May 2011 Up Front

On The Hill:
Pre-k programs are a long-term investment
worth making

Michael A. Resnick

A major long-term responsibility facing all levels of government is investment in an infrastructure that will make their community, state, and nation economically viable and competitive -- even when that investment comes in times of scarce resources. Pre-k education is one such investment.

Defer maintenance on a road and you get the inconvenience of a pothole that can be filled at a later time. Defer giving children the early education necessary to jump-start their future success in school, and you likely will get higher remedial costs or, worse, people who don’t reach their potential as individuals, parents, or taxpayers.

Time and again, research has shown that children -- especially those living in poverty -- who receive a high-quality pre-k education are less likely to need high-cost remedial services once they are in the elementary grades. These children are far more likely to be successful throughout their school experience and to graduate from high school. We’ve known this for some time.

The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study tracked 123 African-American children from low-income families from the 1960s through age 40. When compared to peers who did not receive preschool services, a far greater portion had higher IQs, graduated from high school, owned their own homes, and enjoyed significantly higher incomes.

More recent studies in Georgia and Oklahoma confirm the academic benefits of a strong pre-k program for all 4-year-olds, regardless of background. These findings have been reaffirmed in evaluations in more than 30 states with programs, most of which are targeted to children from low-income families.

An abundance of research identifying the elements of a successful program -- including the qualifications of teachers and aides, learning standards, program alignment and student preparation for elementary school, child-staff ratios, and class size -- also exists

The problem is that many state-funded pre-k programs are not large enough to reach all students, especially those for whom preparation would otherwise be limited in terms of vocabulary, letter and number recognition, social skills, and cultural awareness, among other attributes. Learning gaps will widen from day one for these children, especially when compared to peers who have a much broader platform of knowledge that allows them to learn at a faster pace. However, some states are cutting pre-k funding due to the economic squeeze, while others are delaying putting programs in place.

At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives majority has supported cutting Head Start by $1.1 billion, which would remove more than 200,000 children from that program. Lawmakers advocating this cut argue that not all Head Start providers are providing the quality learning that preschoolers need.

Rather than entirely cutting services for these children, the better policy response is to work to improve these programs. On this point, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and several members of Congress have a more enlightened view. They want to put weak Head Start providers in a special category and make them compete for funding so that renewal is contingent on a higher level of accountability and a promise for success.

Another approach is for the federal government to provide separate funding to support school districts that want to provide pre-k programs -- especially for students who are at risk due to poverty or limited English proficiency. These programs offer great promise of success because they must meet the district’s standards and would be aligned with the kindergarten curriculum. Pre-k and early- grade teachers could have greater communication about the program and the students’ needs.

However, initiatives like these should not result in cuts to services for Title I or other programs that are needed to close the elementary school achievement gap. Students should not be just written off the books.

For its part, NSBA -- through its Center for Public Education -- has worked to help school board members and other policymakers bring effective preschool programs to local communities. The center’s work in these areas, which is supported by the Pew Charitable Trust, can be viewed at www.centerforpubliceducation.org.

At the federal level, choices must be made in these tough budget times. Funding pre-k education is an easy one. Maintaining Head Start funding and starting a $2 billion school district program is important, but in relation to a federal budget approaching $4 trillion, the cost doesn’t come close to showing up in the rounding. Meanwhile, the cost of a child’s year of preschool will be more than repaid when that child becomes a productive, lifelong member of society.

Unlike filling pot holes, closing the gap in education at any age can’t be deferred to a better time. 

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


Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Teens have higher rates of STIs
While teens are waiting longer to have sexual intercourse, they are engaging in other types of sexual activity they are resulting in higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It estimates about 19 million new cases of STIs occur annually, with about half occurring among people between the ages of 15 and 24. In 2008, the agency declared that chlamydia was on the rise, and the largest number of reported cases was among 15- to 19-year-olds. This issue has hit home in Rochester, N.Y., where preliminary data from local health agencies revealed 35 of the 78 reported cases of HIV in 2010 were among people younger than 25. In March, community and school officials held a health forum to discuss ways to address the problem, including how comprehensive sexual education should be and whether contraceptives should be available at school. “Everyone is approaching this with an open mind,” Malik Evans, Rochester City School District board president, told the Democrat and Chronicle. “If we approach it the right way, making it a dialogue, not something the district dictates, it will be more effective.”

Georgia gives back control of math curriculum to local districts
After thousands of high school students failed their final exams, Georgia’s state board of education has decided to abandon a statewide initiative to require students to pass integrated math to receive a high school diploma. The board recently voted to allow school districts to choose the sequence and some courses that students may take to complete the requirement for four years of math, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. However, the move could mean more costs for districts already facing tight budgets. “Many school systems have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on integrated math textbooks and staff development to help teachers deliver the state’s ambitious integrated math curriculum, which exposed students to a fast-paced mix of algebra, geometry and statistics sooner than ever before,” the newspaper reported.

Memphis district plans merger
At the urging of some school board members and local leaders, residents of Memphis voted in early March to relinquish the charter for its school district and merge with the much smaller Shelby County school district. The unprecedented move would merge a 103,000-student, predominantly minority, and impoverished school district with a wealthier, predominantly white, 47,000-student school district. The two school systems have operated separately but were funded with taxes that were drawn from all county properties and residents and were divided between the two systems based on attendance. Memphis schools receive additional funding from a separate city tax, according to the New York Times. The move was spurred in part by rumblings that Shelby County would petition to become a special school district, meaning it would not have to share revenues and would permanently control its boundaries. Under that scenario, Memphis, which has some low-performing schools, would have seen its funding drop significantly. Some smaller school districts, including some towns within the Shelby County borders, also have moved to create special districts, which may be approved by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature, the Times reported.

Group backs Common Core
With more than 40 states set to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a bipartisan group of education advocates is calling for a new common curriculum as well. Proponents include American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and former Secretary of Education Richard Riley. Others include conservative-leaning commentator Chester E. Finn and former Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey, according to the New York Times. The proposal would give specific guidelines for teachers to determine what should be taught in each grade.

Utah to grade its public schools
After much debate, Utah’s legislature approved a measure that will assign grades of A to F to all of the state’s public schools. The grades will be based on students’ proficiency and progress in subjects including language arts, math, science, and writing. High schools’ scores also will include their graduation rates and measures of college and career readiness, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The plan was based on a similar program in Florida. Lawmakers who supported the measure say it will improve community engagement and provoke more community members to get involved in their local schools. Opponents say the grading is unfair because schools do not have enough resources, particularly those with high-risk enrollments.



Q&A with school board member Doug Gaul on facing hard times

 

Though the U.S. economy is officially in recovery mode, school districts are far from feeling any relief, and that is especially true in the Hutto Independent School District (HISD). Located just outside of Austin, the rapidly growing Texas school system, with more than 5,000 students, has been forced to take drastic measures to account for a state budget shortfall projected to climb as high as $27 billion over the next two years.

While Texas is not alone -- 44 states and the District of Columbia are anticipating budget deficits in fiscal year 2012 according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities- -- it is among the hardest hit, even surpassing chronically troubled California.

In Hutto, reduced state funding, coupled with a property tax cap enacted in 2006, has meant the district had to slash 10 percent from its roughly $40 million operating budget. Among the most devastating cuts was an action no school board member wants to make: closing a school.

Amidst all of this turmoil, Doug Gaul, HISD’s school board president, spoke with ASBJ Spring Intern Melissa Major about the district’s financial difficulties.

What financial challenges has your district faced recently? What’s been the most difficult decision you’ve made as a result?

We went through a budget deficit for two years. We couldn’t offer as many programs or services to the students. We had to use our fund balance with the intentions of -- hopefully -- growing and eventually being able to get back on target. And then the legislators came in and said they were cutting even more money -- so we had to go back and look further to determine where to make cuts. In February, we had to shut down Veterans’ Hill Elementary and consolidate and eliminate some of our administration staff. This is a small town. You’re not sitting here looking at numbers. You’re looking at names of people you know. I’ve been in Hutto for 16 years, and I have kids in the school system. I’ve known these people for many years. It’s a lot more difficult when you know faces and names.

How did you decide to close a school?

We looked at consolidating our two middle schools. We looked at different options of moving eighth-graders up with the high school. That didn’t fly very well with the public. We looked at closing some of the other elementary schools, but Veterans’ Hill was the newest one -- it opened in 2008 -- and had the fewest students.

What is the greatest challenge you face as school board president?

The hardest thing is to be able to try and keep a focus on what’s important: the education and safety of our students. We need to keep the communication lines between the board members and the public open, so people understand why we’re making these decisions. When I became a board member, we were the second-fastest-growing school district in Texas. We had 25 percent growth every year. Back then, our challenge was making sure we hired enough people, because we had all these students coming. And now it’s almost the complete opposite problem.

How do you help your board colleagues focus on future goals?

One factor is that we’ve made the board available to the public. On the first day of school, we had a board member at each of the campuses, welcoming the students and parents back to school. The communication has probably been our biggest advantage to getting through all this. We’re very accessible to the community.

What advice do you have for other school board members facing similar budget problems?

You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re doing this for the benefit of the kids. We have to step up and be supportive of the administration to make sure that we can do our best for the kids. Sometimes, you’ve got parents and some people who lose track of where the focus is. We board members have to keep returning to the most important focus.

What has been the most rewarding part of being a school member during these hard times?

Going to the schools helps you keep track of what the reality is. Recently, I went to a boys’ basketball game. You see what the kids are doing. You see them excelling, despite all this other stuff going on. It reminds you that we can all face some hard times and make it through.