Teacher Pay, School Choice, Literacy: Top Priorities for 44 Governors in 2023
DiMarco & Kirsch: COVID & culture wars give way to focus on early learning, higher ed and workforce prep in this year's State of the State addressesBy Bella DiMarco & Nathalie Kirsch | March 1, 2023
Updated March 20
The COVID pandemic — the topic that has dominated education conversations for the past three years — is largely missing from the State of the State addresses that governors are delivering to their legislatures this winter.
Instead, state leaders are using their bully pulpits to call for bigger investments in early learning and in the transition into the workforce and college. They are supporting better pay for public school teachers while pushing for public money to flow to private schools, which could ultimately make it more difficult to fund public school pay increases.
FutureEd analyzed 44 governors’ speeches and partnered with The 74 to convert our analysis into a series of interactive maps. We found that despite the academic gaps exposed in last year’s National Assessment for Educational Progress scores, there was surprisingly little talk of learning loss and efforts to catch students up. There was also little explicit “culture war” rhetoric around teaching racial history or banning books — and more lofty talk about the value of education.
“Education is a great equalizer in our society,” said Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in her Feb. 14 address to the Maine legislature. “Every child, regardless of where they live, deserves a world-class education that will prepare them for a successful adulthood.”
Here are some of the topics trending among the nation’s governors this year:
The teaching profession was a top priority across party lines, with 24 governors discussing ways to improve pay and support educators. Most of those governors proposed raising salaries, largely in response to shortages in their states but also as a way to recognize the important role teachers play.
In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andrew Beshear is supporting an across-the-board 5% pay hike, which he called “both vital and necessary to address Kentucky’s shortage of nearly 11,000 public school teachers.” Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little also pledged to increase salaries — both for starting teachers and for all instructors — by an average of $6,300 annually because “students and their families deserve quality teachers who are respected and compensated competitively.”
South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster took a different approach, offering both salary increases and one-time $2,500 retention bonuses, paid out in two installments. Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to provide retention bonuses as well as $50 million in performance-based compensations. Republican state leaders began supporting teacher pay hikes in response to widespread teacher protests against low pay in red states in the years before the pandemic — perhaps realizing that many rank-and-file teachers in their states are Republicans, even though teacher unions, favorite Republican political foils, lean left.
Governors also pitched additional strategies to address recruitment and retention challenges. Maryland Democratic Gov. Wes Moore is pushing legislation to strengthen the teacher pipeline with loan forgiveness, fellowships and grow-your-own programs. Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is proposing grants to help paraprofessionals become teachers. Nevada Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo is adding $30 million to provide stipends and tuition for student teachers. And in Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers announced plans to invest more than $20 million in recruiting, developing, and retaining teachers and student teachers.
Unlike the bipartisan support for teacher compensation, the school choice proposals in 15 State of the State addresses nearly all came from Republican governors. The only Democratic governor to broach the subject, Arizona’s Katie Hobbs, pledged to provide more accountability for a broad expansion of education savings accounts that her predecessor pushed through the legislature. “Any school that accepts taxpayer dollars should have to abide by the same accountability standards that all district schools do,” she said.
Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed, and has since signed, a measure that would provide nearly $8,000 in state funding to each family who sends their child to a private school — the same amount the state provides for each public school student. “Every parent should have a choice of where to send their child — and that choice shouldn’t be limited to families who can afford it,” she said. Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine proposed expanding eligibility for the state’s voucher program to include middle-class families. He also proposed increasing funding for charter schools.
Some governors emphasized the importance of parents in making educational decisions for their children, including Idaho’s Little, who plans to make permanent a grant program that helps families pay for such educational expenses as computers, instructional materials and tutoring.
While school choice programs open to all students, like those in Iowa and Arizona, are drawing much of the attention — and criticism — this year, governors in Nebraska and South Dakota have focused specifically on children in need, including those in foster care or living in poverty.
Curriculum and Instruction
With support for the “science of reading” sweeping the country, governors are responding with calls for explicit, evidence-based reading instruction. “The evidence is clear. The verdict is in. There is a great deal of research about how we learn to read. And today, we understand the great value and importance of phonics,” said Ohio’s DeWine, one of 11 governors who mentioned literacy in their speeches; altogether, 19 proposed some sort of curriculum initiatives or restrictions.
Some governors, such as Iowa’s Reynolds, are focusing on training teachers to implement reading initiatives. Youngkin called for extending the use of reading specialists under the Virginia Literacy Act to fifth grade.
In Wisconsin, Evers announced a $20 million investment to increase literacy programming and implement evidence-based reading practices. He, along with Youngkin and Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, also proposed investments in high-quality math curricula, training and support.
In Nevada, Lombardo wants to reinstate a rule holding back students who aren’t reading proficiently, and Indiana Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is proposing to reward schools that improve their third-grade reading results.
This focus on literacy and academic initiatives marks a big shift from last year, when culture wars and critical race theory were prominent in the State of the State addresses. Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves is one of the exceptions, with comments on gender and sexuality. “There is no room in our schools for policies that attempt to undercut parents and require the usage of pronouns or names that fail to correspond with reality,” he said in proposing a Parents’ Bill of Rights requiring schools to “adhere to the will of the parents” on such matters.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott framed his push for education savings accounts as a way to empower parents and to fight “woke agendas” and “indoctrination.” Likewise, West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice voiced support for “parents’ rights” by directing school districts to make all curricula available online, “where we can see every single thing that’s being put into our little kids’ heads.”
In Illinois, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker spoke out against restricting what’s taught in schools, saying it undermines historic investments in education. “It’s all meaningless if we become a nation that bans books from school libraries about racism suffered by Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron, and tells kids they can’t talk about being gay, and signals to Black and brown people and Asian Americans and Jews and Muslims that our authentic stories can’t be told,” he said.
College affordability emerged as a top priority among the 23 governors who mentioned higher education, but their proposed solutions differed across party lines. Governors from both parties called for expanded scholarship programs, but only Republicans — from South Carolina, Utah and Virginia — called for tuition freezes. GOP governors were also the only ones to mention repairing aging campus buildings, with proposed investments ranging from $65 million in Nevada to $275 million in Missouri.
New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham touted her state’s program that provides free public higher education to all state residents, and Illinois’s Pritzker pledged another $100 million for scholarships helping to make community college free for eligible students. Others pushed for expanded scholarship programs: Arizona’s Hobbs is allocating $40 million to create the Promise for DREAMers Scholarship Program, while North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum is doubling his state’s investment in the Native American Scholarship program. Governors in other states, including Montana, Georgia and Hawaii, emphasized the need for expanded scholarships and programs to encourage students to become health care providers.
Several governors proposed using these investments to encourage students to stay in their state for college and ideally, for their careers. Indiana’s Holcomb pitched a $184 million increase in higher education funding to reward universities “for keeping their graduates in careers in our state. After all, Indiana’s college campuses need to be the epicenters of brain gain — not brain drain!” Nebraska Republican Gov. Jim Pillen offered $39.4 million to fund over 4,200 scholarships for Nebraska students attending school in state.
Virginia’s Youngkin hopes to accelerate dual-enrollment partnerships between high schools and community colleges so that eventually, “every child graduates with an industry recognized credential.” Kentucky’s Beshear announced a $245 million investment to renovate and rebuild career and technical centers in high schools. And Colorado’s Polis argued for career-connected learning in high school.
Apprenticeships were a large focus, with Iowa’s Reynolds increasing funding for health care apprenticeships, Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson expanding apprenticeships in areas such as information technology and public safety, and Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte doubling the Trades Education Credit. Wisconsin’s Evers is connecting apprenticeships to other initiatives, including through a $10 million investment in clean energy job training and reemployment.
Even as Congress failed to fund early care and early education in recent spending packages, 20 governors from both parties made the early years a priority in their speeches.
Pritzker announced a broad Smart Start Illinois plan to expand access to pre-K and child care, help build new facilities and ramp up home visiting programs for young families. While only Democratic governors — including those in Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and New Mexico — discussed the need for universal pre-K, several Republican governors also advocated for expanding early learning and child care options, particularly better access for kids from low-income families. For example, Missouri’s Parson is planning to invest $56 million to expand pre-K options for low-income children, and Nevada’s Lombardo is providing $60 million for similar efforts.
Governors are also calling for bureaucratic changes: New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul wants to make it easier for eligible parents to access child care assistance, saying, “Less than 10% of families who are eligible … are actually enrolled. This is the legacy of a system that is difficult to navigate — by design. That has to change.” Similarly, South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem said her state would work with providers to overhaul rules and regulations.
Sixteen governors acknowledged the rise in mental health challenges post-pandemic and the need to expand access to services, particularly for children and teens. Some focused specifically on school-based services, while others supported community-based approaches.
Several Democratic governors called for increasing the number of school counselors, psychologists and social workers, including Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who is proposing to expand Mental Health Intervention Teams in schools. In Wisconsin, Evers announced he is investing more than $270 million to allow every district to expand school-based mental health services.
Though largely a priority among Democrats, mental health also came up in a few Republican speeches: Missouri’s Parson proposed an additional $3.5 million for more youth behavioral-health liaisons, and Ohio’s DeWine hopes to address the shortage of pediatric behavioral-health professionals and facilities.
While the culture wars and other divisive political issues continue to play out in schools and colleges, it is perhaps encouraging to see significant numbers of state leaders from both parties proposing pragmatic policy responses to teacher shortages, student mental health needs, low reading scores and other systemic challenges facing the nation’s educators.
Maps by The 74’s Meghan Gallagher
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