From the Editor
State of the State Education Priorities
Anne Wujcik — Friday, March 03, 2017
The Education Commission of the States (ECS) released its annual summary of the top education priorities identified by 42 governors in their 2017 State of the State addresses. ECS tracks and analyzes governors' addresses, identifying emerging trends and priority issue areas. The report focuses on the top seven most common themes. A complete detailing of each governor's education policy priorities to date can found in Education Commission of the States' interactive database.
The top priority for governors is school finance. At least 32 governors focused on improving K-12 education through funding. Priorities included increasing overall funding, updating funding formulas and improving infrastructure. Some governors focused on equity by proposing changes to the dispersal and utilization of state education dollars to improve opportunities for at-risk populations.
It's not uncommon for K-12 funding to be among governor's top priorities. While it is one thing for a governor to propose increases, getting them through the legislature can be problematic. While there have certainly been budget battles these past few years, in the end increased K-12 funding received solid support. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, in FY 2017 (July 1, 2016-June 30 2017), 39 states enacted spending increases for K-12 education resulting in a net increase of $9.4 billion, compared to a $14.7 billion increase in FY 2016 and $11.1 billion in FY 2015. You'll note that the rate of increase has slowed. More than half the states have reported that FY2017 revenues have been coming in below projections. The revenue outlook for FY 2018 is still unclear. The states are watching the Trump administration and its promises to cut taxes and repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The states receive billions in federal funds to support Medicaid and worry that the ACA replacement would reduce the Federal contributions, further straining state budgets. Education and Medicaid account for the largest portions of states' general fund spending.
Updating funding formulas is no small task. These formulas are often so complex that the pool of people who fully understand the formulas and how they impact various aspects of the K-12 system is relatively small. While formulas do need to be updated (and simplified) it will take a lot of people working together to make this happen and the process is highly contentious, since there are always winners and losers. It is easier to change the way state education dollars are distributed in order to improve opportunities for at-risk populations. Many states already use some form of weighted funding to send additional resources to schools serving high numbers of at risk students.
Other top K-12 priorities included teacher issues such as recruiting, retaining and better compensating teachers. At least 17 governors focused on these issues, detailing strategies such as salary increases, student loan forgiveness programs and leadership and mentoring programs. Some states are facing persistent teacher shortages. Higher salaries may help, but with many shortages concentrated in the areas of science, higher math and computer science, it will be hard to compete with the private sector.
The states have long taken the lead in preschool education and governors continue to be supportive. ECS reports that this year, governors took a more expansive view of early learning, using a P-3 approach that included the pre-K through third grade years. The more the preschool experience is structured to integrate with the traditional school system, the more likely that children will have a successful transition to formal schooling. At least 16 governors prioritized the P-3 years, including everything from expanding the number of pre-K slots, moving to full-day kindergarten, and funding to early literacy development
At least 11 governors expressed a commitment to improving access to technology for teachers and students. While the majority of governors called for improving access to high-speed internet, some focused on upgrading classroom technology. Many governors that addressed improving access to high-speed internet proposed targeting investments to rural areas.
I don't expect we'll see the governors turn into the kind of education activists we saw in the 80s with Dick Riley (SC), Lamar Alexander (TN), Bill Clinton (AR), but with the states firmly in control of education policy under ESSA, governors are playing an even more central role in setting local education agendas. And with the states contributing, on average, 45% of K-12 funding (compared to the federal government's 10%), they also hold the purse strings, though final appropriations authority rests with state legislatures. Given some uncertainty about the economic outlook for FY 2018, it will be interesting to see how aggressive the governors are in translating their priorities into their FY18 budget proposals.