May 2012 School Board News

On the Hill

Stay unified in pushing for ESEA reauthorization now
Michael A. Resnick

The advantages of a unified school board platform around the revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act became apparent after more than 700 local school board members and state association leaders went to Capitol Hill during NSBA’s annual Federal Relations Network (FRN) Conference.

During the Februrary meetings, FRN members explained to lawmakers how further delay in renewing the law, last reauthorized in 2001 in the form of the badly flawed No Child Left behind Act (NCLB), would result in more educational dysfunction and unnecessary cost -- even with the Department of Education’s waiver program. FRN members presented a unified platform that focused on effective strategies for raising student achievement with less federal intrusion and enhanced state and local decision-making.

Three weeks later, with meetings with their school board members in mind, the House committee that oversees education legislation marked-up its reauthorization bill so it can be scheduled for floor action by the full House. The House committee’s action followed the Senate education committee, which marked-up its bill last October but unfortunately has yet to release it for floor action.

But the continued progress of the legislation faces partisan political barriers that will require strong external pressure from the education community to overcome them -- especially as the election year unfolds.

The House committee bill was supported only by the Republican majority because it removed many federal requirements, including those that Democrats believe are necessary to achieve their federal equity goals. House leaders are aiming to attract floor support from enough Democrats to have a bipartisan bill and to offset any potential loss of their Republican majority vote. This is critical if Tea Party members feel inclined to vote against any Department of Education program -- even one that vastly reduces the federal presence compared to current law.

The Democrat-controlled Senate committee produced a bill that tracks the conditions in the department’s NCLB relief program, which grants states waivers from some of law’s most onerous requirements while adding new conditions that meet President Obama’s and Secretary Duncan’s agenda for reforming aspects of the educational delivery system. To attract Republican support, committee Democrats agreed to several amendments to soften the federal role, but GOP senators said they will seek further amendments should the bill reach the Senate floor -- where a super-majority of 60 votes is needed to pass legislation.

In many respects, the House and Senate bills establish the same framework for addressing academic achievement through rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability, as well as focused strategies for the recruiting, developing, evaluating, and rewarding effective teachers. Where the bills differ -- and where the political parties currently differ -- is in the level of detail and requirements that they feel are appropriate and necessary for the federal government to ensure state and local districts will meet ESEA’s educational and equity goals.

Ultimately, as always in major federal education legislation, the final bill will be written in a conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate passed bills.

Ideally, lawmakers will see past partisan differences and schedule the bills for floor action as soon as possible, with enough compromises so passage can occur early enough to give the conference committee time to write the final legislation before it is overtaken by the election year calendar.

Some members of Congress will cite the political difficulty in getting the job done. The education community needs to show them what the negative impact will be in our nation’s schools.

The NCLB waiver program should not be a rationale for Congress to delay reauthorization for several reasons. First, the Department of Education should not unilaterally establish federal education policy without Congress, which was elected to represent the voters’ interest. Further, the requirements in the waiver program are not perfect and are likely to be changed when legislation is enacted.

Districts in states that received waivers should not be forced to unnecessarily implement policies and commit funds in 2012-13 if a delayed reauthorization removes those requirements or sets policies that go in a different direction. In states that don’t receive waivers, further delay means that local districts will face yet another year or two of the increasing burden of the flawed provisions in the current law.

School board members should make it clear to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle that delaying reauthorization until next year is not worth the price that will be paid in our nation’s classrooms, especially since the election outcome is unpredictable as is what any new Congress may do. Betting on a better political climate next year for either side is never a sure thing for either party or public education. The better bet is for Congress to improve its abysmal do-nothing 11 percent approval rating by serving the public interest and passing the ESEA reauthorization bill this year.

Both the House and Senate bills are vast improvements over the current situation -- although both have serious drawbacks that NSBA will fight to remedy on the floor and in the final conference committee. NSBA encourages school board members to communicate the urgent need to move this legislation forward for floor action in the coming weeks so the stage can be set for passing a law that will provide public education with effective and stable policies for improving student outcomes.

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

New CPE report examines high school rigor
Advanced Placement courses, a rigorous math curriculum, dual high school-college enrollment, and early college programs can all increase the rigor of America’s secondary schools, according to Is High School Tough Enough?, a new report by NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE).

While the report noted that more in-depth research is needed, it said that school boards interested in applying these four strategies need to consider issues such as funding, data collection, and increasing access for low-income and minority students.

“In today’s education landscape, many are beginning to rethink the high school experience,” said Patte Barth, director of CPE. “From Advanced Placement courses to dual enrollment, early college high schools, and even high-level math, the aim is to expose students to concepts, curricula, and ideas that will help them succeed in college or lead to a productive career.”

Barth said this emphasis is reflected in many policy trends, including an increasing “Pre-K-16” perspective as well as the recently developed Common Core State Standards in math and language arts, which most states have adopted in order to help produce college-ready and career-ready high school graduates.

Still, there is wide variation in secondary school rigor across the country, the report noted. It said that -- while the term “rigor” is not easily defined -- “many low-income schools lack access to a rigorous high school curriculum by any definition.” For example, according to a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), 3,000 high schools serving nearly 500,000 students offer no classes in algebra II, a gateway to higher math, college, and career readiness.

Who are the ‘20 to Watch’?

NSBA’s Technology Leadership Network (TLN) has named its “20 to Watch” honors for 2011-2012. These education leaders from across the country are being recognized for promoting the incorporation of innovative technology into high-quality classroom learning and school district operations.

“The ‘20 to Watch’ honorees are role models to advance student achievement with the use of technology in education,” said Ann Flynn, NSBA’s director of education technology. “Their accomplishments provide real- world examples for school leaders and board members to examine as they debate the best electronic tools and strategies to positively impact learning and address the growing digital divide.”

The “20 to Watch” program was established in 2006. This year’s honorees will be recognized at a TLN-hosted luncheon at NSBA’s 2012 Annual Conference in Boston. They also will be showcased in future NSBA education technology publications. For the complete list of winners, go to School Board News at http://schoolboardnews.nsba.org/2012/02/nsbas-20-to-watch-announced.

House committee approves two ESEA bills favoring local control

The U.S. House of Representatives’ Education and the Workforce Committee approved two bills to reauthorize portions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The committee approved each of the measures on a 23-16 party-line vote, with Republicans in favor, on Feb. 28.

NSBA supported the measures, which would give school districts much more flexibility in meeting accountability guidelines. The first, the Student Success Act, would end the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements for subgroups of students and give states authority to build their own accountability systems.

The second bill would require states and districts to create teacher evaluation systems, and would give block grants to states and districts in lieu of several smaller education programs.


Q&A with Soledad O’Brien

An award-winning broadcast journalist and long-time CNN correspondent, Soledad O’Brien has made a name for herself through hard-hitting documentaries and deeply personal memoirs that touch on some of the most important issues and events of our time. Whether it is the state of education, race relations, or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, O’Brien is a master storyteller who shows viewers how many of these disparate issues intersect.

One of six children born to immigrant parents -- her father is of Irish descent from Australia and her mother is Afro-Cuban -- O’Brien grew up with a strong work ethic and love of learning.

O’Brien is a general speaker at NSBA’s 2012 Annual Conference in Boston. Between filming segments and covering breaking news, O’Brien took time out of her busy schedule to speak with ASBJ Senior Editor Naomi Dillon.

What was one of the most memorable interviews you ever had?

That’s such a tough question. In some ways, it was Jim Carrey when I was on the “Today Show.” We had this big picture window behind the set and he would talk to the people at the window who came to watch. It was fun, he was hilarious, and I got to play the straight man. And then, a lot of our reporting during Hurricane Katrina was really important because we were educating the nation about what was happening. We were really letting people at the highest levels [of government] see what was happening on the ground in New Orleans. I’ve had such a long career now, I’ve had some really great opportunities to really do important stories and then just silly, crazy, ridiculous fun stories.

What do you like the most about your job?

It’s the opportunity to really understand in-depth someone’s life and their experiences. I love that. I love sort of dipping in and trying to really understand their motivation, why they did what they did? What happened? I’m always really fascinated by motivation.

Let’s talk about race. It’s played a prominent role in your life.

It was very formative to my childhood. I grew up as a black girl in an all-white community in Long Island. Luckily I had a big family. We all supported each other and I had friends. But every so often you’re made to feel like “Oh, you’re not one of us.” And then certainly when it came to work in terms of the stories that I ended up telling in the documentaries, I like having the opportunity to tell stories about people who are different ... and maybe it all comes back to motivation. What goes into making people who they are? Sometimes that’s race, sometimes that’s how they were raised, sometimes that’s values.

Census figures show we are becoming an increasingly multiracial society and we have a sitting president who is multiracial. How do you think this blending of cultures is changing the dialogue on race?

It’s more in the forefront. It also makes you have to have conversations that are much more real. We’re not foreigners in a foreign land. We’re the people you run into every day.

Tell us about your documentary “Don’t Fail Me: Education in America.”

Oh, I love that documentary. It was about a bunch of kids from different parts of the country who were trying to compete in a robotics competition. But ultimately it was about the quality of education in the United States today. And we were able to tackle both of those things, since we had an hour, and see what makes a good education. What parts the country have access to that, what are the different rules, and how does each community have a different standard that applies? And even what culturally are some of the challenges for students?

What did you discover from doing that project?

In every documentary, the lessons are always what we want it to be. If we decide we’re going to invest in education, then here’s a great opportunity. Using robotics to teach kids math and science is very practical, and we saw it was successful. On the other hand, we also saw that having different standards across the country is a real challenge.

To take the title from your most recent book, what’s the next big story?

The election is a big story, and, of course, with the election, many questions will be asked about how does the country invest in education. But for me the next big story is about what’s breaking now. So it depends. Tomorrow when something happens, I’ll be on a plane to go cover it. That’s what I love about my job. 


Talk About It
Our monthly topic worth discussing

Teacher job satisfaction low
Teacher job satisfaction has dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years, with just 44 percent of teachers saying they are “very satisfied” with their jobs, according to the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Teachers, Parents and the Economy. That percentage, determined last fall, represents a 15-point point drop from 2009, when 59 percent said they were “very satisfied.”

In addition, the number of teachers who say they are “very likely” or “fairly likely” to leave the profession has increased by 12 points in two years, from 17 percent in 2009 to 29 percent.

These numbers come amid a continuing economic downturn that has resulted in extensive layoffs of teachers and other school staff. According to the survey, 66 percent of teachers said their district had laid off teachers or other staff during the past year. And six out of 10 teachers reported that class sizes had increased.

Teachers with lower job satisfaction were more likely to work at schools where there have been teacher layoffs, reductions in other school staff, and cuts to (or elimination of) arts and music programs, after-school programs, or health and social services.

MetLife and its colleagues interviewed 1,001 public school teachers last fall for its 28th survey. Online surveys were conducted with students and parents.

On the positive side, the report said the level of community engagement had increased, although it remains a problem at many schools. The number of students who report that their parents visited the school at least once a month increased from 16 percent in 1988 to 46 percent in 2011.

Also, 64 percent of students said they talk to their parents about school every day, up from 40 percent in 1988.

Discipline rates high among black students
Black students are disciplined far more harshly than other students in public schools, according to the updated Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), which was released in March by the U.S. Department of Education.

About 85 percent of the nation’s students were surveyed during the 2009-10 school year. Black students comprised just 18 percent of the total, but they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, and 39 percent of expulsions, according to an account in the New York Times.

The data for some of the nation’s largest school systems was striking. For example, black students make up 9 percent of the enrollment of the Los Angeles Unified School District but account for 26 percent of the suspensions. In the New York City Public Schools, blacks make up 30 percent of the enrollment but 46 percent of suspensions.

The report also covered discrepancies in academic areas, such as teacher assignment and curricular rigor (See NSBA roundup).

“Education is the civil rights of our generation,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. “The undeniable truth is that the everyday education experience for too many students of color violates the principal of equity at the heart of the American promise.”

In an editorial, the Times said the data shows that schools should take another look at zero-tolerance policies. Such policies can severely limit the options of school administrators when dealing with disciplinary problems.

“The federal disciplinary data echoes a major study in Texas last year that showed racial disparities in school discipline,” the editorial said. “Both surveys offer grim evidence that states and local districts must revisit ‘zero tolerance’ policies, which are too common in schools and often cover a broad range of misbehaviors.”

The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, commended the Education Department for releasing the information and, especially, for including more information on school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement agencies. However, it said the CRDC should go into more detail on such issues as the causes of school-based arrests and the quality of education in youth detention facilities, including those that states subcontract to other operators.

“States often subcontract the care of youth held in detention, so limiting the data to ‘state-operated’ facilities means that the educational outcomes of literally thousands of incarcerated youth are lost,” the Civil Rights Project said in a letter to Duncan.

The group also said that schools can play a leading role in reducing the numbers of suspensions and expulsions.

“A great deal can be accomplished through earlier interventions, support and training for teachers and leaders, and system-wide approaches that are proven effective at promoting positive behavior,” the letter said. “Toward these ends, the disciplinary data collected in the CRDC is invaluable to parents, educators, and policymakers who seek to improve both student behavior and achievement using methods that help to keep struggling students in school.” 


YOUR TURN: WE ASK

How do you protect against fraud and waste?
When it comes to guarding against waste and fraud, school boards, in many cases, “are in over their heads,” says New Mexico state auditor Hector Balderas in Senior Editor Naomi Dillon’s story in this month’s issue: “Avoiding a Scandal.”

And in the case of the Skiatook Public Schools, whose story Dillon tells on page 30, we’re talking way over their heads. Her account reads like a detective novel as, little by little, certified public accountant Jay Jenkins comes to realize that all is not right -- indeed, a lot is not right -- with the small Oklahoma district.

Unfortunately, Skiatook isn’t alone. It turns out that school districts, big and small, are highly susceptible to financial irregularities -- even when their board members think they’re doing everything right. Big districts are highly decentralized, with cash transactions happening in multiple locations and, thus, difficult to monitor. And small districts often don’t have the staff to separate key fiduciary functions, opening themselves up to possible fraud.

Has your district examined its auditing processes recently? Are there new safeguards that you’ve put in place? As always, choose an answer from those listed below, add your comments, and e-mail it to your-turn@sba.org. We’ll report the results in July.

A. Yes, our district has recently reviewed its auditing procedures, and here’s what we’ve found. (Please elaborate with all answers.)

B. We’ve done some analysis of our procedures, but could do more.

C. We haven’t revisited our auditing process recently.

D. None of the above.

YOUR TURN: YOU SAY

‘Big Money’ is already here
Sixty-two percent of you say that “Big Money” is either coming to your school board elections or is already here -- and it’s not a good thing.

“Having moved our school elections to November, there is a very real danger they will become even more politicized and the election of school board members will be completely buried in the blizzard of general election mailers, robo-calls, campaign signs, etc.,” wrote Gary Johnson, a board member from New Jersey. “A larger turnout does not mean a greater interest.”

Seventeen percent say the new attention to school board elections is a positive sign, 10 percent said it won’t have any impact one way or the other, and 12 percent marked “none of the above.”

More comments:

• A majority of the board was up for election last November in the district adjoining mine, and this opportunity to take control in one move was apparently too good to resist. For the first time, a political party endorsed a slate and helped them to raise thousands of dollars apiece. A local club from another party donated a few hundred dollars to one of the other candidates. In all, some $30,000 was spent by candidate committees in this 17,000-student district. Soon, this will be replicated all over Michigan, as the legislature has inexplicably dictated that school board elections can only be held in even years. This means the majority can turn over at every other election. Neither the intrusion of partisanship nor the instability of such rapid turnovers is good for our schools. -- Martha Toth, board member, Michigan

• Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who already has three automatic appointments to the state-level school board, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence the outcomes of the popular elections of other board members. This “captive” board already has begun the process of starving local public schools of state funds while pushing vouchers and charter school options, which will divert thousands of children into private or parochial schools, where no accountability exists, spending is totally opaque, and there are no known standards for teacher qualifications. -- Russell Wise, board member, Louisiana

• As school board president, I attempted to keep order at our meetings when a Tea Party member decided to rant at the end of public participation every meeting. She would insist on speaking on issues not related to school board business and make accusations and personal comments geared towards stirring up the crowd and attacking board members. I enforced policies set in place on public participation and did not allow her grandstanding. When I ran for re-election, she contacted a Republican Committee chairperson (not in our district) and he sent letters out (in our district) as representing the Republican Party to vote me out. The “sheep” who do not know the candidates followed the Republican name and I was not re-elected. -- Jayne Mummert, former board member, Ohio