This latest column focuses on some of the key takeaways from what's happened in state legislatures during the past month. Previous installments of The 50 States of Education Policy, along with an interactive map that breaks down policies in each state, can be found here.
February has been a big month for education policy.
Lawmakers have continued proposing education measures for K-12 schools. Teachers in California, Colorado and West Virginia went on strike, and, in some cases, their protests opposed legislative measures. The nation also commemorated the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting, and officials vowed to create safer schools through regulation. But that's a small sample.
Hundreds of education bills have been proposed or debated throughout the month. Among these measures, a few trends stick out. Below are the main takeaways:
Trend: School safety and security
School safety talks surged as the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida approached. As of last month, lawmakers in several states introduced a slew of school safety-related bills, and this continued. According to the Education Commission of the States, there are 233 current state bills across the U.S. that deal with school safety.
According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, bills to allow guns in schools were pending in at least 26 states in February. One notable proposal is a Florida bill that moves to allow teachers to be armed, and similar measures exist in states including Nebraska. State legislatures, including those in Maryland and Virginia, are weighing policies that would designate school resource officers to be armed.
Other key measures include a drafted bill from the Arizona chapter of March for Our Lives, which formed in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. House Bill 2597 would push for improved school mental health services and require the adoption of safe schools plans.
The big idea: Recent school violence incidents have sparked a movement to institute stronger security policies. But this month, being the anniversary of a major event, was likely a special case in spurring more proposals. In addition, the drafted measure by Arizona students, as well as the year-long dialogue that stemmed from Parkland survivors, have shown activism continues to play a hand in politics and policy.
The debate over arming teachers surged when it was rumored that U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was considering using federal funds to equip teachers with guns. But it's clear the idea isn't disappearing, and it's possible guns could still make their way into classrooms. It's also clear that regardless of what districts or schools do, voters and policymakers alike think more regulations should guide school safety.
Trend: School funding
With education funding an issue in many states, several governors' budget proposals have significant implications for schools. Leaders in states including Maryland, Idaho, Missouri, Oregon and South Carolina all proposed budgets that give more to education. However, other governors – such as Gov. Mike Dunleavy in Alaska – are facing backlash for proposing massive cuts to public education.
Another aspect of the debate is the divide between traditional public schools and schools of choice. In West Virginia, the legislature considered a law that would create the state's first charter schools, sending teachers on strike in protest. The bill — which would have allowed public school funds to be diverted to private schools, charter schools or other options — received some support, but the body effectively killed the bill after a few hours of teachers striking.
The Florida Senate is also debating a bill that some say would take money for public school teachers and give some of it to charters.
The big idea: Funding has long been an issue in education, but amounts are starting to catch up to pre-recession levels, and voters have approved ballot measures supporting increases for public schools. School funding is also tied to other issues, including teacher pay, teacher retention and the ability to provide a high-quality education, and the issue has been more widely publicized.
Though support for school choice and vouchers is on the rise, the practices do have opponents. So, as long as non-public options continue to increase, critics will likely keep fighting for state and local funding to go exclusively toward public schools.
Trend: Teacher pay
In analyzing governors' 2019 State of the State addresses, Education Week found more than 15 have called for teacher pay raises. These proposals range from as low as a 2% pay raise in Virginia to a 20% raise in Arizona. And some are already set to take effect — in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a measure that would raise teacher salaries by $4,000 over the next four years.
Several other states – including Oklahoma, West Virginia, Idaho and Illinois – are weighing bills that either raise teacher pay or set minimum salary requirements.
Teacher pay was one of the subjects of recent educator activism. Teachers from two different charter networks in Chicago went on strike, calling for higher teacher wages, among other demands. Denver teachers also went on strike, largely due to frustration and confusion over a pay-for-performance system. And in Oakland, California, union members are currently on strike, with one of their requests including higher salaries.
The big idea: Whether demands are for higher pay, smaller class sizes or in opposition to education reform policies, teacher activism can be an effective way for educators to bring greater awareness to issues they face. As the Economic Policy Institute said in a September report, teacher strikes "have raised the profile of deteriorating teacher pay as a critical public policy issue." And this activism hasn't just increased public knowledge – it's also spurred more public support for their causes, which has continued to affect policymaking.
Trend: Curriculum changes
State lawmakers are looking to shift curriculum, and in February, many bills progressed in state legislatures. Colorado could potentially expand its sex education curriculum from just teaching abstinence-based programs to also focusing on other contraceptive methods and LGBT issues. Washington lawmakers proposed a bill to implement comprehensive sexual health education in public schools.
Meanwhile, New Jersey became the second state, after California, to require LGBT- and disability-inclusive curricula in public schools. And bills in other states, including Illinois, look to follow suit. States such as Oregon are exploring additional areas, including education on the Holocaust and other acts of genocide.
Bills to require a financial literacy course in high school, which were introduced in many state legislatures in January, continued to appear, with Minnesota among those recently proposing such a policy. Other bills, including a stalled measure in Nebraska that would require students to take the U.S. citizenship test by the end of 8th grade, are more controversial.
The big idea: As educators continue to emphasize positive school culture and whole-child educational approaches —which stress a well-rounded curriculum — adjustments to curriculum could continue to take place. Accountability measures in states' Every Student Succeeds Act plans include climate and culture metrics, and research has shown that students who don't have a positive or supportive school environment — which often is the case for students in the LGBT community — likely have lower attendance, lower academic achievement, and other physical, social and emotional issues.