December 2013 School Board News

On the Hill
Federal expansion vs. local governance

The role of the federal government in K-12 education has changed in recent years. Historically, its role was limited to providing assistance for specific purposes -- such as funding for schools with a high concentration of children from low-income families.

Recently, though, its role has expanded to drive broad state education policies such as state action to increase the number of charter schools or determining how states would evaluate the performance of students, teachers, and schools. This expanded federal action increasingly has eroded school board decision-making and flexibility.

Certainly the federal government has an important role in supporting the national interest in education. However, the problem of federal overreach into local governance rests with the increasing assumption of more authority by the U.S. Department of Education to unilaterally set national education policy. That is, the department has made major policy decisions without the benefit of specific legislative authority and has rigidly applied program requirements to unnecessarily limit community discretion in governing its schools -- including decision-making by locally representative elected school boards.

Legal experts point out that, by expanding its role without specific legislative authority, the department has overstepped the constitutional principle of separation of powers. They also point out that the establishment of education policy of the significance involved must be made by the legislative branch -- not the executive branch, which is responsible for implementing, not creating the law.

The history of expansion

It’s important to see how local governance has been eroded over time. In 1965, the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted to provide assistance for a specific need, such as Title 1, which gives money to districts in low-income areas. Federal requirements were limited to the operation and goals of the grants.

A major sea change in the federal role occurred in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That law revised ESEA by establishing a rigid framework -- that would apply to all students and schools -- that a state had to follow in developing its testing, accountability, and school intervention programs if they wanted to receive their Title 1 funding. That is, NCLB applied to the state’s education program overall, not to a specific grant activity. For its part, the Education Department developed rules and regulations that provided little flexibility for school districts despite the flaws in the law and unforeseen local implementation problems.

The $4 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) program in 2009 was the next federal expansion into general education policy by driving states to establish specific priorities and approaches to the education delivery system. In this tough competition for grants, states were awarded significant points if they committed to creating or increasing their number of charter schools -- adopting standards in conjunction with a significant number of other states, among other factors that were not specifically authorized as grant conditions in the law. Cash-strapped states adopted laws and policies to meet the grant application requirements, although only a handful of states actually were awarded grants.

The next expansion in the Education Department’s role occurred when it granted to states two-year waivers from complying with certain elements of NCLB. In exchange for the waivers, a wide range of new conditions were placed on states. While there was legislative authority for the department to grant the waivers, it did not have legislative authority for various conditions that it imposed on the state and local delivery systems.

Basically, Congress’ role to establish federal education policy, priorities, and limitation has been replaced by unilateral action of agency officials who are not accountable or responsive to local constituents or their elected representatives, including school board members. Congress in part is to blame, since it failed to correct NCLB’s flaws with new legislation 12 years after its enactment or to even provide effective oversight over the department’s activities.

NSBA’s bill, the Local School Board Governance and Flexibility Act (H.R. 1386), is designed to rein in the Education Department’s overreach. It would prohibit the department from making policy in the absence of specific legislation and require it to be more responsive to local concerns when issuing regulations. It also would stop the department from placing unfunded and unrelated conditions on grants and generally not exercising authority over local school governance. The key elements of NSBA’s bill were incorporated in the House-passed bill to reauthorize the ESEA (H.R. 5), which is pending Senate floor action.

How to stop federal erosion of local governance

The place to start is with the U.S. Congress. Urge your Senators to bring a bill to reauthorize ESEA to the Senate floor for a vote and to support including provisions to reflect the NSBA bill, as the House did. For board members who are coming to Washington D.C., for the Feb. 2 to 4 NSBA Advocacy Institute (formerly called the Federal Relations Network Conference), you will be provided with the background to correct the federal overreach when you meet with your House and Senate members during the conference.

With a volatile election year ahead and individual members concerned about political survival, and with each of the political parties looking to control the House and the Senate, members will be very interested in hearing what constituents -- particularly school board members who represent and speak to their community’s voters -- have to say.

For board members coming to the Advocacy Institute, the meeting will occur right between the time when the federal budget will be revisited and when the debt ceiling vote will occur. At that time, Congress’ interest in hearing from constituents will be further heightened -- including hearing about funding priorities for education and their impact on local governance -- especially where federal mandates are involved.

For more information about how you can restore local governance through improved federal policies and funding priorities, please go to NSBA’s website at

Michael A. Resnick ( is NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy. 

Talk About It
Our Monthly Topics Worth Discussing

Data can’t vouch for vouchers
While a record 245,000 students across America this year are using vouchers, tax credits, and other public subsidies to pay private school tuition, available data indicate their parents are making a poor investment, according to Politico. In Louisiana, where the Obama administration filed a suit to freeze its voucher program, fewer than half of voucher students achieved basic proficiency. Less than 2 percent demonstrated mastery in math, reading, science, and social studies testing this past spring. In Milwaukee in spring testing, only 13 percent of voucher students scored as proficient in math; a mere 11 percent were proficient in reading. In either location, you don’t even have to be poor to score a voucher. The federal guideline defining poverty for a family of four is $23,500, but in Louisiana, a family of four with an income of $59,000 can obtain vouchers, and in Milwaukee, the same family earning $71,000 can.

Maryland schools team with Facebook to combat cyberbullying
Facebook has agreed to open a dedicated channel of communication to Maryland’s public schools to facilitate schools’ reporting of incidents of student cyberbullying on Facebook and speed the removal of offensive posts, the Baltimore Sun reported. The initiative between Maryland schools and Facebook is called the Educator Escalation Channel. The plan for the communication channel was announced two days after Maryland’s Grace’s Law -- named for 15-year-old Grace McComas, a cyberbullying victim who committed suicide in April 2012 -- went into effect. One person from each Maryland school district will be appointed to work directly with Facebook. If Facebook does not respond within a day when a district reports an abusive post by the usual method (clicking on the post’s “abuse” arrow), the district can then send a message to a special email site which Facebook staff will monitor 24 hours a day, and will receive a response to its request for action.

‘Bubble tests’ flummox kindergartners
Due to teacher evaluations and the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, some New York City kindergartners have recently been administered “bubble tests,” where the correct answers to the questions are indicated by filling in the corresponding “bubble” with a No. 2 pencil. Chaos, frustration, and tears ensued. Confused kindergartners who did not understand they were being individually evaluated tried to help one another with the questions, and when they were told to “color in” the bubbles with a pencil, used prettier crayons instead, the Daily News reported.

Your Turn
Security increasing at schools

You say the recent school shootings spurred you to focus on training and awareness

When asked “Have recent school shootings prompted your district to increase security at its schools?” your answer was unequivocal -- more than 85 percent said, “Yes!”

Most of the improvements you have implemented involve ways to keep the doors locked. You have created security vestibules, double entries, and buzzer entries, and moved to fob technologies and card access, replacing easily duplicated keys.

A lot of you are using SROs or reaching or formalizing agreements with local police. Emergency drills involving all emergency agencies are now a regular occurrence in some schools. Most districts are making sure their administrators and staff have the emergency training they need. Some are even getting their staff certified by FEMA. Here is just a sample of your best security practices:

• We just did a full-scale active shooter training exercise with law enforcement, fire, EMS/first responders, emergency management, SWAT, and school personnel. This was an outstanding opportunity for all agencies to practice their protocols, and for our district to practice parent/student reunification. We had probably 150 people from different agencies participating. -- Douglas W. Keiser, superintendent, Wisconsin

• The fire department has it right. Regular drills allow for better reactions in case of an emergency. Intruder drills must now occur regularly, too. -- Peggy Taylor, school board member, Missouri

• In Maryland’s Frederick County Public Schools, all 66 principals and central office executive leaders have been certified in Incident Command System by FEMA. The training is available (at no cost) from FEMA online at http://train -- Ann Bonitatibus, chief operating officer, Maryland

• At the time of the East Coast shooting we had a board member who was also a police detective. He encouraged us to sit down with all three municipalities that make up our district and discuss how to cut down response time. -- Leslie Miller, school board member, Ohio

• We moved the security office to a building next to the front entrance of the school campus to make it more visible. We also purchased more security vehicles so more guards could be mobile around the district. -- Harry E. Martin, superintendent, Arizona

• The most important thing we did was hire a safety expert instead of making the insurance risk person do double duty. We now have excellent safety plans for the district office and each school and classroom. -- Ginny Moe, school board member, South Carolina

• The main difficulty we face is how to create a secure school out of one that was built in the campus style of 1956. -- Robert F. Dooley, superintendent, Arizona

• We are training our personnel to be more aggressive towards perpetrators when no other options are available. In other words, “fight back.” -- Troy Rohn, school board member, Idaho

• One of the difficulties we encounter is the belief that we live in a safe place, and our school doors should be open to the community at all times. Many believe nothing could ever happen in our schools, but people at those schools in the headlines thought the same thing. -- Diane D’Angelo, school board member, New York state