September 2009 Up Front

News Analysis
NYC: A step back to status quo


An angry and bitter turf war over who is in charge of the nation’s largest school district has produced a lot of noise but little change in the way governance is handled, resulting in what has been described as “a summer of confusion.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has retained his stronghold on the 1.1 million student school district, even though a 2002 law giving him control expired at the end of June. Hours after legislators adjourned for the summer, and with no expected action before September, Bloomberg and the city’s five borough presidents named a new seven-member board to oversee the district and voted to retain Chancellor Joel Klein.

The reversion to the status quo resulted in further bickering between the mayor and state Senate Democrats, who want Bloomberg to relinquish at least some of what many consider to be unprecedented power over a large city district.

“It’s called school governance, not mayoral control,” Sen. John Sampson told the New York Daily News.

Among the senators’ demands: Language that allows for more independent oversight of spending, and the establishment of both a parent training center and a commission to study school security.

“The days of being intimidated are over,” Sen. Eric Adams of Brooklyn said at a City Hall press conference in mid-July. “We will not surrender our children, and he needs to understand that.”

Bloomberg’s power grab was not out of character -- the mayor has pushed through a repeal of term-limit legislation that would have forced him out of office this year and is seeking a third term in office. Central to his campaign is his stewardship of the school system; his opponent, City Comptroller William C. Thompson, is the former school board chairman.

Thompson has been critical of Bloomberg’s handling of the schools, saying the city’s lack of oversight and sloppy recordkeeping has resulted in inflated graduation rates, cheating, and test manipulation.

Other critics point to Bloomberg’s strong-arm tactics; he has removed school board members who did not follow his wishes. New York University’s Diane Ravitch, among others, has charged that Bloomberg is shutting the public out of decisions -- such as the closing of some of the district’s 1,500 schools -- that affect large sections of the city.

“Nothing has changed,” Ravitch said in late July.

Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said his organization supported the House legislation, which included the language about spending oversight and added new requirements for approving contracts. He said the failure of the Senate to act has resulted in “a summer of confusion.”

“We also would have strongly preferred the inclusion of language giving the members of the citywide board of education a fixed term of office to provide them with appropriate discretion on matters that must be approved by the board,” Kremer said.

How much discretion a mayor-appointed board should have is at the crux of discussions in several large city school districts, including Detroit and New Orleans. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has come under scrutiny in some circles for his support of mayoral control in larger cities, including Chicago, where he served as CEO for seven years.

“Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven’t had that leadership from the top,” Duncan told The Associated Press earlier this year. “That lack of stability, that lack of leadership is a huge part of the reason you don’t see sustained progress and growth.”

In a recent panel discussion on the National Journal blog (http://educa tion.nationaljournal.com), Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond said mayoral control is one facet of the “search for silver bullets through governance shifts.”

“Unfortunately,” Darling-Hammond   wrote, “the never-ending debates about governance often deflect us from more important considerations of educational quality: What kind of learning and teaching are pursued, how capacity for high-quality teaching and leadership is built, and what steps toward equity are taken.”

Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, agreed. She noted that mayoral control has been successful in Boston and Chicago due to strong relationships between the CEOs of those cities and the school boards.

“With the proper oversight and accountability, as well as the involvement of a highly functioning school board and an engaged community, these kinds of relationships can work,” Bryant said. “In strong mayor-school board collaborations, like we’ve seen in Chicago and Boston, the mayor empowers the school board by providing resources to them that they would not otherwise have access to. But the school board is critical, so that the community does have input into the schools.”

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief


‘Race to the Top’:  What some are saying

As you might expect, the U.S. Department of Education’s announcement of the $5 billion “Race to the Top” criteria prompted an outpouring of commentary about the requirements that states must meet to get their slice of the pie.

Applications are being accepted and the money will be doled out in two waves, starting in 2010. To meet the criteria, states must embrace charter schools and performance pay for teachers, among other things.

Here is what various individuals and organizations had to say about the program:

• President Obama, in an interview with the Washington Post: “What we’re saying here is, if you can’t decide to change these practices, we’re not going to use precious dollars that we want to see creating better results; we’re not going to send those dollars there. And we’re counting on the fact that, ultimately, this is an incentive, this is a challenge for people who do want to change.”

• Dennis Van Roekel, National Education Association president: “We’re absolutely in sync with where they’re going.”

• Mike Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and former Bush administration official: “This is poking teachers unions straight in the eye.”

• Andrew Rotherham, a former Clinton administration official and editor of the Eduwonk blog: “Federalism is hardly threatened here and in many ways a lot of this looks like the various “super ed-flex” and performance agreement ideas that conservatives were touting during the debate over No Child Left Behind. Besides, states can choose not to compete.”

• Michael A. Resnick, associate executive director of advocacy for the National School Boards Association: “Clearly this administration has a comprehensive plan for what its role is in helping schools to reach higher levels of student achievement, especially when it comes to students who are academically challenged. And clearly they are putting significant funding behind their plan. Time will tell whether there is the capacity to take everything to a nationwide scale, but this is an impressive start.”

For more information on the “Race to the Top” implementation, visit the NSBA website at www.nsba.org and click on “Advocacy and Legislation.”


Common Questions -- and Answers --  About the H1N1 Virus, aka Swine Flu

With public health officials readying for a resurgence of the H1N1 influenza virus this fall, local school officials are being advised to make preparations to do their part to keep children healthy and safe.

Here are answers to a few common questions being asked these days:

How serious is the H1N1 flu strain? No one can tell exactly what the future holds, but it’s estimated that as many as 1 million Americans have been ill -- infected with the H1N1 virus -- with only 211 reported dead. Most victims report flu-like symptoms typical of any flu season. But public health officials stress that any influenza can lead to serious illness and death, but H1N1 has spread rapidly worldwide.

What should schools do if a student or teacher arrives at school with flu-like symptoms? Don’t sit sick children in the principal’s office until a parent comes to pick them up. And don’t let teachers insist that they’re OK. Move anyone with flu-like symptoms to an isolated area immediately, and send them home, recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Report any possible infections to your local health agency, and don’t be worried if it later turns out to be a false alarm.

Should school officials prepare to close schools in an outbreak? Federal officials recommend having a plan for that eventually, but the CDC says that closing school isn’t necessary if a few students or a teacher get sick. You might need to shut your doors, however, if an outbreak in a school becomes widespread. Your local or state health department will let you know what to do.

Will schools be asked to serve as hosts to a mass vaccination effort of children? That’s a possibility. Children appear to be more vulnerable to H1N1 than adults. Public health officials hope to have a vaccine ready by mid-October, and if that deadline is reached, then schools are a logical site to inoculate large numbers of children quickly.

How can schools prepare for an outbreak of H1N1? Train your staff to quickly segregate anyone with flu-like symptoms. Make sure custodians are keeping school facilities clean. Have a communications plan ready for concerned parents and media inquiries if an outbreak occurs. In fact, tell parents, staff, and students about your plan ahead of time. And, as part of a worst-case scenario, a plan to close schools should include ways to engage students in some learning exercises so as to minimize the disruption caused by a closure.

What is NSBA doing to help local school policymakers deal with this pandemic? Senior NSBA staff has met with officials at the CDC and the U.S. Department of Education to discuss federal support for local school officials and the logistical challenges of using schools for mass inoculations of children. Also, NSBA’s School Health Programs has conducted a survey of school districts about mass vaccinations of students at school, and the findings will be shared with state and federal officials as they develop their policies.

How get I get more information about H1N1 and health policy guidelines for K-12 educators? Updates of the federal government’s preparations, along with links to useful websites, can be found at www.nsba.org/MainMenu/SchoolHealth/Updates/Swine-Flu.aspx.



Talk About It

Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Cell phone fines
The Abilene, Texas, school district recently began fining students for using their cell phones at school -- including calls, texting, or surfing the Web. If caught, the students’ phones are confiscated until they pay a $15 fine, according to ABC News. After the second offense, parents must come to the school to pay the fine. It’s part of a get-tough approach to curtailing the use of cell phones in the classroom, but it could also provide an extra source of revenue for school districts.

Louisiana diplomas
Louisiana students who don’t plan to go to college can now opt for a “career diploma,” which requires fewer college preparatory courses. At a time when education leaders are urging states to require more rigorous academic courses for a diploma, Louisiana has, in essence, watered down its standards. The diploma was designed for at-risk students who want to learn a job skill or attend a community or technical college for a trade rather than go to a four-year institution. State legislators in favor of the move said that it will lower dropout rates by appealing to students who aren’t interested in college and want more vocational training. Critics, though, say that it is not rigorous enough for those students, and shortchanges many others who do not realize that soon many jobs will require a college degree.

Makeup classes
New York state is planning to release new standards to crack down on the abuse of New York City’s system of allowing students to make up schoolwork for credit. The practice had been criticized by teachers, who say they witnessed students doing lax or minimal work for class credit, according to a New York Times investigation last year. The problem has been finding consensus on how to write a policy that was enforceable but also gave schools the flexibility they needed to address each student’s needs and situation. Randi Weingarten, the former president of the city’s United Federation of Teachers, told the Times that teachers often complained about the ease of the program, and while efforts to clarify standards at some schools were promising, “there’s still a lot of gaming. ... It’s in their interest, it’s in our interest, to show that more and more kids are taking and passing their courses,” she said. “Whether it’s an isolated case or not, it’s a problem.”

Energy savings
The Clark County, Nev., school district saves more than $9 million each year by turning off lights, computers, and other electrical devices when they are not in use. But the district expected to save another $250,000 this past summer because it required teachers and administrators to also unplug those devices while school was not in session. Even when those appliances were turned off, some still used a miniscule amount of electricity, the district’s energy manager, Dick Cuppett, told the Las Vegas Sun. In a district as large as Clark County, that adds up. As part of its plan to save on energy costs, the district hires facility inspectors to ensure schools are maximizing their savings. And the district shares its savings with the schools. Last year, it sent $700,000 to 307 schools that had trimmed energy costs by at least 10 percent over the previous year, according to the Sun.

Texas tackles social studies curriculum
As the Texas Board of Education begins a mammoth process to rewrite its social studies curriculum, conservatives are igniting debates over the inclusion of civil rights leaders César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall. “To have César Chávez listed next to Ben Franklin is ludicrous,” wrote evangelical minister Peter Marshall, who also questioned whether Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, who argued the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case, should be considered an important historical figure, according to the Dallas Morning News. The board appointed Peter Marshall and five other advisors to make recommendations for the new curriculum, which will replace a 1998 version. Other points of contention will likely be the role of religion in politics and the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973. The Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit group, questioned the credentials of the conservative panelists and said their negative comments are just the start of a blacklist of historical figures considered objectionable by social conservatives, according to the Morning News.

Fundraising  and equity
The Prince George’s County, Md., school board recently curbed the practice of allowing principals to hire extra teachers or aides for their schools using operating funds. The policy change, spurred by budget concerns, led to the layoffs of more than 40 employees and set off a debate about fundraising and equity. The previous policy allowed schools to use general operating funds to pay the salaries of additional teachers they chose to hire, but the district paid for their benefits, according to the Washington Post. The Rockledge Elementary School PTA, for instance, typically raises about $25,000 each year, which it spends on school supplies, arts programs, teacher appreciation events, and technology. Because the school did not have to use its operating funds to buy those items, the principal hired a technology teacher to oversee the school’s computer lab and help students with research. That teacher was laid off because of the new policy. “I felt that, due to the fact that we’re middle class, we‘re penalized,” Kyle Thomas, Rockledge’s PTA president, told the Post.

Alabama code of ethics
Under a more stringent code of ethics written by the Alabama Board of Education, teachers can be disciplined for using improper language on school grounds, giving liquor to students, or exposing students to unnecessary embarrassment. “This makes it part of the law so that every teacher understands what is expected of them,” Gov. Bob Riley said, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. Penalties for violations range from a reprimand to revocation of a teaching license. The move was opposed by teachers union officials, who said the regulations were vague and would be difficult to interpret.

Sports safety
The Kentucky legislature now requires all high school coaches to take an online sports safety class after a 15-year-old died from heat-related causes during a summer football practice in August 2008. The four-hour course covered topics such as injury prevention, basic first aid, and interventions for head injuries, heat stroke, and hypothermia. The first-year head football coach at the Louisville, Ky., high school where the student, Max Gilpin, died has been charged with reckless homicide for allegedly denying the players water shortly before Gilpin’s death. An investigation by the Jefferson County school district found the coach, Jason Stinson, did not break any rules. Stinson’s trial is expected to begin in late August.

Utah screens school employees
Education officials in Utah are setting up a system to conduct more background checks on teachers and school employees after a legislative probe found some convicted criminals working in schools. The legislature’s report also found the systems for vetting workers to be “flawed and ineffective,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Under a new law mandated by the state board of education, teachers will undergo background checks every five years, and other employees will undergo periodic checks. The state’s Department of Public Safety is building a database that will alert school officials if an employee has been arrested or charged with a crime. According to the Tribune, the database was mandated in 1999 but never built.