April 2011 Up Front

On the Hill
Memo to Congress: Don’t mortgage our children’s future
Michael A. Resnick

With a $1.3 trillion federal deficit and $14.2 trillion national debt, Congress and President Obama face tough choices on how to cut spending while continuing to support activities that will move the economy forward. This year, they get to take two bites of the funding apple to achieve that goal.

The first bite comes in finalizing the current year’s appropriations. At press time, all federal programs -- including education -- were being funded at 2010 levels under a continuing resolution that was due to expire March 4. The issue is how the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House resolve their very substantial differences about the size of this year’s cuts. The Senate wants to continue funding education at last year’s level, but the House-passed measure cut several key programs.

The second bite of the apple comes with the FY 2012 budget. Obama has proposed increases for K-12 programs like Title I, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Race to the Top (RTTT). The president’s proposed Title I and IDEA allocations would provide modest 2 percent increases totaling about $500 million; the RTTT proposal is $900 million in new money for districts that will institute innovations that meet the Department of Education’s reform agenda for raising student achievement.

The House and Senate budget priorities are not known at this time, but the final outcome could have far-reaching implications for public schools for several years. Current plans include determining which programs to cap or freeze over a multi-year period, perhaps through fiscal year 2017.

This has been done before, most prominently in 1981 when a Democratic House and Republican Senate agreed to a three-year plan developed by David Stockman, President Reagan’s budget director. That plan was followed immediately by a three-year freeze, named the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget Act of 1985 after its bipartisan Senate sponsors.

This year’s decisions are not just significant on the long-term bottom line, but also among the mix of affected programs. If increases are planned, NSBA believes a greater balance of the funds should be allocated to formula grant programs -- specifically Title I and IDEA, both of which involve costly federal mandates. Long term, this is a better solution than putting your money behind the uncertainty of competitive grant programs like RTTT, which also have potential additional local costs once they are implemented.

The big question is: If education is to be the capital investment in the nation’s future, can Congress sustain increased federal contributions? Unlike the states, where K-12 education on average amounts to nearly 30 percent of the total budget, the federal figure is about 1 percent, which allows for substantial flexibility for funding increases. For example, increasing funding by $2.5 billion each for Title I and IDEA would impact the budget by one-seventh of 1 percent, the deficit by two-fifths of 1 percent, and the national debt by one-sixth of 1 percent IF maintained over five years. That minimal cost does not take into account the long-term return on investment that we get from the career-long productivity of a workforce built on a stronger education. That’s not just affordable, but compelling.

Is it fair to single out education for increases while most federal agencies face cuts or freezes? Should all sectors be required to make some sacrifice? The proposed increases can be offset many times over by cutting sacred cows that aren’t being put forward, such as tax subsidies to special interests that don’t need them. Moreover, equal sacrifice may make more sense among the parties who contributed to the federal budget problem. Ultimately, in education, the sacrifice would come at the expense of the nation’s children who had no hand in causing it.

Most important, education funding is not about today’s one-time consumption, but a capital investment that leverages a globally competitive economic future for our nation and the quality of life for our children. Why demand that our children forgo the benefits of a first-class education today when we can give them the wherewithal they will need to pay off the national debt that the current generation is leaving behind?

As many states grapple with budget shortfalls, they will continue to cut K-12 funding -- because it is nearly 30 percent of their spending. School districts already face a “funding cliff” with the termination of federal stimulus funding and lagging local property tax collections. The funding choices for education will not be made on logic alone, but on political grounds as well. That means local school boards will need to speak up.

Congress needs to hear your voice to restore and ultimately build an affordable and necessary federal funding priority for education. It’s an investment that will not mortgage our children’s future, but save it.  n

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for advocacy and issues management. His column, On the Hill, appears monthly in ASBJ.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

School board in top-performing district considers voucher plan
A school board in affluent Douglas County, Colo., is exploring a plan to give students vouchers of up to $4,000 to attend private and religious schools that agree to abide by district regulations. It’s an unlikely area for voucher debate: The Douglas County school district has 60,000 students, boasts high test scores and a strong graduation rate, and surveys show that 90 percent of its parents are satisfied with their children’s schools, the Los Angeles Times reported. The proposal is being watched closely at the national level and by state officials who want to build voucher programs in low-performing school districts. According to NSBA, there were at least 18 voucher proposals in 12 states and Washington, D.C., at the beginning of this year. The school district receives about $6,000 in state funding for each student. According to the proposal, the district would give 75 percent, about $4,000, to parents to spend at private schools that contract with the district and keep the remaining 25 percent for administrative costs, the Times reported. The private schools would have to agree to use state assessments, take all applicants including those with special needs, and not engage in religious instruction. However, all but one of the private schools in Douglas County are religious, according to the Times. Some members of the conservative-leaning school board told the Times that, even though the public schools are considered to be excellent, more choices are better. Opponents say the plan is a scheme for people who want to send their children to Christian schools and have taxpayers foot part of the bill.

D.C. teacher evaluations used for assessing principals, teacher colleges
The District of Columbia Public Schools is using teacher evaluation data to also evaluate administrators and determine which colleges and universities produce the best teachers, the Washington Post reported. The program, now in its second year, draws from classroom observations, nine teaching standards, and student test scores to determine the effectiveness of the school district’s teachers. Last year, former D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee used the data to fire teachers deemed ineffective and give bonuses to those who scored well. Principals are evaluated based on the number of highly effective teachers they retain. Jason Kamras, the main creator of IMPACT, said that data from the evaluation program allows schools to understand a “bigger picture,” which includes determining which universities supply superior education programs, the Washington Times reported. Critics of value-added evaluations say that the programs focus too much on student test scores and that teachers who focus more on “critical reasoning skills” than stringent “test preparation” could get booted.

New York City teachers, mayor square off in ads
New York City School Chancellor Cathleen P. Black and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have been on a media blitz in recent weeks to urge the state legislature to end the “first-in, last-out” policy for laying off or firing teachers, the New York Times wrote. A nonprofit coalition backing the mayor and the city’s teachers union have spent millions of dollars on television ads and other media to air their opposing views on pending legislation to rework teacher tenure in the state. The Times reported that a new advocacy group, Education Reform Now, headed by former schools chancellor Joel I. Klein, is working with the public relations group that handled Bloomberg’s most recent campaign to create ads where teachers criticize the current seniority policies. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), meanwhile, is running ads that criticize the mayor’s handling of a recent snowstorm and urging him to take steps to avoid all layoffs rather than change policy. The UFT has paid to run the ads during the “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night with David Letterman” TV programs.

Virginia school district lobbies to change FOIA law
Deluged by costly Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from parents, Virginia’s Fairfax County School Board is asking the state legislature to revise the state’s law. Once a tool primarily reserved for journalists, parents have increasingly filed FOIA requests in the county because they are concerned the board is violating the state’s open meetings laws on issues such as school closures, according to the Washington Post. School board members have called for revisions to the state FOIA laws to give the “appropriate balance between the considerable investment in time and money required for compliance and ensuring the people of the Commonwealth ready access to public records,” according to the district’s legislative agenda. Board members told the Post that the surge in FOIA requests, brought on by a few parents, is hampering day-to-day business, and the district does not have enough employees to handle the requests. One parent filed more than a dozen requests to try to prevent her child’s elementary school from closing, the Post reported. School district officials told the Post that the total cost would have been about $624,000, as they would have to manually search more than 40,000 e-mail accounts and sift through piles of paperwork, a process estimated to consume about 20,000 work hours at a cost of $31 per hour. The parent later revised her request.

Harvard professor educates others about achievement gap research
Harvard professor Ronald Ferguson travels to public high schools across the country to research causes of the racial achievement gap and to educate students, parents, and administrators about the issue, reported the New York Times. According to his research, these grade differences can be accounted for by two main factors: economic differences between blacks and whites, and a higher emphasis on academics in the homes of white families. Ferguson is the founder of The Tripod Project, a program developed over the past 10 years that provides services such as a “classroom-level data collection, analysis and reporting system.” The project is designed to use student reports of classroom experience to work toward decreasing the achievement gap, according to the project’s website. Ferguson, who is widely recognized for his dedication to lessening the gap, surveys “the performance, behaviors and attitudes of up to 100,000 students” annually. After surveying students in “wealthy, racially mixed suburbs” across the nation, Ferguson calculated that average black students were C-plus students, while average white students were B-plus students.

Ohio teachers to pay more fees for later retirement requirements
The State Teachers Retirement System in Ohio recently voted to reduce teachers’ pension benefits in attempts to shore up the fund’s future reliability, according to The Associated Press. The plan, which must be approved by the governor and state legislature, would require teachers to pay 13 percent of their salary into the fund instead of to Social Security, and they would see reduced benefits and smaller cost-of-living increases. The plan does not change the amount Ohio school districts contribute for pensions. The new Republican governor and some legislators have called for drastic changes to the current plan, which they see as too generous to sustain. Currently, members can retire at any age with 30 years of service. If approved, the pension plan gradually will increase to 35 the number of years teachers will have to work to receive full benefits.

School program attempts to eliminate cursing
In 2007, a high school student created a national club designed to halt the excessive use of profanity in the U.S., with the mindset that cursing is a poor way to express anger and a stepping stone to bullying, according to the New York Times. The “No Cussing Club” became a hit. Its founder, McKay Hatch, made several talk show appearances and conducted a news conference after Vice President Biden gave a profanity-laced congratulation to President Obama when the health care overhaul passed last year. Recently, students at a middle school in Mobile County, Ala., formed a local chapter of the club and convinced the Mobile County Commission to declare a “daylong ban on bad words,” the Times reported. The students were granted $5,000 to fund an assembly at which Hatch was the guest of honor. But their efforts were met with mixed reactions of hopeful support and skepticism. One commissioner said that the anti-cursing program promotes “civility,” while another said the movement was a “gimmick” -- even though he voted to fund it -- and that the money would have been better spent elsewhere. Other schools across the nation have attempted to fine students for profanity. Most of those efforts were futile and short-lived, but earlier this school year, a high school in Texas fined a cursing student $340.

Q&A with Patrice McCarthy on school bullying

With a national interest in school bullying and cyberbullying at an all-time high, NSBA’s Council of School Attorneys (COSA) frequently is called upon to offer guidance for individual school districts. COSA is featuring a session at NSBA’s annual conference in San Francisco this month on the Office of Civil Rights’ enforcement of bullying and harassment claims.

Patrice McCarthy, the 2011 COSA chairwoman, talked with ASBJ Associate Editor Joetta Sack-Min about the rise of cyberbullying, the threat of increased lawsuits against school officials, and how schools can discourage bullies. McCarthy is deputy director and general counsel of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

School bullying has been around for decades. Everyone knows bullying has been around for years. Why has it become such a hot topic for schools recently?

There have been a number of very unfortunate incidents recently, particularly related to student suicides, which were attributed to these students being bullied. That has heightened the public concern about bullying.

The more prevalent use of technology has exacerbated the impact of behaviors that have always been present, but before they might have simply involved a small group of students. Now, through technology, those taunts might be shown to a much larger group.

How does the U.S. Department of Education’s recent “Dear Colleague” letter increase the liability for school districts? How will that play out with the increase in state laws addressing bullying and schools’ responsibilities?

There’s a real concern that, if that letter is not clarified, it has the potential to be a tool for future litigation. The Department of Education has said it will clarify the guidance, but we have not heard anything yet.

Some of the language in the letter refers to knowing, or “reasonably should have known,” about specific incidents. The problem with that, particularly with cyberbullying, is that it puts a tremendous burden on a school’s staff to monitor activity that takes place outside of the school setting and may not even be accessible to school staff.

Also, depending on individual state laws, there are questions about the extent of the school district’s ability to discipline for off-campus conduct. It varies from state to state, and in my opinion, this “Dear Colleague” letter does not have the force of the law. It is guidance.

Forty-five states already have laws addressing bullying, and many are reconsidering and reexamining those laws each year. At the state level, this is not an area where there’s a need for federal intervention and guidance.

The one thing we can say definitively about the “Dear Colleague” letter is that it’s likely to increase litigation in this area.

Given that court rulings are mixed in the cyberbullying cases, how should a school district proceed in creating new policies or taking action against a known cyberbully?

They need to begin by reviewing their existing policies, and getting advice from a school board attorney, to make sure their policies reflect the current state of the law. When implementing these policies, look at your state’s standards for cyberbullying and how that is interpreted in case law.

What are some actions school districts can take to ward off not only bullying incidents but protect themselves from lawsuits?

Many districts have been using programs for young students -- one of the most well known is “Don’t Laugh at Me” -- to help educate their students about appropriate conduct.

One trend is a need to reinforce civility. There’s also a need for professional development for school staff to help them recognize bullying behaviors in the classroom or cyberbullying techniques, and how to intervene.

One concern with the “Dear Colleague” letter is that, while it was a well-intentioned effort to address an important issue, expanding the legal standard may make it more difficult for districts to address this issue and cause resources to be consumed by litigation.