July 2011 Up Front

On the Hill

ESEA reauthorization begins to stir
Michael A. Resnick

The long-awaited process to begin the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is showing some signs of life.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce outlined its approach for reauthorizing ESEA in five separate parts: funding and flexibility, charter schools, teachers, innovation, and accountability. The current plan is to consider the first part in committee in June and to complete the last by late fall.

At press time, a bill addressing the first part had not been introduced. However, the concept is to give local school boards greater flexibility in determining how they use federal funding by allowing districts to transfer up to 100 percent of money from one ESEA program to another. (Currently, districts can transfer up to 50 percent of funds, but the money can go only into -- not out of -- Title I programs that provide aid for students from low-income families.)

Additionally, if a school’s Title I numbers are as little as 25 percent of overall enrollment, it may use Title I funds for schoolwide projects rather than target the money specifically to low-income students. Districts also could use ESEA funds to provide additional services related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but could not transfer federal money out of the federal program that serves students with disabilities.

To exercise this flexibility, school districts only would have to report how much is being transferred to the state, but no state approval would be required. This has appeal to local boards, which want greater flexibility to use federal funding to meet their unique needs as their budgets are being cut. However, like any proposal, the actual legislative language is what counts, and NSBA is working with the House education committee to resolve several questions or concerns.

Meanwhile, the House committee also is considering the Setting New Priorities in Education Spending Act (H.R. 1891), which would eliminate 43 programs. Introduced by House subcommittees Chair Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), with the support of Committee Chair John Kline (R-Minn.), the bill addresses programs that for the most part are relatively small in size but which support a wide range of subjects and instructional innovations as well as student health and school climate.

Funding for these programs totaled more than $1.1 billion in FY 2010 -- including $200 million for the Striving Readers Program and $100 million for State Educational Technology Grants. However, FY 2011 funding was cut to $412 million, and Hunter’s bill notes that many of the programs on the chopping block are either duplicative or were not part of the president’s proposed budget. Expect a debate over whether to continue any of these programs or to absorb their work into broader programs.

Work is progressing in a different way in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is seeking a comprehensive ESEA reauthorization bill that will both reflect the president’s proposal and be designed to have bipartisan support. Bills are being introduced that likely will feed into the committee bill.

For example, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) has introduced the School Turnaround and Reward Act (S. 959), which would fund improvement interventions in the lowest-performing schools and reward those that make significant progress in growth and in closing achievement gaps. The dollar levels and program design of Hagan’s bill are consistent with the administration’s program.

As in the House legislation, NSBA’s support for the Senate bill will depend more on the details than on the laudatory goals it seeks to accomplish, such as high academic achievement, improving the quality of teaching, or turning around low-performing schools.

Once the House and Senate pass their bills, differences must be worked out. Those differences could be significant, depending on varying visions for the federal role, the needs and solutions emphasized, and the program details that are involved. Also in the mix is how much the bills mandate instead of empower states and local districts to implement the law.

It’s not likely the ESEA reauthorization will be completed prior to 2012, or even later as the presidential election year progresses. If schools continue to be held accountable under the existing No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) for another year or two, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that more than 80 percent of schools will be identified as failing under the law’s flawed accountability system, resulting in costly and ineffective sanctions being imposed.

School boards should continue to advocate for the best results in the reauthorization. At the same time, urge your members of Congress to support legislation that defers NCLB’s sanctions until the reauthorization is enacted. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also should be encouraged to use his administrative authority to help achieve that end.

Looking at your role in the reauthorization, keep in mind that the new ESEA will impact the nation’s students and your schools for the long haul. Certainly, that was the case with the badly flawed NCLB, which has been on the books for over nine years with no interim legislative fixes along the way. NSBA, along with your state school boards associations, will continue to provide you with timely information to take to Congress as the reauthorization unfolds. 

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

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Georgia high court abolishes charter commission
In a long-awaited ruling, Georgia’s state Supreme Court voted 4-3 in May to strike down a state commission that could approve and direct local funding to charter schools over the objection of local school boards. The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was founded by the state legislature in 2008 to give charter authorizers another route if a school board denied their applications. “No other constitutional provision authorizes any other governmental entity to compete with or duplicate the efforts of local boards of education in establishing and maintaining general K-12 schools,” the majority opinion read. “By providing for local boards of education to have exclusive control over general K-12 schools, our constitutions, past and present, have limited governmental authority over the public education of Georgia’s children to that level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated.” At the time of the ruling, there were about 160 charter schools that had been approved by school boards, and another 16 had been created by the state commission. The fate of those 16 schools was uncertain, and in particular, some regional schools that operated in multiple districts, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Georgia School Boards Association noted in its statement that “in preserving the 134-year history of local control enshrined in the current and earlier Georgia Constitutions, the Court rejected the General Assembly’s attempt to expand its authority to create ‘special’ state schools and to define ‘special’ to mean whatever it wanted it to mean.”

Coal-sponsored curriculum pulled from schools
A coalition of children’s advocacy groups declared victory after Scholastic, Inc., pulled a fourth-grade curriculum paid for by the American Coal Foundation. The groups -- Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, Rethinking Schools, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, and the Center for Biological Diversity -- waged a campaign against Scholastic for promoting a curriculum that they said did not fully or honestly teach about coal and other forms of energy. The groups said the curriculum in particular did not discuss negative aspects of coal mining and burning on human health and the environment. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, Scholastic President and CEO Richard Robinson wrote, “We acknowledge that the mere fact of sponsorship may call into question the authenticity of the information, and therefore conclude that we were not vigilant enough as to the effect of sponsorship in this instance.” A “tiny percentage” of the company’s material is produced with sponsors, which include government agencies, nonprofit associations, and some corporations, he said.

Tennessee teacher survey finds job satisfaction
A recent survey found that teachers in Tennessee generally are fulfilled with their work and sense of mission, even as their unions faced state leaders who want to dramatically curb their power. The state’s governor and leading education organizations, including the Tennessee School Boards Association and employee unions, sponsored a website, www.telltennessee.org, to solicit teachers’ feedback on their jobs, including working conditions, resource allocation, school leadership, and professional development. The online poll was open for four weeks this winter, and more than 57,000 -- nearly 77 percent -- of the state’s teachers responded. The project was funded by Tennessee’s Race to the Top federal grant. But 25 percent of those teachers reported that trust and mutual respect are lacking, and about a third say they keep quiet on important issues. A GOP-backed bill limiting teachers’ collective bargaining rights was making its way through the state legislature. If passed, it was expected to be signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican.

Report finds many schools in Mass. built too large
Almost 25 percent of school buildings in Massachusetts are too large for their student enrollments, according to a report by the state’s building authority. The report notes that, in some cases, enrollment in schools has declined, leaving a surplus of seats. In other instances, school districts built or expanded facilities that were too large for their projected populations, according to the Boston Globe. The Massachusetts School Building Authority was created in 2004 to monitor districts’ construction plans and set state funding requirements. A construction boom in the past decade has allowed many districts to build new facilities, and as a result the building authority found fewer school buildings to be in “poor” condition. The report could pressure some school districts to consolidate or close schools, the Globe reported.

Student work hours may lower achievement
A new study found that students who work more than 15 hours a week in high school were less likely to graduate from college. The finding supports other recent research that found high school students who work many hours are likely to show increased problem behaviors and decreased school engagement, USA Today reported. University of Michigan researchers used data from a national survey of high school seniors, called Monitoring the Future, which has responses from more than 68,000 students dating back to 1976. The study found that, by age 30, more than half of high school students who had worked fewer than 15 hours a week had completed a bachelor’s degree. But that statistic dropped by 8 percent for every five additional hours worked over 15 hours a week. Only about one-fifth of those who had worked 31 hours or more a week in high school finished college. Researchers debated whether the drop could be solely attributed to work hours, or if the students also were having other issues in school, such as poor academic achievement or a desire to make money rather than study.

New study finds relation between lead paint, academics
Duke University researchers have determined that children who ingested even small amounts of lead later performed poorly on standardized tests when compared to students who were never exposed to the substance. The study reviewed information on 35,000 children in Connecticut whose blood tests showed they had been exposed to lead before age 7. The contaminant was banned from paint, cookware, household products, and toys in 1977. Researchers examined fourth-grade reading and math scores on state tests taken in 2008 and 2009, according to The Associated Press. They concluded that the greater the exposure, the lower the test scores, but even students whose lead levels were considered low were showing lower academic achievement than peers who’d never been exposed. The researchers also found that black children were much more likely than the state’s white children to have experienced lead poisoning -- most likely from paint residue, dust, or other sources. Connecticut educators said that the results could be contributing to the achievement gap between white and minority students and between wealthy and poor students.

USDA seeks to limit potatoes in school meals
Do spuds belong in school cafeterias? A recently proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that would eliminate white potatoes from federally subsidized school breakfasts and limit their serving at lunch has set off another round of protests about the federal government’s school nutrition regulations. The USDA proposal would limit starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, peas, and lima beans, to a total of one cup per week for federally subsidized school lunches. The potato industry now is promoting its product as a “true gateway vegetable” that could lead kids to broccoli, according to the Wall Street Journal. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a state that is a leading producer of potatoes, noted at a hearing that potatoes contain more nutrients than iceberg lettuce, which hasn’t been banned. As the potato industry mobilizes its lobbyists, some school nutritionists also are defending the spud. Idaho’s Gooding school district, which won a USDA award for schools that feed children healthier meals and promote physical activity, would lose its twice-a-week potato bar, according to the Wall Street Journal. Nutrition director Anji Baumann told the newspaper that the popular bar includes locally grown spuds with themed toppings such as Mexican, with salsa and refried beans; and pizza, with low-fat mozzarella, low-sodium Canadian bacon, and vegetables. 

Q&A with outgoing Montgomery County, Md., schools superintendent Jerry Weast


Ever since Jerry Weast arrived to head the sprawling, rapidly changing Montgomery County Public Schools in the summer of 1998, he has been on a mission to restore and improve upon the district’s top-tier reputation. It was a reputation threatened by a persistent achievement gap.

During the dozen years of his tenure at Montgomery County, Weast -- who refuses to claim singular responsibility for the suburban Maryland district’s successes -- has overseen a reform effort that has spawned myriad studies, awards, and even a book.

Weast retired from his post at the end of the 2010-11 school year. His timing was not random.

“I think when you come into one of these jobs, you want to see it through, and I wanted to see ‘Jerry’s Kids’ go through high school,” Weast said. This cohort of students entered the system just as the district began the first of many large-scale initiatives, from all-day kindergarten to targeted resources for the district’s neediest students.

ASBJ Senior Editor Naomi Dillon caught up with Weast for a moment of reflection after a long career that is far from over.

How would you describe your role in helping bring Montgomery County Public Schools to the next level?

I saw my role as helping solve a teacher problem and a student problem. The student problem was not enough were prepared to do what they wanted to do with their lives. And the teacher problem was a problem of engagement. They didn’t feel like anyone was giving them a fair chance to do their jobs. As a superintendent, you’re kind of a teacher and [the district] is your classroom. You have to build some understanding of what people want to accomplish and organize some way to do that. You create the conditions to do that.

How did you do that?

First of all, it’s never one thing a person delivers but something people deliver. If you are looking for someone on a white horse to rescue you, that’s a mistake. You need someone who will bring along employees and get the most from their talent. I asked teachers: What problems did they have? They wanted a coherent curriculum, so we solved that. They wanted better administrators trained in management, so we solved that. They wanted to not feel isolated, so we solved that, too. When you define the problem, set about seeking solutions, and invite people to draft those solutions, then you empower them.

The same strategy worked with students?

Our children still want to grow up and thrive and be independent. They’re not turned on by some of the things we want them to do. They are turned on by problem-solving and channeling their creativity. They want challenging curriculum, but they need to be exposed to it earlier. They want a plan to succeed.

What is your relationship with data?

I’m a very data-oriented person. I listen to what people are saying but I also want to know what the data says. When I arrived here, I talked to 8,000 to 10,000 employees. I rode a mail truck to all 200 buildings. I got a demographer and broke things down. I looked at the last 25 years of college scores and graduation rates from the research department. I looked at ways that the system had used to sort children. I looked at personnel files. I found six pages of our acronyms, yet I found no evidence we were teaching that language to the 800 to 900 new teachers hired each year.

What can’t data tell you?

It can’t tell me feelings and emotions and culture. That’s why I attend every graduation. I can tell everything about a school at a graduation ceremony: the order, the discipline, the mood. I pick the places I visit strategically.

How have you married the two objectives of being a strategic leader and a results-driven one?

I was climbing a mountain last year, and I started getting really tired. Someone said, “You’re only 300 feet from the top,” and that energized me. And that’s what we need to be doing in education: have a goal, but check in frequently to see how far we’ve gone. It’s about results and process. Eventually people will figure out this is the way to get it done. Not in random acts, but in a systemic fashion.

What are your plans after retirement? Or do you ever plan on retiring?

Not from my life’s mission of helping make this world a better place by helping the kids.