State legislatures face challenges for education in 2021

As states move into COVID recovery mode, lawmakers and policymakers are assessing the impacts of the pandemic on budgets, accountability and student achievement gaps.
By: | December 14, 2020
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State legislatures are moving from a “triage” mode, in which action taken was in response to the rapid shutdown of schools in the spring, to a more forward-looking recovery mode, in which lawmakers and policymakers are planning for continued fallout of COVID-19 on state budget coffers, accountability requirements and student achievement gaps, education policy experts said during the recent ECS LIVE! conference.

Indeed, 34 states and the District of Columbia enacted 147 bills in the spring, far more than in a “normal” year, said Lexi Anderson, assistant director for the Education Commission of the States. Among the topics addressed by states were K-12 finance, online learning and technology, teaching, school calendars and high school graduation requirements.

Ben Erwin, a policy researcher with ECS, likened the current situation to being in “limbo,” with immediate needs that must be addressed and longer-term plans that need to be made.

Following are some of the areas that state legislatures are expected to address in the coming year:

  • School funding: State policymakers face financial uncertainty going into the next year, and legislatures will be challenged by reduced tax revenues and other funding shortfalls in the absence of another stimulus package, said Erwin. State legislatures and local educational agencies could be forced to make “difficult tradeoffs” that include teacher layoffs without additional funding, he said.
  • Accountability: School closures during “assessment season” in the spring means states in general do not have 2019-20 data for accountability systems, Anderson said. Some states are using assessment data from previous years to move forward with their accountability plans. Legislative action may be needed in other areas of accountability, such as attendance, in which there are seat time requirements set by state legislatures that may not be met in a virtual environment or if schools close for an extended period of time. This could lead to a shift to new models of collecting and reporting attendance. High school graduation policies may require more flexibility as well, with novel approaches to awarding credit.
  • Opportunity gaps: The decision to close schools in the spring laid bare the inequities in broadband access and has exacerbated “opportunity gaps,” Erwin said. This, compounded with learning loss, could put students a year behind in reading, and even more in math, he said, and that is without taking into account existing achievement gaps that were already present prior to the pandemic.

While there wasn’t much legislative attention to address these growing gaps in the spring and summer, Erwin said action is expected as legislatures reconvene over the coming months. He predicted educators could see changes to long-term strategies for closing the gaps in the next year.

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for TitleIAdmin, a DA sister publication.