By Tim Walker
In the 2018 elections, more than 300 state legislative seats and seven state chambers were flipped to pro-public education majorities, many in states that have suffered through a decade of devastating cuts to education and relentless attacks on educators and other public sector workers. In addition, voters elected a new crop of governors with proven track records of championing public education.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that too many state governments are dominated by lawmakers who have another kind of track record – one of cutting education spending, embracing every and all school privatization schemes, and targeting workers’ rights. So, while we will see pro-public education lawmakers on the offensive in 2019, also expect to see more of the same old fights. Here are some of the battles that loom before lawmakers are sworn in after the new year.
Education Funding. The results of the 2018 election sent a loud and clear message from voters – we want more money for public schools. Across the country, new governors and lawmakers will be proposing ambitious budgets with new ways of funding K-12 schools in their states.
Attacks on Public Unions. Michigan lawmakers have got an early start during the 2018 lame-duck session by trying to shoehorn in a bill that would have forced public sector unions to hold “recertification” elections every other year. The Michigan Education Association calls it a blatant attempt to divert union time and money away from mobilizing its members. Even if the bill fails to pass in the lame-duck session, the GOP will still control both legislative houses in 2019. But the arrival of Governor Gretchen Whitmer means the measure, if passed, will most certainly be vetoed. Requiring unions to recertify more often is a marquee item for many right-wing lawmakers and is likely to be on the legislative docket in several other states in 2019, including Ohio.
Payroll deduction is also high on the list. In 2018, the Texas Senate passed a bill which would have prohibited public employees from paying union dues through payroll deduction. Although the bill was never voted on by the House, it is sure to come up again in 2019.
Privatization. 2018 wasn’t a great year for private school voucher programs and unaccountable charter schools. On election day, Arizona rejected an expansion of that state’s Education Savings Account program and newly-elected governors have promised to increase oversight and accountability of the charter sector. But privatization advocates are nothing if not relentless (and extremely well-funded). School voucher proponents in states like Texas and Tennessee stand ready once again to reintroduce voucher bills that stalled in previous years.
Pensions. Public pensions are under attack across the U.S. State governors and legislators have been moving to cut pension benefits not only for retired educators, but current and future educators as well. Kentucky governor Matt Bevin and his allies in the legislature passed a pension “reform” (translation: a drastic cut in benefits) bill in 2018 that the Kentucky Education Association said pulled the pulled the rug out from under educators who entered the profession with certain expectations for retirement security. The bill, signed into law in April, sparked massive teacher protests across the state. In December, the state Supreme Court struck it down, returning the issue to the state legislature in 2019. Kentucky is a deep red state, but a pension battle is also heating up in Vermont.
School Accountability. Many new governors elected in 2018 promised to take a hard look at punitive, test-based accountability systems. New Mexico Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham has promised to promote “less intrusive testing” and overhaul the state’s controversial teacher evaluation system.
2019 may also see a debate in the Texas legislature over the state’s letter-grade accountability system. The grades, which went into effect in 2018, are used to judge schools’ performance and their management. The Texas State Teachers Association has denounced the system, saying it “makes it easier to declare neighborhood schools “failures,” clearing the way to have them taken over by corporate, for-profit charter companies.”