May 2009

Obama’s K-12 ‘truth telling’

President Obama’s ambitious agenda to improve public education includes more federal resources for the nation’s K-12 schools than ever before, but the funding comes with some “truth telling” and tough love attached as well.

Obama’s mid-March speech, combined with a subsequent town hall meeting in California the next week, outlined his plans to improve early education, increase merit pay for teachers, and further strengthen the tie between testing and accountability. The president also wants to expand the school year and find easier roads to terminate teachers who are not doing a good job.

Balancing a platform of hope while pointing fingers at those who have left performance stagnant, Obama said schools must to a better job of meeting state standards, and states must do a better job of setting them. He warned that “countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

“Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma,” Obama said. “And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.”

While Obama tiptoed around many education issues during his campaign, his first major speech on the subject showed a lack of patience with the status quo. He said all Americans should make “turning around our schools our collective responsibility.”

“For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline,” Obama told members of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early childhood education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”

The following week, in California, he expanded further on that, with an acknowledgement of the hard work that school leaders and other local officials do.

“You can’t have something for nothing,” Obama said. “... You can’t ask local officials to raise teacher salaries, and cut taxes and balance the budget and increase roads. At some point, you’ve got to make some choices. If you want a high-quality education ... then somebody’s got to pay for it.”

One potentially controversial stand was Obama’s unabashed support for expanding the number of charter schools. The president wants to eliminate caps on the number of charters, saying the limits currently in place in 26 states and the District of Columbia aren’t “good for our children, our economy or our country.” At the same time, he wants the Department of Education to help start “new high-quality charter schools” while shutting down chronic underperformers.

Several education organizations did not respond to Obama’s rough outline for education, preferring to wait instead for specifics. Even the unions, which supported Obama’s campaign, were cautious, but optimistic.

“As with any public policy, the devil is in the details, and it is important that teachers’ voices are heard as we implement the president’s vision,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.4 million members.

In California, Obama said the federal government must “make sure that every dime of money is being spent wisely.”

“I am a huge supporter of teachers unions, but you can’t be talking more money, more money,” he said. “There has got to be a reform agenda in exchange for the money. ... Don’t just say give us more money or smaller classrooms, but [not be] willing to consider better assessments. Or, if a teacher is not performing, how do we get them to choose a different career?”

His final “truth telling” was aimed at parents: “You can’t complain about the schools and complain about the teachers but when your child comes home, they’re doing video games, not doing homework and you don’t have time to go to your parent-teacher meeting. Our parents have to instill a sense of excellence and a search for knowledge.”

David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote that Obama is trying to provide the adult support that students—especially those who are at risk—need to be successful.

“We’ve spent years working on ways to restructure schools, but what matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher,” Brooks wrote. “You ask a kid who has graduated from high school to list the teachers who mattered in his life, and he will reel off names. You ask a kid who dropped out, and he will not even understand the question. Relationships like that are beyond his experience.”

That’s a good point, and one worth thinking about even as school leaders ponder the potential effect of the president’s proposals.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

States receiving ed stimulus funds

A portion of the funds earmarked for K-12 education under the economic stimulus package have been released in an effort to help prevent teacher layoffs, but the massive infusion of money still will not be enough to protect states in deep financial trouble or small rural districts.

By the end of April, states and school districts should start receiving their share of $44 billion of the $115 billion designated for early childhood, K-12, and higher education. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the first round of funding is designed to “save and create jobs and improve education.”

“These funds will be distributed as quickly as possible ... and will be invested as transparently as possible so we can measure the impact in the classroom,” Duncan said. “Strict reporting requirements will ensure that Americans know exactly how their money is being spent and how their schools are being improved.”

According to estimates, about $100 billion of the stimulus funding will be distributed to states and school districts using existing federal funding formulas, which are based on state and school-age population. Of that, $53.6 billion is intended to help states avoid layoffs and restore funds cut from education budgets.

What that means is states such as California and Florida, which face huge deficits, will not receive a proportionately higher amount than states such as North Dakota and Alaska, which do not have a current budget shortfall. And because states fund schools on a per pupil basis, smaller, rural districts will not receive as much money.

Duncan emphasized that the stimulus funding will not be ongoing, and said states and districts should not use it to pay for programs that will have ongoing costs once the money runs out.

“These investments will save and create jobs in the short term, while raising achievement in the long term,” he said. “These are one-time funds, and state and school officials need to find the best way to stretch every dollar and spend the money in ways that protect and support children without carrying continuing costs.”

Want more information?
The National School Boards Association’s Advocacy Department has set up a Web-based Economic Stimulus Resource Center at The center includes documents that provide a summary of the bill and what it means for education; answers to frequently asked questions; resources on district, state, and national funding levels; and links to other helpful websites.

Consolidation efforts ramp up in states

As legislators in more than a dozen states discuss the prospect of school consolidation, they would do well to heed the words of Thomas Quinn, the superintendent of the tiny Springs School District in New York state.

“It’s a political time bomb,” Quinn says. “If they were to approve it, some people’s taxes would go up and some would go down, and the legislators will have their ears filled with the cries of people whose taxes went up.”

But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from seeking ways to merge small districts in a growing number of states, especially in the Northeast. In New York, for example, a state commission recommended last December that 215 districts with fewer than 1,000 students be consolidated to ease “the crushing school property tax burden our state faces.” Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Gov. Rendell is proposing that a legislative commission develop a consolidation plan that could result in the merger of many of the state’s 501 school districts by January 2012.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of school districts nationwide declined by 10 percent over a 20-year period that ended in 2005-06. NCES now says there are 14,166 school districts in the U.S. In South Dakota, which had more than 3,000 school districts in 1960, there are now only 156.

The biggest question surrounding consolidation is whether merging two or more schools and districts will save money while providing the same or improved services. The answer so far has been “not necessarily,” but that has not stopped some local districts from trying. In Idaho, for example, lawmakers are reviewing a study that recommends the state look at consolidating services such as busing students and buying office supplies.

The Tyngsborough School District in Massachusetts is looking at several merger options, including crossing state lines, to save money. Superintendent Darrell Lockwood has sent letters to several districts in the state as well as neighboring New Hampshire to see if they are interested in regionalizing secondary education as well as special education operations and transportation.

Only three to four miles separates Tyngsborough from Pelham, N.H. New Hampshire and Vermont have the only interstate school districts—Dresden and Rivendell—in the nation.

For more consolidation information
Frank Porter knows something about consolidation. As the superintendent of California’s Twin Rivers Unified School District, he has overseen the merger of four school districts into one during the 2008-09 school year.

“It’s reform and change on hyperspeed,” he says in a videotaped interview posted on the NSBA’s National Affiliate website (

The interview is part of a joint project between the editors of ASBJ and NSBA’s National Affiliate program looking at the first year of the Twin Rivers consolidation. Porter and school board President Michelle Rivas were interviewed by Kristi Garrett, staff writer for the California School Boards Association.

The 40-minute discussion is part of a host of consolidation-related documents and audio interviews posted on the site and at under the button, “The Long Road to Unity.”

D.C. voucher program faces hardest test yet

A contentious battle over federal funding of a school voucher program has President Obama and other education officials walking a difficult tightrope.

The Senate’s mid-March passage of a $410 billion spending bill removed future funding for Washington, D.C.’s voucher program, the only federally funded effort of its kind in the nation. While Obama has stated that he does not support public funding for private schools, he also says he is leaning toward allowing the 1,700 students currently enrolled in the D.C. program to remain until they graduate.

If no steps are taken to restore funding, students would be required to return to their public school within two years. White House spokesman Thomas Vietor said after the vote that Obama believes no new students should be allowed to enroll, but those who are there need to remain.

“The president has repeatedly said that school vouchers are not a long-term solution to our educational challenges, but in this instance believes that we should try to find a way to keep from disrupting the students currently enrolled in this program,” Vietor said.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty both oppose vouchers, but they have sided with Obama. Duncan’s office is expected to release a comprehensive report on the D.C. program and its effect on student achievement later this spring, but it had not been issued at press time.

The five-year D.C. pilot program was hailed as a victory for school choice advocates when it was approved by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2004. Some Democrats crossed party lines to back the program initially, and said they would wait until the report was issued before looking at it further.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Are your pensions safe?
Texas’ Teacher ­Re­tirement System has seen its unfunded liability triple in just six months, resulting in questions about its long-term ability to meet its obligations to members and likely leaving retirees without a cost-of-living adjustment this year. While the plan is safe for now, lawmakers may consider forcing current employees to increase their contributions to offset the losses. Currently, Texas’ retirees enrolled in the program do not receive Social Security checks because the money is put into the pension system.

Behavior and driving
How do you get teens to behave in school? A proposed bill in the Alabama Legislature would tie their ability to behave in class to when they can get a driver’s license. If the law passes, a point system would penalize students for bad behavior and ultimately impact when they would be eligible to apply. Starting at age 13, students who get in-school or out-of-school suspension, alternative school placement, or expulsion would accumulate a certain number of points. Each point would add one week to the age at which students are eligible for learner’s permits, motorcycle licenses, or driver’s licenses.

Dangerous library books?
Are your school’s library books safe? It may depend on when they were printed. Since 1985, it has been illegal to use lead pigments in ink and dye that is used to publish books. But, on books printed 25 years ago or more, officials are concerned that children might lick or consume ink with a lead level that is too high. Under the Consumer Protection Safety Improvement Act, the books should be pulled from the shelves, but librarians are worried that pulling millions off shelves could further hamper their efforts to get children to read. “There’s a lot of danger in this,” Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington office, told Texas’ Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “There’s a danger that children and their parents will be afraid to come in and read a book. Do we want to raise a generation of illiterate people?”

Juvenile curfews
More than 400 communities around the country have enacted curfews to protect teenagers and to prevent them from committing crimes, but state and federal courts have not agreed on whether the laws are constitutional. The latest case, involving two teens arrested for violating curfew on separate nights in Lowell, Mass., in 2004, is now being decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Although curfews have been upheld in the District of Columbia, Charlottesville, Va., and Dallas, they have been rejected in Rochester, N.Y., and Vernon, Conn., among other places. The U.S. Supreme Court has not heard a juvenile curfew case.

Life on the budget line
Florida’s Broward County school board is considering whether to eliminate several nonrevenue-producing sports, including golf, tennis, boys’ volleyball, and water polo, in an effort to save money. The moves, which would save $55 million next year, were deemed by coaches, parents, and students as short-sighted but understandable given the economy. Meanwhile, more rural districts are considering four-day school weeks as a viable option to reduce costs. Oregon’s Colton School District, which has operated on a four-day week for five years, says it saves $100,000 annually from its $6 million budget by reducing classified staff hours. Teachers assign less homework during the week, and more over the longer weekend. Finally, a number of school districts—Albuquerque, N.M.; Chula Vista, Calif.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Lynnwood, Wash.—have started serving cheese sandwiches to children with delinquent lunch accounts in an effort to cut costs.

Liquid heroin use
Liquid heroin use is gaining popularity among high school students in the Greater Houston area, law enforcement officials said after the arrest of two teens. The drug, which is often kept in Visine containers or small brown glass bottles, is mixed with water and then swallowed or snorted. One of the teens arrested described the drug as “the new marijuana” because it is used casually among college and high school students in League City, Texas. “They don’t seem to be giving it any more seriousness than one might smoking a joint,” League City Police Chief Mike Jez told the Houston Chronicle. “We think it’s considerably more serious.”

Teacher development
The University of Missouri has teamed up with the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts on “simultaneous renewal” programs to improve teacher development programs. The “Senior Year-On Site” program gives university students the opportunity to conduct a year of hands-on training with guidance from a mentor. The “MU Teaching Fellows” program offers support for teachers in their first year and an opportunity to earn a master’s degree. Kansas City business leaders have donated funds to attract fellows to the school districts and provide housing scholarships.

‘Wacky Wednesday’ axed
Wyoming’s Laramie County School District 2 has axed “Wacky Wednesday,” in which students were released early each week so teachers could meet for staff development. The board of the 840-student district cited community complaints in voting to cut the program, saying that parents felt like their children were being cheated. However, the National Staff Development Council said the at-school training for teachers is necessary to improve student learning. Only 20 percent of a teacher’s time is spent on planning lessons, talking to their co-workers, and improving their skills.