States Go To The Head Of The Class

They, not Washington, are taking the lead on education reform

How eager are the states to deliver the education reform that politicians have been promising voters? Consider what happened in Sacramento. In just nine weeks, a special session of the Democratic legislature passed a quartet of bills submitted by the new Democratic governor, Gray Davis--beating Davis' own Mar. 30 deadline. Then, Davis hopscotched the state for bill-signing ceremonies that culminated at the Mt. Washington Elementary School in Los Angeles on Apr. 6.

Pols everywhere know that education reform is a hot button. Congressional candidates from both parties campaigned on the issue last fall, taking every opportunity--as Davis did--to be photographed amid beaming schoolkids. But it's the statehouses that are delivering the goods. Ohio, Washington, Texas, and Florida have all passed major education bills, in addition to California. And with state budgets in surplus, statehouses plan to boost education spending 7% this year, to $164 billion, according to the Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York at Albany. That's nearly double the 3.8% growth in state spending overall.

Washington's education agenda, meanwhile, has stalled. The "ed-flex" bill, which gives schools more choice on how to spend federal aid, bogged down in Congress this year as the two parties competed for bragging rights. The bill eventually passed both houses, but it's the only education measure that has moved so far this year. "The states are taking the initiative on education while Washington is doing little," says Donald J. Boyd, director of the Center for the Study of the States.

Behind the wave of reform is the advent of statewide scholastic standards, which made accountability possible. "Until a few years ago, the states couldn't peg where the kids were," says Eric Hirsch, an education-policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Now, the states are trying to use test performance to reward schools and teachers meeting the standards and to sanction those that don't. The most extreme sanctions include voucher programs for kids in the worst-performing schools, forcing public schools to compete with private ones. States are also passing laws that let the state fire local school boards, which happened in Detroit in March.

Teacher quality is another priority. North Carolina, Oregon, and Ohio have beefed up certification statutes. Other states, led by Connecticut, have boosted teacher pay. Alabama and South Carolina are considering state lotteries patterned after Georgia's, which gives scholarships to encourage students to become teachers.

But nowhere is the need for reform more acute than in California. The state school system, the nation's largest, was once the envy of the rest of the country. But that ended in 1978 when voters approved Proposition 13, putting a cap on the property taxes that largely funded education. Now, California ranks 37th in high school graduation rates and 50th in students per teacher. The diversity of the public school population is staggering: Fully 25% of all students have limited English capabilities. In the sprawling Los Angeles district, students speak 75 native languages, and 46% are deficient in English.

EAGER VOTERS. Davis' sweeping package included procedures to rank schools by performance and reward the best with more funds. It created an early reading program and requires high school seniors to pass an exit exam to graduate. And it established the first statewide, mandatory peer review and assistance program for teachers.

California voters appear eager to keep up with the governor and lawmakers. They went along with a $9.2 billion school bond issue, the biggest ever. If that happy combination of public will, political sensitivity--and healthy state budgets--continues, kids may even see the benefits.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE