While national attention was focused in 2017 on the first year of the Trump administration, state legislatures around the country were busy, passing more than 21,000 new laws, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Some of those affect public schools, as does actions taken by some state boards of education.
A few states passed laws requiring public schools to offer free tampons and other feminine hygiene products in bathrooms. There were newly mandated subjects: Virginia became the first state to set mandatory computer science standards, while California passed a law requiring schools to offer students in grades 7-12 education and training on human trafficking identification and prevention.
Here are some of the new laws and board mandates that will affect public schools (and you can see many others on a long list of education topics at this database):
Among new laws affecting public schools in the state are, according to this list from the Orange County Department of Education:
Ending ‘meal shaming’
It’s a little hard to believe this was happening in some school districts, but in some districts, schools would give a snack — or nothing — to students whose parents were not current in their school lunch payments. And some officials actually reprimanded kids while they were in line for lunch — or stamped their hands — so the kids could remind their parents to pay up. A new law bars what is called “meal shaming.”
Water testing at schools
All public schools are now required to test their water supplies for lead every year and let parents know if the water is considered not safe for drinking. A safe water source would then be found for students.
Human trafficking education
Students in grades 7-12 in public schools must be offered education and training on human trafficking identification and prevention.
Some public schools must provide feminine hygiene products, including tampons, in at least half of the bathrooms on campus — and give them out free. The law covers schools with any combination of classes from grade 6 to grade 12, with at least 40 percent of the student population coming from low-income families.
‘Best and Brightest’
The legislature voted to expand a highly controversial program called “Florida’s Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarships,” which gives big bonuses to teachers with high student SAT and ACT scores (and strong evaluations). This is not about rewarding teachers whose students get high test scores but who themselves got high scores on these exams — even if it was decades ago. Some teachers who never took one of the college admissions tests — they may have started out in community colleges — are taking the tests now to qualify for the bonuses.
In what critics call an assault on science education, a new law makes it easier for residents to object to the use of instructional materials in the public schools. Two obvious targets of the law: climate change and evolution.
Student religious expression
A new law supporters say is aimed at protecting students’ religious expression at school was passed after Gov. Matt Bevin (R) declared 2017 “The Year of the Bible” and in reaction to a move in 2015 by a school to remove a Bible verse spoken by the character Linus in a production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The law says it allows students to voluntarily express religious or political viewpoints in school assignments free from discrimination. It further requires that local boards of education make sure that the selection of student speakers is made in a viewpoint-neutral manner and that the student’s prepared remarks are not altered before delivery without the student’s consent. It also says that religious and political organizations are allowed equal access to public forums on the same basis as nonreligious and nonpolitical organizations, and that recognized student organizations 00 including religious ones — should not be “‘hindered … against in the ordering” of their own affairs, including the selection of leaders and members. Critics say the law gives school groups a legal right to discriminate against LGBTQ and other students.
Bible literacy courses
A new law requires that Bible literacy courses be offered in public schools. The law says that the Kentucky Board of Education must set administrative regulations “to establish an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.” It “requires that the course provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music.”
School tax credit
The legislature approved a $75 million tax credit for people and companies donating to private school scholarships, a nod to school choice favored by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Donors can receive a credit worth 75 percent of a donation with a maximum of $1 million.
In a move similar to the one in California, the Illinois legislature passed a new law requiring all schools to provide feminine hygiene products such as tampons and sanitary napkins free in bathrooms of schools with grades 6 through 12. The law says in part:
Feminine hygiene products are a health care necessity and not an item that can be foregone or substituted easily.
(2) Access to feminine hygiene products is a serious and ongoing need in this State.
(3) When students do not have access to affordable feminine hygiene products, they may miss multiple days of school every month.
(4) When students have access to quality feminine hygiene products, they are able to continue with their daily lives with minimal interruption.
The legislature overrode a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to pass a law limiting options for how school districts should deal with low-performing schools. It bans the use of charter school conversions, voucher programs, and the creation of a “recovery” school district that oversees low-performing schools.
The state’s Center for School Safety is now authorized to make grants with public funds for specified security-related projects to schools and child care centers that are determined to be at risk of certain hate crimes or attacks. The schools can be public or private and can use the funding for additional security training needs, security personnel, security cameras, security-related technology, door-hardening, improved lightning, or other security-related upgrades.
School bus drivers must now be at least 25 years old, a reaction to a 2016 school bus crash that killed six children that occurred when, police said, a 24-year-old driver was speeding while taking a call on his cellphone. The law sets other requirements for bus drivers — but doesn’t require that new school buses have seat belts (a different approach than Texas, as you can see below).
School districts buying new school buses must ensure that they are equipped with shoulder-to-lap seat belts, a reaction to a 2015 accident in which a school bus in Houston flew off a bypass and children died.
Virginia became the first state to adopt mandatory standards for all districts in computer science, a year after. In November, the state Board of Education in Virginia approved the standards even though some members were concerned that they may be too ambitious. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted Anne Holton, the education secretary of Virginia, as saying:
“The standards, they seem ambitious to me, These are not meant as aspirational standards, they are meant as a mandate that our teachers need to be able to teach.”
“We’re clearly leading the nation and that puts an extra burden on us to get it right.”