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Republican and Democratic Governors Both Are Touting This K-12 Priority

Clear K-12 themes dominated governors’ state of the state addresses this year, with one issue dominating priorities across party lines: workforce readiness.

That’s the finding of analysts from the Education Commission of the States, a research group, who worked with the National Governors Association to review addresses made by governors in 41 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands for a report issued March 14. (Some governors only give the speeches biennially, in the years their state legislatures convene.)

Thirty-seven of those speeches called for a focus on career and technical education and workforce development, an issue that has won the support of everyone from conservative state lawmakers to Democratic President Joe Biden, who mentioned career preparation in his State of the Union address.

“If you’re in the 10th or 11th grade and you’re excited about being a welder or a plumber, we should celebrate that,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, in his Feb. 6 speech. “And we should treat that career path with the same level of respect as someone who chooses to go to college.”

The five other most common priorities identified in the analysis are: ensuring schools have adequate funding, supporting the teacher workforce, expanding early education, boosting academic achievement, and promoting student health and well-being.

Here’s a rundown of the top six issues governors identified.

1. Workforce development and career and technical education

Mentioned by governors of 36 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands

Forget headline-grabbing education topics like critical race theory and private school choice programs: Almost all of the governors mentioned workforce preparation issues in their speeches.

Governors mentioned state initiatives that help boost dual-enrollment participation among high school students and allow students to start apprenticeships and earn technical certificates in high-demand trade fields, like construction, before they graduate.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, praised her state’s Jobs for America’s Graduates program, which teaches high school students “employability skills,” like problem-solving, and supports them in creating a post-secondary college or career plan.

“When students graduate, we want them to have every opportunity open for them. Some of them will jump right into a career—and that’s great!” Noem said in her Jan. 9 address, adding that students should also have support to go to technical schools or join the military.

In 2023, 47 states enacted 115 policies affecting career and technical education and career readiness, including legislation, executive orders, and budget provisions, according to a February report from Advance CTE and the Association for Career and Technical Education.

2. School funding

Mentioned by governors of 32 states

Frequent mentions of K-12 school funding come as districts face a perfect storm of financial challenges: the September spending deadline for an unprecedented surge of federal COVID-19 relief aid, declining student enrollment (enrollment fuels many states’ funding formulas), and challenges that strain resources, like academic recovery and student mental health.

Governors praised higher levels of state funding for K-12 education and funding for programs that target specific student populations, like students at risk of dropping out.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, praised his state’s Learner Engagement and Attendance Program, which aims to tackle high rates of chronic absenteeism through evidence-based home visits.

“We will continue to fund the LEAP program as we get more and more of our kids who got disconnected from school during the pandemic back in the classroom,” Lamont said. “And thankfully our chronic absence rate is dropping.”

The mentions of K-12 funding come as many district leaders around the country prepare for shifts in state policy that may pose financial challenges: the end of temporary “hold harmless” policies that froze penalties for declining enrollment during the pandemic, changes in local tax collections that may lead to less revenue, and new unfunded mandates imposed by state lawmakers.

3. Teacher workforce issues and pay

Mentioned by governors of 27 states

More than half of governors mentioned calls to raise teacher pay or otherwise build the pipeline of educators in their state.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, proposed special pay incentives for special education teachers, which are frequently among the most hard-to-fill positions. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, called on legislators to fund recruitment bonuses of up to $15,000 to attract teachers to the remote state.

“Investing in our classroom teachers isn’t just the right thing to do,” Dunleavy said in his Jan. 30 address. “It’ll also strengthen our ability to recruit and retain them in a highly competitive world.”

Dunleavy vetoed a bill that would have increased per-pupil funding March 14 because it did not include those bonuses and another priority of his: allowing the state board of education to bypass local school districts and directly approve charter schools, Alaska Public Media reported.

Many governors also praised new laws that raised minimum teacher salaries. But some district leaders have complained that those shifts can tax local resources if they aren’t matched with increased funding from their states.

4. Early education and child care

Mentioned by governors of 25 states

Governors praised their states’ expansions of full-day kindergarten and early education programs and called on their states to do more to address the high cost of child care.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, called on his state to pass universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds.

“We are rightfully concerned about learning loss. So, we should address it where it begins,” he said in his Jan. 3 address. “In the last academic year, only 46 percent of kindergartners were considered kindergarten-ready.”

Biden made a similar pitch for expanding pre-kindergarten in his State of the Union. And his proposed 2025 budget called for increased federal funding for Head Start early-childhood programs.

5. Student achievement and literacy

Mentioned by governors of 24 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands

Governors’ discussions of student achievement included praise of statewide tutoring initiatives and school-improvement efforts, and concerns about learning lost during pandemic-related interruptions.

Such concerns have been top of mind for policymakers and educators as districts carry out accelerated learning, summer remediation efforts, and after-school programs to help get students back on track.

Governors’ remarks on achievement focused heavily on early literacy, including coaching to help reading teachers improve their instruction, funding for school-based literacy screenings, and state commissions to align school practices with “the science of reading.” Already, 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to shift teaching in line with the evidence on how kids learn to read.

“Our teachers are being trained in the science of math and reading, and we are preparing them not only to teach the kids of today, but also of the future,” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, said in her Feb. 6 speech.

6. Student health and well-being

Mentioned by governors of 20 states

Governors’ focus on student health and well-being came after the U.S. Surgeon Generaldeclared a youth mental health crisis, and as school leaders express concern about student behavior and classroom engagement.

State leaders mentioned efforts to improve child nutrition, suicide prevention programs, and grants to train more school counselors.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, proposed a $1 billion mental health plan, including funds to create school-based programs.

“Focusing on our kids is critical because they’re our most precious resource and investing in mental health services for the young means they won’t be relegated to a lifetime of needing care later on,” Hochul said in her Jan. 9 address.

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