by Chuck Bennett, Director of Government Relations
The Legislature is nearly finished with its first phase (the vast majority of the hundreds of bills related to education have been through the first cull in either the House or Senate) and it’s fairly clear which bills or issues will dominate the rest of the Session.
The biggest issue, the size of the State School Fund, has been resolved in two parts with a total $5.7 billion biennial budget passing both chambers this week. It’s divided into two parts with $5.6 billion running through the formula to all districts and ESDs. The $100 million remainder is coming out of the Education Stability Fund and is available only to school districts and mainly for teacher and school day restorations. Legislators are proud of the fact they got the state’s biggest single budget out this early but behind the scenes, there is a flurry of activity to increase the fund again after the final May forecast if is up sufficiently to justify it. At this point the target is to increase the SSF to around $5.8 billion before the Session ends and if the economy continues to improve over the next year to allocate at least another $57 million in the next Session. It’s all based on the state’s economic recovery.
In the area of education reform, COSA has worked closely with the
Chalkboard Project and Stand for Children in the OASE Vision and Policy
Task Force to so far successfully advance a bill aimed at developing
more standardized systems for teacher and administrator evaluation. We
were able to work with OEA and get their support for the bill as well.
The broad visioning statement developed by the group served as a
blueprint for goals covered in all of the Governor’s legislation and
education system reorganization efforts including appointment of a State
Superintendent of Public Instruction, a P-20 education policy panel,
and early childhood education program coordination. At the same time
COSA worked with other education groups to limit the number of proposals
that either dramatically increased costs for school districts or
resulted in a poorly conceived policy direction without adequate funding
such as proposals to institute many of the “education reforms”
developed in Florida and other states.
The future of the state’s ESD system has been a topic throughout the Session with an initial proposal to defund them included in the Governor’s budget. A number of bills have moved regarding ESDs with a variety of proposed changes in them. None of the bills, yet, have found the kind of support it will take to make it through the Session. The only bill that has moved is SB 250 and it was referred to the Ways and Means Committee where it is being fundamentally changed.
At this point here are the basic concepts being debated and some possible resolutions making the rounds:
- Funding for ESDs from the SSF pegged somewhere between the current 4.75% of the total fund down to 4.25%. The funds generated in this cut to ESDs will either go back to school districts or be used for specific programs or both.
- An “opt out” provision for school districts. This concept is fluid at this point and ranges from a few districts statewide, districts inside certain ESDs or for all districts in all ESDs.
- An ODE-based “Office of Regional Services” to oversee ESDs and work on a plan to improve delivery of regional services.
- Requirement that district superintendents serve either on the board of the ESD or on its budget committee.
- Proposed changes in ESD auditing requirements generally aimed at annual audits registered with ODE.
The bottom line on ESDs is that there are many moving parts in the works and it’s not clear yet that any of them have enough votes in both chambers to become law. At this point it is not clear whether any bill related to ESDs will pass the Legislature.
Big financial issues besides the level of state funding face districts and two of them attracted the interest of legislators – PERS and OEBB. Changes to either benefit system drew immediate opposition from the state’s public employee unions and failed to garner strong support from the Governor – a traditional prerequisite for this kind of change. We were able to help get hearings on the issues but at this point in the Session there is no indication there will be big changes brought to either chamber. Despite this, there are signs that a bill setting up a more independent review of OEBB costs and benefit packages related to non-OEBB served districts may get a third-party review rather than the current reliance on OEBB to do its own evaluation of comparative costs. Changes in PERS remain very problematic and will most likely end with a bill to charge taxes to out-of-state recipients.
Legislation limiting mandates on school districts have received hearings and some are moving forward. It appears now there will be a complete review of the state’s current school report card system aimed at legislation next February (yes they meet again in February and will from now on). There also is a bill moving along that will limit the school improvement plan filing requirements.