January 2012 School Board News

On The Hill
Navigating the three-ring budget circus

By Michael A. Resnick

Over the next few months school boards will develop budgets that will define their district’s education program for 2012-13. For some, state and local revenues will continue to decline while any increases for others will be modest and certainly not at the level they were at prior to the 2008 downturn.

Further, any state and local revenue increases may be more than offset as more than $100 billion in federal funding from the 2009 stimulus and the 2010 Education Jobs funds runs out. Against this backdrop, school boards have an even more compelling case to make for education funding to their constituents, state lawmakers, and members of Congress.

In terms of federal funding, knowing the process and when to act is essential. And education funding will be caught up in the larger partisan debate on federal deficit reduction, which will play out as an election year three-ring circus.

The regular FY 2012 appropriations bill sits in ring number one. Primarily by providing another $700 million in Race to the Top funding, the Senate Appropriations Committee decided to generally go along with the Obama administration’s budget request to continue competitive grant funding for states that have the best plans to meet the U.S. Department of Education’s reform agenda.

At press time, the House subcommittee has not acted, but the chair is not seeking to place more discretion in the department’s hands through additional funding for programs like Race to the Top. Rather, he has proposed a sizeable increase of $1 billion each for Title I (education aid to support schools in low income areas) and IDEA (aid to support students with disabilities).

NSBA favors the House proposal because, in an era of shrinking budgets, the Title I and IDEA mandates should be funded before select projects or programs that reward states and districts with greater grant writing capacity. However, neither the House nor Senate bill likely will move forward in the coming weeks.

How much Congress ultimately provides to education and which programs are funded will be significantly influenced by constituents telling members what’s most important. Even then there’s no guarantee that an appropriations bill will be enacted since education funding is provided through a larger measure that includes labor, health, and social service programs, some of which involve political controversy.

That takes us to ring number two, which provides temporary funding when regular appropriation bills become stalled. Since the fiscal year began Oct. 1, without the education and other appropriation bills enacted, Congress has had to resort to adopting a continuing resolution (CR) to fund programs at the previous year’s levels until the regular appropriations bill is enacted -- if at all. Continuing resolutions don’t produce increases, and the most recent CR (which expired Dec. 16) actually contained a 1.5 percent cut to major education programs.

Fortunately, since virtually all federal education programs are funded for the following school year, these cuts will not become effective for 2012-13 unless they are contained in a CR that runs to the end of this fiscal year, or are included in the appropriations bill that ultimately is enacted. So while the cuts are presently symbolic, they open a door and send a message. At $329 million, lawmakers need to know the cuts will have an invisible impact on the deficit, but would be felt in too many classrooms.

Clearly, obtaining a regular appropriation bill is preferable to a CR, but both require ongoing board advocacy to protect the federal investment in education in 2012-13. And what about the future?

Enter now the third ring, which involves the Congressional charge in last August’s Budget Control Act, which aims to find a long-term path toward deficit reduction. The action, or more precisely inaction, of the so-called Supercommittee did not find a formula to cut $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Unless some other agreement is reached, half of those cuts will automatically come from defense and the rest from domestic programs, like education, starting Jan. 1, 2013.

It’s impossible to predict the outcome, but the process will involve vocal interests that want to raise or lower taxes, increase or cut defense spending, and/or focus cuts on some domestic programs while sparing or increasing the investment of others.

Despite such an insignificant short-term impact that increasing federal education funding will have on the deficit and education’s obvious long-term economic benefit, America’s school children will not get the financial support to adequately prepare them for a globally competitive workforce unless credible advocates, like school boards, make their voices heard.

School board members need to respond to NSBA’s calls to action as developments arise in all three rings of the funding circus. Meanwhile, your lawmakers are home now and looking for local guidance as the election year begins. More than 800 school board members and state association leaders will meet Feb. 5-7 for NSBA’s Federal Relations Network in Washington D.C., where they also will visit their representatives and voice a unified agenda on Capitol Hill in support of public education.

2012 promises to be a watershed year for federal funding of our nation’s schools. So as you make hard choices in developing your budgets, advocating for increased federal funding will produce a much-needed return on your investment of time and effort.

For more information on NSBA’s advocacy program and the Federal Relations Network meeting, 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

Early childhood research analysis shows best ways to configure pre-k

Full-day kindergarten and half-day preschool both lead to significant academic gains -- the research consistently bears this out. Put together, these programs offer students the best chance to achieve at high levels.

But what if your district can’t afford that combination yet still wants to provide a rich learning experience for young children? Would it be better, in terms of later reading proficiency, if your students got a half day of preschool and only a half day of kindergarten, or full-day kindergarten alone?

In a report released in November, Starting Out Right: Pre-K and Kindergarten, NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE) looked at both options and concluded that the half-and-half approach -- half-day pre-k plus half-day kindergarten -- is more effective in boosting reading scores at the third-grade level.

CPE’s conclusion is more than academic. It has practical implications in these tough economic times, when school boards are faced with difficult choices about which program to cut, and which to maintain or expand. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, state funding for pre-k declined in 2010 for the first time in nearly a decade, leaving school districts to pay more of the cost. But the report suggests that cutting half-day preschool would be a mistake.

A copy of the report is available at www.centerforpubliceducation.org.

NSBA seeks high court input on Internet speech

Can a school district discipline a student who posts lewd or vicious material online about another student or a school employee -- or is that posting protected as “off-campus” speech?

That’s a question NSBA, the American Association of School Administrators, and six other organizations are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to answer following a pair of appellate court decisions in favor of two Pennsylvania students.

In a brief filed recently, NSBA and the other groups say that, in order to further their educational mission, “schools need authority to regulate student speech that originates off campus.”

NSBA and the other groups argued that the expanding use of social networking and other forms of online communication have led to “a stunning increase in harmful student expression that school administrators are forced to address with no clear guiding jurisprudence.”

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

Schools and families

A publication by NSBA’s School Health Programs, which was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, aims to cultivate the relationship between schools and families, with an eye toward nurturing healthy students and a healthy school environment.

“Families as Partners: Fostering Family Engagement for Healthy and Successful Students” provides an overview of this critical component of student and school success and offers guidance, strategies, and resources for developing and implementing effective family engagement policies and practices.

Family engagement in schools has been shown to reduce risky behaviors and improve academic achievement and attitudes about school among students. Building connections around school and children’s health issues not only serves as a less intimidating entry point for families, but can reap multiple benefits.

Q & A with Khan Academy’s Sal Khan

It began innocently enough in 2004 as a way for Sal Khan to tutor his young cousin, who was struggling with math and lived miles away. Within two years, those virtual lessons blossomed into a full-time career and the Khan Academy, an online library of 2,600 YouTube videos -- and counting -- that currently draws more than 3 million viewers a month and fans like Google and Bill Gates, who sends his own kids to the free site for help with schoolwork.

Covering mostly math and science, Khan’s low-key, straightforward, and concise approach to brain-jarring concepts like quadratic equations and the phases of mitosis have taken the education community and students by storm. Think Bob Ross, without the camera shot ever leaving the canvas.

Khan, who will be a general session speaker at NSBA’s 2012 Annual Conference in Boston in April, carved time out of his busy schedule to talk to ASBJ Senior Editor Naomi Dillon about his journey toward “helping people learn what they want, when they want, at their own pace.”

So you’re an educator to the masses. Would you say that’s an accurate description?

Different people have different views on what an education is, and we don’t pretend that just experiencing on-demand video by itself is the panacea to solving education’s problems. But what we think we’re giving, at minimum, is an alternate way to tackle the material. If students missed a day at school, if their mind wasn’t engaged when it was happening in class, if they need to remediate things from previous years, they’re definitely getting that. And I actually don’t think that should be understated, because frankly the reason why some students have trouble progressing is because they have gaps in their basic knowledge.

Few people realize how difficult it is to transfer knowledge from one person to the next. Did that come naturally to you?

I wouldn’t want to pretend by me recording these videos that I’m doing everything that a teacher does. I once volunteered teaching seventh-graders when I was in Boston. It didn’t take long for the classroom management to go through the door. I did not know what I was doing in terms of being able to handle 30 kids. But the part about explaining concepts, that is something I am into, and that’s hopefully the value I’m bringing. There’s a methodology to learning, and my videos are about sharing that methodology with other people: “Let’s think this through; let’s do what seems logical; let’s try to find the pattern between things; and let’s do it in a conversational way.” You should feel like it’s a story, even if it’s a math problem.

Where did this drive and appreciation for learning and education come from?

I actually think it’s a human instinct to love to learn and understand the world. What’s happened for most people is they become frustrated with one topic or another, or have a bad experience along their education, and they kind of fall off and start to believe that they don’t like learning. When really, they just don’t like being frustrated, they just don’t like being talked down to, and they don’t like when the information is going past them.

Explain why we don’t see you in your videos -- just a black screen and a drawing tool with a multiple array of colors, a whole setup you call “The Forum Factor.”

When I decided to make the first videos, I didn’t have any production equipment or a background in video production. I just got a cheap $20 head-set to record my voice, used screen capture software, and just started using Microsoft Paint. My cousins liked it. Other people gave good feedback. And now, although we have the ability to do more, we realize that [this way] is not only easier to produce, but it focuses on the content. It’s more intimate. It feels like we’re sitting next to each other as opposed to me at a white board talking to you.

Your videos are known for being brief and concise, lasting no more than 10 minutes. How do you know how much material to cover and when to stop?

I have found with most concepts [that] 10 minutes is actually about enough time. You can get about two or three pretty decent concepts across in that time. If it requires more complex development, I will say, “Hey, let’s just take a break,” and I’ll just resume it in the next video.

Besides the actual lesson, what do you want the viewers to take away from the videos and the exercises on the Khan Academy website?

What we’re hoping to do is give students a genuine love for learning, and frankly, I hope I can make students see what I see: a world that’s fascinating, a world that’s full of mysteries to be solved. 


Free lunch?

When writing about public schools, we often use the percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch as an indicator of a district’s poverty level. It’s a useful snapshot but, as Senior Editor Naomi Dillon says in this month’s cover story (Page 10), it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Recession and its aftermath have caused an upsurge in poverty in this country. One analysis cited by Dillon showed that one in five Americans faces “food hardship.” Likewise, the percentage of children receiving federally subsidized lunches has also grown dramatically; yet, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program only reached 80 percent of eligible children last year.

Has your district’s free and reduced-price lunch numbers increased? If so, by how much? And how are you trying to reach out to families so that more eligible children will participate? As always, choose a response from those listed below, add your comments, and send it to your-turn@nsba.org. We’ll report the results in March.

A. Our district has seen a big increase in the number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch.

B. We’ve seen a relatively small increase in participation.

C. Our district’s subsidized lunch numbers have remained relatively constant.

D. Our free and reduced-price lunch numbers have declined.


Public has a mixed opinion of school boards

What does the public think of America’s school boards? In general, writes Texas Superintendent Paul Vranish, school boards and school board members “are truly wonderful and essential to the high performance of a school district.”

So there you have it: You’re great, we love you, and we appreciate the fine work you’re doing on behalf of ... What’s that? Vranish wasn’t finished? Something about many boards being “tainted by a small minority of rotten colleagues?” This is getting more complicated.

Indeed, as your comments suggest, the effectiveness of school boards -- and the public’s opinion of a particular board’s effectiveness -- can vary widely based on a variety of local, state, and national factors. In our poll, 67 percent of you said the public has a mixed impression of school boards, 20 percent said it has a negative view, and 13 percent said its opinion is decidedly negative.

More comments:

• The public views its school boards the same way it views its public schools. In my community, people believe the public schools (and school boards) are doing well. But those same people believe that nationally, public schools (and school boards) are not doing so well.

 -- Dawn Robinson, board member, Tennessee

• We must be extra-determined to be civil and respectful, to not pander by making promises that cannot be kept, and to refrain from scoring cheap political points by savaging one another at the board table. The public would be much more supportive (and more easily resigned to not getting everything they want for their children) if we presented a more united front. We are all in this together, so we should act like it.

 -- Martha Toth, board member, Michigan

• Impressions will generally be positive when the public has confidence that its board is always striving for improvement in operations and student achievement. This takes hard-working members committed to transparency, accountability, effective governance practices, informed decision-making, and continual communication. Satisfaction erodes, however, when boards lose focus on any of these elements or when external forces -- like political agendas or media coverage that lacks context, accuracy, or adequate information -- distort a multidimensional picture. School boards rarely face issues where solutions are simple, resources plentiful, or outcomes direct and immediate. But buy-in will be stronger and impressions better if we’re continually sharing the complexities and challenges and engaging the public in our actions.

 -- Kim Bridges, board member, Virginia