecar (@dmes) is VP of Strategic Partnerships for IO Education. He has served as a senior official at the US Department of Education, as well as with leading education companies and in Congress. Doug writes frequently on education policy and technology and mentors edtech startups. 


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