October 2009 Up Front

For teachers and community, budget dance is a tango

Jim Notter has a second job this year. The superintendent of Florida’s Broward County Schools is working as a substitute teacher at Fort Lauderdale’s Sunland Park Elementary School.

The cost-saving move is one of many being seen across the country as financially struggling school districts move into the early days of the 2009-10 school year while trying to cope with layoffs and other belt-tightening measures. And in addition to the good PR that Notter and other Broward administrators have gotten, it also saves the district $200,000.

The PR is not as good for districts that have seen scores of teachers leave in round after round of painful cutbacks that have resulted in larger class sizes and the loss of other services due to the flagging economy. For many, stimulus funds have been used to cover large shortfalls that would have resulted in even deeper cuts. With those funds set to run out in two years, even the stimulus money is seen as a short-term band-aid.

In places such as Ohio, where teachers and administrators have received salary increases due to state salary schedules and union contracts, a delicate dance is being performed as fall tax referendums approach.

Worthington, Ohio’s, teachers, for example, are receiving an average pay increase of about 5 percent thanks to union agreements -- 3.2 percent higher than the average wage and salary increase in the U.S., according to federal estimates. These raises come even though the state has cut local school budgets.

“Communities will always look to see if sacrifice across the community is equal,” State Superintendent Deborah Delisle told The Columbus Dispatch. “If people are feeling the pinch and they don’t see community employees feeling the pinch, there is a disconnect.”

David Bressman, president of the Worthington school board, said teachers should give back their raises to help the district pass a tax levy that is scheduled for a vote in November. A similar, though larger, levy failed in May.

“A lot of folks who are on the fence have told me either privately or publicly, that if they see some action by the teachers and the administrators they would be strongly inclined to support the November levy,” Bressman said.

In Hillsborough County, Fla., the teachers union ratified a contract that includes no raises but leaves open the possibility of furloughs next spring. North Carolina spent the latter part of the summer hiring back teachers who weren’t retained when their contracts expired at the end of June.

The Wake County school district rehired two-thirds of the nearly 1,500 employees who lost their jobs, but the numbers were not expected to go much higher after state legislators cut the education budget by almost 5 percent in August.

“There are fewer people working with more kids,” Superintendent Del Burns told The News & Observer. “Class sizes will be larger. Fewer classes will be offered at the secondary level and services will be impacted.”

For Notter, a former special education teacher in New York, Broward County’s decision means he will likely lead elementary school children in kickball and other games. Notter is one of 111 administrators who are certified and are heading back to the classroom twice a month to work as substitutes.

The idea was the brainchild of second-grade special education teacher Kathie Herrera, who submitted the winning idea in the district’s “Harness the Power” program. “It’s very good for the teachers,’’ she told the Miami Herald. “It does make them feel like the higher-ups -- the ones promoting the curriculum, deciding on the standards that we should be teaching -- actually get a feel for what goes on in the classroom.’’

Herrera, who was placed on a surplus list of teachers last spring and narrowly avoided being laid off, won $5,000 for her suggestion. And like many struggling in today’s economy, she said the money would be put to good use.

“We are going to be paying off some bills,’’ she said.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

With ESEA and Race to the Top, bold action on the horizon

 By Michael A. Resnick

In his first year of office, President Obama has painted with bold strokes on a wide range of issues as the game changer that he campaigned to be. We’ve seen that boldness, and the controversy it can spark, on the economic stimulus package (which includes more than $100 billion for education), health care, support for the auto industry, and energy policy.

That boldness also is emerging on education policy initiatives as the U.S. Department of Education invites states to participate in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund. And, more change may be on tap as the administration proposes to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in the coming months.

The foundation for the administration’s strategy to advance education is a core component of the stimulus package. It requires states receiving those funds to undertake four related major objectives:

• Develop standards and assessments that will be matched to college and career readiness.

• Ensure that students have effective teachers so they can meet those standards -- including an equitable distribution of effective teachers to high poverty schools.

• Institute longitudinal data systems to measure students’ year-to-year progress and their teachers’ effectiveness to determine whether the first two objectives are being met.

• Provide support and effective interventions to turn around low-performing schools.

To receive the first round of state stabilization funds -- the largest source of stimulus money for education -- states had to provide assurances that they would pursue these four objectives. For the second round, they had to produce a plan to implement them.

Now, through Race to the Top grants, the department will require a select group of recipient states to set up very detailed data and reporting systems. This will further elevate the priority that these states and their school districts must give to the four objectives. It also directs several specific approaches to address the objectives.

In July, the Education Department published a notice requesting comments on how it proposed to run the Race to the Top program. In addition to the extensive data and reporting requirements, the department’s proposal contained a number of bold policy requirements for participating states to adopt, some of which will invite controversy in varying quarters of the education community.

For example, in addition to working with other states to adopt common standards, Race to the Top recipients must adopt common assessments. They also must factor student test scores into teacher evaluation, promotion, and compensation; be open to increasing the number of charter schools in their states; and utilize governance takeovers, charters, and management companies as preferred strategies for turning around their lowest-performing schools. (See NSBA’s official comments to the Education Department at www.nsba.org/advocacy).

Certainly, there is much merit to the details, the whole plan, and a nationally driven effort to ensure all children receive a high-quality education. But some assumptions and implications need to be questioned.

For example, are charter schools as effective as advertised? Is the plan sustainable over a period of years? Will the Race to the Top structure in selected states tie into the ESEA reauthorization in ways that will affect all states and school districts? Will the detail of the administration’s plan become too prescriptive for our large and diverse nation?

Given the leveraging changes that Obama and his administration are pursuing and the long-term impact they can have on U.S. schools, it is important that the Race to the Top and the ESEA reauthorization are done “right.” Both are potential game changers.

To do that, Washington needs to be responsive to the local level where education actually occurs. As we move through this critical period of educational policy making, it is important, therefore, for school boards to be fully engaged in the process with their members of Congress and their state and national associations.

“On the Hill” is a new monthly column focusing on the federal role in education and the advocacy efforts of the National School Boards Association. It is written by Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org), NSBA’s associate executive director of advocacy and issues management.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Budget woes force class cutbacks
Although the earlier grades are the best time to teach students a foreign language, many schools are cutting elementary programs due to tight budgets. A survey from the Center for Applied Linguistics found that U.S. elementary schools have cut back on foreign language instruction during the last decade. About 25 percent of schools offered a foreign language in 1997 but only 15 percent did so in 2007. In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh schools eliminated some classes, and Hempfield Area School District ended a 12-year-old language program this year when it eliminated two French and two Spanish elementary teaching positions, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune.

Teachers’ religious garb banned in Oregon
A new Oregon law prohibits workplace discrimination against individuals who wear religious dress, including items such as turbans, kippahs, and headscarves -- unless they are public school teachers. An amendment to the law states that “no teacher in any public school shall wear any religious dress while engaged in the performance of duties as a teacher.” Teachers already were banned from wearing such items at schools, but the language within the new law brought protests from groups representing cultures that frequently don religious dress, saying their members would have to choose between observing their religion or a career as a teacher. Nevertheless, a spokesman for Oregon’s education department says schools and teachers must remain neutral on religious issues.

D.C. schools expand STD testing
School officials in the nation’s capital will offer voluntary tests for sexually transmitted diseases to all high school students, expanding a pilot program that found many teens were infected. About 13 percent of about 3,000 students in the program tested positive for an STD, mostly gonorrhea or chlamydia, according to the Washington Post. The city already has one of the highest rates of HIV in the country, and health activists say students with STDs are more likely to contract the virus that causes AIDS. D.C. school officials also began urging parents to have girls entering sixth grade vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), a common STD that causes genital warts, which can lead to cervical cancer. The vaccination, available since 2006, is most effective when given before a girl becomes sexually active.

Students asked for renovation money
When Maine’s Islesboro Central School came up $1 million short for an $8 million renovation, officials started a letter-writing campaign asking current and former students to contribute. More than 800 letters were sent. A letter to elementary school students, for instance, noted that $1 could buy 50 nails. The K-12 school building, a 1920s-era stone mansion, is located on an island in Penobscot Bay. Students interviewed by Working Waterfront magazine said they planned to give as much as $40 each. “Because the renovation of ICS is aimed to better the environment for students to learn, I believe it is important for the students to be a part of the process in any way they can,” 10th-grader Claire Boucher said.

Districts try new marketing strategies
Several districts with declining enrollments began new marketing campaigns this fall to lure back students. Washington, D.C., and San Antonio, Texas, schools are using billboards and radio ads. Pittsburgh officials have gone so far as to advertise college scholarships to graduates who qualify, according to the Wall Street Journal. But in tight budget times, marketing costs bear more scrutiny. While campaigns can cost as little as a few thousand dollars, a recent tab of $1 million spent by St. Louis to brag about its top-ranked programs has drawn criticism from some residents and educators.

Teens share prescription drugs
One in five teenagers has shared prescription drugs -- from allergy medications to antibiotics -- with friends, according to a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. Researchers surveyed 573 adolescents ages 12 to 17. The study found that the drugs most likely to be shared were allergy drugs and narcotic pain relievers, followed by antibiotics, acne medications, and antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. The study’s authors cautioned that many of the prescriptions, such as the anti-acne drug Accutane, should be monitored by a doctor and could interact with other medications.

Obesity case sparks school criticism
The mother of a 14-year-old boy who weighs 555 pounds has been charged with criminal neglect for not keeping him on a diet. If she is convicted, the case could have far-reaching consequences for parents whose children are obese or have eating disorders, and possibly schools as well. The mother, Jerri Gray, says the boy’s school derailed his diet. Her lawyer told USA Today that her son, Alexander Draper, got food when he was away from his mother’s supervision, most likely when friends gave him food at school. Health experts said the obesity epidemic is especially prevalent in families who give an abundance of non-nutritious food to show their love, and schools needed to make a greater effort to identify students at risk of becoming obese and to prevent obese children from overeating during the school day.

Lunch enrollment nears record
The federal school lunch program is expected enroll a near-record number of students for the second year in a row, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA expects that at least 18.5 million low-income students will receive free or reduced-price lunches, and more than 8.5 million will take advantage of the federal school breakfast program. However, rising numbers of students who are homeless or whose families become eligible for food stamps may push those projections even higher. The 1967-68 school year holds the record for the largest participation, with 18.9 million students.

Children eating more nutritious foods
As the Child Nutrition Act comes up for reauthorization this fall, reports show that school lunches are becoming more nutritious, particularly since Michelle Obama has taken on the cause of school gardens.

A survey by the School Nutrition Association found that more schools are offering low-fat options. More than a third of schools offer locally grown fruits and vegetables, and another 21 percent of districts are considering that move. And 64 percent of U.S. schools now offer vegetarian options for lunch on a regular basis, a 40-percent increase since 2003.

Many of the individuals appointed by President Obama to the U.S. Department of Agriculture are looking to boost student health through better options in school cafeterias, according to the New York Times. The agency also is studying successful reform efforts and programs in districts and schools.  

Poll: Parents like schools; others not so much
Parents give their children’s schools much higher marks than the public at large, according to the 41st annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Their Public Schools. The poll found that 76 percent of parents were satisfied with the education their child receives in school, compared to 45 percent who were satisfied with the state of public education overall.

Education is one example of many aspects of society that are perceived more negatively at the national level than at the local level, according to Gallup. This is the 10th year Gallup has queried respondents to its annual Work and Education survey about the quality of the public schools, and every year has shown a wide gap between parents’ views and national perspectives.