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STATE OF THE STATES: Governors Point to Reauthorization of ESEA, Higher Curriculum Standards to Improve Quality of Education in Coming Years

As new state legislative sessions get underway and several states across the country swear in newly elected governors, education issues are at the forefront.

As new state legislative sessions get underway and several states across the country swear in newly elected governors, education issues are at the forefront. During their “state of the states” speeches on behalf of the National Governors Association (NGA) on January 6, NGA Chair Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado and Vice Chair Gov. Gary Herbert (R) of Utah pointed to the continuing need for Congress to work in tandem with states in a bipartisan effort to improve the quality of education and the accessibility of a quality education for all students. Similarly, several governors used their annual state of the state addresses to outline initiatives from pre-K through higher education to improve student outcomes in their states.

In his speech, Hickenlooper outlined several education reforms that governors have undertaken in recent years, including new programs for early education, increased funding for education, and higher standards. He noted that high standards alone “will not change much” unless they are accompanied by improvements to teaching and leadership.

Herbert said in his speech that governors were “calling on Congress” to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in a way that protects state flexibility in terms of students’ education and empowering teachers.

“[ESEA] should be done in a way that protects states’ rights to set standards and also recognizes the need for maximum flexibility as states meet goals and advance education for all of our students,” Herbert said. “The new act should reinforce the principle that accountability and responsibility for K–12 education rests with the states. It should also support governors’ strategies to improve low-performing schools. And it must also include flexibility for governors to empower teachers and school leaders to prepare all students for success.”

As Hickenlooper and Herbert outlined governors’ education priorities writ large, governors nationwide began their annual state of the state addresses to outline their own education priorities.

During his January 13 state of the state address South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) discussed his state’s continued effort to improve student access to Career and Technical Education (CTE). He also spoke highly of a new low-cost dual-credit program that allows high school juniors and seniors to earn college credits for only $40 a credit hour and that count toward their high school diploma.

“Dual credit is a win-win-win-win,” Daugaard said. “Students who start college or tech school with some credits already earned are more likely to complete on time and at less cost. Universities and technical institutes get the opportunity to make themselves known to prospective students, and to help prepare those students for success when they graduate. High schools gain flexibility to offer more opportunities to students, at no cost to the district. And the state gets more young people who are ready to succeed and to live and work here in South Dakota.”

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) used his January 16 state of the state address to pledge $50 million for a new “Nevada Ready 21 Plan” that will train teachers and provide digital devices to middle school students. He lamented Nevada’s “worst-in-the-nation” high school graduation rate and proposed a new grant program to ensure that high school students graduate ready for college and a career.

In his January 5 inaugural address, California Gov. Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown (D) offered several educational challenges facing the state, including recruiting and training tens of thousands of teachers, helping students master the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and “fostering the creativity needed to inspire students.” He said teachers need to be held accountable, but also need “encouragement, not endless regulations, and micro-management from afar.”

The CCSS remain a hot topic for other governors as well. While some, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), remain opposed to the standards, others, such as Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D), stand firmly in support of the CCSS. In his January 7 state of the state address, Beshear emphasized how rigorous standards, aligned assessments, and better preparing students for life after high school have made Kentucky a success story for education reform.

“For decades, our education performance was cause for embarrassment,” Beshear said. “And universities and employers alike were sounding the alarm: Kentucky students, they warned, were simply not prepared. Today, student performance has improved tremendously, college and career readiness has skyrocketed and our graduation rates are climbing. Back in 2011, education experts measured our college and career readiness rate at 38 percent. In 2012, it jumped to 47 percent; in 2013, 54 percent; and in 2014, to 62 percent. Meanwhile, our high school graduation rate in 2013 improved to 86.1 percent. That’s twelfth, nationwide. And it’s better than all but two of our neighbors.”

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.