State Education Trends

A look at major education themes across State of the State addresses. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of the trends we identified this year connect back to COVID-19 in some way.

by Jon Alfuth, Policy Analyst

Every year, nearly all of the 55 Governors of the states and territories deliver a State of the State address. Individually, Governors use these addresses to reflect on past accomplishments, announce new initiatives, and establish a vision for their state’s future. But collectively, these addresses outline of the priorities of a nation. Given the important role played by states in early childhood, K-12 and postsecondary education in terms of both funding and governance, these addresses provide valuable insights into the direction of education policy in our country.

Since 2019, the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) education team has reviewed and analyzed our members’ State of the State addresses to identify key trends in education policy. For two years we have also partnered with the Education Commission of the States (ECS) to publish a joint analysis of major education themes across all addresses. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of the trends we identified this year connect back to COVID-19 in some way. The following sections provide a brief overview of each of these trends:

Trend 1: Funding. This year’s addresses highlighted funding topics ranging from early childhood education through postsecondary. At least 32 Governors used their addresses to highlight both state investments in education as well as their plans to utilize CARES dollars to help students during the pandemic. For example, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp recommended $647 million to restore funding to school systems across the state, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced a plan to double the state’s investment in education.

“Education has always been called the great equalizer, but it can’t be that way if our kids are not treated equally.”

Utah Governor Spencer Cox

Trend 2: Remote Learning. This year’s addresses focused on several specific state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in K-12 schools. Addressing the challenges around remote learning represented one of the highest mention topics in this regard, with at least 30 Governors highlighting policies in this area. For example, Arkansas Governor and NGA Vice Chair Asa Hutchinson proposed policies to expand access to high-speed internet and reduce the digital divide, and New York Governor and current NGA Chair Andrew Cuomo proposed a mandate for internet service providers to offer lower cost internet to all households in need.  

“It’s 2021, folks — having access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity.”

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers

I want you to know that we’re going to get every Kansas student back in the classroom as soon as possible and provide their teachers with the tools and resources they need to get our kids back on track.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly

Trend 3: Safely Reopening Schools. Within direct state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governors also frequently spoke about the importance of safely reopening schools. At least 22 Governors referred to policies to address these challenges. For example, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak highlighted the state’s work to help students return safely to the classroom by providing personal protective equipment, prioritizing teachers for vaccinations, and ensuring rapid COVID-19 testing. Idaho Governor Brad Little highlighted the state’s guide for helping local districts make decisions on safe school operations.

“Across the board remote learning was always intended to be temporary. Take it from a former economics teacher, nothing replaces in-person instruction and, unfortunately, during COVID-19, many students have fallen behind.”

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey

Trend 4: Student Achievement and Accelerated Learning. Within direct state responses to the pandemic, addressing student achievement and accelerated learning was addressed by at least 21 Governors. For example, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed policy tools to provide guidance on how to promote a comprehensive recovery and address learning loss, and Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy announced a directive for the state department of education to establish summer camps to boost students’ reading, math, and coding skills.

Trend 5: Student Well Being. Closely related to their pandemic response, governors frequently highlighted policies around ensuring the physical and mental health of students along with strategies to address their social-emotional needs. At least 18 Governors highlighted proposals related to mental health topics such as increasing staff or addressing other capacity issues, and at least 12 Governors highlighted policies related to physical health topics such as school nutrition or vaccination and testing policies. For example, Delaware Governor John Carney highlighted the importance of the state’s First Change initiative, which helped ensure that students in schools that are closed have access to food, and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster highlighted his budget proposal to ensure that every student had access to a mental health counselor.

“Our focus must turn to ensuring our students have the academic and social-emotional support needed as they rebound from the stresses of the pandemic.”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy

Our budget builds a stronger Montana workforce by prioritizing trades education. Many jobs require specialized skills, and we should ensure that Montanans have access to the training and education they need to acquire and refine those skills.

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte

Trend 6: Workforce Readiness. This year’s addresses also frequently addressed priorities related to workforce readiness. At least 24 Governors highlighted policies related to workforce development in both K-12 and higher education as well as both short-term COVID responses and long-term investments. For example, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds called for the integration of work-based learning in the K-12 curriculum, and U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Albert Bryan Jr. announced a new plan to invest in on-the-job training.

“Let’s remove the obstacles to high-quality, affordable child care so that Iowa families can nurture their kids while parents maintain the maximum freedom to enter and remain in the workforce. ”

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds

Trend 7: Early Learning. Governors also frequently mentioned early education topics in this year’s addresses. At least 17 Governors highlighted work around topics like child care and pre-K education. For example, Oregon Governor Kate Brown committed to increasing access to pre-K programs and home visiting, and Missouri Governor Mike Parson announced a proposal to create a new Office of Childhood to place a larger focus on early childhood development.

Trend 8: Teacher Compensation. No analysis of addresses would be complete without mentioning teachers. This topic has typically been at or near the top in years past, and while it declined relative to COVID response topics this year, at least 17 Governors spoke on the topic of teacher compensation. For example, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee recommended an additional $120 million be set aside for teacher compensation in the next budget, and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear highlighted a budget proposal to increase teacher compensation by $1,000 as well as reinstate a teacher loan forgiveness program.

“We need to reward our teachers for the exceptional, life-changing work that they do.”

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves

This analysis and the examples that we’ve included only scratch the surface of the rich tapestry of education proposals made by Governors in their 2021 State of the State addresses. But we hope that this brief snapshot gives you a picture of what Governors prioritized this year through their addresses. For more details on each of these areas, make sure to check out our joint analysis with ECS, mentioned earlier. Please also feel free to reach out to Seth Gerson at or Jon Alfuth at with any additional questions!