January 2010 Up Front

News Analysis
Budget planning gets an early start due to ongoing woes

In Wake County, N.C., Superintendent Del Burns has announced plans to cut $20 million from the 2010-11 budget to avoid further staff cuts that have led to larger class sizes and fewer courses being offered.

Meanwhile, in Michigan’s Northville Public School District, school officials are appealing to residents in a series of “Managing Our Future Forums” that will help them determine which programs to cut. In Minnesota’s Waseca school district, Superintendent John Rokke is looking at adjusting the length of the school day and increasing activity fees to offset a budget shortfall.

And in Florida, plaintiffs that cross party lines have sued the state for failing to provide enough funding that would lead to “a high-quality system of free public schools.”

These four examples, reported on within a two-day period in late November, are just some of the budget woes districts across the nation face as they work to formulate spending plans for the next school year. The economy, while showing slow signs of recovery, continues to be dragged down by the highest unemployment rate in three decades.

And school districts, often the first to be affected by budget cuts and the last to see a rebound, are feeling the pinch.

Michael Griffith, a budget analyst with the Education Commission of the States (ECS), said it’s difficult to predict when education spending will recover, but he would not be surprised if it’s 2011 or 2012 before school districts begin to see defined improvements.

“Just as a downturn in the economy impacts states in different ways, so does an economic recovery,” Griffith writes in “A Light at the End of the Tunnel,” a policy paper available on the ECS website (www.ecs.org). “Some states could see immediate positive changes in their budgets, while other states may see little or no change in their economic fortunes for a while.”

Once recovery happens, it still takes some time for the effect to trickle down to schools.

“The general rule of thumb is that there is an 18-month lag between improvements in the national economy and state budgets and subsequent improvements in state education spending,” Griffith said. “In some cases, it has taken months or even years for a national economic upturn to lift school budgets.”

That has forced districts to start planning sooner than ever for budgets that won’t take effect until July. In Troup County, Ga., for example, school officials started looking at various options for cutting costs just two months after slashing $3 million from its 2008-09 budget. This year’s gap is expected to be about $4 million.

“This is an entirely different animal we’re dealing with now,” said Don Miller, the district’s chief financial officer.

Burns, the Wake County superintendent, said specific cuts have not been identified, but will come out of the district’s central services budget, which covers departments that are not school-based. He plans to identify specific cuts before the district budget is presented to the board in March.

Northville Superintendent Leonard Rezmierski said the public forums are necessary, given that the district faces the highest per-pupil cut in the state.

“These are unprecedented financial times for our state and our schools,” Rezmierski said, noting that Michigan’s districts rely on the state’s School Aid Fund for 90 percent of the budget. “This is putting extreme pressure on our school district and school districts statewide as we struggle to reduce costs in a budget that has already been trimmed to the bare bones.”

The Troup County school board is meeting several times this month and next to consider a number of possible cuts, including consolidating under-enrolled schools, centralizing pre-k programs, staff furloughs and layoffs, and the use of a calendar that would cut back the number of staff days. Community meetings are planned, and participants are being asked to bring more than just their opinions.

“We solicit your thoughts and prayers,” Daves Nichols, the board’s chair, said.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

Changes you can make

Michael Griffith, a budget analyst with the Education Commission of the States, recommends three funding changes that he says can save school districts money and improve quality during hard economic times.

• Promote school district purchasing cooperatives. School districts that pool their purchasing power could reduce costs by 8 percent to 14 percent, according to a study by the Leadership for Education Achievement in Delaware Committee.

• Work with other districts to educate high-need special education students. According to Griffith, a number of studies have found this approach can both improve the quality of education and reduce costs.

• Streamline the state’s funding system with an eye toward efficiency. Since the 2007-08 school year, New York state has consolidated 30 smaller funding programs into a new foundation aid formula. This change was made with the hope that the new streamlined funding system would help reduce administrative costs while making the system easier for districts to comprehend.

Department slows the race to charter
Michael A. Resnick

The U.S. Department of Education’s desire, if not passion, to promote charter schools as a major strategy for raising student achievement was clearly evident in its proposed requirements for states to compete for $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants (RTTT).

For example, those requirements included a provision that states could not maintain laws that prohibit or effectively inhibit the growth of charter schools. This was broadly interpreted to mean successful RTTT applicants would have to remove caps -- regardless of the current level in their state or whether more charters made sense in their varying communities. At the same time, Education Department officials contacted specific states and said they would need to do more to expand charters to be considered for RTTT funding.

At the same time, evidence supporting charter schools is mixed. Many studies on both sides of the question are suspect by their methodology, scope, or the authors’ affiliation. However, Stanford University’s Credo study, which emerged last June, stands out.

The study examined charters in 16 states that represent 70 percent of the nation’s total charter enrollment. It looked at several key factors, such as the various conditions under which the schools are created and operated, and its findings on student achievement were less than compelling justification for the favored position charters receive in the proposed RTTT program.

For example, 37 percent of charter school students posted significantly lower math gains than their traditional public school counterparts, 46 percent saw no significant difference, and only 17 percent experienced higher gains. In reading, the average growth for charter school students was lower.

To its credit, the Department of Education took a more balanced approach in issuing its final RTTT requirements, demonstrating its willingness to favor pragmatism and flexibility over ideology and heavy-handedness on this issue. Specifically, the department clarified that it did not intend for the removal of caps to be a condition for state grant eligibility, but rather a competitive factor for earning points in the application process.

Moreover, the department said it did not intend to remove state caps, but to ensure that states weren’t limiting the ability for more high performing charters to be created. It also acknowledged that charters weren’t a “silver bullet,” noting that states also could earn points through innovative efforts like the operation of autonomous public schools, (i.e. those that emphasize site-based management.)

In objecting to [the proposed requirements, NSBA was clear that it supports the charter school concept as long as they are authorized by the school board representing the community in which they are located. Unlike charters that are created by other entities, usually geographically far removed, charters authorized by their community’s school boards are better equipped to:

• Ensure that their mission fits into the district’s overall educational strategy.

• Foster coordination and sharing of information.

• Take into account any negative impact the charter could have on the budget and the educational program in the district’s other schools.

• Provide an appropriate level of oversight and accountability.

While the Education Department’s favorable shift (or clarification) slows the rate at which charters will be expanded in successful RTTT grant states, it neither disposes of the question of whether the federal government should promote their growth nor whether limits should be placed on how they are authorized and operated. Further, it leaves open what the department will seek in its proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- which will affect school districts in every state -- and what Congress will ultimately legislate.

For these reasons it is important for the research to continue. For local school boards, working with their state associations and NSBA, it is an opportunity to provide state and federal lawmakers with the pluses and minuses of how various charter options would work in their districts.

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director for advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Ariz. lawmakers shadow school leaders
A project organized by the Arizona Business & Education Coalition seeks to educate state lawmakers on the difficulties facing schools by partnering them with a school superintendent for a day. The lawmakers spend several hours shadowing school chiefs as they work with budgets and visit schools, according to the Arizona Republic. One legislator, Steve Montenegro, spent part of his day at Avondale Elementary school district shadowing administrators and a school board member as they evaluated classrooms and discussed ways to improve teaching. “Now I have a good grip, a good understanding, of the tools the district needs for each school,” he told the Republic. “So, whether it’s legislation or whether it’s funding, it translates.”

Teachers earn extra cash by selling lesson plans
More teachers are using the Internet to sell their lesson plans, and few districts have any guidelines or policies over how the proceeds should be used. Some teachers have generated thousands of dollars selling their teaching materials online, either on their blogs and individual sites or on commercial sites such as Teachers Pay Teachers, according to the New York Times. Its founder, a former New York City teacher, told the Times that Teachers Pay Teachers had $450,000 in sales last year. The site’s top seller, a high school English teacher in California, has made $36,000 in sales, he says. But the practice brings up a host of legal and ethical questions, some experts say. “To the extent that school district resources are used, then I think it’s fair to ask whether the district should share in the proceeds,” Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, told the Times.

Two-year colleges revisit enrollment policies
The economy has driven many students away from four-year institutions and sent record numbers of students to cheaper and more accessible community colleges. Now, some of the community colleges and trade schools have to reconsider their open-enrollment policies. Community colleges in New York City had to cut off enrollments in summer 2009 after a spike in applications filled its classes to capacity, according to the New York Times. It reports that the Obama administration also has promoted community colleges and offered new incentives to attend, thus driving up enrollments nationwide.

Effects of chocolate milk debated
Should schools serve chocolate milk, which is more popular with students but has more sugar and calories? The dairy industry is promoting chocolate milk in a new advertising campaign, which touts the drink’s nutritional value as a source of calcium and Vitamin D. But many health experts warn that sugary drinks are contributing to childhood obesity. “Flavored milk has more calories from the sweeteners that are in it. There’s no getting around that,” Dr. Frank Greer, former chairman of the nutrition committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the Chicago Tribune. At the request of its students, one Chicago elementary school began offering chocolate and flavored milks on Fridays because students refused to drink the plain milk, according to the Tribune.

More children going hungry
An annual federal report shows a record number of Americans, particularly families with children, are going hungry. The report found that in 2008 almost 17 million children, up from 12 million in 2007, were living in homes where food wasn’t readily available. The number of children classified as hungry rose from about 700,000 to nearly 1.1 million during that time. President Obama has vowed to increase the number of schools that offer free breakfast and end childhood hunger by 2015, according to the Washington Post.

Fla. students get class credits for video games
Receive a high school credit for completing a video game? About 350 students in Florida’s Virtual School are doing just that. The students are taking “Conspiracy Code,” a project-based course that takes place as a game. Students earn a credit in American history by following a character that is a conspiracy theorist and using maps, timelines, stories, and other tools to piece together lessons. The Florida Virtual School, an online, public K-12 school that serves more than 63,000 students worldwide, plans to work with video game developers to create more options for online courses in several subjects related to history, according to the Miami Herald.

Report cards going online
More schools are moving the iconic paper report card online, requiring parents to log in to view their children’s grades. While there’s no national data to show how many districts have done so, Ann Flynn, NSBA’s director of education technology, told USA Today that those making the change “are no longer the exception. They are becoming the rule.”

Obesity, education hinder military recruitment
In recent years, recruiters have had a harder time convincing high school students to join the military. Now, a new report shows that there are fewer candidates to recruit because many students have issues that would make them ineligible for service. Nearly three-quarters of the country’s 17- to 24-year-olds are ineligible to join the military, usually because they are poorly educated, overweight, or have physical ailments that make them unfit for the armed forces, according to a report by Mission: Readiness, a bipartisan group of retired military officers. Other factors, such as drug use, criminal records, and mental problems, are complicating what military leaders say is a major problem that threatens the country’s ability to defend itself at a time when the all-volunteer force is already strained fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Growing district finds need for school maintenance
The Clark County, Nev., district once struggled to build enough facilities to house its burgeoning student enrollment. Now it faces another challenge, the school board has learned: maintaining those buildings. Budget cuts have forced the school maintenance department to focus on “managed care,” and while its facilities still look to be in decent shape, major systems such as heating and cooling and alarms are in danger of failing because of deferred maintenance, a report from the district’s facilities department says. According to the Las Vegas Sun, some schools have purchased brooms and other supplies for staff to use in the interim. “Current levels of maintenance services are unsustainable and not in the long-term interests of the district,” Paul Gerner, the district’s associate superintendent of facilities, told the Sun.

High school student sues school over abortion protest
A student at a New Jersey high school claims her religious and free speech rights were violated when school officials denied her participation in a silent abortion protest. The girl, identified as C.H. in court papers, planned to remain silent except when called on in class, wear an armband, and distribute anti-abortion pamphlets in class, according to The Associated Press. The student has filed a federal lawsuit against the Bridgeton Public Schools. H. Victor Gilson, the district’s superintendent, told the AP that the school’s dress code would not allow the armband, and the district does not allow students to distribute literature on campuses.

Detroit teachers show ability to compromise
A two-year labor accord shows agreement between the Detroit teachers union and top administrators on issues such as firing inept teachers, budget cuts, and site-based management. Ironically, some of the issues are similar to those that led to a teachers’ strike in 1992, according to the Detroit Free Press. District and union officials acknowledged that radical changes are needed, because the school system has a dismal graduation rate of 58 percent and has lost half of its enrollment in the past decade, according to the Free Press. “This is going to be revolutionary,” Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers told the Free Press. “Both sides acknowledge that what we’re doing is not giving us the results that this community has a right to expect.”

Texas goes for digital textbooks
Texas has become the latest state to begin building a repository of digital textbooks. The Texas Education Agency is soliciting bids for online materials, and officials plan to have the first open-source textbooks and other materials online for students next fall, according to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. A digital repository would allow teachers and students to view textbooks online and also print customized versions. The advantages to digital books, aside from lower costs, would be having the abilities to customize and update the database and incorporate other features, such as videos, into lessons. Currently, Texas is one of the top consumers in the traditional textbook publishing industry. The state spent about $264 million to replace lost or damaged textbooks in the 2008-09 school year, according to the Star-Telegram, but officials estimate a digital content system would cost about $20 million a year.