Here are the top education issues state lawmakers battled over this year

Democrats and Republicans went head-to-head on education policy in state legislatures this year, with each side pulling out both wins and losses as many statehouses close their legislative sessions.

The heart of much of the fighting lay in culture war issues led by Republicans, from how lessons about race and gender should be taught to what type of books students should be allowed to read.

Here were the top education issues state lawmakers grappled with this year:

School choice

The new measure that was most successful for school choice this legislative session, largely backed by Republicans, was Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), where the government gives a certain amount of money that parents can use for their child’s education if they don’t want them in their local public school.

States including Arkansas, Iowa, Utah and Florida saw the biggest wins, as they were able to pass bills that offered the ESA accounts to all K-12 students, while other states such as South Carolina only offered the accounts to a select group.

“The State of Florida is No. 1 when it comes to education freedom and education choice. And today’s bill signing cements us in that No. 1 position,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who officially entered the 2024 White House race Wednesday, said when signing the universal ESA bill.

While at least eight states got ESA legislation on the books, not everything was sunshine for Republicans on school choice, even in GOP-led states.

In Georgia, where Republicans control the state government, lawmakers struck down legislation that would have started an ESA program.

“What makes us think that poor and disadvantaged families are going to be able to take advantage of this?” Georgia Rep. Mary Frances Williams (D) said of the legislation, local outlet WABE reported. “It’s OK if you don’t care about that. But don’t pretend that it will benefit them, and don’t pretend that it won’t cost a lot of money, and don’t pretend that we can afford it.”

And in Texas, rural Republicans and Democrats have teamed up and are causing trouble for a school choice bill that was passed in the Senate and would apply to 5.5 million students.

In the Texas House, where the bill dwindled back to affect only 800,000 students, the Legislature failed to meet a deadline for a vote. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), however, has threatened to call the Legislature into special session over the issue.

LGBTQ issues

Legislation regarding how to treat LGBTQ students or teach about sexual orientation and gender identity was a hot topic in legislatures this year.

Florida tended to receive the most attention on the issue; the state banned instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity through the eighth grade. Teachers in Florida, along with those in Arkansas, will also not be allowed to use transgender students’ preferred pronouns.

The Florida measures led to stories that made national headlines, including a fifth grade teacher who was put under investigation for showing her class a Disney movie that contained a gay character.

“Yesterday, the Disney movie ‘Strange World’ was shown in your child’s classroom,” the school district said. “While not the main plot of the movie, parts of the story involves a male character having and expressing feelings for another male character. In the future, this movie will not be shown. The school administration and the district’s Professional Standards Dept is currently reviewing the matter to see if further corrective action is required.”

Indiana Republicans were able to pass a smaller version of the Florida bill, banning teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity between kindergarten and third grade. States such as Texas are still working on getting a ban on teaching sexual orientation and gender identity to some students.

Alaskan Democrats, however, have been able to use their power to stop any sort of legislation on the topic. Senate Democrats there said they would not consider any bills that limited discussion of sexual orientation, prohibited teachers from using the pronouns a student requests or bills requiring students to use certain bathrooms.

“I don’t need to hear people justify discrimination,” state Sen. Löki Tobin, an Alaskan Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said after the state’s governor suggested legislation restricting teaching on sexual orientation.

DEI efforts and teaching race in colleges

Republicans have seen mixed legislative success as they raise alarm over critical race theory and some diversity efforts at colleges.

In Arizona, the Republican Legislature was able to pass a bill targeting specific topics in relation to race and ethnicity, but it was vetoed by the Democratic governor.

Meanwhile, Democrats in New Hampshire attempted but ultimately failed to repeal a previous bill that passed the state Legislature in 2021 that banned “divisive concepts” in the classroom.

Florida, once again, took the most heat in this area, after DeSantis said the College Board’s AP African American Studies course would not be allowed in the state because the class had readings from those supportive of critical race theory, among other complaints.

“This was a separate course on top of that for Advanced Placement credit and the issue is we have guidelines and standards in Florida,” DeSantis said. “We want education, not indoctrination. If you fall on the side of indoctrination, we’re going to decline. If it’s education, then we will do.”

Florida and North Dakota passed laws this year targeting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs in public universities.

In Florida, public universities will not be allowed to have DEI offices or mandatory diversity statements. North Dakota took away diversity statements and DEI mandatory training.

Library books, free school meals and other matters

One major issue in state legislatures this year was what books should be in classrooms and school libraries.

Florida passed the most expansive bill in this area, allowing parents to challenge a book for any reason, at which point it is pulled off the shelf for review.

Many Republican-led states have eyed and attempted to pass similar legislation targeting books they find inappropriate for students.

Another important measure that got attention this year was Minnesota Democrats passing free breakfasts and lunches for all students regardless of income.

“Students can’t learn when they’re hungry … so schools should be able to provide meals, just like we provide desks and pencils and books,” said Democratic state Rep. Sydney Jordan, the Minnesota Reformer reported.

In Michigan, meanwhile, Democrats passed a law that repeals a previous rule that students are held back at third grade if are not able to read at grade level.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.