Each year, the Education Commission of the States (ECS), based in my adopted home of Denver, reviews the governors’ State of the State addresses and offers an analysis of their main education components. Mentioned by at least thirty-six governors, this year’s top education priority was school finance, followed by workforce development, teacher quality, early learning, postsecondary financial aid, and school safety.
ECS’s report dedicates a page to each of these priorities, interspersed with quotes and highlighting what some governors are planning. New to this year’s version is an “emerging trends” section that calls out additional topics that governors have on their radar such as postsecondary affordability and rural education. Otherwise, the contents feel awfully similar to those from the last several years whereby most governors call for a new investment, a new initiative, or a new incentive.
What’s more interesting than the report itself is the accompanying online tool, which allows for tracking of education trends—by year, by state, and by issue area. By exploring this resource, you’ll find, for example, that only three governors (in Florida, South Dakota, and Tennessee) mentioned civics education this year. You’ll also find that only two governors—Florida’s and Tennessee’s—mentioned Common Core, though the issue has generated more buzz in Alabama than in either of those two states.
In light of recent teacher labor unrest, some governors proposed across the board pay raises for teachers—a politically popular move, but a missed opportunity if not paired with other changes. Others called for massive state investments in early childhood in spite of the malodorous evidence. Because ECS’s focus is on proposals rather than prose, getting a good handle on what each governor said also requires reviewing the transcripts.
As these thing go, state of the state addresses are rather staid affairs. Moments of surprise are rare, but there are on occasion speeches that rise above the routine fare. The high-water mark came in 2011 when then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels issued a clarion call to reform the state’s education system. (If you have fifteen minutes to spare, I would encourage you to watch the portion of his address dedicated to the topic.)
Daniels’s bar was too high for governors to reach from their rostrums, but there were a few noteworthy moments from this year’s addresses. His former advisor and current Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced a plan to reduce teacher pension liabilities, a topic that too many states continue to kick the can on. Idaho Governor Brad Little called for doubling literacy funding amid illiteracy rates that refuse to budge and a national landscape that remains uneven (and sometimes hostile) with regard to comprehensive reading policies. And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pushed the envelope on school choice, aiming to finish the job that Jeb Bush started twenty years ago.
But the speech that stood out to me came from Tennessee’s new Governor Bill Lee. In his inaugural address, education was the first major policy area Lee discussed and the topic which garnered the most time and attention. As education governors are wont to do, Lee didn’t pass on the opportunity to outline a bold vision for the Volunteer State. Consider just a few of his remarks:
- “Tennessee has led the nation with important K–12 education reforms over the last decade, and we have seen the payoff: Our student outcomes have been among the fastest improving. But sustained improvement requires constant innovation, and we must keep looking for the next game-changer.”
- “Low-income students deserve the same opportunities as other kids, and we need a bold plan that will help level the playing field. We need to change the status quo, increase competition, and not slow down until every student in Tennessee has access to a great education. We’re not going to get big results in our struggling schools by nibbling around the edges.”
- “We all desire a more perfect union, but we cannot expect future generations to build upon the incredible progress our country has made if we fail to teach them the history and values that made it possible. So let me say this: Whatever may be going on in other states or in our nation’s Capital, in this state, our children will be taught civics education, character formation, and unapologetic American exceptionalism.”
Some of these comments undoubtedly irked the education establishment, but the new governor has proven adept thus far in navigating the contentious reform terrain. Unlike Daniels, who was known for writing his own speeches, most governors require a strong team to generate something that approaches what Lee mapped out. His “best of the year” is a credit to the advocates in Tennessee who have worked tirelessly to ensure forward momentum regardless of who occupies the governor’s chair.
Of course, speeches are only as good as the legislation that reaches the governor’s desk. There’s still a long road ahead for Lee’s signature effort, but the most consequential bills often follow from a clear-eyed leader who isn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers if that’s what’s required to go further, faster. It’s among many reasons to be envious of a state that continues to blaze a bright trail in education reform.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.