October 2010 Up Front

On The Hill
Long-term leadership, support needed to address budget woes

By Michael A. Resnick

The opening of school this year has provided some striking and unfortunate changes for students, teachers, and parents. Budget cuts have increased class size, reduced course offerings, shortened the school year, eliminated reading and other specialists, and closed schools. Extracurricular activities have been cut, as have key student services like school nurses.

Again, school boards are cutting to the bone while seeking to preserve the educational integrity of their districts, including not sacrificing the ability to attract and retain high quality teachers and other personnel.

For the second straight year, dire cuts have been made despite nearly $100 billion in federal funds provided from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus program). With up to 80 percent of district budgets spent on teachers and other personnel, however, it is no surprise that more districts had to resort to laying off more instructional and key staff this year.

Washington’s recent enactment of a $10 billion education jobs fund to limit those layoffs is welcomed in the short run, but it does not address the longer-term mismatch between the funding base that currently supports education and the cost of operation.

NSBA’s recent report, Cutting to the Bone: Schools Dealing with the Economic Crisis, cites studies from the National Governors Association and other highly regarded sources showing that state revenues may not regain 2008 levels until perhaps 2014. Even then, given the large portion of state budgets committed to education along with the rising costs from Medicaid, deferred maintenance projects, pensions, and other programs, there still may not be enough state funding availableto bring K-12 back to actual 2008 service levels.

Local property taxes are not likely to make up the difference --  especially in communities with high unemployment, substantial declines in property assessments, increased foreclosures, and no viable way of raising the tax rates needed.

Meanwhile, schools are being challenged to provide a first-class, internationally competitive education for all students. This includes building the capacity of schools and districts to successfully implement higher standards by expanding math and science course offerings and providing pre-school, among other investments. In the long term, to meet the international challenge, our school may need to bring the length of the school year into sync with other countries.

State and federal levels play a crucial role by supporting local innovation and flexibility, including the elimination of mandates that are drain an already-shrunken funding base needed to support the essentials. The latter is especially important now because more interest groups will ask for more mandates to protect their interest area from more budget cuts.

Federal and state lawmakers must resist the lure of educationally unproven cost saving “reforms” as an easy way out. The latest, charter schools, have produced results that are too weak to be “the answer.”

When the ARRA and Education Jobs money runs out, districts will face the next “funding cliff,”even in states experiencing modest growth. Given the financial outlook and educational challenges facing our schools, it is no longer sufficient to address funding as an annual crisis. While the federal level continues to prescribe new solutions for improving public education, it also should address the larger concern of our current revenue base’s long-term capacity to meet our need for a world-class education system.

For a nation that says education is in the paramount national interest, it’s surprising that the breadth of the federal revenue base only supports 7 percent of K-12 costs in normal times ‚Äìa figure that roughly doubled over this past year of extraordinary aid. Adequate and reliable education funding requires trade-offs in the federal budget.

This is made somewhat easier since public schools typically have received less than two cents on the federal dollar (outside of last year’s ARRA funding). This compares with nearly 25 percent of most state budgets and the dominant portion of property tax receipts in many communities.

For school boards, it is critical to assume your leadership role by making policy choices that are educationally and financially cost effective --  bringing proven innovations into schools and building community support for changes --  while making hard choices. With the Nov. 2 elections around the corner, it also is a critical time to meet with state and federal policymakers --  and their challengers --  to lay out the hard realities and receive commitments for the action needed.  

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is associate executive director for 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

School districts make rules on teachers’ social networking
With social media becoming mainstream, more districts are writing new policies to guide --  or outright ban --  interactions among students and school staff. The Lee County, Fla., school district has created guidelines for teachers, administrators, and other school staff on the use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. Its new rules seek to separate personal and work-related activities. They state that it is inappropriate for employees to communicate with the districts’ current students on any public social media site. Supervisors must give permission for any participation for work-related purposes, and it must be archived. Employees are also not allowed to access personal accounts during work hours, including breaks. “The idea didn’t grow out of a ‘gotcha’ perspective; rather, it was done to provide employees a heads-up on what they should and shouldn’t do in the cyber world,” according to a press release from the district. Robert Dodig, the district’s staff attorney, said that the purpose of the document was to give employees direction in an emerging field. “Too many people may not realize what they do in their private life online can come back to cause issues in their professional life, especially in public education,” he said. The Chicago Tribune also reported that many school districts in Illinois have now banned communication between teachers and other school staff and their students via social media. However, some teachers are using social media to answer questions about homework assignments and facilitate discussions. “I’m careful not to post anything that is not appropriate,” physics teacher Peter Kupfer told the Tribune. “I remember my students will see this. My mom and grandma are on there, too, so I have to be extra careful.”

Chicago schools issue new rules on cyberbullying
New rules enacted by the Chicago school board mean that students caught using cell phones or social networking websites to harass or intimidate their classmates will face mandatory suspension, possible expulsion, and a police investigation. Under the new Student Code of Conduct, students who use computers or phones to “stalk, harass, bully or otherwise intimidate others,” will be suspended for five to 10 days and could be referred for expulsion, according to the Chicago Sun Times. Schools also will refer incidents to the Chicago police department. Students who use school computers for cyberbullying would lose their computer privileges.

Pediatricians say abandon “no-nit” policies
The age-old practice of keeping students with head lice out of school should change, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says in new guidance. School nurses should help identify and treat students with head lice, and care should be taken to ensure that head-to-head contact is avoided. “Head lice are not a health hazard or a sign of poor hygiene and, in contrast to body lice, are not responsible for the spread of any disease,” according to the AAP guidance. “No healthy child should be excluded from or miss school because of head lice, and no-nit policies for return to school should be abandoned.” The guidance was published in the August issue of Pediatrics.

One-third of teens with ADHD delay graduation or drop out
A new study shows that twice as many students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are delayed from graduating high school or drop out than their peers who do not have a psychiatric disorder. Nearly one-third of students with the most common type of ADHD either drop out or delay high school graduation. “This study shows that ADHD is a serious disorder that affects a child’s ability to be successful in school and, subsequently, in a way that can limit success in life,” senior author Julie Schweitzer, an ADHD expert and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of California, Davis, told Health Day. The study recommends that schools should develop interventions for students with ADHD that specifically focus on completing high school.

Tenn. district requires new training for substitutes
The Knox County, Tenn., school district is now requiring substitute teachers to undergo an online training program before they can enter a classroom. The program, which costs prospective substitutes $39.95 to enroll, includes audio, video, and written materials on topics such as classroom management, teaching strategies, professionalism, special education, safety, and legal issues, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. The goal of the program is to give students more effective teachers, no matter how long or short their stint in the classroom, school officials told the newspaper. While the program caught some long-term substitutes off guard, Kathy Sims, executive director of human resources for the school system, told the News Sentinel that “it’s been accepted favorably by a lot” of the teachers.

Does teens’ sexual activity impact schoolwork? It depends
Sociologists --  and society at large --  have long assumed that students who are sexually active do not do as well academically as those who are abstinent. However, a new study shows that it depends on the types of sexual activity in which a teen is partaking, according to The Associated Press. Those who are in serious, committed relationships do as well as their peers who abstain, AP reports. However, the study, conducted by University of California, Davis, sociologist Bill McCarthy and University of Minnesota sociologist Eric Grodsky, showed that those who have casual flings get lower grades and have more school-related problems compared with those who abstain. Teens in serious relationships may find social and emotional support in their sex partners, reducing their anxiety and stress levels in life and in school, according to the researchers. “Having sex outside of a romantic relationship may exacerbate the stress youths experience, contributing to problems in school,” Grodsky told AP.

New program targets high school truants in San Francisco
A three-year-old initiative to reduce truancy has increased the San Francisco Unified School District’s attendance rate by about 33 percent overall, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. However, most of those gains came from the elementary and middle school grades. The district is now launching a new portion of the initiative that will specifically address high school truancy, as those students are most likely to drop out or get involved in serious crimes, according to the newspaper. This new initiative will target students instead of parents for court appearances, where they can choose to plead guilty to an infraction of the education code and accept the punishment of a fine and suspension of their drivers’ license, or they can take truancy classes and perform community service. Those students who miss their court date could face contempt charges and jail time, the Chronicle reports.

Michigan districts share resources to avoid consolidation
Many of the small school districts in Michigan are sharing more resources --  food services, business managers, even superintendents --  to save money this year, according to the Kalamazoo Gazette. Some counties, for instance, are offering countywide bus routes to consolidate maintenance and operational costs, the Gazette reports. With 550 school districts, many with fewer than 1,000 students, Michigan officials have urged school districts to consolidate, but many want to remain autonomous and say that any savings would likely have already been seen through shared services. Other issues that could disrupt a consolidation include union contracts, school bond debts, and community engagement --  including fierce loyalties to athletic teams. “If we can merge our support services for technology and business and food services and maintenance and still maintain our community identity, we’ll have the best of both worlds,” Sue Wakefield, superintendent of Plainwell Community Schools, told the Gazette.

Gang activity on the rise in schools
A recent survey showed sharp increases in the numbers of public school students who reported gang activity and drug use at their schools. The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse, an annual report, said that 27 percent of public school students ages 12 to 17 reported that their school is gang-infected and drugs are used, kept, or sold on school grounds. “The drug-free-school gap between public schools and private and religious schools is up sharply from its narrowest point in a decade,” says the report, written by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. In a 2001 survey, 62 percent of public school students and 79 percent of private and religious school students said they attended drug-free schools. In the 2010 survey, those numbers declined to 43 percent of public school students and 78 percent of private school students. The survey also reported that one in three middle-schoolers said that drugs are used, kept, or sold at their school.