December 2007 Upfront

Court’s ruling ties hands of districts
Should districts be forced to pay for a disabled student’s private school tuition, even when parents refuse to let the public schools try to educate their child?

It’s a thorny question, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s answer -- at least for now -- is about as clear as mud.

In an unusual ruling, the justices split 4-4 in the case of Tom Freston, who sued the New York City schools to pay for the tuition of his son Gilbert. Because Justice Anthony M. Kennedy recused himself and the vote ended in a tie, the ruling has no effect outside the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over New York State, Connecticut, and Vermont.

Freston’s lawsuit is being closely watched by educators who serve more than 6 million students with disabilities nationwide. Of those, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 71,000 are enrolled in private schools at public expense because the districts cannot provide suitable services.

Leonard Koerner, chief of the New York City Law Department’s appeals division, said the school district spends an average of $33,000 a year on each of the more than 150,000 students who require special education services. He told the New York Times that the ruling “detracts from schools’ abilities to work with parents for the best possible educational outcomes for children with disabilities.”

What makes Freston’s case different is that the former Viacom chairman refused to allow the New York City school system to make that decision first. He placed his son in a private school in 1998 and fought the district for tuition reimbursements, even though he said the battle was over principle, not money.

“I am thrilled with this decision,” Freston said in a statement. “Where a public school district does not offer an appropriate education to a child with learning disabilities, the law makes the opportunity available for private school tuition reimbursement. The court reaffirmed that fundamental principle today.”

Or did it? The narrow nature of the ruling, combined with another case pending in the 2nd Circuit, indicates that it may come to another vote in the nation’s highest court. The key, it seems, is Kennedy, who gave no reason for his recusal but was in the majority in all of the court’s 5-4 votes last year.
Francisco Negrón, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said a new ruling against school districts potentially could be “severe.”

“The problem here is that a set of parents who might have, from the outset, decided they don’t want their child in public school can then place their child unilaterally without consulting the public school system, and then come back for that reimbursement,” Negrón said.

“Potentially,” Negrón continued, “it could deprive public schools of hundreds of thousands of dollars, particularly because the special education needs of children is a costly matter.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

Superintendents, boards have good relationships: study

Nine of 10 superintendents say relationships with their school boards are “very good” or “good,” according to a new study released by the American Association of School Admininstrators (AASA).

The State of the American School Superintendency: A Mid-Decade Study looks at how school leaders view their changing role since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Based on a representative sample of superintendents nationwide, the study is an update of a previous report published in 2000.

Other key findings in the report:
Achievement comes first: The desire to have a positive impact on student achievement is superintendents’ leading motivating factor for taking the job. Desire to lead, interest in the role, and commitment to public education are other leading factors.

More women taking top roles: Women make up more than 20 percent of superintendents, up from 16 percent in 2000 and 6.6 percent in 1992. Some 29 percent of female superintendents say a glass ceiling exists that hurts their chances of being selected.

NCLB isn’t working: A majority of superintendents believe NCLB has had a negative effect on the nation’s schools. The top challenges: Getting all students to proficiency despite variables in socioeconomic status and special education placement, and insufficient funding.

Superintendents are sticking around: The mean tenure for superintendents is five and a half years and the median tenure is nearly six years. According to AASA, this finding is significant because superintendent tenure is linked to increases in student achievement.

The pressure is on: Nearly 60 percent of superintendents say they have “very great stress” or “considerable stress” in their jobs -- the highest levels in the history of the 84-year-old AASA study. Some 34 percent experience “moderate” stress levels.

But the job is worth it: Despite high stress levels, nine of 10 superintendents say they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” in their current position.

Deadly staph infections on rise

Schools across the country have been reporting outbreaks of staph infections, including an antibiotic-resistant strain that killed a 17-year-old Virginia student on October 16.

The death of Ashton Bonds, a senior at Staunton River High School in Moneta, forced the closing of all 22 schools in Bedford County, Va., to prevent the spreading of the illness. Bonds died from the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, also known as MRSA.

According to health officials, MRSA is the most serious strain of staph infection because it does not respond to penicillin or related antibiotics. Nearly 19,000 people died in 2005 in the United States from MRSA infections, according to a study released in mid-October by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Staph infections are spread by skin-to-skin contact or through sharing items used by an infected person, especially someone with an open wound.

Staunton River students organized a protest over the school’s sanitation following Bonds’ death, leading the district to close all of the district’s schools for a day for cleanup. The Roanoke Times also reported that at least 11 cases of MRSA had been reported in children and teens in southwest Virginia since April.

Outbreaks also were reported in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, in Waterloo, Ill., near St. Louis, in a Columbus, Ohio, high school, and in a private school district in Ohio. Florida and North Carolina also reported increases in staph infections, although neither state has seen a major outbreak.

The CDC says the best way to prevent staph infections is by washing hands frequently and thoroughly, covering open wounds, and avoiding the sharing of towels and razors.

Voucher, choice advocates take hit in new reports

Advocates for vouchers and private school competition have taken a public hit as two new reports and a book question the effectiveness of choice programs.

The trio of studies, issued in mid-October, includes examinations of voucher programs in Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee and a look at the performance of 12th-graders in public and private high schools.

According to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the federally funded D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program has failed to check whether the 58 participating private and parochial schools were properly accredited. Other shortcomings detailed in the report: Some students are taking classes in unsuitable learning environments; and classes are being taught by teachers without bachelor’s degrees.

The $12.9 million program, passed by Congress in 2004, has been controversial from the beginning. A Department of Education study earlier this year found no significant academic improvements attributable to voucher schools.

Similar results were seen in the Economic Policy Institute’s new book, Vouchers and Public School Performance: A Case Study for the Milwaukee Public Choice Program. The EPI study found “little positive improvement” among private and parochial schools since the Milwaukee program was expanded in 1998.

Finally, a new report by the Center on Education Policy says low-income students who attend urban public high schools generally do as well or better than private school students with similar backgrounds. According to the CEP study, which examined 1,000 students from across the nation, 12th-grade achievement tests were the same in core academic subjects when income and family characteristics were taken into account.

New reports focus on desegregation issues

As more districts move away from court-ordered desegregation plans, a new federal report says the increase has not had a negative impact on the racial balance of schools.

The 176-page report, Becoming Less Separate? School Desegregation, Justice Department Enforcement, and the Pursuit of Unitary Status, was issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in late September. The report looked at data from school districts in seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

According to the report, districts that have sought unitary status have not seen increases in resegregation. In fact, a majority of districts “exhibit higher levels of integration than those districts that obtained such status in prior decades.”

“This report indicates that school districts released from court supervision do not exhibit greater racial isolation than districts which remain under these old orders,” said Gerald A. Reynolds, the commission’s chairman, in a statement. “Other factors, such as district size and changing demographics, play a bigger role in determining the racial composition of the nation’s schools.”

A copy of the report can be downloaded from the commission’s website:

Meanwhile, the National School Boards Association and the College Board have released a policy paper for school districts that examines the Supreme Court’s recent decision on race-conscious student assignment policies.

The paper, “Not Black and White: Making Sense of the United States Supreme Court Decisions Regarding Race-Conscious Student Assignment Plans,” outlines seven specific policy implications that stem from the court’s June 2007 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1. The paper also provides guidance to school districts around three core themes.

According to the paper, school districts:

• Can take action to promote diversity objectives aligned with their educational goals;

• Must carefully focus on the educational interests associated with diversity objectives when establishing their mission-related goals; and

• Must pay particular attention to the means by which they seek to achieve their diversity objectives -- and manage a process of review and evaluation of those efforts over time.

Copies of the paper are available for download at the NSBA website:

Social networking for the at-risk

The Los Angeles Unified School District is taking some unconventional steps to curb its dropout rate by using social networking sites and FM radio to reach at-risk youth.

The new program, “My Future, My Decision,” is part of the district’s $10 million Diploma Project, which started in 2006 with 80 advisers at 45 high schools and 34 middle schools.

Included in the program are a text-messaging campaign, spots on radio station KPWR-FM, and ads on the websites MySpace and Facebook.

The Diploma Project is a plan to keep at-risk students in school and to re-enroll those who are left.

Best of the blog

At ASBJ’s new entry into the blogosphere, “The Leading Source,” you’ll find our take on issues that appear in the magazine, as well as school leadership and general education topics that engage us or pique our interest.

Don’t expect to find a unified voice here: Our editors have years of experience covering schools, school boards, and education on both local and national levels. That experience has uniquely shaped each of our perspectives, and those perspectives continue to evolve.

Read Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy’s recent entry below and then visit for more of his blog entries, as well as those from the rest of our editors.

My School

“Write about my school!” my daughter says, all excited, as I’m trying to get her to bed.

I’ve told her before what I do for a living, but it’s never made quite the same impression as right now. Unfortunately, “right now” is nearly 9 p.m. -- way too late for a first-grader on a school night -- so I dismiss her suggestion, as parents are prone to do, with an, “OK, sure, I will.”

The next night at dinner, she’s drawing a picture.

“How do you spell ‘elementary?’”

I tell her.

“Three Es?”

“Yes, three Es.”

She gives the crayon drawing to me, and it does indeed look like the entrance to her elementary school in Arlington, Va. Great, I say. I’ll take it to work.

“It’s to remind you to write about my school,” she emphasizes.

I was going to write today about this article in Education Next and its monumentally unfair comparison of -- of all people -- Richard Rothstein, a dogged advocate for poor children, and Charles Murray, co-author of the infamous Bell Curve. See, Ed Next says, they both say there are limits on what schools can do to help the poor, and…. But that can wait. I’ll tell you instead about my daughter’s school, McKinley Elementary, and her first day of kindergarten last year.

Like all parents preparing to enter the world of public education, we were, to put it mildly, nervous. And a lot of our fears were concentrated on the thought of putting our just-turned-5-year-old on that big yellow bus. (Would she be scared? Probably, seeing as how we were reacting.)

The first day came, and it was raining in torrents. But we felt we had to put her on the bus anyway, even though we could have easily driven her. The kindergarten teachers were supposed to ride the buses that day, we reasoned, and if she missed it she might be even more frightened on Day Two.

So there we were -- my wife and I, our elder daughter in her newly purchased raincoat, her then-2-year-old sister in her stroller with the plastic tarp all over it -- trudging through the downpour to the bus stop.

The bus arrived and it was … huge. And, as my daughter gamely stepped on, we realized that she was the only child on the bus, even though it had made at least four stops. Evidently, the other parents had sensibly decided to drive their kids to school.

Oh, and there was no teacher, either. We had it wrong: The teachers were riding the buses home, in the afternoon.

Mr. José, the kindly bus driver nearing retirement, could read our faces. He looked down at us, a near-silhouette in the driver’s seat.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll take care of your baby.”

And that was it; the huge yellow bus turned the corner with a roar, and we waved good-bye. I can’t adequately describe the emotions I felt at that moment, but I’m sure you can understand. It was a mix of apprehension and pride, a little sadness, and this overwhelming feeling that we were joining something much bigger than us.

As school board members, teachers, principals, and administrators, you serve that “something much bigger than ourselves” that is public school. There is no one -- no one -- who has a more important job than you.

You take care of my baby.