Governors Tout K-12 Education as a Priority in Budgets for Coming Year

Senior Editor

Last year’s elections brought a wave of turnover to governors’ offices around the country, and many of the new occupants have wasted no time in making their ambitions for education policy known.

In budget proposals for the coming fiscal year, governors have proposed ambitious changes in education, including overhauls of how schools are funded, as well as increased support for early education, teacher pay and recruitment, and school safety, according to a new analysis by the National Association of State Budget Officers.

At least 36 governors have unveiled their budget recommendations for fiscal 2020, which in most states begins July 1. Most states have experienced strong revenue growth in fiscal 2018 and 2019, and with that financial running room, many of those state leaders are signaling that they want to channel a “significant portion” of those resources into education, explains the association.

While it’s not unusual in a good budget year for governors to tout plans for more money for schools, what’s striking is the scope of the proposals this year, said Kathryn Vesey White, the director of budget process studies at NASBO.

“The number and size of the proposals in education in notable,” White said in an interview. Governors are “coming into this budget cycle with stronger conditions [than in] past fiscal years.”

The flow of new money hasn’t necessarily brought consensus on what to do with it. Governors and lawmakers in some states on whether to pursue new spending on education or bank that money for a rainy day, as my Education Week colleague Daarel Burnette has reported.

There were 36 governors’ races on the ballot in 2018. Republicans won 20 of those seats, while Democrats took 16. That leaves the GOP in control over 27 governors’ mansions, and Democrats in control of 23.

Among the top priorities of both new and incumbent governors for the next fiscal year:

  • In early education, at least 20 governors so far have proposed new funding for expanding access to public preschool. Those states include California, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
  • At least 18 governors so far have recommended teacher pay raises, including Georgia, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Virginia. In Oklahoma–the scene of major teacher protests over pay and school funding–newly elected Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has recommended an additional $71 million in teacher pay raises, following a salary bump approved last year.
  • Governors in a number of states have called for making changes to school funding formulas. Those proposals include a 4 percent per-pupil funding increase in Utah and a 5.3 percent direct-aid boost for schools in Maryland. Additionally, pitches in New Mexico, Delaware, and Massachusetts call for new money to support either economically disadvantaged students or special populations, such as special-needs students. One thing to keep in mind: Just because policymakers vow to alter funding formulas doesn’t mean they’ll follow through, as EdWeek’s Burnette has reported. He walks readers through this year’s proposed changes.
  • A number of governors have put school construction and improved facilities in their sights. Hawaii is considering adding $400 million over two years for school infrastructure improvements; New Hampshire’s governor has recommended $63 million in a one-time grants for property-poor districts; Georgia and Maryland are weighing proposals for investments in school facilities.
  • In school safety, South Carolina is considering a plan to provide funds to place school resource officers in schools that can’t afford them. Utah wants to devote one-time spending to safety upgrades at facilities, according to NASBO.

State legislatures still have to approve budgets offered up by governors, a process that doesn’t occur in many states until late spring or even early summer. (Last year’s elections left Republicans in control of 62 percent of state legislative chambers, and Democrats have a grasp on 38 percent of the chambers.)

As a result, some governors’ education blueprints “could be scaled back or defeated entirely,” White said.

In addition, increases in state funding do not always translate into school districts having a lot of more money, or the flexibility to spend it on their biggest needs. That means companies selling things like curriculum, data-analytics, student information and learning management systems and other products will have to go district-by-district, to gauge the true impact.

Over the past few years, many district administrators have complained to EdWeek Market Brief that increases in state revenues are not as generous as they seem, either because they are affixed to state mandates, or because they money does little to dig them out of holes created by state budget cuts during the years following the Great Recession. In some cases, districts leaders are reluctant to make purchases or add new programs they fear will be cut during the next downturn.

The impact of governors’ proposals for fiscal 2020 depends on the nature of what they’re proposing, said White. If a governor is offering more money to districts but then attaching a requirement such as a lengthening the school year, the odds of K-12 systems seeing extra cash from that plan could be slim, she said.

On the other hand, if the legislative proposals on the table end up increasing per-pupil funding, then typically “that’s more money to spend on students,” White said.

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