April 2012 School Board News

On The Hill
Proposed federal education budget: A statement on priorities

By Michael A. Resnick

Several weeks ago, President Obama proposed an FY 2013 budget to Congress that was striking both in its amount and its policy direction for elementary and secondary education. Unfortunately, Obama’s request does not support additional funding for Title I or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), while NSBA is seeking increases of $1 billion each for these basic grant formula programs.

Obama’s most prominent funding request is $50 billion to enact key elements of the American Jobs Act that did not gain Congressional approval last year. Half would be allocated for repairs and modernization in an estimated 35,000 schools, addressing badly needed deferred maintenance while putting local construction firms and their employees to work.

Another $25 billion would be used to hire and retain teachers and first responders. This would save or restore some of the estimated 200,000 teaching positions lost to the recession and prevent more cuts next year.

The request fits within the administration’s overall multi-year deficit reduction plan and the goals of the Budget Control Act of 2011. NSBA recognizes that it faces an uphill battle in Congress, but will continue to support the program as an investment in today’s schoolchildren.

In terms of specific programs, the president seeks to continue his reform themes with a strong emphasis on bolstering the teaching profession. Under the American Jobs Act, another $5 billion is being sought for a one-time, state-based competitive grant program aimed at elevating teacher effectiveness through a wide range of reforms. These include improving schools of education, creating career leaders, merit pay systems, evaluations based on multiple measures, and reshaping tenure, among others.

Outside the tenuous American Jobs Act, proposed funding levels for ongoing Department of Education programs call for a modest 2.5 percent increase -- $1.7 billion on the bottom line. This proposal is significant because of how it rearranges funding priorities among programs and the policy direction that it provides.

The existing $2.5 billion Title II Teacher Quality grant program would be redesigned to put greater emphasis on recruiting, preparing, and rewarding effective teachers and principals, as well as their equitable distribution to schools in low income areas. A significant 25 percent of those funds -- some $600 million -- would support the creation and expansion of pathways into teaching and school leadership.

This set-aside would create a new Presidential Teaching Fellows program to support talented students -- principally from low-income families -- to teach for at least three years in high-need schools. It also would create competitive state grants for strengthened pre-k to grade 12 literacy programs as well as improved programming in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Money also would be set aside for state and local grants in other subject areas necessary for a well-rounded education.

Also part of the president’s proposal: A $300 million increase -- to $850 million -- in competitive Race to the Top (RTTT) grants for states; $150 million in new Investing in Innovation (i3) local competitive grants; and maintaining funds supporting charter school creation and expansion at the current $255 million level.

Clearly, the administration is placing a strong emphasis on a comprehensive package of strategies that it believes will be game-changers in raising student achievement. Each initiative must be judged on its own merits, but the total package presents a serious imbalance by not seeking additional funds for Title I and IDEA. Given demographic trends pointing to increased enrollments, level funding will not suffice, especially since more students have fallen into poverty and medically-related costs for students with disabilities continue to rise.

Our schools already are in a fiscally weakened condition, especially in low-tax capacity communities with large numbers of high-need children. The administration’s exclusive commitment of new funds to well-intended future improvements should not erode the quality of services for high-risk students for programs that cannot be sustained through level funding.

Low-income and smaller districts are in no position to financially support the grant writers needed to apply for competitive grants. Cash-strapped districts can’t commit the local funds that accompany the awarding of competitive grants to states (as occurred under RTTT), or use smaller specialized grants as effectively as more broadly based formula grants.

In fulfilling its role, members of Congress should recognize the fiscal realities schools face when addressing the president’s budget as well as their own initiatives. In reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), for example, the pending Senate bill creates expectations that will require funding that districts can’t provide without more state and federal aid.

Meanwhile, the pending House bill commendably goes much further in reducing federally imposed program costs and control, but it also sets school districts up to potentially lose per-pupil support at the federal and state levels for years to come. Specifically, it caps future federal funding for the bottom-line of programs such as Title 1 to the annual Consumer Price Index. This would deny the possibility of breaking even on a per-pupil expenditure basis as enrollments grow. States, regardless of hardship or affordable alternatives, also would be relieved of the responsibility to maintain their education funding from year to year. This would encourage states to cut K-12 funding priorities to meet federal requirements in other areas.

This year, Congress will make major multi-year decisions at a time when control of both houses as well as the presidency could be in play. It is especially important for school board members to communicate to lawmakers that our nation’s education priority must be met and funded in a way that serves the best interests of the districts that they were elected to represent. (For more information on federal education funding and school board advocacy, please see www.nsba.org/advocacy.) 

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


NSBA roundup

Obama proposes increased grants, stable IDEA funds for FY 2013 budget
The National School Boards Association (NSBA) applauded President Obama’s proposal to allot funding for school construction and teachers in the administration’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal. However, NSBA is concerned that the president’s proposed budget would put a greater emphasis on increasing funds for competitive grant programs at the expense of Title I and special education.

The budget essentially would fund Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Part B state grants at the same levels as last year. It would continue the competitive grant programs that are the hallmark of the Obama administration, including the State Improvement Grants; Investing in Innovation fund; Promise Neighborhoods; and the Race to the Top program, which would receive a $300 million increase to $850 million.

It proposes a $30 billion program to hire teachers and first responders, including police officers and firefighters, in communities. It also proposes $30 billion for school modernization and repairs that are estimated to help 35,000 schools.

“We certainly applaud the administration’s desire to continue to press for funding for education jobs and school construction, which would greatly help schools and help invigorate the economy,” said Michael A. Resnick, NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy. “However, IDEA and Title I are the underpinnings of the federal education budget, and those programs should be given increases over initiatives that can only be attained by districts that are able to hire the best grant writers.”

NSBA advocates for ESEA revamp

NSBA and four other state and local government organizations are urging Congress to reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and enact legislation that would reframe the federal-state-local partnership before the next school year begins.

In a letter sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate committees responsible for K-12 education, the groups called for greater flexibility for local leaders, increased flexibility in the spending of federal funds, and recognition of the budget constraints facing states and localities.

“It is important to local school districts that Congress reauthorizes ESEA now and replaces the current accountability system that neither accurately nor fairly reflects the performance of students, schools, or school districts,” said NSBA’s Executive Director Anne L. Bryant. “Local school districts must be free of federal mandates that unnecessarily or counterproductively hinder them from achieving their goals of increasing student achievement. It is essential that local school districts have greater authority and flexibility to develop, design, and implement educational strategies to address the unique challenges facing our local communities.”

New resource on high school success

What does an effective high school look like? What do our graduates need to know to succeed in college and the workplace? Are they ready for the challenges ahead?

Answers to these and many more questions can be found at the High School Toolkit, recently launched by NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE). On this interactive online resource, at www.center forpubliceducation.org/highschooltoolkit, you can explore CPE’s research and data around high school education.

For more NSBA news and information, go to School Board News at http://school boardnews.nsba.org.


Talk About It
Our monthly topic worth discussing

States’ budget situation looking up
It’s not exactly cause for celebration, but in the context of the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression and an ever-so-slow recovery, the latest news on state education budgets is -- how do we put this? -- mildly pleasing.

“State budget cuts for elementary and secondary education appear to have bottomed out in many states,” according to a national survey from the Center on Education Policy (CEP) in Washington, D.C., which received responses from 37 state education departments and the District of Columbia.

Eight of the responding states expected budget cuts for fiscal year 2012, down from 17 states that made cuts in FY 2011. Moreover, 20 states anticipated budget increases in FY 2012, up from 14 states with increases in FY 2011.

The $100 billion in federal stimulus money helped reduce the size of those cuts last year, but now that money has been nearly depleted, the report said. Moreover, states still must fulfill four “assurances” attached to the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund grants, the largest of the stimulus fund appropriations. These include: “implementing rigorous standards and aligned assessments, establishing longitudinal data systems to track students’ progress, improving the effectiveness and equitable distribution of educators, and providing interventions to turn around the lowest-performing schools.”

Clearly, any school district truly concerned about raising student achievement already would be pursuing these four objectives -- regardless of whether they were federally required. Still, the CEP report said, the stimulus, formally known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), provided some push -- at least to some states.

“Twenty states indicated that addressing the assurances had accelerated the pace of reform in their state, and 18 said the assurances had broadened the scope of reform,” the report said. “About one-third of the responding states, however, did not feel that ARRA had accelerated or broadened their reforms.”

But 31 of the 34 states responding to a question about the stimulus’ impact on instruction said the grants had saved teaching jobs, 27 said they helped save other jobs, and 25 noted that they helped continue progress on education reform.

The report noted that state money is only part of the fiscal picture, accounting for an average of 48 percent of local district funding. Another 44 percent comes from local sources, and 8 percent comes from the federal government.


YOUR TURN: WE ASK

Have you found new ways to cut costs?
Perhaps the best line from Kenneth T. Henson’s article on how to write effective grant proposals is this gem on Page 30: “Writing grant proposals isn’t like cooking pasta. Just knowing that all the essential parts are mixed up somewhere in there won’t work.”

Rather, Henson says: “Every item must be made crystal clear.” True of grant writing -- and not bad advice for budgeting as a whole. With the economy still struggling, schools are under more financial constraints than ever before. Simply knowing that “all the essential parts are mixed up somewhere in there” may have worked in richer budgeting times, but it isn’t enough anymore. Instead, schools have to learn how to provide the same level of services -- or more -- with less.

As Nathan Levenson puts it in his article on budgeting on Page 26: “Districts need to re-imagine how to educate their students at a permanently lower per-pupil spending level.”

Has your board done any re-imagining lately? Have you found ways to reduce costs? Or are your finances so depleted that there’s precious little left to cut? Whatever the case, please choose a response from below, add your comments, and send your reply to your-turn@asbj.com. We’ll report the results in June.

A. Our district has found many ways to cut costs. (Please elaborate with all answers.)

B. We’ve come up with a few cost-saving measures.

C. We’re already so lean, there’s not much left to cut, regardless of how efficient we are.

D. None of the above.

About the Your Turn survey: These responses represent the views of the ASBJ Reader Panel, a self-selected sample of subscribers, plus other readers who choose to participate by postal mail, e-mail, or online at www.asbj.com. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of American School Board Journal or of its publisher, the National School Boards Association. Join the panel at www.asbj.com/readerpanel.

YOUR TURN: YOU SAY

Follow private charter money
Millions of private dollars are being used to push pro-charter bills in state legislatures, fund charter-friendly candidates, and lobby for school privatization. As school board members, should you let your constituents know about this “money trail”?

Well ... yes, you said.

February’s question, which accompanied Senior Editor Del Stover’s cover package “Money Talks,” received more responses than we’ve seen in years -- and 73 percent of you said school board members should let the public know about the massive private effort behind charters.

“The public absolutely should know about how money has corrupted the debate on charter schools,” said board member Martha Toth of Michigan. “Most are unaware that for-profit organizations get enormous tax breaks to build and lease buildings to charter schools, making profits on a scale hard to duplicate during this economic downturn. ... Most of the public also does not know that people who stand to make a fortune from online software and services are behind the push to allow unlimited Internet-based charter schools. The profit motive is driving both educational research and practice, to the detriment of children.”

Eight percent of responders said public school leaders simply should point out that charter schools perform no better academically (and sometimes do much worse) than regular public schools. Sixteen percent said they should “just concentrate on running a great school system,” and 3 percent marked “none of the above.”

More comments:

• Our public has very little information on charter schools and the efforts being made to expand them throughout the country. Nor do they understand the potential danger they present for the regular public schools ... not the possibility of the expansion into vouchers and tuition tax credits, not the loss of local control and the possibility of increase in local taxes to maintain the quality of local regular schools as state funds are lost. -- Buddy Chain, board president, Mississippi

• It’s important for the public to know all the truth about charter schools, private money, and mediocre performance. Of course, the highlights and publicity should include the research behind the statements. State school board associations could use this research to go to our state legislatures, where so much pressure for charter schools is centered. -- Julia Kennedy Beckman, board member, Illinois

• It is my belief that there are several categories of groups trying to start charter schools: one, very competent people who have a vision and the talent to create and run a well-functioning charter school; two, dedicated, visionary people who dream of a highly effective learning environment but have absolutely none of the skills necessary to create such a financially responsible and effective learning environment; and three, people who realized that there is money to be made from charter schools and tried to figure out how to get the most money, provide the fewest services, pay the highest salaries to the directors and, when the money runs out, go bankrupt. -- Russell French Williams II, Maryland

• We need transparency and accountability brought upon charter schools. Charter schools are re-segregating public schools based upon a student’s family background. Sadly, charters rarely do anything to improve public education. -- Patrick Murphy, chair, Region 7, Massachusetts Association of School Committees

• Public school leaders should absolutely help make the public aware of the large amounts of private money that is being used in the promotion of charter schools. How can we expect citizens to make informed decisions when the media chooses not to inform?  -- Patty Kennedy, board member, Arizona

• I know there are quite a few members who apparently like taking shots at charter schools, but there are also some of us who recognize charter schools are public schools and have actually sponsored charters in our districts or are seriously considering it. Do you want to follow our money too? Maybe we should focus on doing what we are on boards to do and that is set the best policy to help our students succeed. -- Larry W. Grau, board president, Indiana

• Public schools need to have the resources to provide students with the best education possible. Too much money is drained from the public schools for charter schools, especially cyber charter schools. Many charter schools deserve credit for innovation and success, but they should receive their charters from the school district they serve. -- Elaine Jones, board member, Pennsylvania

• As a trustee I want all the information that I can find on the amount of money that is spent on charters and vouchers, as well as the percentages of failing charter schools. The default for all charter schools is the public school. Even the charter schools that are successful have a select population whether they have a lottery or not for admission. I would like to make the amount that is spent on charters and vouchers a local campaign issue, especially if there is not support of increased funding for IDEA or Title 1 or funding that would at least keep us level to where we are now. -- Karen Freeman, board member, Texas

• We need to get out to the public with easy-to-read solid data that charter school students do no better or worse than public school students. Also, we should make very, very clear to the public everything that public schools have taken on since the 1900s, when our major job was to prepare for factory jobs. Every decade more and more has been added to our responsibilities. -- Phyllis T. Albritton, board member, Virginia