As a number of state legislative sessions come to a close for the year, it’s clear that many local lawmakers had similar priorities across the nation.
From addressing teacher retention to providing more mental health resources for students, legislatures tackled many of the same challenges affecting a wide number of school districts in their states. Here are the major takeaways from the 2019 state legislative sessions.
Teacher issues are a priority
Upward of 1,418 bills were introduced on teaching issues alone this year, and a total of 191 have reached the governors' desks so far. Most of these proposals addressed teacher compensation and certification and/or licensure, which remain growing concerns among educators. However, lawmakers varied widely in their approaches to tackling teaching issues.
As part of a greater national push for professional development and increasing standards for teacher recruitment, New York legislators appropriated a portion of the state’s 2019 budget to invest in educator effectiveness and preparation. In order to receive teacher certification, candidates will now have to undergo high-quality, rigorous training and also pass an entrance exam.
In Idaho, a similar push led to lawmakers passing a bill that will require teachers seeking to renew their certification to first pass a professional development course. States like Colorado are also establishing teacher mentorship programs and investing in programs designed to improve teacher preparation, as studies show better preparation leads to higher rates of retention.
However, other states concerned with teacher shortages are doing what some would consider to be lowering the standards necessary to become a teacher, which experts say could hurt the profession in the long run by stunting its “modernization.” Arkansas legislation amended first-time licensure requirements so K-6 teachers or specialized K-12 teachers no longer have to pass a pedagogy assessment. Instead, the new provisions only require a “demonstration of pedagogical competence.”
Shortage concerns have also led states to allow added incentives for retired teachers to return to the classroom. In Montana and Illinois, new legislation would allow those in retirement to teach while also continuing to receive retirement benefits.
School safety approaches focus on student mental health
While a large number of bills that made it to governors' desks include emergency protocols, such as drills and threat assessments, a notable number also focused on improving and expanding the mental health resources available for students as a way to address rising school safety concerns. Many school safety approaches incorporate preventative measures, like integrating mental health awareness into teacher training.
In Texas, districts are now required to integrate trauma-informed practices in each school setting, and provisions also address parental awareness, staff training and reporting. In a community-based approach, the bill also encourages collaboration between school districts and local health organizations to provide training opportunities.
Some safety bills that incorporated mental health awareness in their provisions also decreased the ratio of students to counselors. And Mississippi is mandating the implementation of social-emotional curricula for students.
SROs' roles in school environments are being more clearly defined
As an increasing number of school resource officers (SROs) are placed in schools, their roles and responsibilities are also being reassessed. Because the position is highly unique and individual to each school, and because of a renewed importance placed on SROs as a result of school shootings, state legislatures this year saw a growing number of bills addressing the role and the requirements of candidates.
In states including Virginia and Alabama, SROs will now be required to have a minimum amount of training in order to qualify for the job. There has also been a push for SROs to adopt a social-emotional and trauma-informed approach.
In Texas, lawmakers have narrowed the role of an SRO, defining the officers as strictly security personnel with no added behavioral or administrative duties. In line with guidelines provided by the National Association of School Resource Officers, some states, such as Alabama, are ensuring that SROs are not given the power to arrest students.
School personnel will be more informed on suicide prevention
Another growing concern, the rising rate of adolescent suicide, was also a hot topic this past legislative session. In addition to mental health awareness training as a method to address school safety concerns, a number of efforts were pushed forward to incorporate suicide awareness and prevention training for teachers and school staff. One Nevada act requires suicide prevention training for SROs.
With suicide as the second-leading cause of death for students ages 15 to 19, schools are even upping their crisis and emergency response plans to incorporate provisions on suicide prevention.
This, combined with an increased focus on school safety and trauma-informed practices, means a greater amount of resources are being directed toward in students' mental health.