June 2011 Up Front

On The Hill
Budget, ESEA talks dominate in Congress
By Michael A. Resnick

Adequate funding for our nation’s schools from all three levels of government is a major issue confronting local districts. At the federal level, billions of dollars are at stake, from Congress’ ongoing work on the budget, to the potential cost implications of the forthcoming Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization, to the costs districts face to implement agency regulations.

The FY 2011 Continuing Resolution (CR) enacted in April cut social discretionary spending by $39 billion, including some $800 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s K-12 programs. At this writing, the department has not indicated what it will cut, but the budgets for Title I (aid for students in low-income areas) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, aid for students with disabilities) might be trimmed by 0.2 percent -- about $20 million each -- from FY 2010 levels.

Based on President Obama’s original budget proposal, other programs could face much larger reductions. These include Teacher Quality Grants and the possible elimination of state technology grants, Even Start, and Striving Readers. The CR does provide $700 million in new Race to the Top competitive grant funding for states that are best positioned to meet the department’s reform requirements, along with $150 million in local (i3) competitive grants. An additional $20 million will support the continuation and expansion of the District of Columbia’s voucher program.

The CR only represents round one of a much larger debate on priorities as Congress and President Obama attempt to establish a multiyear plan to reduce the federal government’s $14.3 trillion debt starting in FY 2012. The challenge is daunting, but further K-12 funding cuts should not be part of the deficit solution given the relatively insignificant portion of the federal budget that is involved. Hopefully, the debate will not turn on making cuts that simply get lost in the rounding, but on the value of these programs to our children’s education and our nation’s future.

Several high-level deficit reduction meetings are under way, but there’s no guarantee they will produce the right mix of spending cuts and revenue increases necessary to win the support of the widely different values and ideologies held by the House’s Republican majority, the Senate’s Democratic majority, and the president. Nonetheless, all sides are under substantial pressure to do so by mid-May because Republicans have indicated they won’t raise the debt ceiling unless an agreement is made on cuts.

The deal’s structure could be in place by mid-May, but it’s less certain that decisions on specific education programs will be made by that time. Meanwhile, the public debate will be on the long-term future of big entitlement programs and tax code reform. This means the importance of our nation’s education investment will not be in the eye of the general media or the public. Unless school board members and local educators continuously put it there over the coming weeks, K-12 programs can become an easy target.

As Congress and the president work on the budget, the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees are poised to introduce their respective ESEA reauthorization bills later this month. Apart from the substantive merits of their proposals, it will be crucial that the expectations and mandates created by the legislation are matched to the long-term funding that emerges from the Congressional budget deal.

And that match is not a given since much of the work on the development of these bills started before the current budget climate. Since the CR’s sharp funding cuts from the bottom line likely won’t be restored for several years at the state and local levels, members of Congress need to recognize that school boards in their districts are not in a position to pick up the cost of unfunded program requirements.

Meanwhile, the executive branch needs to be mindful of its impact on education and set cost-containment priorities when issuing program regulations and guidelines. This also will be difficult, since numerous federal agencies work on projects that impact schools. Frequently, regulations are written to focus on perfect outcomes, without any sorting of the cumulative impact on cash- and staff-strapped school districts.

An example of this is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new nutritional standards. The department knows the shortfall in federal funding will mean districts that already are laying off teachers must cut back even further to meet the costs. But that agency’s well-intended mission involves setting high nutritional standards, not the resulting trade-off in educational programs.

The Department of Education’s priority to commit new money to competitive grants is out of balance in terms of the needs of school districts for the essential services provided by Title I and IDEA. The school districts that will win the grants are those that can afford to seek them.

A more responsible approach toward regulatory implementation will take discipline within the agencies and direction from the White House itself. It also requires Congress’ oversight to rein in nonessential regulating costs.

For school board members and advocates, these three areas will play out in the coming weeks on Capitol Hill. We must seek to protect crucial programs like Title I and IDEA from severe long- term cuts, and work to obtain increases for these and other education programs that are true investments in our nation’s future. We must pursue an ESEA reauthorization that is both educationally sound and financially realistic in terms of the radically changed funding outlook. Finally, we must pressure the executive branch to recognize the big picture at the local level, or face regulations that bring educationally limiting costs and constraints to our nation’s schools. 

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

Study: Teens’ weight directly linked to heart disease
Teenagers who are overweight, even just slightly, have an increased risk of heart disease later in life, according to a new study. The risk is present even if the teens lose weight and develop healthy habits in adulthood. The first-of-a-kind study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April, analyzed more than 37,000 teenagers. Researchers found that, the more the teens weighed when they were 17 years old, the more likely they would be to develop heart disease by their 30s or 40s. “This shows that for cardiovascular disease, you are going to pay the price for a higher weight in those early years later in life, even if you adopt a better lifestyle and are not overweight when you get older,” researcher Amir Tirosh of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston told the Washington Post. “This should be another alarming red flag for pediatricians, given the alarming rates of obesity and overweight in kids.” First Lady Michelle Obama and numerous celebrities, including singer Beyonce, have urged schools to take a greater role in encouraging children to eat healthier foods and exercise.

School takes aim at students’ eating habits
A Philadelphia school is using education, exercise, the power of persuasion -- and a few nagging parent volunteers -- to change their students’ bad eating habits. Administrators at the William D. Kelley School noticed that many students were stopping at neighborhood convenience stores on their way to and from school, buying candy and chips, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Principal Amelia Brown told the Inquirer that the students’ unhealthy eating before school caused headaches and stomachaches that undermined academic achievement, and that many of the older students were becoming overweight. She went so far as to ask the stores to not sell to students before school hours, so that they might take advantage of the school’s free breakfast program. But ultimately she asked a group of neighborhood parents, who were members of a crime and safety watch program, to take charge. The parents began standing outside the stores and attempting to educate students who wanted to enter. Some students passed by, the Inquirer reported, while some still bought their usual fare.

More applications mean more uncertainty in college admissions
As college admissions become more competitive, and as more students vie for less expensive public universities, the result is more uncertainty and waiting for prospective students, experts say. Most college-bound students now apply to numerous schools, some from which they would not likely accept an offer, the Los Angeles Times reports. Furthermore, the rise in applications helps colleges advertise a lower acceptance rate, thus making their campuses look more competitive. A recent national survey by the University of California-Los Angeles found that 17.8 percent of current college freshmen had applied to eight or more colleges, up from 15.9 percent in 2009 and 7.8 percent a decade ago, according to the Times. And many high school counselors are encouraging students to apply to multiple colleges, the Times reports. Adding to the trend, some states are now using a “common application” that allows students to apply to multiple campuses using only one application.

Young Americans and finances
Many young people are pessimistic about their finances and futures, and most believe they will have a harder time achieving the wealth of their parents, according to a recent survey of 1,100 Americans ages 18 to 24. A majority said they would expect to have a harder time buying a house and saving for retirement than their parents did, according to The Associated Press-Viacom poll conducted in April. More than four in 10 predicted it would be tougher to raise a family and afford the lifestyle they want. Only about a fourth expected life to be easier for them than for the previous generation, but the poll also found that a majority of the younger generation is happy with their lives, more so than are their elders.

Students donate savings to save teachers’ jobs
A fifth-grader in Arcadia, Calif., recently brought a thick envelope to her school that contained a heartfelt letter asking school officials to save her teachers’ jobs, and her life savings -- about $300 total. The campaign by student Jocelyn Lam spurred a local drive to save 65 teaching jobs that were slated to be cut in the school district, according to the local newspaper, the Arcadia Patch. In her letter, Jocelyn wrote: “I’ve heard that 65 positions will be laid off and 10 of them are from my school! This really breaks my heart. Those teachers had taught me a lot. They guided me to fifth grade. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here right now writing this letter. They changed my life.” The school district runs an education foundation, which had raised about $10,000, and supporters sent a letter to parents asking for donations to avert some of the layoffs. After news of Jocelyn’s donation and letter, other students and parents pitched in to give more than $20,000 to the fund, according to the Patch.

School district ordered to pay foreign teachers
The Prince Georges County, Md., school district has been ordered to pay $5.9 million in back salaries and wages to teachers from foreign countries whom officials hired for hard-to-fill jobs, mainly in math and science. The U.S. Department of Labor ordered the school district to compensate more than 1,000 teachers who were recruited but then required to pay their own expenses related to temporary work visas, according to the Washington Post. Labor Department officials said those costs should have been covered by the school district, which violated laws requiring that U.S. and foreign teachers be compensated equally. Most of the teachers were from the Philippines. School officials planned to appeal the decision, according to the Post. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said in a statement that the ruling “may have a devastating impact on PGCPS and its employees and the school system’s ability to continue to place a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.” Federal officials could forbid the school district from attaining more temporary work visas, the Post reported.

iPads for kindergartners
How soon should young children use iPad devices in their classrooms? One school district in Maine thinks the best place to start is in kindergarten. In the 2011-12 school year, about 300 kindergartners in Auburn, Maine, will receive iPad2 tablets, according to The Associated Press. Supporters say the technology is revolutionary and the youngest students can use the screens and hundreds of apps to better learn basics such as the ABCs, numbers, drawing, and music. The AP reports that kindergartners also are using iPads at elementary schools in Omaha, Neb.; Columbiana, Ohio; Huntington, W. Va.; Paducah, Ky.; Charleston, S.C.; and Scottsdale, Ariz. The Auburn district’s initiative costs about $200,000, and some residents questioned whether kindergartners are old enough to appreciate the effort or whether the money would be better spent elsewhere, according to The AP.

Students lack access to drinking water at school
Many students lack access to an adequate supply of drinking water at schools, which can have health consequences, according to CNN. A report by the network news station found that, in many schools, students are offered milk or juice but have to wait in line for the water fountain, and are not given cups for water with their meals. Dr. Melina Jampolis, CNN Health’s diet and fitness expert, said that the standard recommendations are for children to get six to eight glasses of water per day, but teenage boys need about 11 glasses per day. “Mild dehydration can affect learning as well as mental and physical performance,” she said. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was signed into law in December and was designed to improve school nutrition, requires that clean water be easily available in school. The final regulations will address specifically how schools must meet that mandate, according to CNN. Some school officials are asking the federal government to help with the cost of providing bottled water to students as well as with the costs of healthier meals. 



Q&A with Robert Jackson, author of ‘No More Excuses’

 

Fewer than 55 percent of African- American males graduate from high school in the United States. Many say a contributing factor to this troubling phenomenon is the misplacement of a large number of low-income and minority children in special education.

Motivational speaker, author, and consultant Robert Jackson faced this situation as well. As one of the only black students at a predominantly white elementary school, Jackson was ostracized by his peers, and by instructors who did not understand the cultural differences of Hispnaic and African-American students. Their response, he says, was to mislabel him and others as special education and remove them from the mainstream classroom.

But as an adult, Jackson made it a personal mission to use his experience of being raised in poverty, without a male role model, to educate youth going through similar struggles.

In his three No More Excuses books, Jackson provides solutions for parents, teachers, and students to help troubled young black men straighten up their lifestyles. He urges educators to evaluate and address the unique needs of black and Hispanic pupils in the classroom.

Recently, Jackson spoke to ASBJ spring intern Melissa Major about his research on black males, his own school experiences, and why he wants to help other young black men growing up in poverty.

What is your advice for school board members who serve in highly diverse communities? How should these districts approach educational issues differently than those with lower levels of diversity?

I encourage them to pull parents, teachers, and administrators together for monthly meetings to discuss the gaps between the groups and how to connect the dots to benefit our children and to train these teachers in cultural awareness. Too many of our kids are being kicked out of class without intervention first because they are misunderstood by their teachers. Education should be approached with relationship building in mind. If you can’t find a way to reach these young people and find their strengths, they will never learn from you. Many of these students, especially black and Latino males, respond differently than students in other diverse groups. The backgrounds and circumstances are different.

I was bused to an all-white school in the fifth grade from my low-income, inner-city neighborhood. When I went out to this school, the white kids and teachers couldn’t relate to me because of my background or who I was as a person because they never interacted with blacks before. As a result, I was stereotyped and put in special educational classes like the rest of my peers from my neighborhood, even though I was a good student. They played mind games like that to degrade us. Many teachers go to school, get their education and teaching certificate, but never get the training they need to address the needs of our low-income, inner-city youth. So what is the first thing they do? Throw kids out of class. They never learn how to relate to those students, and that’s why I train them to do so.

Does the “cultural gap” between black students and teachers affect males differently than females? Why have you focused your research primarily on black males, instead of all black students?

It affects males differently. Speaking from personal experience, I took it harder that my father wasn’t there because I had no male to relate to in my home. When I was teaching high school, I witnessed the same thing with my students. I had a colleague who was a white female and would always kick black boys out of her classroom if they sneezed the wrong way. I found out that she kicked them out because she wasn’t culturally aware of how to handle them so she would put them out of her classroom. Students can’t learn when they are kicked out of class. Many of these young black males are being raised by women, whether it’s the grandmother, mother, older sibling, etc., and continue to hold onto anger about their father’s absence. I believe females are affected also, but in different ways.

I focused my research on black males because of the problems I had growing up in poverty, angry and headed down the wrong path. I want to stop other young black males from doing the same thing. Graduation rates are low, crime is up, and more than a million young black males are in prison. I said black males, because we have to start somewhere, and behind every woman who has been hurt or worse, there is a man somewhere with some or all of the responsibility.

You recently did a workshop at NSBA’s Annual Conference in San Francisco. What message do you hope school board members got from the workshop?

I would like school board members to encourage their teachers to get to know their students and to attend cultural awareness classes. Teachers can use my curriculum to build these young men up and work on skills where they are weak. Many of us think we are part of the solution, but we are really part of the problem.