05/23/2011 01:33 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2011

State Education Laws Focus On Expanding Charters, Bolstering Vouchers

NEW YORK -- Since the Republican takeover of state legislatures around the country, states have been passing loudly-trumpeted laws that revamp teacher evaluations and tenure, tying performance reviews to standardized test scores.

What has been equally pervasive but received less buzz and more muted pushback, according to Education Week, is a spate of other K-12 reform laws that have enacted voucher programs, allowed for the expansion of charter schools and altered academic standards.

For example, Indiana approved a law that allows middle- and lower-income families to use tax funds for private school tuition. Arizona, Florida and Oklahoma also passed laws that created or expanded voucher programs, according to EdWeek. Laws in Wisconsin, Idaho, Indiana and Ohio now restrict teachers' collective bargaining rights, while academic standards are changing in Utah, New Mexico and Oklahoma. And charter school laws are expanding in Florida, Indiana and Idaho.

Yet many of the statehouse changes will not be felt in the classroom until they hold their ground in court.

As EdWeek notes, few governors and state legislators ran in November with articulated education plans in their platforms. But upon taking office, many unveiled comprehensive school-altering plans.

Why now?

EdWeek writes:

Lawmakers went to work during bleak financial conditions, with the vast majority of states facing budget shortfalls in the coming fiscal year. Some states responded by cutting money for K-12 education--which makes up a huge chunk of state budgets--while others protected school funding.

"A lot of this is driven by economics, and wanting to try to reduce costs," Charles Russo, Panzer Chair in Education and adjunct professor of law at the University of Dayton, told The Huffington Post. "But I can't help to think that they're not going to reduce quality as well."

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator who now directs Macalaster College's Center for School Change, attributed the barrage of school-related legislation to the prominence of new Republicans in office.

"A number of new [Republican] governors have come into office with ideas about what to do in public schools," Nathan said.

But a recent law passed in Illinois ‪would make teacher tenure contingent on student achievement, give Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel the power to extend his city's school day and make it easier to dismiss teachers deemed ineffective based on student achievement.‬ That law passed in state with a Democrat-controlled legislature and Democratic governor.

Jonah Edelman, the chief executive officer of Stand for Children, an advocacy organization that helped push the Illinois legislation through congress, told EdWeek the Illinois legislation could influence further reforms for precisely that reason. "There are some states where these reforms weren't a particularly heavy lift," he said. In blue states like Illinois, these bills are "encouraging, because of their transferability to other states," he said.

And while money -- or lack thereof -- may have something to do with it, other motives are at play, Nathan explained. "There's also a recognized need to elevate the performance of youngsters," he said.

Legislators want to see student improvement, Nathan said, so some resort to vouchers. "A number of people are frustrated at the pace of change for improving education for low income families," he said. "There's more support from Republicans of public funds going to private schools."