January 2011 Up Front

What you can do to educate new members of Congress
Michael A. Resnick

When the 112th Congress convenes the first week of January, the first order of business will be substantial organizational activities -- especially in light of the large turnover resulting from November’s election.

Nearly 100 newly elected members in the House and 16 new senators will spend time organizing their offices, vying for committee assignments, and learning the ropes. Meanwhile, Congressional leaders will be setting their respective legislative agendas. Leaders also must determine where the new political “center of gravity” lies in their caucuses in the wake of an election that produced so many freshmen. The election sent a “wake-up” message from a broad range of voters -- more than the Tea Party -- that Congress is unresponsive to Main Street’s needs.

With a net gain of at least 64 House seats for the new Republican majority, the composition of committees will change dramatically. Democrats had a 30-18 edge on the Education and Labor Committee, but now must remove members as the Republicans add seats.

This shift in Congress presents a significant opportunity for school board members -- as their community’s locally elected representatives -- to urge lawmakers to support a new, more flexible federal role in education that meets Main Street’s needs. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and recent U.S. Department of Education policy decisions make the case that it’s time to reverse what has become a top down approach at the expense of local board governance, community ownership of schools, and local initiative to raise student achievement.

School board members who have a newly elected member of Congress have an opportunity to establish a relationship and serve as local education policy advisors. You also can help determine whether a new member should be encouraged to seek an education committee seat. Particularly for new members who are former state legislators, your state school boards association may be able to help assess and promote committee seating.

Top issues

The top priority issue for education in the 112th Congress is the long overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Congress must be encouraged to get an early start for several reasons.

First, it takes time for the legislative process to complete. As districts plan for and then enter the 2011-12 school year, they should not continue to be held captive to the rising but seriously flawed performance bar under NCLB. Delaying the reauthorization’s completion beyond the current school year means more districts will be forced to implement unjustified remedies that are unnecessarily costly, both in terms of staff time and funding, in the wake of already severe budget cuts.

Similarly, early action will help avoid the problem of districts being held accountable to the current flawed system, then having to switch mid-year to a new accountability system, while at the same time addressing the Department of Education’s new policy directions. Further, ESEA is not just about accountability for performance, but adding constructive support and incentives in such areas as improving teaching, adopting best practices, and increasing parent involvement.

The sooner the reauthorization takes place, the sooner the improvements to the law can impact student achievement.

Members of Congress also need to know the financial realities that schools in their districts face -- and will continue to face -- and how the federal role and funding can best support local efforts to raise student achievement. Recognizing these realities is crucial in crafting a multi-year reauthorization that can match up priorities, the most effective federal delivery system, state/local revenues, and a federal funding level that Congress can provide and sustain.

With stimulus and jobs fund money running out, school districts will be stretched next year. Federal lawmakers may cut programs across the budget out of concern for the national debt, but they should be reminded that increases -- not cuts -- for education programs are necessary for today’s students to have the knowledge and skills they will need to drive an economy that can pay off that debt.

In sum, the organization of the new Congress and its treatment of education should be more than a spectator sport. We encourage school board members to talk to their lawmakers about the importance of local governance, funding, and reauthorizing ESEA early in the session. If ESEA can’t be reauthorized by the end of the 2010-11 school year, legislation should be passed to defer the implementation of sanctions.

Finally, NSBA’s Federal Relations Network will convene in Washington, D.C., on February 6-8 to provide for state association approved network members a special opportunity to bring a unified local message to Capitol Hill to advance public education and community governance of our nation’s schools. (For more information about the Federal Relations Network meeting and NSBA’s advocacy program see www.nsba.org/advocacy).

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

Q&A with Jamie Vollmer

Jamie Vollmer had never worked in a public school or run one, but as a hugely successful businessman, he felt he knew what schools needed. In lectures across the country and in his home state of Iowa he told audiences that schools weren’t getting the kind of employees they needed, that the people working in them were the problem, and that, naturally, they needed to be run more like businesses.

Vollmer’s transformation from school critic to school supporter (but still reformer) is well known to many educators. And it all began with “The Blueberry Story,” something he recounts in his new book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone: Building Support for America’s Public Schools.

To be brief: Vollmer, who ran a hugely successful ice cream business, was asked by a teacher at a forum for school employees about all the wonderful ingredients he used in his frozen products, and then -- after being sufficiently buttered up, sweet-talked, and flattered -- what he would do if a shipment of blueberries arrived that didn’t meet his exacting standards.

“In the silence of the room you could hear the trap snap,” Vollmer writes. “I was dead meat.”

You surely know where this is going. Vollmer admitted that he would send the shipment back -- something the veteran teacher noted that schools couldn’t do with their “ingredients.”

In the two decades since then, Vollmer has worked with educators, business leaders, and community groups to increase student success in public schools. He spoke recently to ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy, and offered his thoughts on how schools can build community support.

You spent a day teaching elementary and middle school students. What did you learn from this?

The blueberry incident created the first crack in the wall of assumptions that I had conveniently woven together from three sources: media hype about the failure of public education; political pontificating that blamed public schools for a host of economic and social problems over which they have little control; and my own biases as a business person about the inherent superiority of the private sector. That teacher made me realize that it was too easy to say, “Run schools like a business,” and expect the system to change. I was substituting free-market rhetoric for rational thought.

But it wasn’t until I began working with teachers that I saw both the enormity of the task and how hard almost everyone was working to meet the challenge. People I thought were protected by tenure with no incentive to change were working 50 to 60 hours a week, struggling to educate the most diverse, demanding, and distracted generation of students in the history of the world. That’s when I began to see that we had a system problem, not a people problem.

You say that even the best teachers are engaged in a relentless process of sorting students, much as they did from colonial times through the early 20th century. What is it that they are doing -- and why?

Our schools were designed 200 years ago to select and sort young people for an agro-industrial society. In Jefferson’s words, to “rake the geniuses from the rubbish.” Unfortunately, that society no longer exists. Today, almost everyone needs to think for a living; almost everyone needs the kind of education that we have historically reserved for the top 20 percent of the class. The old system, however, remains intact. How we group kids, what, where, when, and how we teach them all serve the selecting process. Despite their best efforts, our educators are prisoners of a system that is dangerously obsolete.

How might we restructure school time to better respond to students’ needs?

I’m no expert on the school calendar. Very smart people have spent their entire professional lives trying to figure this out. But you don’t need a Ph.D. to know that some people take longer to learn than others for reasons that have little to do with their innate intelligence. As long as we hold time constant -- as long as the kids go to school the same number of hours and the same number of days -- we are not in the business of unfolding the full potential of every child; we are selecting on the basis of how quickly children learn relative to their peers. We are defining intelligence in very narrow terms.

What is the single, most important step a school board can take to get its district started on the road to meaningful reform?

Answer this question: Are we serious? Talk is cheap. Are we serious about unfolding the full potential of every child? For the first time in history, every possible path to individual, community, state, and national success runs through public education’s wide open classroom doors. Schools cannot do it alone. But with the district leaders taking the lead, we can help Americans join together in common purpose to create the schools we need and build the communities of our most noble dreams. The challenges we face are difficult, but public education is a miracle, and this is its most hopeful time.

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

N.J. Gov. orders superintendent salary caps
On a campaign to curb school spending, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ordered a freeze on all superintendent contract renewals or extensions in November. Christie had previously issued rules through an executive order that limited superintendents’ salaries to between $135,000 and $175,000 a year, depending on enrollment once their contracts expired, meaning that about two-thirds of the state’s 525 school chiefs would be facing pay cuts once their contracts expire. Christie argued that the governor’s job pays $175,000 annually and that property tax rates were too high. On Nov. 15, Christie ordered the school board of the Parsippany-Troy Hills school district to rescind the contract of its superintendent, who would have been paid up to $234,000 annually over a five-year contract. Christie called the contract “the definition of greed and arrogance,” according to the Wall Street Journal. School board officials, however, point out that the governor’s job comes with many perks, including housing and paid expenses. And a representative of a national search firm told the Newark Star-Ledger that $175,000 was not competitive with other suburban districts with a relatively high cost of living. “When you cap salaries, you cut out a lot of experienced people,” William Attea, a senior associate with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, told the Star-Ledger. “The pool of really good superintendents is smaller than the 17,000 school districts across the country.”

Louisiana cracks down on parents who don’t pay for lunch
A new law in Louisiana requires school administrators to report to the state’s Department of Family and Children Services parents who can afford but continuously don’t pay for their child’s school lunch. Supporters of the law say that schools lose thousands of dollars a year because of delinquent lunch bills, and parents who don’t give their children lunch money may be neglectful in other ways. The law requires parents to be reported if they have not sent lunch money for more than three days, according to Foxnews.com. Others, though, are concerned that the law is overkill or that paperwork will be so time-consuming and expensive that it will further bog down school administration and state social workers. The new law also stipulates that students who don’t have money to buy their lunch will be given, at a minimum, graham crackers and an 8 oz. glass of milk.

Ohio district uses online classes for snow days
When snowstorms hit Ohio this winter, students in the Mississinawa Valley Schools won’t miss instructional time. The rural district, on the western side of the state, is the first to experiment with online learning in hopes of keeping students learning during major snowstorms and other incidents. The state is only allowing three “calamity days” this year instead of the usual five. About 700 students in the district will go to their computers if schools are closed for snow or another disruption. Working with the Ohio Department of Education, the district is piloting the program to not only avoid missed class time but also help students use the technology and gauge their interest in expanded virtual learning opportunities. Mississinawa Valley Superintendent Lisa Wendel told the Columbus Dispatch the experience in online education will help students in college, where those classes are more common.

New Alabama laws target dropouts
A program in Alabama is finding ways to discourage students from dropping out of school. A state commission charged with lowering the state’s dropout rate recently began requiring all students and their parents or guardians to go through an “exit interview” with their school administrators before officially leaving school, with strategies designed to give a “reality check” to try to change their minds, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. In Montgomery, school district officials are also restructuring some of the district’s high-poverty schools to focus at a younger age on keeping students in school. Alabama lawmakers recently raised the age of compulsory attendance in school from 16 to 17. The state senator who sponsored the new law told the Advertiser that his research showed many dropouts did not pursue a GED but often ran afoul of the law.

Miami schools save energy, earn money
A new program in the Miami-Dade School District not only is helping schools decrease their use of energy, but is also giving back part of the savings. In the 2009-10 school year, about 260 schools participated in the program, saving more than $5 million in utility costs and receiving some $500,000 in rewards, according to the Miami Herald. A team led by the district’s sustainability officer gave each school building a targeted goal and a plan to save money, which included simple actions such as turning off computers at night to closing doors when the air conditioning was on, as well as installing timers to automatically turn off lights and other devices. The schools that exceeded their savings goals were given rewards totaling three-quarters of the excess funds, which some teachers told the Herald gave them the motivation to participate. Some school administrators said they planned to spend the extra money on supplies, technology, tutors, and other needs.

Districts beef up reserve funds
Districts in several states are saving more money for reserves, fearing even tougher economic issues in coming years. Some districts in South Dakota ended the last fiscal year with more cash in reserves than ever before, despite policies penalizing districts that held too much in reserve, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Those policies were created in the late 1990s, when former state officials believed districts should spend more on teachers and instructional programs rather than on saving, according to the newspaper. The Leader reports that Rapid City Area Schools held onto stimulus money, hired less-experienced teachers, and asked principals to be stingy in 2009-10. The district’s reserve funds grew from $8.9 million to $14 million in one year. In Pennsylvania, some towns have raised taxes to cover increased expenses for educators’ health care costs and pension contributions, according to the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal. But some residents were unhappy that schools cut programs while contributing to their reserve funds.

Latinos now majority of California public school students
Latino students comprised 50.4 percent of California’s K-12 population in the 2009-10 school year, totaling 3.1 million of the state’s nearly 6.2 million public school students. The new majority represents years of increases by the subgroup in one of the country’s more diverse states. According to the data from the California Department of Education, 1.7 million students were classified as white and nearly 527,000 as Asian, 424,000 identified as black, and more than 96,000 selected more than one race category.

Maine superintendent recruits students from China
Faced with declining enrollments, school officials from a small district in Maine are looking for students abroad to fill their classrooms. Kenneth Smith, superintendent of the rural Millinocket district, recently traveled to China to recruit students willing to pay about $27,000 for tuition at the town’s high school and room and board at an undetermined place. According to the New York Times, Smith has hired a consultant to help make connections in China, lobbied elected officials and residents to embrace the plan, and even directed the school’s cafeteria workers to add Chinese food to the menu. Under federal law, foreign students can only attend U.S. public secondary schools for one year, but can attend private secondary schools for up to four years. “They want to learn English, and they want a college education,” Smith told the Times. “If we can get them into a college here, they will have achieved their major goal.”