July/August 2013 School Board News

On the Hill
ESEA on the move

By Michael A. Resnick

In recent weeks, the House and Senate committees that oversee education completed action on their vastly different bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

Although these bills move in the same direction by supporting rigorous academic standards and well-aligned assessments and a strong focus on improving teaching, they differ in how those goals will be achieved. Much of that difference is rooted in the opposite philosophies that the political parties in charge in the House and Senate take toward the federal role in education.

The Senate bill presents a significantly centralized approach to the federal role. At 1,150 pages, it is twice the length of the House bill, with many of the added pages reflecting its top-down philosophy. Although the bill does resolve a number of problems dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), it adds substantial federal requirements for how school districts must design and run federal programs and collect and report data. In retaining several positive features of NCLB, the bill also would build into law the requirements of the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program and the conditions that states and school districts had to meet in order to receive waivers from certain provisions of NCLB.

In characterizing the Senate bill, committee chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) felt that his bill was a partnership among three levels of government that was commensurate with the level of federal funding being provided. On the other hand, ranking committee member Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) viewed the legislation as creating a national school board requiring states and local communities to ask “May I?” in order to carry out basic functions.

The Senate bill does contain a number of positive elements, such as its focus on early education and professional development of teachers and principals. However, taking together the many burdensome and overwhelming requirements in the bill, NSBA did not support its passage out of committee. Rather, we urged that the legislation be reworked and brought back for consideration as soon as possible.

By contrast, the underlying theme of the House bill is that states and school districts can not only be trusted, but will do a better job than the federal level in designing accountability goals and measures, school improvement interventions, and to develop home-grown approaches to ensure that the programs contained in the bill are matched to local conditions.

The House bill does have some serious drawbacks, particularly in the area of funding. First, it removes the so-called Maintenance of Effort provision that requires states to provide at least the same level of funding for K-12 education from the previous year as a condition for receiving federal funds. In other words, states would no longer have a disincentive to cut funding levels for public education in favor of other state funded programs. Second, it freezes for six years the maximum funding level for ESEA programs. Hence, rather than enabling the federal education priority to grow, these caps would actually result in service levels going down as costs rise.

While the Senate bill needed too much work to earn NSBA’s support, we supported moving the House bill out of committee with the expectation that we will succeed in the fight on funding as the bill moves forward.

In both committees, the sharp philosophical differences between the political parties resulted in only Democrats voting for the Senate bill and only Republicans voting for the House bill. So, what are the chances of the legislation clearing the floors of both chambers?

In the House, where action could occur as early as July, the Republicans have the votes to muster the simple majority needed to pass the bill. The problem is that a significant number of Tea Party conservatives could decide to vote against the bill for its federal involvement in education, even though it would very substantially reduce that involvement from its current level. On the other hand, the kind of compromises needed to win support from Democrats would be unlikely to occur. This does not mean that the bill won’t move forward, only that it will have to clear a hurdle.

Likewise, in the Senate, although the Democrats have a simple majority, the Republicans can filibuster the legislation if certain accommodations aren’t made to them to win the additional votes needed from their side to allow the bill to move forward. This hurdle can also be overcome in the give and take of the legislative process. At this point, floor action isn’t likely to occur until after the August recess.

Following passage in both chambers, the legislation will be written in a conference committee consisting of House and Senate members to iron out the different approaches the bills take to the federal role.

Where does all of this leave NSBA and local school board advocacy? First, because of partisan gridlock in recent years, national education policy has been set solely by the Department of Education. Given the problems school districts have encountered with an unchecked agency that has overreached its role, legislation must be pursued as the department is otherwise likely to continue to expand its role. Second, because there are significant differences between these bills, school boards can’t afford to sit on the sidelines since the legislation would be in place for six years or probably longer before it is revisited. It would also lay the foundation for other legislation in education. In other words, this legislation is for keeps.

Local school boards can make a difference in moving these bills through the House and Senate floors and effectively making sure their lawmakers vote correctly on key amendments as well as final passage to move the legislation into a conference committee. See what you can do to move favorable legislation and NSBA’s House and Senate letters at www.nsba.org/ advocacy.

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy. 

NSBA Brief

NSBA asks U.S. Department of Education to clarify guidance on students with disabilities and school sports

NSBA has asked the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to better explain its guidance issued through a letter earlier this year that details new requirements for students with disabilities’ participation in school sports.

A letter from NSBA urges OCR to reach out to school boards and educators before issuing wide-reaching guidance that can be construed as statements of agency policy. Among other things, NSBA is concerned that the OCR’s guidance could cause uncertainty in the courts and invite misguided litigation against school districts.

NSBA asks OCR to clarify several areas in the “Dear Colleague” letter that suggest the agency is taking a more expansive view of it authority to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, including its guidance on individual student assessments for sports. NSBA also urges OCR to clarify that it is not adding new requirements nor establishing a new enforcement standard.

“School boards are committed to safely accommodating students with disabilities in athletic programs,” said NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. “We encourage the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to work with us to find mutually workable, realistic, and practical solutions to implement existing laws.”

OCR is expected to respond to NSBA’s concerns in coming months.

For more information about how to handle the current OCR guidance for the athletic participation of students with disabilities, see this month’s law column.

Q&A with Jeff B. Mills of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association

Tornados are a fact of life in Oklahoma. That’s especially true in the central and western portions of the state, which form part of a five-state region dubbed “Tornado Alley.” Shaped, fittingly, like a cylinder, it stretches north from Texas to South Dakota and is the area of the country where tornados are among the most numerous and severe.

The town of Moore, south of Oklahoma City, is in the heart of Tornado Alley. Its residents are familiar with the storms and the damage they can cause. But nothing could prepare residents for two major tornados that hit the town within 14 years. The May 3, 1999, tornado killed 36 people. In mid-afternoon on Monday, May 20, 2013, another tornado killed 24 people and destroyed 13,000 structures, including the district headquarters of the Moore Public Schools and two of its elementary school buildings. At Plaza Towers Elementary School, where teachers herded students into hallways and bathrooms, seven children died.

Right after the most recent storm, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) began accepting at its Oklahoma City headquarters school supplies as well as monetary gifts for the stricken district, said Jeff B. Mills, a former superintendent and OSSBA’s executive director. Mills spoke with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy two days after the most recent storm hit.

How is OSSBA helping?

We’re just trying to be a resource for them. Many of their phone lines and cell phone services are down. They can’t get their email, either. Just offering support, prayers -- anything they need.

How is the district coping?

Their administration building was destroyed. Their records, fortunately, are off site; but when you’ve got your computer down, you feel helpless. But if you have your whole administration building down, it’s very difficult. It’s definitely a struggle. They’re trying to move on. And they’ll deal with the losses that they have and start rebuilding.

What has been the response to the drop-off site for school supplies?

There has been an unbelievable outpouring. We’ve got a truck coming from Nebraska tomorrow. We’ve got a couple of trailers that have been loaded up down around Florida coming this way, and just from all over the country. People just are hurting for Moore and wanting to do something, and we wanted to make sure we were able be an outlet for them.

We’re working with Feed the Children here in Oklahoma City to help distribute immediate needs like water and Gatorade bottles, diapers, hand sanitizers, gloves -- those types of things we get in. But the school supplies we’ll store for the district and then hold back until they’re ready to receive them, because the last thing they need is us showing up with a truckload of pens and pencils right now. But they’ll need them in the fall.

As a former Oklahoma superintendent, have you ever dealt with anything like this?

No, I never did. Of course we had storm issues -- we always do in Oklahoma. Nothing like this. When it hit [Moore] in ’99, the schools weren’t in session; they were already out for the day. It destroyed some schools, and they had to be rebuilt. Basically, [the most recent storm] traveled the same path. The big thing that’s happened in Moore since ’99 is just a huge growth spurt, not only in housing but in retail. The area that it came through, it followed that same path -- there’s been a lot of lot of expansion in retail, highway frontage, building activity that is basically gone.

What are some of the challenges facing school board members in the coming months?

I think just the overwhelming idea that, “I’ve got to deal with all of this.” It’s not just one area, one issue. And then the things that will linger once the kids come back and classmates are gone or staff members are gone. There will be, I’m sure, a lot of counseling hours, and then just rebuilding. It’ll be a challenge, but they are a very strong board. The members are very dedicated and focused on what they need for the children.

How will the state respond in the long term?

We’ve faced things like this before in Oklahoma, just like other states deal with tragedy. And we’ve always come out of it in a positive way. We’ll rebuild and start over. People are very resilient here, and they’re going to focus on what they can do for their kids. And we’re going to be there to support the schools and their board -- and anything we can do to make that happen, we’re going to do. 

OSSBA is collecting donations of money and school supplies to help the school districts that were devastated by May 20’s Category 5 tornado in Moore, Okla. To donate, go to OSSBA’s website at www.ossba.org to view a list of needed items or to make a contribution online.

Your Turn
The blame lies elsewhere

High-stakes tests are not the main cause of the cheating scandals in the education world

The answer is “yes.” Yes, we asked you a loaded question -- or, at the least, a wickedly ambiguous one -- when we asked: “Should we blame high-stakes tests for recent cheating scandals in U.S. public schools?”

Are the teachers and administrators who cheated responsible for their actions? Well, yes. Did the high-stakes tests “cause” that behavior? … We’ll let you answer that.

For the record, 12 percent of you chose “yes, definitely” high-stakes testing is to blame; 39 percent said high-stakes testing is “mainly to blame”; and 49 percent said “the real blame lies elsewhere.”

Some comments:

• The correct answer is none of the above. It's not a useful question. High-stakes tests did not cause the cheating scandals, and therefore do not excuse them. The scandals are, however, a symptom of our misdirected overreliance on high-stakes exams which are being used for purposes for which they were never intended, which itself is caused by our inability -- or more accurately, our unwillingness -- to address the issue of inequity in our public education system. -- David Hutchinson, board member, Pennsylvania

• The great, great majority of teachers have the opportunity to cheat and do not. -- Terry Grier, superintendent, Houston Independent School District, Texas

• When you place unreasonable demands on people they will do what they have to do to survive! We all know that the tests don't really test what the students are learning. They are, at best, a partial indicator, and at worst, meaningless. In addition the statistical realities are that no district will be able to meet the expectations in the near future and most cannot meet them now. And then when you use those meaningless test scores to evaluate teachers? It is a disaster waiting to happen. -- Sharon H. Brown, board member, California

• When there is money or recognition for anything, some people will find a way around doing the right thing. -- Tracy Zahn, board member, Washington state

• High-stakes testing only became high-stakes because of the lack of information on the accountable performance of schools and districts. Communities pay taxes, and they simply want to know that those taxes are supporting quality programs and services leading to reasonable measurable outcomes. Testing is one way to measure performance, but it is far from the only way to do so, and districts struggle to communicate all of the less tangible, less numeric ways that they achieve results. -- Jim Butt, board member, Pennsylvania

• With any “race,” there are winners and losers. Sadly, it appears that once again, the students are losing. Elementary students in New York now sit for longer exams than law school graduates, bordering on child abuse. Teachers work on test prep all year, because their jobs depend on those tests. Is it any wonder some people crack and resort to cheating? -- Diane D'Angelo, board member, New York state

• When the tests are tied to job evaluations and financial incentives, there is a much bigger reward for the risk. High-stakes tests should be tools for instruction and feedback for teachers and administrators. -- Janelle Howell, board member, Colorado

• It's not the high stakes. It's the public embarrassment that comes with poor performance. It’s the loss of confidence in school board, administrators, and teachers. Those cause a few individuals, some of whom are extremely uncomfortable with personal accountability, to attempt to manipulate the system. -- board member, Wisconsin

Talk About It
Our Monthly topics worth discussing

Teacher-training programs in the U.S.
A first-ever ranking of U.S. teacher-training programs was recently performed by the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) in partnership with U.S. News and World Report, of college-ranking fame. Their assessment, which awarded from zero to four stars to each of the 1,130 institutions that train America’s teachers, is not flattering. Seventy-eight percent of the institutions earned two or fewer stars. Fourteen percent received no stars at all, giving these institutions an additional “Consumer Alert” designation, which is intended to warn prospective students away from enrolling in them. The “NCTQ Teacher Prep Review,” available for download at www.nctq.org, claims that America’s teacher-training institutions have become “an industry of mediocrity,” which “churns out” first-year teachers who are inadequately prepared. But serious questions have been raised about the assessment’s methodology. While NCTQ analyzed the institution’s admissions standards, course requirements, textbooks, and syllabuses -- in some cases filing lawsuits to obtain materials -- NCTQ did not visit the institutions or interview any of their students or faculty, according to the Washington Post. As the Michigan State University pointed out in its response to the assessment’s results, “Teacher preparation is much more than course syllabi; what is more important is what happens inside the classroom, as well as in teacher candidates’ field placements.”

Private preschools and public funding
To meet the public’s growing demand for high-quality early education, states and school districts increasingly find themselves in the position of funneling public funds to nonprofit organizations, faith-based schools, and private nursery schools that already conduct preschool classes. Public schools frequently lack the space to add new preschool classrooms. About one-third of all students in state-financed preschool programs already attend preschool classes in facilities housed outside public schools. The New York Times reported that, in Chicago, more than half of publicly funded preschool classes will be run by organizations other than Chicago Public Schools, with 10 percent of students attending preschools run by faith-based groups. The Times also said that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has recently allocated $36 million over three years to fund 5,000 new public preschool slots for Chicago’s poorest families, where the rate of public financing for preschool is $4,000 per child. To qualify for public funding, private preschools must follow curriculum guidelines, provide health screening and social services for parents and students, and employ teachers with bachelor’s degrees and early childhood certifications.

Chicago Public Schools closings
Facing an almost $1 billion budget shortfall for the coming school year, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is closing 49 under-enrolled elementary schools and one high school, the largest school shutdown in the district’s history. The Chicago Tribune reported that 663 employees from these schools are ineligible to follow students to their new schools, including 420 teachers with tenure but lower performance ratings, who can be let go under the provisions of the teachers’ union contract. Layoffs also will occur at five underperforming CPS schools that are in federal “turnaround” status. In schools designated for turnaround, nearly all the staff is let go, and new staff is hired. An additional 192 employees will lose their jobs as a result of the turnaround decisions. CPS also has eliminated 100 central office staff positions, part of efforts to save $52 million on operations and administration, the Tribune wrote.

Clarifying codes of conduct
Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) is working with the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit legal advocacy and educational organization, to clarify its student code of conduct. The completion of the new code of conduct is expected next year, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A lack of clarity of the difference between what constitutes “disorderly conduct” and what constitutes “disruption of school” has led administrators to report incidents of disorderly conduct at triple the statewide average rate in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years, even for infractions such as failing to remove a baseball cap or not being in class once the late bell rings. A charge of disorderly conduct can lead to an appearance before a magisterial district judge for the student charged. The language of the new student conduct code will be changed so that it more closely mirrors the legal definition of disorderly conduct. Other proposed changes to the PPS code require principals to create discipline committees to meet monthly to review discipline data and discuss school climate, and preclude a student’s exclusion for minor infractions.

Autism and high-tech jobs
One in every 88 U.S. children suffers from an intellectual disability on the autism spectrum. The majority of autistic kids do not go on to college, and they have difficulty finding employment after graduation. But young adults at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum may be a perfect fit for jobs in the burgeoning tech industry. These individuals frequently have a strong ability to hyper-focus on tasks, which makes them ideal candidates for a wide range of tech-based jobs, National Public Radio reported. Plano, Texas, firm Alliance Data, a Fortune 500 company, has hired 12 autistic people -- with positive results. The nonPareil Institute, also in Plano, offers autistic young adults training in software programming, digital design, and 3D modeling, and plans to build more campuses in Fort Worth and in Silicon Valley, Calif.

Food, kids, and the law
Food -- what’s available, who eats it, and how much -- has been a major concern in public schools over the past few years. Schools’ efforts to raise funds by selling “competitive” foods and beverages sometimes are at odds with the federal government’s efforts to improve the quality of school foods and beverages. A study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Pediatrics (http://archpedi.jamanet work.com) finds that school district and state policies and laws do effectively reduce the availability of fats and sugars in school foods. But while guidelines governing so-called “competitive” foods and beverages in schools are forthcoming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they are not yet in place. Some high schools, such as the Colony High School in Lewisville, Texas, are adding coffee bistros to their campuses. Even here, state regulations apply, according to the Dallas Morning News. No more than a 12-ounce cup of coffee can be sold to students during school hours, the amount of added sugar is restricted, and the beverage must be made with skim milk. There are no current state or federal guidelines governing the amount of caffeine in products sold in schools, but Reuters reported that the Food and Drug Administration will be investigating the effects of caffeine on children and adolescents. The bistro’s best-selling item is a fruit smoothie. The healthy food message does seem to be getting through to the kids. Public School 244, a pre-kindergarten through third-grade elementary school in Queens, N.Y., switched to a completely vegetarian menu earlier this year in response to students’ increasing demand for vegetarian options. P.S. 244 is New York’s first all-vegetarian public school. Rules apply here, as well. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that P.S. 244 is zoned as a neighborhood school, so students who prefer meat-based meals cannot transfer out, nor can vegetarian children from other schools transfer in.