November 2010 Up Front

On the Hill
What grade would you give Congress?
Michael A. Resnick

The attention given to November’s midterm election provides a good opportunity to review what the two-year 111th Congress has done in education. And what an unusual Congress it has been.

Most prominently, early in 2009 Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), providing an astonishing and unprecedented $100 billion in education funding that primarily was committed to the K-12 level. The stimulus package, to be spent over two years, nearly doubled federal education funding levels for that period.

More than $40 billion was distributed as general aid to shore up district budgets, while other large allocations provided one-time increases to programs like Title I (for students from low-income families) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Also unprecedented is the extraordinary discretion Congress has given the U.S. Department of Education to develop conditions states must meet to qualify for ARRA’s Race to the Top. In very general terms, the law requires qualifying states to adopt higher standards, focus on improving teacher effectiveness and equitable distribution of effective staff, build data systems to measure individual student progress, and turn around their lowest- performing schools.

Building on this, the Education Department has developed very detailed program requirements that have significant policy implications for public education and also have laid the groundwork for the proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top is a relatively small portion of the ARRA pot, although these competitive grant funds have provided major incentives for cash-strapped states to develop education reform plans that win the department’s approval. States have changed laws, adopted common core standards, and incurred new costs in the hopes of being one of the 12 that have been selected so far. As a result, the department has leveraged and funded major policy changes at the federal and state levels -- all without Congressional involvement or review.

More recently, Congress passed a $10 billion Education Jobs Fund bill to help districts avoid layoffs and hire new building-level staff. A regular appropriations bill for 2011-12 has not been approved, but it appears Congress will wisely reject the department’s request to allocate most funding increases to competitive grants in favor of modest Title I and IDEA increases. This will be more helpful to school districts that will be financially struggling to meet basic needs -- especially after ARRA and jobs fund money run out.

Meanwhile, the 111th Congress has not taken up the long-awaited ESEA reauthorization, a major disappointment because the existing law (also known as the No Child Left Behind Act) has serious flaws that are educationally unsound and waste staff resources and funds as school districts cut both at the local level. Also, NCLB’s problems will coexist with the department’s different and evolving policy direction. Merits aside, some observers view the department’s action as an ESEA reauthorization by the executive branch to fill the vacuum Congress has left.

In sum, on basic education initiatives, this Congress has been surprisingly (if not breathtakingly) strong on funding and similarly disengaged on substance.

At press time, Congress was poised to act on three other district-related measures that NSBA has been working on for your benefit. The child nutrition reauthorization contains many good ideas for raising the nutritional value of school food offerings but at a cost that a district can’t afford. NSBA also is working to extend a special provision allowing districts to continue their participation in the E-Rate program, which funds some $2.25 billion of technology infrastructure annually to schools and libraries.

Finally, NSBA is opposing a provision in the Senate defense authorization bill that would create a voucher program that would help students with disabilities from military families to enroll in other private or public schools. According to the provision, the U.S. Department of Defense would provide up to $7,500, with the student’s home district potentially funding the rest. Instead of vouchers, NSBA is recommending that the Department of Defense use the money for special child and family service centers that it has created and not yet funded.

If not acted upon before the Congressional election recess, these measures and funding can be taken up in a lame duck session or next year, when the 112th Congress takes over. Due to the ESEA reauthorization, it is likely the next Congress will have a much stronger and longer-lasting policy impact. So, after the elections, school board members will need to be vigilant in pursuing important votes taken this year and gear up for some big decisions to come.

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director of NSBA’s Office of Advocacy and Issues Management.


Q&A with legendary actress and arts education champion Carol Channing

By the time most people reach 90 years old, they’ve slowed down, eased back on certain activities, and, heck, are simply happy to be alive and in good health. But three months shy of becoming a nonagenarian, Broadway and film star Carol Channing is as spry, spirited, and driven as ever, and she’s got a message for educators and policymakers: Keep the arts in school.

Channing, who’s earned countless accolades, including three Tony awards for her signature roles in such musicals as Hello Dolly and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is now turning her support and star power to the dilemma she sees occurring in schools all over the country -- particularly in her home state of California, where a well-rounded education replete with music, dance, visual arts, and drama is becoming a thing of the past thanks to a poor economy and certain education reform efforts.

A product of public schools, Channing says the arts piqued and prodded her passion for learning and discovering new things, and to deprive today’s students of the same breadth of knowledge jeopardizes their success in school, and ultimately, the success in public education.

For these reasons, Channing, along with husband and middle school sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, are campaigning across the country to keep arts education in schools. ASBJ Senior Editor Naomi Dillon caught up with the very busy Channing and Kullijian to learn more about their enduring love of the arts.

Before we talk about your national initiative, tell me what arts did for you as a student, as an adult?

Kullijian: It transformed our lives and built a bond that was never broken.

Channing: We discovered poetry together. I was 12 and Harry was 13. We went crazy over Keats and Shelley, and it was like fertilizer on the brain. Our grades went through the ceiling in relationship to things that had no relationship to arts. That’s what art does. It did it to me; it did it to Harry. Harry got the class medal for best all-around student and athlete when he graduated junior high, and I got that medal the next year.

I read that your first introduction to theater was when you helped your mother distribute newspapers backstage in San Francisco. Did you participate in arts at school as well?

Channing: Oh, the first time I was on stage was in grammar school. I was in the fifth grade and my knees were just shaking as I walked those five steps leading up to the stage. I’d been nominated as class secretary. When I got to the stage, I just stood there. I didn’t know what to say. Being an only child, I decided to do what I did best. I decided to be someone else. I imitated the principal, in a Julia Child’s voice. ‘Of course I accept.’ Naturally, I won the election.

What’s been your impression on the state of schools today?

Kullijian: It’s a bad scene, an inadequate scene. We’re denying our kids a balanced education.

Channing: They laid off hundreds of thousands of teachers in California alone, and the arts is always one of the first areas cut. The kids are so bored, they’re dropping out. In poor areas, they’ve got a nearly 50 percent dropout rate.

To play devil’s advocate, some argue that arts, though worthwhile, are difficult to keep during tough economic times like these.

Channing: Well, we discovered arts in the Depression, when nobody had money. But we had the art of cooking. We had woodwork. Harry formed his own school orchestra and put me as lead singer. Nobody had any money then, but still we had the arts.

Tell me about your campaign and what you hope to achieve through it?

Kullijian: We are going all over the country. We hit TV stations and radio stations, and we visit schools to raise awareness about the importance of arts education. We’ve partnered with the [California] PTA. We have a bill before the [California] legislature to establish Arts in Education Week in September.

Channing: We talked to the executive committee of the state board of education and told them they are in a position to put those art teachers back. We want those teachers back into public schools. We want them teaching again.   


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Ga. mandates standards for school boards
Does your school board need ethical standards? Georgia officials say yes. Georgia became the first state to pass such standards for school board members after its state Board of Education adopted a model ethics policy in September. That document covers a wide variety of issues, including conflicts of interest, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Last year, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a law that that would grant Georgia governors the power to suspend and replace local school board members when a school system is at risk of losing accreditation over governance issues. The law was backed by state and local branches of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The issue arose when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked its accreditation of the Clayton County, Ga., school system after high-profile fights and ethical violations by the Clayton County school board. (Read more in American School Board Journal’s March 2009 issue.)

Study finds racial disparities in suspensions
A new study shows a striking disparity in middle school suspensions of white and minority students, particularly African-American males. Black boys were three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, and black girls were four times more likely to be suspended as white girls in many schools, according to the study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The study’s authors told the New York Times that they focused on middle school because it is such a critical indicator in students’ academic success, and a suspension could significantly disrupt their academic careers. The study noted a significant increase in the percentage of students suspended from the 1970s to 2006, in all grades. The researchers attribute that factor in part to the increase of zero-tolerance policies.

Families paid to attend St. Louis school
St. Louis families can choose from a variety of traditional public, charter, and magnet schools. Now a nonprofit is paying families to choose one of the traditional schools, Jefferson Elementary. A local organization, Urban Strategies, is offering qualified families up to $300 for each student they send to Jefferson, a school that has struggled with low test scores and declining enrollment in recent years. The program is being offered to families from three mixed-income housing complexes. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the money comes with strings: It is only available to students who didn’t attend the school last year, and those students must finish with near-perfect attendance and receive no out-of-school suspensions. In addition, the parent must attend three PTO meetings. Urban Strategies also is training the schools’ teachers to conduct home visits and is offering cash prizes to those who most successfully complete them, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Houston schools offer cash for passing math tests
In Houston, fifth-grade students at low-performing schools may receive cash for passing their state math tests this year as part of an experiment to boost academic achievement. A program totaling $1.5 million will give students up to an estimated $400 for passing tests, and parents can also earn up to about $180 for attending nine parent-teacher conferences to review their children’s progress, according to the Houston Chronicle. Researchers from Harvard University will compare the results to scores from schools that are not handing out cash. Parents also will be offered sessions on financial management. “In many cases, where we have parents who are working hard and are barely making ends meet -- 80 percent of our kids are on free and reduced-price lunch -- why shouldn’t we help them in order to be more involved?” Chuck Morris, Houston’s chief academic officer, told the Chronicle.

District offers breakfast to all, in class
The Pueblo, Colo., school district has seen its participation in the school breakfast program rise dramatically by bringing breakfast items to all students in their classrooms. Cafeteria workers now take carts with items such as cereals, milk, and whole-wheat doughnuts to classrooms. All students, regardless of family income, are allowed to choose items, according to USA Today. National data shows that, while more families are struggling financially and more children are going hungry, many school breakfast programs are not being used by those who are eligible for free meals. Pueblo officials told USA Today that previous attempts to serve breakfast before school in the cafeteria had gotten few takers, in part because students did not want to be stigmatized. Lawmakers in Colorado and Florida are urging more schools to adopt Pueblo’s approach. According to USA Today, 72 percent of Pueblo’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 76 percent of those students are eating school breakfasts, a rate well above national averages.

More Hispanic students enter kindergarten
New data shows a dramatic rise in the number of Hispanic students entering kindergarten this year, part of a larger demographic trend that is expected to continue. The number of Asian students also increased slightly. According to an analysis by USA Today, about 25 percent of 5-year-olds are Hispanic, up from 19 percent in 2000. The percentage of white 5-year-olds fell from 59 percent in 2000 to about 53 percent today, and the share of blacks fell from 15 percent to 13 percent. More Hispanic children are likely in the next generation because the number of Hispanic girls entering childbearing years is up more than 30 percent this decade, Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, told USA Today. “This is not just a big-city phenomenon,” Johnson told the newspaper. “The percentage of minority children is growing faster in the suburbs and in rural areas.”

Whooping cough hits schools
A resurgence of whooping cough, a highly contagious bacterial illness, has alarmed school officials in several states this fall. California Superintendent Jack O’Connell urged families to vaccinate their children in August after what health experts called the state’s worst outbreak in more than 50 years. “The deaths of nine babies and the confirmed or suspected cases of 3,600 whooping cough bacterial infections in the state may have been prevented with childhood vaccinations against this and other diseases,” O’Connell said. “Good student health is important to learning success.” In West Virginia’s Ohio County, school officials held vaccination and prescription clinics for students and adults after three children were diagnosed. The upper respiratory infection, also known as pertussis, is treatable with antibiotics but can be fatal for young children.

District takes to court parents who falsify residency forms
After lengthy investigations, a Georgia school district is suing parents who have enrolled their children in district schools using a false address. The Lee County, Ga., school district requires parents to sign affidavit forms to verify their residence, and under state law, parents can pay fines of up to $1,000 and spend up to five years in prison for providing false information. If parents fake residency documentation, school officials are allowed to revoke enrollment and seek reimbursement for educational and legal expenses. Lee County’s social worker and attendance officer Lisa Bailey told the Albany Herald that she spends most of her days on residency investigations and related issues, and she sometimes has to enlist the help of law enforcement when making home visits. The move was fueled by the district’s tight resources and crowded classes and buildings, Bailey said.

Texas districts hold off on tax increases
Despite tight financial times, few school districts in Texas are asking residents to approve tax hikes, likely because of a four-year-old school finance law that requires voter approval for such hikes, according to the Dallas Morning News. Before the 2006 law, school boards could, and frequently did, approve property tax increases. The law came after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the funding system was too reliant on local property taxes. A website that tracks levies recently estimated that 224 of the 1,025 school districts in the state had won voter approval to raise their tax rates, while 78 districts’ levies were rejected, some on two occasions, since the law went into effect.

Debate on advertising in schools intensifies during budget cuts
In tight budget times, more school boards and states are debating the use of paid advertisements to help shore up school budgets. In New Jersey, a bill in the state legislature would allow school districts to solicit advertising to place on school buses after severe cuts in the state’s K-12 budget this year. The proposal would allow ads on the outside of buses that districts own or lease, according to The Associated Press. Ads for tobacco or alcohol products or ones that push a political agenda would not be allowed. Any districts that want to sell ad space on their buses could choose the number and size of ads and set their own rates. However, San Diego’s school board recently rejected a plan to allow advertisements inside schools -- in places such as hallways, cafeterias, and libraries, because board members were concerned about commercialism. “I don’t want to be part of using kids to sell stuff,” school board member John de Beck told the AP. “When I get into this whole arena of advertising and kids, I’m not going to go there. I just won’t do it.” The district would have earned an estimated $100,000 a year for the venture, but school board members noted that it would offer little relief in a district with an annual operating budget of $1.17 billion.