September 2010 Up Front

On The Hill
Let’s move to properly fund child nutrition reauthorization
Michael A. Resnick

To its credit, with the greatly increased and justified concern over the alarming rise in child obesity, Congress is seeking solutions through the pending reauthorization of the child nutrition programs. Bills passed by the House and Senate committees have a number of good features, but the legislation also has objectionable implications for school districts.

A highly nutritious school food program is vital, especially for low-income children, who often receive their best and most reliable meals at school. However, the legislation calls for the development of national standards that will be developed by the secretary of agriculture with help from the National Institute of Medicine and others. These standards will define what goes into school meals -- without specifying the precise meal.

What remains to be seen is how this approach will work to provide meals that are attractive enough to avoid plate waste or prevent students from bringing less nutritious food products to school. Both bills also have a broad reach, applying the standards to items sold in schools that are not subsidized by the federal government and those that are sold outside the school day.

As well intended as the legislation may be, this inserts federal mandates into local decision-making -- even when Congress makes no financial contribution. For some school districts, this is the wrong approach -- especially because the mandates limit flexibility in offering locally attractive, nonsubsidized food outside the lunchroom that comports with local tastes and effective local wellness policies.

Given the hard times school districts face, you can’t ignore the bills’ financial consequences. The legislation would increase the federal reimbursement to help meet the new standards, but it still falls short by at least 6 cents per lunch, and the difference too often will come from the education program. In a district in which 5,000 students participate daily in the free and reduced-price lunch price program, for example, the local cost would be $54,000 -- the equivalent of a teacher’s position.

Under these bills, Congress also would not provide sufficient funding to support applying the new standards to nonsubsidized meals and food offerings, including paid lunches, breakfast, and snacks. For these programs, the additional costs would be borne by parents, taxpayers, or through more cuts in the education program. Ironically, some school districts could find the standards too costly to continue these other food offerings.

As helpful as a nutritious school lunch may be, the challenge of reducing obesity is not likely to be realized without broader lifestyle changes. In this regard, for students who eat three meals a day, 180 school lunches will comprise just one-sixth of their meals per year, not to mention snacks. As a long-term strategy, student and parent education is needed in the face of busy lifestyles that feed off fast-food outlets and highly processed foods.

Reducing student obesity and creating healthy habits also rely on physical activity during and after school. However, districts have been forced to cut physical education, recess, and extracurricular activity programs to meet budgets or make more time for academic courses. Meanwhile, the after-school attraction to technology “screen time” rather than physical activity is a reality.

The legislation seeks to address these broader lifestyle challenges with additional school programs and reporting requirements. However, meeting the cost of these provisions is largely or wholly left to financially strapped local school districts and likely will be minimally implemented.

In essence, the well-intended legislation overreaches and underfunds its requirements on school districts at a time when the operational and financial consequences are too severe to be ignored. If certain nutritional standards and programs are sufficiently in the national interest to be federally mandated, they should be paid for at the federal level. They should not be funded at the expense of a school’s education program.

Is this the next chapter in an ongoing pattern, in which Congress declares a segment of K-12 education to be in the national interest, then underfunds the mandates for which it holds schools accountable? As this important legislation moves forward, NSBA will continue to advocate for improvements that will enable it to be financially and operationally supportable at the local level. Right now, it falls too short.   

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for advocacy and issues management. For more information on NSBA’s position on the child nutrition reauthorization, please see www.NSBA.org/advocacy.


Q&A with Joyce Irvine

Joyce Irvine apparently was a very good principal at Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington, Vt. She worked long hours, introduced a new arts curriculum, and expanded a variety of enrichment programs, including summer school.

But her school serves a high-poverty community with a large immigrant population. Over the years, more of her students were African refugees -- a situation that, despite Irvine’s best efforts, kept Wheeler test scores among the lowest in the state.

That became a problem when district officials sought federal stimulus dollars. The school was so low performing it had four choices under new federal rules to qualify for that money: close down the school, replace it with a charter, remove the principal and half the staff, or remove the principal and transform the school.

With a good program in place, district officials didn’t want to start over again -- so the only real option was a painful one: As the school had already gone through a transformation, it needed to fire Irvine to qualify for up to $3 million in funding.

Irvine got the sack.

When ASBJ’s Senior Editor Del Stover interviewed Irvine, she still was employed -- as the district’s new school improvement coordinator. But being removed as principal -- under the inference that she had failed to do her job -- rankled. And it says a lot about the challenges of policymaking that a school district was put in the position of having to remove an apparently successful principal because that was the price of federal aid.

Here’s what Irvine had to say:

Your superintendent was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “What happened to her is not at all connected to reality.” Do you agree?

I totally agree. If the U.S. Department of Education had looked at all the data charts for students in my school, they would see the actual progress students are making. By taking [only] 2008 test results into account, it wasn’t a real assessment.

When I first took this job, we had maybe 10 percent English language learners. By the time of the test scores [used to judge her school’s performance], we were closing in on 50 percent. These are kids who come straight from refugee camps in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia ... kids who have never had prior schooling.

Come to my school, and look around. Watch the teachers. Watch the kids. You’ll see kids engaged in learning at the level they are learning at, and they’re pushing forward.

What lessons should policymakers take from your experience?

Can you imagine moving over the summer from Ethiopia or Kenya, being planted in a classroom when you didn’t know schools existed, and in six weeks [being told], “Here’s a pencil. Fill in some bubbles because you must take this test?” Some of these students don’t know what a test is, to be perfectly honest. But that’s what we had to face each year.

Hold principals accountable when kids aren’t learning. But one year in school should lead to one year of academic growth. At one point, our kids were gaining 1.1 to 1.2 grade levels every year in growth.

What would you say to federal policymakers about the legislation and regulations they write?

They should know what they write. They need to stop generalizing. It’s arbitrary to say you’re not doing your job because children aren’t performing at grade level.

You’ve got to put responsibility on principals. If not, they just have to go. But you can’t be using arbitrary, one-snapshot-in-time criteria to determine that. You can’t tie funding to it. In these economic times, when schools are having to merge, when school budgets are having trouble getting passed, when budgets are getting sliced left and right, you can’t look at a single school, a single set of scores, decide [the school is] low performing, and say, “If you want money from us, you [the principal] have got to go.”

How has this experience been for you emotionally? What was going through your head after you learned of the school district’s dilemma?

I never really understood what emasculated meant. Now I understand.

I knew from the start it wasn’t a performance issue. But I was devastated. I cried. I realized early on, when I read the [federal rules], this was the way the government was going to go. I told my superintendent, “You’re going to have to fire me.” She said, “Absolutely not.” The district fought it. The state fought it. When the ax actually fell, I didn’t know whether I was relieved or devastated.

You’ve said that you loved being a principal. Has this experience soured your attitude? Or do you hope one day to head a school again?

I’m 57 years old. I had hoped to work about five more years. This job [as school improvement coordinator] promised to be a three-year job, but based on funding these days ... I’m going to start looking for a principalship. That’s my love. I really want to be a principal. 



Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Report: School drug testing has no long-term impact
A recent federal report found that while high school students who were asked to submit to drug tests for sports or other extracurricular activities were less likely to use illegal substances, drug testing had virtually no impact on their decisions to use drugs later in life. The study examined the impact of federal grants awarded to high schools to prevent drug use through testing. According to USA Today, the researchers examined schools that had implemented the tests and those that had not, and found that 16.5 percent of students reported using tested-for drugs within the previous 30 days in schools that had begun testing, compared to 21.9 percent of students in other schools. The tests did not appear to discourage students from participating in activities.

Illinois districts look to wind farm for cash
Three Illinois school districts are planning to build a wind farm as a way to boost revenues to offset their utility costs. The 10-turbine, 20 megawatt wind farm would not provide electricity directly to the districts, but would sell the electricity it generates to offset the districts’ utility costs. The three districts plan to use low-interest federal bonds to fund the project, which is expected to bring in about $3 million each year. “This is the first of its kind in existence that we know of,” David Ulm, supervisor of facilities and energy management for Community Unit School District 300, told the Chicago Tribune. “We anticipate this being a model for not only school districts in Illinois but other school districts throughout the country.”

Texas poll: Residents want local control
After the Texas state board of education adopted controversial social studies standards that many say diminishes minorities and distorts historical facts, a poll showed that the majority of Texans want teachers and scholars to write standards for their local schools’ curriculum. The poll also showed strong support for the separation of church and state, with 68 percent in agreement that “separation of church and state is a key principle of our Constitution,” and 55 percent opposed public funds for vouchers to private or religious schools. And 88 percent said public schools should be required “to protect all children from bullying, harassment and discrimination in school, including the children of gay and lesbian parents or teenagers who are gay,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

District, hospital partner to examine concussions
The Hardin County, Ky., school district is using a new system to test its high school athletes’ memory in case of a concussion. The district has partnered with a local hospital to use the ImPact Concussion Management testing program, which tests athletes’ brain functions prior to and after sustaining a concussion, to determine the severity of an injury and the level of treatment needed.

About 27 athletes in the district suffered concussions last year, according to the Hardin County News-Enterprise. District officials began considering the program after heat-related illnesses in Kentucky spurred closer scrutiny of all types of athletic injuries, Superintendent Nanette Johnston said.

Concussions and other sports-related injuries have gained more attention in recent years after national awareness campaigns. In 2008-09, high school athletes in nine sports sustained 1.2 million injuries that required medical attention and at least a day’s rest, according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy.

Board concerned about private data
Since identity theft became a widespread crime, the use of Social Security numbers, birth dates, and other personal information is problematic for school districts. With that in mind, one Maine school board is fighting a state law that requires districts to use students’ Social Security numbers as part of longitudinal data gathering to track education and career outcomes. The SAD 44 district, near Bethel, Maine, passed a resolution this summer asking the state legislature to rescind the data-reporting law. School board members said the law was an invasion of privacy, and they urged district staff to explain to parents that they could opt out of reporting, according to the Bangor Daily News.

NJ governor plans salary cap for superintendents
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced plans to cap most school superintendents’ salaries at $175,000 a year, the same salary of the state’s governor. The regulation, if upheld by state courts, would mean that many New Jersey superintendents would face salary cuts when their contracts expire, according to the Bergen Record. Currently, most superintendents make about $185,000 annually, but some make $250,000 or more, according to the Record. The move is part of the governor’s plan to curb the state’s high taxes, but it would allow superintendents in the state’s larger districts to earn more than $175,000 a year. It would also give merit bonuses to those whose districts make significant increases in test scores.

U.S. misses goal of reducing teen smoking
The U.S. will not meet its goal of reducing smoking by minors to 16 percent by 2010, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, about 19.5 percent of high school students smoke or se nicotine-based products, says the CDC’s biannual survey of 10,000 high school students. More teens are drawn to smokeless tobacco products such as snus and hookah pipes. “People are getting the image that it’s cool to use nicotine as a drug,” Terry F. Pechacek of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the New York Times. “Overall, the antismoking countermessage has been lost.” The report calls for more antismoking advertising to counter the tobacco industry’s $12 billion marketing campaign.

Some districts purchasing used computers to save
Districts across the country are looking to purchase refurbished computers in efforts to save money and provide more technology to their students, according to eSchool News. Used machines are often significantly less money than new and some suppliers offer warranties. “To me, it’s a no-brainer,” said Terry Burns, the technology coordinator at the McNairy County, Tenn., district. “If you get Dell refurbs with a three-year warranty, or a four-year warranty, that’s the same thing as a new Dell to me.”

Some suppliers refurnish and resell computers that were leased to Fortune 500 companies or were overstock from the manufacturer and had not been used.

Houston policy spurs dramatic AP increase
The number of Houston Independent School District students taking Advanced Placement tests has risen dramatically since the school district began paying for those tests, according to the Houston Chronicle. Some 9,000 students took the tests in spring of 2010, an increase of 47 percent from 2009.

Under a new $450,000 initiative, all students in AP classes in 2010 were required to take the end-of-course tests, which typically grant college credit for scores of three or higher on a five-point scale. HISD Superintendent Terry Grier told the Chronicle that district leaders believe that even students who scored poorly on the exams still greatly benefited from taking AP classes. About 38 percent of the exams had a score of three or higher, which was a four-point decline in the 2009 passage rate but expected by school leaders because of the larger pool of test-takers.  n

Illinois cancels writing tests; NY to strengthen exams
Illinois has abandoned its writing tests for students in grades three, five, six and eight because of budget restraints and concerns that the tests could not be graded quickly or fairly, according to the Chicago Tribune. The state board of education chose to keep the test for 11th graders because some colleges require a written exam, the Tribune reported. New York education officials, meanwhile, have announced plans to hire researchers from Harvard University to review their state standardized tests after criticism that the test have become too easy to pass, according to the New York Times. During the past four years the state saw large gains in the passage rates for its tests for grades 3 to 8 while scores on the NAEP exams and other national assessments have not risen significantly.

L.A.-area schools look to Hollywood for quick cash
Los Angeles-area residents are used to television and movie sets cropping up just about everywhere around town -- and if it’s a place too close to home, they are often compensated. Now, many schools in the area are looking to rent out their campuses for the filming of movies, TV shows, or commercials to try to earn some extra cash in hard times. “Schools have historically been reluctant to make themselves available, but now they’re falling over themselves,” Scott Graham, the leasing director for the Los Angeles Unified School District and its 1,000 schools, told the Los Angeles Times. Leasing a space, even just to park trucks and trailors, can earn a district several thousand dollars a day, according to the Times.