November 2012 School Board News

On The Hill
Looming federal cuts could have major impact on district budgets

By Michael A. Resnick

Budget sequestration may not be the most engaging phrase, but as the fall progresses, it will capture the attention and concern of school boards across the nation.

Sequestration is Washington-speak for across-the-board cuts in federal programs that the White House estimates to be 8.2 percent. Currently scheduled to take effect on Jan. 2, 2013, this requirement arose from Congress’ failure to agree on a 10-year plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget in the debt ceiling deal that was struck last year between the White House and Congressional Republicans. Because of the way federal government funds education, school districts will not face midyear cuts for most major grant programs, with the possible exception of Impact Aid. If sequestration occurs, the cuts will affect districts for the 2013-14 school year. But that may not end the immediate problem, because cuts in federal aid to state and local governments that will occur this year could force them to reduce their funding for school districts. And it also could result in their limiting support next year when the 8.2 percent cut in federal aid to school districts takes effect.

Looking purely at federal education programs, an 8.2 percent cut means a district stands to lose $82,000 for every $1 million allocated from Title I (aid for disadvantaged students) and IDEA (aid for students with disabilities) alone. For Title I, sequestration probably will result in direct cuts in schools enrolling the lowest-achieving students.

Since IDEA requires students with disabilities to receive full service for their special needs -- regardless of the federal funding level -- school districts must make up the budget cut by slicing into the general education program. In these tough economic times, that could mean cutting support for core academic programs.

As significant as these cuts are for education, they won’t make even a miniscule dent in reducing the federal deficit. K-12 comprises just 1 percent of the federal budget, so sequestration would reduce federal spending by a meager 8/100ths of 1 percent.

 So, the question comes down to: How much do we value education as a national priority and what is the capacity of districts to absorb the cuts? If our nation truly wants a world-class education system to prepare students for a globally competitive future, can it be achieved by cutting federal programs that can help us get there?

Financial context counts

Context counts when you talk about a district’s ability to absorb current and future cuts. According to the Report of the State Budget Crises Task Force, which was conducted under the leadership of respected economists like former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker and former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin, the state funding outlook to restore education funding to previous levels is likely to be bleak for several years.

State budgets will continue to be under stress due to continuing growth in Medicaid costs (the largest line item), underfunded pension obligations, narrowing revenue bases that are more dependent on volatile state income taxes, the absence of adequate rainy day funds, federal funding cuts, and local government pressure to fund services that diminished local tax bases can no longer sustain. Another recent report, New School Year Brings More Cuts in State Funding for Schools by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, found that per-pupil expenditures are lower in 35 of the 48 states surveyed in the current 2012-13 fiscal year than they were in FY 2008. Of those, 17 -- or more than a third of the states -- were at least 10 percent lower.

Not surprisingly, school districts across the country have increased class sizes, narrowed curriculum offerings, cut professional development for teachers, frozen or reduced employee compensation and benefits, shortened the school year or day, deferred purchases of course materials and building maintenance, and taken other measures. In view of the cuts that have been made and the picture painted by the various reports, further federal funding reductions through sequestration seem hardly the direction for a nation that wants a world-class education system. 

Clearly, applying sequestration to education places a penny-wise, dollar-foolish limit on future economic growth by divesting in an essential requirement for workforce productivity. Following the election, lawmakers should come back to Washington, D.C., and put together a plan that makes strategic decisions to protect budget areas, like education, that are the backbone of our nation’s future infrastructure.

Simply put, Americans spend more than $4 billion a year to fund the legislative branch and should expect Congress to do what school boards do, which is to set budget priorities rather than govern by formula.

Whether Congress actually takes on this responsibility will largely depend on how much pressure incumbents and challengers feel during the campaign season to make the commitment. NSBA is asking school board members to take a look at the impact sequestration will have on your district. Bring that information to the public forum by discussing it at your next board meeting and convey your findings to candidates, the local media, and NSBA. In a few minutes, you and other concerned school board members can provide a significant return for the children in your districts.

For more information on sequestration and how school board members can bring education into the debate, please see the National School Board Action Center at www.nsbac.org. 

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


Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing

California’s parent trigger law
Parents who used the parent trigger law at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., and the district’s school board are back in court again after the school board voted 3 to 1 to reject the charter option the parents chose to replace their failing public school under the state’s landmark 2010 law, and voted to install their own school overhaul plan instead, claiming there was insufficient time to start a charter school this year. The Los Angeles Times blog, L.A. Now, reported that, under the school board’s proposed overhaul plan, the school would be governed by a community advisory board comprised of administrators, teachers, parents, and community members.

Volunteers as substitute teachers
In response to a $2.8 million budgeting error, Idaho’s Nampa School District school board has approved a policy that will allow community volunteers to serve as substitute teachers, once its allocation for substitute teachers has run out. The district is reaching out to retired teachers for volunteer substitutes first, reported Idahopress.com. Other volunteer substitutes must pass background, drug, and reference checks, and sign a contract outlining their duties and required conduct as a substitute. These inexperienced community volunteers will not be required to take an online classroom management training course.

No recess for Syracuse elementary schools
This year’s master schedules for New York’s Syracuse elementary schools have no time blocked out for recess. Except for a 30-minute lunch hour, every minute of the school day is scheduled for instruction. Teachers can opt for student recess, but since it must come at the expense of instructional time, the district’s administration is discouraging recess, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard. The Syracuse City School District prepared the master schedules to make sure teachers are able to meet state requirements for the number of minutes spent on core studies under New York’s new teacher accountability rules.


YOUR TURN: YOU SAY

You are making progress with parents
How are you doing with parents? That was the question we recently asked ASBJ readers, and the vast majority (87.2 percent) said you’re making progress in reaching out, but you’ve got a long way to go.

The good news is that you’re making the effort -- trying to engage parents as well as your community at large -- and 34.6 percent responding to our Your Turn survey said that you’re making a “big effort” to improve communications and get families and community members involved in your schools.

Alas, 7.7 percent said you have “a real problem” with parent involvement.

All comments and results are posted online at www.asbj.com/readerpanel. Here is a sampling:

• It seems that the more we try to involve parents, the fewer responses we’ve been getting. I simply think it’s a matter of time constraints. We try to include parents in surveys and committees. ... Our principals make home visits; we've developed parent academies on pertinent issues facing students. We have also developed on-line parent training. It gets frustrating at times to have so little involvement when so many people think schools turn parents away! -- Karyle Green, superintendent, Indiana

• Parental involvement is key to a successful school district. However, in these economic times, many of our families are striving to survive. The time and effort it takes for them to keep their families going cuts into the time that they would normally have to invest in their child's education and attend school functions. -- Cathy J. Townsend, assistant superintendent, Maryland

• Over the past four years, [our] school district has focused on building partnerships with our neighborhood community groups, local businesses and our parents. ... I am very proud of our positive efforts on building capacity of involvement with our parents, neighbors, and businesses. The payoff has been mutually beneficial to all. -- Tee Lambert, board member, Arizona

• Too often, parents don't know how to get involved and schools do not optimize the way that they can use parents. Schools need to find ways to tap into the individual talents and skills that their parents have. ... We need to be just as innovative in the area of “parental involvement” as we are in other areas of schooling (i.e., technology). -- Amy Hanson, board member, Wisconsin

• With so much budget pressure, organizations can sometimes turn inward, thinking that to be the most efficient approach to getting work done. Less explaining, less management, etc., so they think. ... We'd gotten out of the habit of nurturing parent involvement, but we're on the right track to get it back. -- Jim Butt, board member, Pennsylvania

• We are making a tremendous effort to get parents and the community more involved in the educational process. We realize as a board and administration that parental and community involvement is critical to student success. We are doing this through the encouragement of volunteerism on the campuses, through committee involvement, as liaisons, and other areas where parent and community involvement is critical.

 -- Terrel Nemons, board member, Texas

YOUR TURN: WE ASK

Are you preparing students to be good citizens?

One of the founding principles of American public education was the need to prepare students to be responsible citizens -- to understand public issues, the structure of government, and every citizen’s role in a vibrant democracy.

But lately, the pressure on schools to raise test scores -- which often focus primarily on math, reading, writing, and, sometimes, science -- has pushed civics education to the sidelines. What’s more, the goal of civics education has been overshadowed in the policy debate over 21st century skills and college and career preparedness.

“Students who learn good civic skills are more likely to understand public issues and to vote, and are less susceptible to extreme or irrational views,” Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy writes in this month’s cover story. “They are, in the report’s words, informed and thoughtful. They participate in their communities and act politically.”

How well are your schools preparing students for their adult role as responsible citizens?

As always, choose a response from those listed below, add your comments, and email it to your-turn@asbj.com. We’ll report the results in January.

A. We take seriously the need to prepare the next generation of citizens -- and our curriculum supports that goal.
B. We want to do more, but the need to raise test scores and/or budget cuts has limited our teaching of civics.
C. Everyone in my district talks the talk, but frankly, our students aren’t graduating with the civics knowledge they need.
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, email, 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.