July 2009 Up Front

News Analysis
The federal budget: What’s in, what’s out

Watching Barack Obama dismantle many of his predecessor’s policies and practices has been something of a sport in Washington, D.C., for the past several months. Now, as Congress debates a federal budget that will increase education funding by just under 3 percent, it will be interesting to see whether conservatives can muster up support for one of their sacred cows: abstinence-only education.

Obama’s budget, which was sent to Congress in late May and is expected to take effect Oct. 1, shifts money from abstinence-only programs to teen pregnancy prevention. The move reverses the Bush administration’s policy on sex education that has cost taxpayers almost $1.3 billion in federal money since 2001.

While abstinence-only proponents say the programs can affect sexual behavior if properly funded, a 2007 study funded by Congress found they do not delay or prevent teens from having sex.

Melody Barnes, whose team coordinates White House domestic policy, told USA TODAY that Obama’s budget “reflects the research” and not the rhetoric around abstinence programs.

“In any area where Americans want to confront a problem, they want solutions they know will work, as opposed to programming they know hasn’t proven to be successful,” Barnes said, noting that abstinence-only programs can be funded if they can be shown to be effective. “Given where we’ve been in recent years, I think this is a very important moment.”

Abstinence-only programs are not the only ones facing elimination in the proposed $46.7 billion budget, which received a boost when Congress approved up to $100 billion in stimulus spending on education earlier this year. Obama’s budget eliminates 11 other Education Department programs, the most expensive of which is the $295 million Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities State Grants.

The grant program was eliminated because it has “not demonstrated effectiveness,” according to the budget proposal. In its place is $110.6 million for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities National Program, which supports competitive grants.

Two programs also on the chopping block are the Even Start family literacy program and the College Access Challenge Grants, both of which received $66 million in 2009. Congress had protected both programs in the past, as well as others slated for elimination, including a $48.5 million mentoring program, and programs devoted to civic education, character education, and gifted and talented students.

One program that saw its funding slashed dramatically was the Education Technology State Grants, which helps districts integrate technology into classrooms. The program was cut from $269.9 million to $100 million, but it received $650 million in the stimulus package. The question is whether funding will be restored after the stimulus funding runs out in two years.

Sitting pretty

Pay-for-performance grants for school districts get a huge boost in the budget. The Teacher Incentive Fund, which received $97 million in 2009, would get a $420 million increase in 2010 to $517 million. And that comes after the fund received $200 million in the stimulus package.

The budget request includes several changes to the current program to help ensure that support staff such as custodians are eligible for the extra money along with teachers and principals.

“I’m really big on collaborative rewards,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at a May 21 congressional hearing.

Other winners in the budget are the Education Department’s “School Improvement Fund,” which is designed to help schools struggling to meet No Child Left Behind requirements, as well as early reading efforts and a competitive grant program to help curb the dropout rate.

The interesting thing about this education budget, in addition to how much it goes against the Bush policies of the past eight years, is whether it will pass muster in its current form in the Democratic-controlled Congress. For the past several years, Congress has restored funding to programs that faced the budget axe; the question now is whether that trend will hold true under the new administration.

It should be an interesting next few months, either way.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief


California schools face ‘devastating’ budget cuts

“Devastating and horrible.” Those are the words California State Superintendent Jack O’Connell used to describe the draconian budget cuts that are hitting public schools after voters resoundingly rejected a series of ballot measures that would have closed a $21.3 billion budget gap.

The result of the mid-May vote was a call for larger class sizes, more layoffs and closures, and an academic year that will be shortened by up to seven days for the next three years. Some districts were expected to file for bankruptcy.

Steve Fish, superintendent of the Saddleback Valley Unified School District in south Orange County, said libraries would be closed, up to 100 teachers laid off, and high school counseling positions cut in half.

“When there are such ludicrous amounts of money being cut, I don’t know what other choice they are going to give us,” Fish told the Los Angeles Times.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the deep cuts to schools and other government services are necessary after voters rejected the budget proposals by a 2-to-1 margin. Schwarzenegger had proposed a $3 billion cut in education spending even if the ballot proposition had passed. That number increased to $5.4 billion after the vote.

“I think the message was clear from the people: Go all out and make those cuts and live within your means,” Schwarzenegger said after the vote.

According to the California Teachers Association, tens of thousands are expected to face layoffs as education funding faces more than $5 billion in cuts over the next 13 months. The association, which is the largest teachers union in the state, already has threatened to sue to recover $9.3 billion in cuts that were made prior to the referendum.


Lagging economy affecting hiring, forcing layoffs

It wasn’t so long ago that many fast-growing or urban districts had to scramble to find enough teachers to fill vacancies. Now the recession has left some districts with an abundance of teachers, as many decided to postpone retirements or take less leave time. That situation is bad news for new graduates and less experienced teachers.

In New York City, traditionally a great job market for newly minted teachers, Chancellor Joel I. Klein told principals that they must choose teachers already working in the district to fill any vacancies on their staffs this summer. The move, driven by budget shortfalls, led to criticism. Some administrators said the reserve pool included teachers with little experience or those who had gotten bad reviews in previous assignments.

Florida’s Broward County School Board recently decided that teachers who had given notice that they planned to retire would not be allowed to change their plans and teach one more year unless they had expertise in a high-need specialty.

The district, which for years had seen booming enrollments, now is experiencing enrollment declines because of the severe impact of the recession on South Florida. In the meantime, about 230 teachers and support staff had asked to postpone retirements, and about 200 teachers, up from an average of about 50 each year, decided to return from leaves in 2009.

And for the first time in seven years, North Carolina’s legislature was not expected to renew a measure that allowed retired teachers to return to the work force without giving up their retirement benefits. About 2,000 educators were “double dipping” by receiving a salary and retirement benefits during the 2008-09 school year.

Meanwhile, the districts forced to lay off teachers this summer had different methods for choosing which teachers would lose their jobs. In Oregon, state law requires districts to use a lottery system to break seniority ties, as many teachers started work on the same day each school year.

Last spring, the Lake Oswego district drew the names of teachers simultaneously using numbers, and assigned each teacher a number for his/her personnel file. Both district and teachers union representatives participated, to ensure the process was fair, according to the Oregonian.

Once the district determined how many teaching jobs it would cut -- it estimated between 20 and 50 -- it planned to lay off the teachers beginning with the highest number first.

“My stomach hurts, but we did it,” Kristen Winn, the district’s director of human resources, told the Oregonian.

For more information on how the economy is affecting hiring and other staffing issues, go to ASBJ.com and download stories from the April and June issues.


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Gym classes and obesity

It’s long been assumed that cutting physical education classes contributes to the childhood obesity epidemic. After all, if children aren’t forced to exercise, they’ll become more inactive, right? A major study from Great Britain debunks that belief. The study examined students at three schools in England -- from a top-notch private school that offered more than nine hours of gym classes each week to an urban school that offered fewer than two hours. The students’ activity levels were monitored nearly all the time using high-tech devices that kept track of not only movements but also the intensity of the movements. In the end, the students who attended schools with less PE time had about the same activity level as those at the private school.

School bonds fail in Ohio

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland’s proposal to send more state money to school districts may have hurt some districts that wanted voters to ante up more local funds for operating expenses and other programs. In the state’s May elections, 54 of 158 school tax levies were defeated, leaving some districts with no other options than to lay off teachers, shutter buildings, and make other cuts. District officials said that uncertainty over the governor’s plan, as well as the state’s tough economy, probably led to the defeat of those ballots. After the elections, the South-Western City district near Columbus announced it was eliminating all athletic programs and extracurricular activities this fall. “It’s not that we don’t feel these activities are important; we just no longer can afford them,” district spokeswoman Sandy Nekoloff told The Associated Press.

School uniforms

Seven public schools in Nashville, Tenn., are scrapping re-quirements that students wear uniforms, and other schools in the district are giving students more choices in the colors of clothing they may wear. The Metropolitan Nashville School District’s board adopted a policy in 2007 that required uniforms -- solid-colored shirts with collars and khaki, navy, or black slacks, long shorts, or skirts -- for all students. But it also allowed schools to request permission to opt out of the policy starting in 2009-10. To do so, principals must submit applications explaining why they want to change and show that the school’s students, parents, and staff support such a move. The schools that chose not to continue uniforms, which were all magnet or high-performing schools, still must have a dress code policy approved by the district.

Random drug testing revised

Should students in band and extracurricular clubs be subjected to the same random drug tests as student athletes? A California judge recently said no. Under a 2008 policy, all students in the Shasta Union High School District in Redding, Calif., who participate in competitive activities would be subject to random drug tests. That policy included students in band, chess club, and Future Farmers of America. The district was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that students who compete in nonathletic activities are less likely to be using illegal and prescription drugs. Superior Court Judge Monica Marlow agreed, writing that those students “are not involved in routine regulation and scrutiny of their physical fitness and bodily condition. Unlike athletes, there is no evidence that drugs are used to enhance a student’s flute playing, choir performance, chess playing, debating skills, math team skills, or farming skills.”

More education, better communities

How much is an education worth? A new website puts a dollar value on education’s effect on a community’s health, way of life, and financial stability. The Common Good Forecaster, a joint project of the United Way and the American Human Development Project, is an interactive website that allows users to explore their state’s statistics on areas such as life expectancy, incarceration rates, obesity, and students’ test scores. It makes predictions for how those statistics would change by increasing or decreasing the level of education of its population. For instance, raise the percentage of college graduates and see how much civic participation rises and incarceration declines. The tool can be found at http://liveunited.org/forecaster.

The pitfalls of stuff

A commentary about Americans and materialism has become a hit in classrooms across the country. The 20-minute video, “The Story of Stuff,” shows the effects of human consumption by taking students through the process of producing, selling, using, and disposing of things, from the latest electronic gadgets to juice boxes. The video uses black-and-white drawings to show in the simplest terms how the planet is suffering from the overabundance of consumption, from the harvesting of natural resources to the capitalistic ideas that encourage consumers to quickly discard products in favor of newer and better models. It points out that the U.S. is one of the worst offenders: While the nation makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, residents consume 30 percent of the world’s products and contribute 30 percent of the world’s waste. The film has been downloaded millions of times at www.storyofstuff.com and teachers across the country are showing it in their classrooms as part of lessons on climate change and pollution.

Bringing back geography

Many critics of the No Child Left Behind law say it has pushed aside subjects such as geography in favor of core content courses. Seeking to bring back those subjects, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and other lawmakers have introduced a bill called the Teaching Geography is Fundamental Act. The legislation would provide funds for teacher training, research, and development of instructional materials. Van Hollen told the Washington Post that he has been distressed by surveys showing that students in the United States have a poor grasp of geography. “We are now in a world where we have to compete globally,” he said. “It’s important for American students to understand the geography of the world they are living in.”

Speech spurs S.C. school renovations

A teenager who asked President Obama to divert some of the stimulus money to help fix up her middle school in South Carolina has seen her dream come true. Ty’Sheoma Bethea wrote a letter to Obama about the shoddy state of her school, and was later invited to sit next to Michelle Obama as the president addressed Congress earlier this year. A day after Obama mentioned the school in his speech, the CEO of Sagus International, a Chicago-based school furniture supplier, decided his company could help. Sagus donated about $250,000 in new furniture and supplies, and workers repainted J.V. Martin Middle School in Dillon, S.C.

Cyberbullying

A group of high school students in Bowling Green, Ky., recently helped local police create a website to teach younger students about the dangers of cyberbullying. The high school students learned about methods to prevent cyberbullying, which has occurred on young children’s networks such as Disney’s Penguin World and Barbie Girls. It’s all part of a class project that pairs high school seniors with local agencies to find solutions to problems. The students surveyed groups of elementary and middle school students and found that about 10 percent said they had been bullied through electronic media, and a few admitted bullying other students. The website, www.bgky.org, has tips for parents and lesson plans for teachers to help prevent cyberbullying.