Governors’ Education Priorities in their 2024 State-of-the-State Addresses

Despite the heightened partisan tensions of an election year, governors of both parties have largely downplayed parental rights bills, book bans and other culture-war controversies in their 2024 State-of-the-State addresses, a FutureEd analysis of 38 of the addresses has found. Rather, they have proposed substantial investments in education and practical ways to strengthen learning.

Although a handful of education issues still divide governors along partisan lines, such as whether to establish universal pre-kindergarten programs or allocate public funds for private schooling, governors from both parties want to increase teacher pay and target incentives to shortage areas, expand access to higher education and promote college and career readiness in high school. In some instances, they backed priorities that traditionally have been linked to their political opponents, with Republicans proposing initiatives to address youth mental health and Democrats supporting the expansion of reading reform.

But governors from both parties gave short shrift to one the most pressing problems facing local school leaders: sharply higher rates of chronic absenteeism in the wake of the pandemic. Neither Democrats nor Republicans outlined new steps to spur students’ return to school.

The states’ chief executives concentrated their 2024 education policy priorities in seven areas: child care and early learning, the teaching profession, school choice, curriculum and instruction, student mental health, higher education and workforce development.

Child Care and Early Learning

Early learning and child care were a bipartisan priority, with 17 governors proposing measures to enhance accessibility and affordability for working parents.

Democratic governors in Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, New Jersey and Michigan championed statewide universal pre-K, while Maura Healey of Massachusetts proposed the strategy for 26 midsize cities facing social and economic challenges. Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly proposed the largest single-year investment in the state’s early childhood system, while the governors of Missouri, West Virginia, Nebraska and Hawaii proposed new or expanded child care tax credits.

The Teaching Profession

Echoing a trend from last year, governors are seeking to strengthen the ranks of public school teaching by increasing compensation, addressing shortages and expanding recruitment—three closely connected strategies. Twenty-one governors have proposed such initiatives.

While both Republicans and Democrats addressed the issue in their speeches, most concrete proposals to raise teacher pay came from Republicans in Southern and Western states, which are less unionized and where salaries tend to be lower. In more-unionized, Democratic-leaning states, proposals were generally more focused on recruiting and retaining educators.

Democrat Andy Beshear of Kentucky and Republican Jim Justice of West Virginia proposed across-the-board 5% pay raises for teachers in their states. South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster called for raising the starting salary to $45,000 from $40,000 by 2025 and further raising it to $50,000 by 2026. Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds urged the legislature to allocate an additional $96 million, to raise starting pay to $50,000 a year—a 50% increase—and establish a minimum salary of $62,000 for teachers with at least 12 years’ experience.

Alaska’s Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy pitched a three-year incentive program that would offer hiring and retention bonuses ranging from $5,000 for teachers in urban areas to $15,000 for those working in rural schools. “We’ll prove we can be the best at recruiting and retaining classroom teachers nationwide,” Dunleavy told the Alaska legislature. “To lead, we must break the cycle of just doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Washington Democratic Governor Jay Inslee announced plans to increase paraeducator pay and create incentives for more teachers to serve special-education students.

Iowa’s Reynolds is also among state leaders seeking to attract and retain teacher talent by rewarding expertise and performance. She proposed allocating $10 million for a merit-based grant program for teachers. Similarly, Missouri Republican Governor Michael Parson proposed an additional $6 million for the state’s teacher Career Ladder Program, a performance-based pay matching initiative—on top of new funds to raise starting teacher salaries to $40,000 statewide.

Wisconsin Democratic Governor Tony Evers announced plans to launch a teacher-apprenticeship program. And Kentucky’s Education First Plan provides funding for a teacher loan-forgiveness program.

Some governors are also looking for ways to lower regulatory hurdles to teaching. In Nebraska, Republican Jim Pillen proposed lowering “barriers for potential teachers to enter the workforce” by, among other things, allowing licensure reciprocity for teachers from other states.

School Choice

School choice initiatives, particularly those involving private school options, emerged as one of the few starkly partisan issues in this year’s speeches. While both Democrats and Republicans offered charter school and public school choice initiatives, six Republicans advocated for vouchers and education savings accounts, while two Democrats strongly opposed such measures.

Alabama Republican Gov. Kay Ivey announced legislation that would eventually provide $7,000 for every student to spend on private education, calling it her “No. 1 legislative priority.” Similarly, Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee expressed his support for universal private-school choice through what he called “education freedom” accounts, as he proposed last November.

If they succeed, Alabama and Tennessee will join 10 other Republican-led states with universal or near-universal private-school choice programs. Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp also pledged to push through private-school choice this year.

Democrats, on the other hand, attacked public funding of private schooling. “I will continue to reject vouchers and any attempt to send public education dollars to private schools,” declared Kansas’s Laura Kelly. “Vouchers will crush our rural schools, plain and simple.” In Arizona, where Republican state leaders enacted universal education savings accounts with few limitations on the use of the funding and few reporting mandates, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs pledged to work for greater accountability, as well as a requirement for students in the program to have attended public schools for a minimum of 100 days before they can use an education savings account. Otherwise, Hobbs said, “the current projected price tag of $1 billion is only the start.”

In a departure from last year’s addresses, several governors pledged new support for public charter schools. Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little announced plans to introduce legislation “to cut more red tape to support charter schools while providing taxpayers transparency,” as a way of expanding school choice without diverting resources from public schools. Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis pledged to provide charter schools their full share of public education funding. And Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt, a Republican, proposed moving high-performing charter schools into vacant public school buildings, especially in communities with underperforming district schools.

Curriculum and Instruction

Governors signed a wave of literacy-reform legislation in 2023 rooted in the science of reading, and the leaders of nine states, blue and red, have pledged similar initiatives this year. Healey, of Massachusetts, announced Literacy Launch, a $30 million initiative to ensure that districts have high-quality curriculum and teacher training tied to the science of reading. New York’s Hochul called for legislation mandating evidence-based reading instruction and $10 million to train 20,000 teachers.

New Mexico Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham announced plans for a $30 million statewide literacy institute and a free summer reading program for 10,000 students. And Iowa’s Reynolds proposed requiring education majors to pass a test of reading instruction as a way to hold education schools accountable for teaching the science of reading and ensure graduates’ competence in early literacy instruction for teacher licensure.

Other curricular initiatives were also sprinkled among the governors’ addresses, including a $10 million investment in math education in South Carolina; a proposal by North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum to require financial literacy instruction; Indiana Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposal to require computer science for high school graduation; and Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s plan to assemble toolkits on digital literacy and critical thinking to help students discern fact from fiction.

Student Mental Health

Eleven governors on both sides of the aisle addressed student mental health and youth behavioral concerns, supporting both school and community-based approaches. In Idaho, Little proposed a statewide student behavioral health initiative and doubled funding for school advisers. Reynolds proposed a new youth behavioral health facility. And Democrats Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Kathy Hochul pledged increased funding for school-based mental health services.

Hochul was also among the governors who addressed the impact of social media, pledging to advance legislation to safeguard children’s privacy online and to regulate the algorithms that target them on social media feeds. Lee of Tennessee pledged to mitigate the negative impact of social media on children by enhancing parental involvement, and Connecticut Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont announced plans to send guidance to local school boards regarding smartphone and social media use in schools.

Higher Education

Governors from across the political spectrum proposed steps to improve college access, starting in high school. The leaders of 17 states announced plans to expand dual high school-college enrollment, lower the cost of associate degrees and increase scholarship opportunities. Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed making two years of community college tuition-free for all high school graduates. South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem advocated for free tuition for National Guard members at private colleges within the state, building upon last year’s initiative to extend free tuition at state universities. And in South Carolina, McMaster asked the General Assembly to freeze college tuition for in-state students and increase appropriations to higher-education institutions.

Some governors are rethinking how their states structure and fund higher education, including two that hope to shift to an outcomes-based model. In Pennsylvania, Shapiro announced a Blueprint for Higher Education that would unite state universities and community colleges under a single governance structure, funded through “a predictable, transparent, outcomes-based funding system.” Oklahoma’s Stitt similarly wants to shift to an outcomes-based model, urging legislators to “stop subsidizing institutions with low enrollment and low graduation rates.”

Several governors announced investments in evolving and emerging job markets. Arizona’s Hobbs announced plans to expand the state’s medical schools and open new ones, and Democrat Dan McKee of Rhode Island proposed expanding a cybersecurity program into a full-fledged cybersecurity institution. Not surprisingly, governors are looking to higher education to spearhead work on artificial intelligence. New York’s Hochul announced the formation of the Empire AI Consortium, a $400 million research and development network of seven founding New York public and private universities. New Jersey Democrat Phil Murphy announced a similar initiative—an “AI Moonshot.”

Workforce Development

Fifteen governors from both sides of the aisle argued that college shouldn’t be students’ only postsecondary option and proposed ways to provide alternative pathways after high school. In at least five states, that work begins in high school. Healey wants to increase investments in “innovation pathways” that provide high school students with hands-on, skill-based learning. Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin told legislators that all high school students should graduate with both a diploma and a credential setting them up for high-paying jobs. And Missouri’s Parson proposed allocating $3 million toward expanding youth apprenticeship programs, alongside a $54 million investment in employer-driven education and training.

Some governors want to see specialized high schools focused on career readiness. Alabama’s Ivey asked the legislature to prioritize funding the Alabama School of Healthcare Sciences, a residential high school designed to address the medical field’s workforce shortage. The school would offer a unique STEM-focused curriculum, along with hands-on clinical training.

Hobbs wants to double the number of postsecondary apprenticeships in construction and trades like plumbing, while Shapiro intends to establish a new Career Connect program to link employers with talented youth, creating thousands of internships over the next decade.

This report was produced through a partnership between FutureEd and The 74.

Meghan Gallagher of The 74 developed the interactive maps. FutureEd Research Associate Jingnan Sun contributed to the analysis.