September 2012 School Board News

On The Hill
Polarized Congress leaves education funding in the cold

By Michael A. Resnick

Throughout their August recess, members of Congress were on the campaign trail seeking to convince voters that they should be returned to office on Election Day. For some it’s been a hard sell, especially since Congress has been so polarized in partisan debate that it has few accomplishments to show for itself in critical areas.

Education is one of those areas. Several key measures have been left on the table that must be addressed to support progress in our nation’s schools this year. Waiting until 2013 will do more harm than good.

The first measure, called sequestration, has its origins in the Budget Control Act of 2011, the controversial legislation that raised the debt ceiling. What historically had been routine legislation could only attract the bipartisan votes needed to pass if guarantees were added for big cuts in federal spending, including $1.2 trillion for discretionary programs over 10 years.

The law charged a bipartisan House and Senate “supercommittee” to do the job, but members could not agree on where to make the cuts by the November 2011 deadline. As a result, the law requires that a first round of automatic, across-the-board cuts -- estimated to be about 8 percent -- must take place beginning on Jan. 2, 2013. The cuts’ magnitude puts Congress under pressure to protect specific priorities while finding the right balance between deficit reduction, revenue, and unimpeded economic growth.

If education is not protected, these cuts would slash funding for Title I by $1.2 billion and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act by $900 million. Thanks to a recent administration memorandum, these cuts should not go into effect for these key and other advanced funded programs until the 2013-14 school year. That is good news for district budgets, because the impact of the federal cuts would not be felt when the school year is half over, but it is only delaying a potential problem.

If Congress doesn’t address sequestration until after January, state and local budgeting for next year will be disrupted. Districts also could feel the impact this year if state cutbacks arise from their non-advanced funded programs in other social program areas.

If the goal is to allocate effectively federal dollars to support education, neither the amount of the cuts nor the timing of a delayed resolution of this process makes sense. The impact of sequestration on education can be avoided if members of Congress address the Budget Control Act in September and October before they hit the campaign trail for the Nov. 6 elections. This is not likely, because lawmakers won’t be inclined to expose themselves to a pre-election fight over spending priorities and cuts. Any action more likely would occur in a year-end lame duck session.

School board members are encouraged to talk to their House and Senate members about the harsh impact on educational services and layoffs that sequestration will bring to districts. Congress needs to make the commitment to protect our nation’s schoolchildren from these cuts.

Of course, some members will feel that all programs, including education, should be cut to mitigate the burden that a growing national debt will have on the next generation. However, for our nation to have the wherewithal to pay off that debt, today’s students need an educational foundation to ensure they can succeed in a globally competitive marketplace that is driven by information, technology, and high-level thinking skills.

Cutting the investment by a few billion dollars will have a high-leverage impact on classrooms but is miniscule in scaling back a $4 trillion federal budget. As our nation builds to compete for success, Congress needs to be strategic, not formulaic, in determining where to invest federal revenues.

Meanwhile, legislative action to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) also has been left on the table. The House and Senate committees that oversee education completed their work on bills, but sharp partisan differences have stood in the way of bringing the measures to the floors of either chamber. The last reauthorization, which included the counterproductive provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was signed into law nearly 11 years ago and was due for a badly needed overhaul five years ago.

Despite the deleterious impact that NCLB has had, Congress has let corrective legislation languish year after year. The U.S. Department of Education’s NCLB waiver program will provide high value relief, but it is limited and has new conditions that states and local districts must meet. The longer Congress waits to reauthorize the law, the greater the likelihood that changes it makes in ESEA’s direction, priorities, and accountability will result in confusion and cost to our nation’s schools.

Here again, Congress has abdicated its responsibility to produce the compromises necessary to ensure that national education policy is properly directed, and some members seem content with reporting that it’s unlikely ESEA will be taken up before 2013. Local school officials don’t need status reports; they need their representatives to go to their party’s leadership and underscore the importance of reauthorization and the school board agenda.

While the chances for reauthorization occurring this year have dimmed, we encourage board members to keep up the pressure. Secure hard commitments so that, if we have to wait, reauthorization next year truly will be a reality. School boards need to be advocates now because other interests, which may have contrary views about public education and local governance, are lining up pre-election commitments from incumbents and their challengers.

For more information to address these and other pending issues, please see NSBA’s lobbying guide at www. nsba.org/lobbyingguide2012.

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

NSBA opposes funding for unproven D.C. voucher program
NSBA has asked the House Appr­opriations Committee to eliminate funding for the Washington, D.C., school voucher program, which provides tuition assistance for about 1,600 disadvantaged students from the District of Columbia to attend private or religious schools.

“The program has repeatedly failed to show effectiveness in improving student achievement over the years,” wrote Michael A. Resnick, NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy, in a June letter.

“At the time when Congress is considering cutting billions of dollars from the federal budget, it should not be spending $20 million of taxpayer dollars, or a 35 percent increase from last year’s funding level, for a small number of students to attend private schools.”

The funding is included in the FY 2013 financial services appropriations bill, which was scheduled to be debated by the committee on June 20.

The letter cites four studies by the U.S. Department of Education -- ordered by Congress and conducted in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 -- that found no significant impact on math achievement among students who were in voucher schools compared to their peers in public schools.

NSBA president praises mission of National PTA
NSBA President C. Ed Massey spoke at the National PTA’s annual conference in June in San Jose, Calif., and said he was inspired by the organization’s energy and enthusiasm. In his remarks to the conference’s 1,300 attendees, he asked PTA members to join with school board members and other like-minded educators to help raise student achievement and improve public schools.

Massey praised the National PTA’s motto, “Every child, one voice.”

“Educational associations can take a lesson from this,” Massey said. “By partnering with our sister organizations as one voice, we can make a difference in America’s courts and the halls of Congress.”

Massey represents NSBA on the board of directors of the National PTA.

NSBA: Recent analysis on school nutrition costs is misleading
NSBA supports locally driven programs to provide healthy and nutritious foods in schools and programs to help students, parents, and communities understand the importance of nutrition. It has long been concerned about the costs of new federal mandates created by the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization of 2010. As part of that new law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will propose new standards for competitive foods, which include snacks and drinks sold in school vending machines, stores, and á la carte lines.

Michael A. Resnick commented on the Health Impact Assessment on competitive food standards released on June 26 by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

“The press release and the report itself are misleading. Conclusions that mandatory national standards are affordable and could even generate revenue increases for ‘schools and districts’ pertain only to school food service departments, and the report minimizes or ignores the potential loss of revenue for other school district functions including instruction, or potential increases in costs to students and families.

“The report’s narrow focus on school food service revenue overlooks the impact on revenue from competitive food sales on other school activities such as athletics and field trips. The assessment also ignores the cumulative impact of other provisions of the child nutrition reauthorization -- such as paid meal pricing requirements and the under-funded cost of national standards for subsidized school meals -- that could require schools and districts to increase the prices that students and families must pay for breakfast, lunch and snacks.

“The press release statement that mandatory national standards for all foods sold on the school campus throughout the school day ‘is something that schools and districts can afford,’ and that ‘school budgets’ will benefit, should be retracted, given the limited scope,” Resnick wrote.

Watch Annual Conference speeches on YouTube
Videos of NSBA leaders’ speeches given during NSBA’s 2012 Annual Conference, held April 21-23 in Boston, are now available on NSBA’s YouTube channel.

Mary Broderick, NSBA’s 2011-12 President, detailed a letter to President Obama that she had written during her term, calling for a greater focus on nurturing children’s desires to learn rather than an emphasis on testing.

Speaking at the Second General Session on April 22, Broderick cited examples of federal and state policies stifling children’s motivation and learning through an overemphasis on standards and testing. She called for more focus on motivational research on students, and she also emphasized the need for public education systems to attract and retain good teachers and administrators by giving them flexibility to do their jobs.

Broderick’s letter to President Obama elicited several news stories and hundreds of Twitter tweets.

NSBA President C. Ed Massey also engaged attendees with a speech on adaptive leadership and ways that school boards can position their schools to adapt to a constantly changing world. Rethinking the ways the system has operated can improve students’ learning, and ultimately, the nation’s economy, he said at the Third General Session on April 23.

The NSBA YouTube channel also features speeches by leaders and presenters at previous NSBA conferences.


Q&A with Will Fitzhugh, research paper advocate

Will Fitzhugh is a great believer in the educational power of the high school research paper. In fact, he’s such a fan that he founded The Concord Review in 1987 to publish student research papers and highlight the academic quality of their work.

But his mission is a bit tougher these days. In 2002, he conducted a study of high school history teachers and discovered that, although nearly all of them said a term paper was a good idea, 62 percent never assigned a 12-page paper -- and 27 percent never assigned an eight-page paper.

Page numbers aren’t the only measure of a writing project, but the consensus is that the rigor of high school research papers hasn’t improved over the years. And that means that -- outside of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses -- very few students are tested by this kind of rigorous writing project.

That’s not a good trend, and Fitzhugh champions the idea that school policymakers should bring back the practice of assigning serious research papers to high school students. He encourages schools to adopt his Paper Per Year Plan, which calls on schools to assign research papers that require students to write one page, with one source, for every grade of schooling. Thus, even a first-grader should be writing one-page papers with one source listed.

Recently, Fitzhugh shared his thoughts on the poor showing of high school writing projects with ASBJ Senior Editor Del Stover.

Why should it matter if students are writing lengthy term papers?

Two great things about serious research papers: They ask for a lot of reading, and as a result, the student learns a lot about something. This encourages students to believe that, through their own efforts for the most part, they can learn about other things in the future. In addition, a serious research paper can help them keep out of remedial reading and writing classes at college.

To engage students, some educators are allowing students to communicate through a variety of media. Is this innovative -- or a mistake?

This is a mistake by teachers desperate to pander to student interests instead of requiring them to do the hard work essential to their education. When the Business Roundtable companies spend $3 million-plus each year on remedial writing courses for their employees -- hourly and salaried, current and new -- they do not have them write blogs, read comic books, or enjoy PowerPoint presentations. That would waste their money and the time of students, and it wouldn’t accomplish the remedial writing tasks.

Is the term paper really dead? You’re still publishing term papers in your quarterly, so you must still be seeing teachers -- and students -- who are rising to the highest standards?

The papers I have been getting continue to impress me. I could tell you stories of students who spend months on their submissions to The Concord Review and then send me an Emerson Prize-winning 15,000-word paper. Many of these students are going well beyond the expectations and standards of their schools because they seek to be published. But, as I say, for most students, they are never asked even to try a serious history research paper.

In general, it is safe to say that ALL U.S. public high schools are unlikely to assign rigorous term papers, and the kids suffer accordingly.

What advice can you offer to school board members and administrators as they struggle to raise student skills in reading and writing?

The California State College System reports that 47 percent of their freshmen are in remedial reading courses, and in a survey of college professors by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 90 percent of them said their students are not very well prepared in reading or writing, or in doing research.

So school board members should be aware of how poorly we are preparing our kids in nonfiction reading and academic expository writing -- and they should ask their superintendents what can be done about that.

I’ve argued that, if reading and writing is a serious skill that kids need, then we have to decide if we are willing to invest [in this effort]. Kids are spending three or four hours of time on homework a week and 54 hours on entertainment. It’s not going to kill them to spend four more hours a week on a paper. 


Talk About It
Our monthly topics worth discussing

Americans still support local control
“The Polls -- Trends: Who Should Control Education?,” a new report from Michigan State University published in Public Opinion Quarterly, finds that, despite all the hype and policy revisions to the contrary, Americans still want local control of public schools, especially when it comes to “running schools” (53 percent) and “improving schools” (50 percent). When asked to give school board performance a grade of A, B, C, D, or Fail to denote the quality of the board’s work, nearly half (49 percent) of Americans participating in a 2006 Gallup poll gave school boards a grade of B or higher, up significantly from the 30 percent who gave the same grade 15 years earlier.

Single-sex classrooms
The number of public school districts offering single-sex schools or classes has grown dramatically, from roughly a dozen schools in 2002 to at least 506 schools this past school year, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. Proponents of single-sex education say that differences in brain function make boys’ and girls’ learning paths inherently different, and that children perform best when these differences are leveraged to drive student achievement. Opponents such as Diane Halpern (“The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling,” Science, September 2011) say there is no real evidence of boy/girl differences in brain function, and that single-sex classes and schools merely entrench gender stereotypes in children’s minds. This past May, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a vigorous campaign, “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes,” to end single-sex education programs in America.

The opportunity gap and the American Dream
Harvard University researcher Robert Putnam recently gave a presentation entitled “Requiem for the American Dream?” on the preliminary results of his long-term study of the effects of the opportunity gap between high- and low-socioeconomic status (SES) American children at the Saguaro Seminar in Aspen, Colo. Preliminary results show an increasing investment by upper-SES families in their children’s cognitive and “soft skill” development, and a decrease in such investments by lower-SES families due to deepening economic insecurity, the collapse of the white working-class family, and a frayed “social safety net” in their neighborhoods. Putnam predicts this trend will result in class gaps in social connectedness and trust and lead to a social mobility crash, ending the American Dream. To combat this possibility, Putnam recommends investing in public education, high-quality early childhood education, and community colleges; boosting jobs and wages for the bottom half of the workforce; encouraging stable families; and volunteer mentoring.

States exacerbate difficulties for pregnant and parenting students
Title IX protects the right of pregnant and parenting students to an education, but according to a study from the National Women’s Law Center, A Pregnancy Test for Schools, a majority of states have few if any laws or policies in place to protect these students’ right to education, and actual practices in schools across the nation effectively prevent them from receiving the education they deserve. The report found that challenges facing these students routinely include an environment of discouragement (some schools bar these students from activities), punitive absence policies that will not excuse absences related to pregnancy or later to care for sick children (44 states), alternative schools that function as dropout factories, lack of homebound instruction while transitioning back to school following a birth (more than half of all states), and a lack of child care and transportation (some states do not allow children under 5 to ride school buses).

LAUSD sued by mothers in child sex abuse case
The Los Angeles Unified School District is being sued by 14 mothers whose children were allegedly sexually abused by a former district elementary school teacher, who is being held on a $23 million bond and has been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on children. The mothers seek damages for “generalized shock and trauma” and “compensatory economic and special damages for medical expenses,” which include psychological therapy, according to CNN.


YOUR TURN: WE ASK

How are you doing with parents?
Ask most school board members or administrators if they’d like to see more parental involvement, and their answer certainly would be “yes.” But just how do school districts strengthen their ties with parents and the community? Well, there are countless ways -- and therein lies part of the problem: Parent involvement covers a lot of areas, and some districts are better at some aspects of it (getting parents to help with homework, perhaps) than others (encouraging them to volunteer in a math class or serve on a liaison committee).

What has your district done to increase parent and community involvement, and how successful have you been? What have you learned from this experience?

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

A. Our district is making a big effort to increase parent and community involvement, and here’s how ... (Please elaborate with all answers.)

B. We’ve made some strides in this area, but have a ways to go.

C. We have a real problem with parent involvement.

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

Data-driven boards
In July, we asked how you were using data to improve your school district and raise student achievement. Here are two replies:

• With a new superintendent who is very data driven, we are learning a great deal more about our students. We have gone much deeper into the causes of the achievement gap, including looking at mobility, parent educational attainment, family income, attendance, culturally relevant curriculum, and full scheduling of high school students as well as actual minutes of instruction. This is causing us to look more deeply at our board goals and to better align our budget so that all students can truly be college and career ready. -- Beth Gerot, board member, Oregon

• Our governance team has been using a wide variety of operational, financial, and academic metrics to measure effectiveness, and now we’ve aligned those measures with the goals of our strategic plan. However, challenges certainly remain: Whether we’re asking all the right questions about this data, spending enough time to delve into it fully, and getting the word out to the public on both our progress and the improvements that remain -- all are considerations to which we need to stay attuned. -- Kim Bridges, board member, Virginia