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The Top 10 Education Trends for 2023

Funding, free school meals, education choice and student loan debt were among the policy topics lawmakers tackled in this year’s legislative sessions.

By NCSL Education Staff  |  October 4, 2023

Education ranks among the top priorities in every legislative session: The average state spends nearly half its budget on education systems. This year was no different.

With every state legislature in session this year, lawmakers considering education responded to pandemic-induced challenges while pursuing longstanding goals.

With so many education issues on the table, NCSL’s education staff held a four-part webinar series “Education Trends in States” in the spring. Here are the top 10 education policy trends in legislatures:

Increasing Education Funding

Strong state fiscal conditions are translating to education funding increases in most states. An NCSL review of K-12 education budget proposals for fiscal year 2024 indicated that nearly every state considered increased spending. All respondents to an NCSL survey of state fiscal offices reported increased appropriations in FY 24, with a range of 1.46% to 25.35% in year-over-year growth.

A National Association of State Budget Officers survey showed 43 states increased spending in higher education and 39 states increased spending in K-12 education in FY 2023. Similar numbers of states raised spending in FY 2022. In fact, total state spending on both K-12 and higher education has increased in every year since state budgets began recovering from the Great Recession in 2013.

Boosting the Teaching Profession

Boosting teacher compensation has been a major theme of recent legislative sessions. At least 22 states have proposed or enacted legislation to increase teacher salaries this session. About half of states are also considering other forms of compensation, such as scholarships, loan forgiveness and student teacher compensation.

Lawmakers also are looking to expand pathways into the profession. At least 16 states have enacted or proposed legislation to support registered teacher apprenticeships. Another 15 states have considered providing support for teacher residency programs. Through these efforts, many states are also targeting shortage areas or expanding educator diversity.

Promoting the Science of Reading and Math

Improving literacy was the focus of 12 enacted bills this year. Policymakers sought to address literacy instruction through professional development, licensure changes, new curriculum and assessment materials, increased special education screening, and providing books to families. Similarly, states are revisiting third grade reading laws, many of which require students to pass a literacy assessment to move on to fourth grade. For example, both Michigan and Tennessee amended their laws to decrease the number of students retained in third grade, while maintaining the pieces of legislation that require districts to assess literacy proficiency regularly and provide additional support to struggling readers.

Five states introduced and three enacted measures to improve early math instruction through professional development programs for in-service teachers, support programs for struggling students, and engaging with families on math education.

Providing Free School Meals

With the end of federal pandemic-related universal school meal waivers, more states are choosing to expand coverage of free school meals through a variety of methods.

As of September, eight states have enacted legislation that provides either optional or mandatory universal free school meal programs. Three states have made only school breakfasts free to all students, either permanently or temporarily. However, universal school meals are not the only way states are expanding access to free meals. Nine states and Washington, D.C., have made previously reduced-price meals free for students. Of these, five states and the district have enacted legislation permanently requiring that reduced-price meals be provided for free, while four states have done so temporarily. Additionally, one state enacted legislation mandating permanent free meals at schools serving grades K-four with at least 30% of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Reimagining Education Systems

A number of states want to reimagine and rebuild education systems optimized for today’s students that look more like the world’s highest-performing education systems. States such as Indiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wyoming are convening policymakers and stakeholders to set state priorities and build better education systems. NCSL’s most recent cohort of the Legislative International Education Study Group learned that the best systems bring together well-prepared educators equipped with the best curricular and instructional tools to engage students in a learning atmosphere that intrigues, inspires and captures the imagination and aspirations of all children.

Offering Education Choice

At least 31 states considered legislation on education savings accounts and vouchers in 2023, and NCSL is tracking nearly 100 bills on this type of choice. In addition to an increase in the number of these programs, there also is a trend toward broader eligibility of students and qualified expenses for savings accounts and vouchers.

More traditional choice models, including charter school funding and open enrollment, were also common topics this session, and models that gained popularity in the pandemic, such as microschools and learning pods, continued to hold legislative attention.

Supporting Student and Educator Mental Health

States are increasingly helping districts hire more school mental health professionals and examining ways to recruit and retain those staff members. States also are investing in professional development for educators around inclusive practices and student mental health.

To support student mental health, states are pursuing a range of strategies including enacting laws to address safety, interpersonal relationships and other dimensions of school climate. Additionally, states are requiring mental health and wellness curricula, incorporating mental health into state standards, and addressing mental, emotional and social health in state curricula. Lawmakers also have focused on suicide prevention programs and early identification through mental health screenings and services.

Reforming School Finance Formulas

Legislatures this session emerged from the fog of the pandemic with a renewed focus on their pre-pandemic—yet pandemic-informed—education finance priorities. These priorities include adding or improving funding for students with exceptional needs, namely students identified for special education services, English learners and students living in poverty. During the pandemic, the student count mechanisms for funding purposes were paused or revised. Legislatures returned to these mechanisms, especially in states experiencing disruptive declines in enrollment. Outside of formula changes, legislatures continued to reshape the role property taxes play in education revenue ecosystems. Some states continued funding property tax relief programs, while others have asked wealthy school districts to fund a larger share of their program expenses. 

Addressing College Affordability and Student Debt

Lawmakers continue to support and fund a wide range of financial aid programs for students to pursue postsecondary degrees and credentials of value. In recent legislative sessions, states have addressed programs for adult learners, such as Reconnect scholarships in Tennessee and Michigan; expanded aid to currently or formerly incarcerated students; and promoted college savings accounts, or 529s. States also have elevated completion efforts for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, with at least six states passing legislation requiring a FAFSA for high school graduation.

Concerns surrounding high levels of student loan debt have led states to explore the development of forgiveness programs, implementation of loan oversight, and creation of tax credits to relieve the pressures of borrowing.

Expanding Career Pathways

To increase career pathways outside of traditional higher education, many states are aiming to better link their workforce and postsecondary systems to more seamlessly serve everyone from high school students to adult learners seeking certificates, apprenticeships, short-term credentials and licenses. For high school students, states are promoting student career planning and ensuring that credits earned in dual and concurrent enrollment programs can be transferred across state institutions. For adult learners, states are working with employers to identify high-value credentials to fill workforce needs and provide clear pathways for adults learners to quickly receive the education and training needed to fill good-paying jobs.

This article was developed by NCSL staff. For more information, please visit NCSL’s Education Program webpage or contact the education team.

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