April 2010 Up Front

News Analysis
Standards = funding: The emerging debate

As the Obama administration moves toward the long-awaited reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, what’s emerging is a plan that ties federal funding to state-approved standards.

The question that emerges for school board members is: What will be our role in this?

In a mid-February speech to the nation’s governors, President Obama unveiled a plan to link Title I and other competitive federal funding to the state-adopted standards in reading and math. States would have to join others in developing common standards or have the higher education community certify that its standards are at a college- and career-ready level.

Obama’s move comes as the administration works on the reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known for the past eight years as NCLB. It also is a significant boost for the common core standards now being drafted by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Forty-eight of 50 states -- Texas and Alaska are the exceptions -- have endorsed the drafting of the standards so far. Only one state, Kentucky, had adopted them at press time.

“Many states have already positioned themselves to adopt higher standards,” Obama said. “Today I’m announcing steps to encourage this for all states to transition to college- and career-ready standards on behalf of America’s students... This administration is serious about breaking down some of the barriers to reform.”

Under NCLB, states can set their own standards without federal guidance or intrusion. While Obama was quick to praise some states, such as Massachusetts, he and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said many states have actually lowered standards to help school’s meet the law’s requirements.

“We have to stop lying to children,” Duncan said. “We have to look them in the eye and tell them the truth at every stage of their educational trajectory.”

After Obama’s announcement, NSBA issued a press release calling the move “an unnecessary over-reach by the federal government to coerce states to adopt a particular approach or be shut out of future funding for key programs.” The statement noted that the federal government potentially could “call for additional conditions, such as the use of national tests for accountability purposes.”

A resolution adopted last year by the NSBA Delegate Assembly supports efforts by the federal government in assisting the voluntary development and adoption of state-led common standards. However, the resolution opposes efforts by the federal government to coerce or condition their adoption as a condition for states to receive federal funds for other programs.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals had a similar tone in its statement, noting that the administration’s “manner of encouragement ... raises significant concerns.”

“The administration’s proposal to withhold all Title I funds from states that choose not to comply, while making for vigorous policy debate, ultimately threatens the education and well-being of students in poverty -- the very students who most need support and for whom Title I was created,” Executive Director Gerald N. Tirozzi said. “No matter how well intentioned, no proposal should ever reduce the base of Title I funds to a negotiating chip.”

As the reauthorization of ESEA/ NCLB moves along, what has emerged from this is that the administration is not backing down from its reform efforts under any circumstances.

“It’s fair to say the administration is looking at its role as a game changer,” said Michael A. Resnick, NSBA’s associate executive director for advocacy and issues management. “And it is trying to advance student achievement by using leverage with funding to inspire states and school districts to do that. Race to the Top is one example, and now we see another example. This is not stopping here.”

Stay tuned...

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

Competition has its downsides
Michael A. Resnick

The U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program marks a turning point in the federal role in education. Forty states are competing to be among the relative few that will receive a sizeable share of this $4.35 billion program.

Winners will be those that can show the strongest commitment and the best plans to implement highly innovative, specific strategies that the department believes will raise overall educational achievement while closing the achievement gap. Given these tough financial times, states are especially eager to compete for these funds and are accepting the department’s priorities for school improvement.

The underlying theory is that using competition to concentrate funds in a few states will go further to spur excellence in education than spreading the same money to more states and school districts -- especially if their plans are the best rather than just good. That philosophy has been extended to the department’s proposed fiscal year 2011 budget, where nearly all of the proposed increases are in competitive grant programs. Prominently, the proposal includes an additional $1.35 billion for Race to the Top, as well as competitive grants for such areas as improving teacher quality, strengthening specific academic programs, and expanding charter schools.

At the same time, the proposed budget does not change how funds are allocated under Title I or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Title I funding would be frozen and IDEA increased by about 2 percent. State formula allocations for teacher programs would be significantly cut as well, but the amount is more than offset by proposed increases for competitive grants.

Taken together, does placing greater emphasis on competitive grants have any downsides? Unfortunately, yes.

Competition provides an advantage to states and local school districts that can afford the biggest and best grantwriting teams. What happens to those that might be the most in need and can’t compete?

Creating a competitive culture among states likely will dampen their willingness to share information, which is another goal of the Obama administration’s education platform. Also, it likely will refocus energy away from -- and undermine in the long term -- the education community’s established, relatively successful national effort to encourage Congress to increase bottom-line funding for the benefit of all.

At the very least, competitive grants introduce an element of uncertainty into district planning and budgeting, and require an investment of time and resources into the application process with no assurance of return. As a result, great care must be taken in evaluating the balance of utilizing formula allocations as opposed to competitive grants.

In making that assessment, the broader context of local district funding must be taken into account. According to the National Governors Association, state revenues declined 7.5 percent this past year, will continue to decline, and won’t be restored until sometime in 2014-15. The stimulus package, rainy day funds, and one-time accounting fixes, as well as the priorities of some education-minded governors, combined to limit state education cuts last year. But it’s less likely that those supports will be available this year and beyond.

Meanwhile, many districts with falling property assessments and significant housing foreclosures can’t raise local property tax rates to offset their revenue losses -- let alone cover state cuts. Under these circumstances, many districts prefer the certainty of the familiar formula funding for Title I and IDEA in FY 2011 -- especially as stimulus money runs out and they struggle to meet underfunded mandates associated with these two programs.

It’s not yet clear how much flexibility states and school districts will have in using competitive grants. Narrow projects, as worthy as they may be, could result in layering specific activities on school districts. What’s really needed is more flexibility to meet federal goals in ways that can work around the impact that funding cuts are having on their core education programs.

Districts are making budget decisions to lay off professional, technical, and support staff, increase class sizes, freeze salaries, cut programs, and defer necessary educational expenditures, Leveraging sustainable change cannot hinge on beefing up competitive grants alone. NSBA will urge Congress to recognize the condition of district funding by providing significant increases for Title I and IDEA rather than by committing virtually all of those resources to competitive grants.  

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director of advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association. His column, “On the Hill,” appears monthly in ASBJ.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Students may complete high school in two years
An experimental program sponsored by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) will allow high school students to leave school after 10th grade if they can pass rigorous subject-mastery tests. Those students would continue their classes at a local community college for the next two years. The program will be tested in high schools in eight states beginning this fall. “We’ve looked at schools all over the world, and if you walk into a high school in the countries that use these board exams, you’ll see kids working hard, whether they want to be a carpenter or a brain surgeon,” Marc Tucker, NCEE’s president, told the New York Times. The program will be supported by a $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and some states plan to use the program to apply for federal stimulus funds to defray the costs of the tests and teacher training, according to the Times.

Chicago reduces number of school closings
Chicago Public Schools officials chose to keep open five of 14 schools slated for closure or reconstitution after emotional community meetings in February. The hearings on the 14 schools, which were targeted for low performance, were attended by school board members and drew thousands of parents and community residents, according to the Chicago Tribune. Many of the community members’ concerns centered on students’ safety in getting to schools outside their immediate neighborhoods. Some of the schools slated to be closed will be reconstituted; others have put forth improvement plans. “I hope it says that we’re very open to listening to community feedback. The public participation is really important,” schools chief Ron Huberman said, according to the Tribune. “Do we need to continue to improve the selection process? The answer is yes. We get smarter about this every year.”

L.A. project funnels supplies to schools
A Los Angeles nonprofit group is recycling discarded office supplies from local businesses by allowing teachers, school officials, and other nonprofit leaders to “shop” for needed materials. A 4,000-square-foot warehouse holds masses of items such as paper, envelopes, printing and computer equipment, and other items such as toiletries and artwork. The invited guests are allowed to choose anything they could use, as the items otherwise would have gone to a landfill. The corporations that donate the materials -- including Disney, Paramount Studios, and the Getty Museum, according to the Los Angeles Times -- get a tax write-off in return. The program’s executive director, Bert Ball, began recycling in 1991 and since then has given away about $180 million in donated goods, according to the Times.

FCC change forces schools to change microphones
Schools that use wireless microphones for teaching have until June 12 to purchase new equipment or change the radio frequency on their current setup, according to a Jan. 15 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission. The ruling is part of a government project to clear the frequency band that school microphones currently use so that it may be used for emergency communications, digital television transmissions, and cell phones. Violation of the FCC’s order could result in penalties and fines, but Aurora Multimedia CEO Paul Harris said schools “are probably going to keep using [the 700 megahertz band] until it becomes a problem,” according to a report by eSchool News.

District hopes to save programs by saving energy costs
A California school district is hoping to save its sports and arts programs by implementing a new energy efficiency program. Beginning in February, school officials in Santa Rosa City Schools asked teachers and students to cut their use of energy, for a total of 10 percent for each school. An analysis showed that the main use came from air conditioning, lighting, and plug-in devices like teachers’ mini-refrigerators and coffee pots. “We are in dire straits here,” the director of maintenance and operations, Jennie Bruneman, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “This is where all the little things that we do on a daily basis count. Taking out your fridge, taking out your coffee pot -- those make a difference. Those little things add up to big dollars.” District officials hoped to save $250,000 by the end of the school year. The school board had pledged to revisit the plans to cut the sports and arts programs later this spring.

More schools go green with their cleaning
As more states require schools to use environmentally responsible cleaning products, some have begun to question their costs and advantages. As a result of legislation in 2009, 10 states now require or encourage “green” floor waxes and other cleaning products, according to The Associated Press. While the environmental and health benefits of eco-conscious cleaners may be clear, others are concerned about the increased cost that comes along with them. While some large manufacturers offer “green” cleaners that are priced comparably with conventional products, other items such as trash bags and paper towels made from recycled materials can cost up to 20 percent more than traditional products.

Teachers’ tests get harder in Illinois
After criticism of the low scores needed to pass basic skills tests required for teachers, Illinois is preparing to raise the bar. College students can score as low as a 50 percent on reading and language arts sections and as low as 35 percent on the math section to still be admitted into teacher-preparation programs, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. A 2001 Sun-Times series discovered that hundreds of teachers in the state had never passed an eighth-grade level Basic Skills Test. Some 10 percent had failed that test at least once. When Illinois education officials raised the level of the test to “college sophomore level,” test-takers could squeak by with scores lower than the previously required 70 percent. State officials also may start requiring substitute teachers, who currently need only a bachelor’s degree, to pass the Basic Skills Test.

Utah bill to keep pay away from union activities
Some Utah school districts currently pay a part of their union presidents’ salaries, even if those union leaders no longer teach. This practice could come to a halt with the adoption of a bill passed by the Senate Education Committee. The bill, proposed by State Sen. Margaret Dayton, would keep school districts from paying the salaries of teachers who leave the classroom to take part in union activities, and is about “keeping taxpayer dollars allocated for education in the classroom,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported. Those who oppose the bill say that the decision about paying union workers’ salaries should be left up to local districts, and that the union work done by teachers often benefits both the union and the school district. The bill would require teachers who leave regular school responsibilities to attend to union duties to reimburse, or have the union or organization reimburse, the district for that time, but some lawmakers had asked where the line would be drawn to differentiate between school duties and union tasks.

Schools rarely check for cheating
Most schools fail to use even the most elementary methods to monitor cheating, even though these techniques have been around for decades and more sophisticated methods are becoming widespread, according to the New York Times. Some states have been adopting a policy of applying statistical tests to school standardized testing results as a way to combat cheating not only by students, but also by educators. One of those, the Georgia Office of Student Achievement, which is separate from the state’s Department of Education, said it had reason to believe that cheating occurred on standardized tests at one in five of the state’s public elementary and middle schools. While cheating is normally thought of as a problem among students, officials believe that teachers trying to boost their success rate and the school’s image are to blame in this case. As schools are asked to meet higher improvement goals as part of laws like No Child Left Behind, and the consequences for not doing so have grown more severe, reports of cheating have skyrocketed. “They’ve gone from a handful a year to a handful a month,” Robert Schaeffer, the president of FairTest, an organization that opposes the emphasis on standardized testing, told the New York Times.

Teachers union opposes school newspaper
A Nevada teachers union is continuing its fight against a high school in Fallon, Nev., for allowing its student newspaper to print an article criticizing a teacher. The Churchill County Education Association released a statement saying it pledged to stand behind the Churchill High music teacher, Kathy Archey, according to Associated Press reports. The article, which was written by a senior at the high school, focused on parent accusations that Archey had prevented students’ audition tapes from being entered in a state competition for aspiring musicians. The school principal and district superintendent stood behind the decision to publish, according to the AP.  

Webinar looks at Education 3.0

What can schools do to help students match the needs of today’s workplace? Move toward what James Lengel calls “Education 3.0.”

Lengel, a consultant for Cisco Global Education, told participants in an ASBJ/Cisco-­sponsored webinar that schools should take a hard look at what employers are increasingly seeking: Small groups that work together to solve problems. Employees use digital tools and have varied styles, and are connected to the outside world.

“That is our economy now,” Lengel said. “If the schools had adapted to this workplace, what would they look like?”

Lengel, a professor at Hunter College in New York, led participants through a hypothetical “Day in the Life of a 21st Century Student.” The high-schooler uses a handheld device and other electronic media to connect with her peers, collects data on a local water source, and finds her information used in a state Senate debate over water quality. Teachers have moved away from drill-and-kill techniques and become resources for the students, pointing them in the right direction to find information.

Want to know more? Go to the “Webinars and Multimedia” section of ASBJ.com and ­download the webinar, or go to www.GETideas.org.

Report examines chances for college acceptance

As high school seniors get ready to graduate, their chances of getting into a competitive college depend on a number of variables that go beyond their cumulative grade point average. And if they are minorities or come from low-income families, those chances drop dramatically, a new report says.

According to Chasing the College Acceptance Letter, a report issued by NSBA’s Center for Public Education, taking harder and higher-level courses -- especially in math and science -- and making higher scores on the SAT or ACT play a bigger role for colleges than GPA.

Minority and low-income students are less likely to earn the credentials that will give them a 50/50 shot of being accepted into a competitive college, CPA researcher Jim Hull says. Sixty-six percent of white students earn these credentials, compared to 37 percent of minorities and 38 percent of low-income students. Students from low-income families are more than 20 percent less likely to be admitted to a competitive college.

The good news is that “the right credentials” doesn’t have to mean straight A’s, a perfect ACT score, or spending 50 hours a week on extracurricular activities, Hull says. It just means students should earn decent grades, take college-preparatory courses, and perform well on their college entrance exams.

According to the most recent national data available, the average applicant earned a 21 on the ACT, completed trigonometry and chemistry, and earned a 3.12 GPA. This translated into a 75 percent chance of being admitted into a “competitive” college (as defined by Barron’s Profile of American Colleges).

For more information on the report, visit www.centerforpubliceducation.org.

Eddie Tech helps districts access construction funds

In February’s issue of ASBJ, our news analysis looked at how school districts are struggling to access federal money to repair and replace crumbling facilities. Now three organizations -- NSBA, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Education Association -- have joined forces to support the work of the National Education Technology Funding Corp.

The corporation, also known as Eddie Tech, works with districts across the nation to assemble bond portfolios that can be sold into the national capital markets. The School Investment Pooled-Securities (SIPS) Program will package bonds into pooled offerings, which will reduce financing costs and simply the process for school districts.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act created and expanded Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCBs) and Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZABs). School districts were expected to receive a significant financial subsidy because the U.S. Treasury can now pay “interest” to investors in the form of annual tax credits. However, because no mature and established market exists yet for these bonds, many districts are having to pay lenders an additional premium of as much as 3 percent more per year, deeply cutting into the potential savings.

Brett Mandel, Eddie Tech’s executive director, said the SIPS program will “offer efficient ‘pre-packaged’ issuance mechanisms, reduced transaction costs, and more-efficient pricing for school districts.”

“While we were very pleased to see the dramatic expansion of the tax-credit-bond programs, we were disappointed to hear that many school districts have not been able to take full advantage of cost savings,” said Anne Bryant, NSBA’s executive director. “We fully support Eddie Tech’s efforts and believe they will reduce borrowing costs and help our school boards meet their ongoing challenge to invest in schools.”

For more information, visit www.eddietech.org.

‘Let’s Move’ campaign focuses on childhood obesity

First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to address childhood obesity is receiving strong support from national organizations that have agreed to work together to educate children and parents about healthy food choices.

The new public-private partnership, which comes as a third of U.S. children face health issues related to obesity or excess weight, was announced at a White House ceremony that featured the launch of a new website, http://letsmove.gov.

According to the campaign, obesity rates have tripled in the past 30 years, and for the first time in this nation’s history, American children may face a shorter expected lifespan than their parents.

“Let’s Move” will “affect every single school across the country,” David Agnew, the administration’s Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, said in a conference call. Those working on the project will pay special attention to eliminating so-called “food deserts” -- areas where some people live many miles from any sort of grocery store.

Working with and through state school boards associations, NSBA is helping to identify at least one local school board member in every state to serve as a visible champion in the campaign. NSBA also will work with the states to promote participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthier USSchool Challenge.

The initiative focuses on four goals: improve information and tools for parents to make better choices, improve the quality of food in schools, improve the access and affordability of healthy foods, and increase children’s physical activity.

“Principals face many challenges in structuring the school day to include regular recess,” says Brenda Z. Greene, NSBA’s director of School Health Programs. “But the evidence is clear that there are significant benefits to giving children time for unstructured play, including the opportunity to develop social skills while being physically active. A school or district school health advisory team representing staff, parents andstudents could be a useful problem-solving mechanism.”