June 2013 School Board News

On The Hill
NSBA bill strikes a chord for local governance

By Michael A. Resnick

NSBA’s recently introduced bill -- the Local School Board Governance and Flexibility Act (H.R. 1386) -- is attracting Congressional co-sponsors. The need for this crucial legislation is more compelling than ever to advance public education and provide good governance in a representative democracy.

School boards and professional educators in local districts are at the level of government where teaching and learning actually take place. They correctly stress the practical importance of maximizing local governance and flexibility in determining how to deliver programs, allocate resources, and set policies to meet students’ educational goals. Unfortunately, the direction of educational governance is not headed that way.

The federal level continues to expand its role, causing states to impose more and more federally directed requirements on local districts. The federal government has an important role to play to establish and support priorities of transcending national interest, but the problem lies in a break down in the roles of Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, especially over the past decade.

Increasing control by the U.S. Department of Education, caused by the lack of good governance at the federal level, is coming at the expense of the state and local roles in education. Following the constitutional principle of separation of powers, the department’s far-reaching initiatives launched in recent years should have been proposed as legislation to the Congress, which represents the diverse interests of the people and their locally elected leaders, not imposed by executive fiat. Simply put, Congress should set policy, taking into account its constituents, with the executive branch responsible for implementation of policy.

NSBA’s bill restores that balance in three straight-forward ways. First, it clarifies that the department can’t impose rules, regulations, programs, or conditions on districts that are not specifically spelled out by federal legislation. Second, the bill raises the standard that the Education Department must meet to demonstrate the local viability of its proposals based on a meaningful comment process -- regardless of the form the proposal takes. Third, local comments must be reported to the House and Senate education committees to enable more effective Congressional oversight of the department’s implementation of legislation.

Historically, the federal role has focused on providing districts with categorical assistance to meet particular needs, such as support for students in high poverty areas, special education, or the professional development of teachers. The 2002 implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) changed that, giving the department broad latitude in determining how states hold schools accountable for successfully educating all students.

NCLB is lauded for focusing on schools that fail to close the achievement gap, but the law’s widely acknowledged flaws forced counterproductive decision-making for students in general. It has also fed the false perception that public education is a failing institution that must be “reformed” by more central direction from Washington, or replaced by privatization.

Congress has chosen the path of inaction for more than 11 years as problems with NCLB have mounted. Meanwhile, in the absence of specific legislative authority, the Education Department chose to elevate its role by driving specific priorities in the local educational delivery system. For example, the enactment of the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant program prompted many states facing hard economic times to adopt policies and priorities that were not called for in the RTTT law. Hence, states that promoted more charter schools were rewarded as they competed to meet the department’s vision for improving the educational delivery system.

Last year, the department took another significant unilateral step by using its legislative authority to grant states NCLB-related waivers as long as they accepted sweeping, but not legislatively authorized, conditions to change the delivery system. States accepted these conditions rather than be faced with the prospect of nearly all of their schools being labeled as failing. Now states are voicing rising concerns that they can’t meet various conditions. Meanwhile, some state legislatures are challenging the department’s initiatives or using the opportunity to seek greater privatization options.

For local school officials, the immediate future likely will involve more requirements, uncertainty, and concern over the lack of time and funding necessary to successfully meet a wide range of new federal requirements. Changes will involve curriculum, acquisition of new course materials, and related professional development. Additionally, you could see changes in teacher personnel policies, collective bargaining agreements, and the purchase and maintenance of new data systems as new assessments and accountability measures for the Common Core State Standards are implemented.

In forging these initiatives, inadequate attention was given to the governance and flexibility that local officials must have to address these federally driven requirements and the impact they will have on the broader educational, financial, and operational context of their districts.

Looking ahead, the table is set for a future administration to use the authority of broad legislation (such as a RTTT-styled program) or waiver conditions (which have no legislative authority), to impose its educational philosophy through other major changes in the delivery system on states and districts. If the current promotion of charters or specific state teacher evaluation policies can be a condition for receiving federal funds or relief from onerous agency regulations, why not require states to impose vouchers, cyber schools, school district consolidation, or specific compensation policies?

NSBA is lobbying Congress to pass this legislation, and to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes NCLB. We need proactive federal support that is best suited to meet the role of the states and the unique needs and priorities of local districts. For information on how you can help build support for the NSBA bill and action on ESEA, see www.nsba.org/advocacy. n

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

Regulating vending machine and à la carte food items at schools
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has received 250,000 comments and suggestions in response to its proposal to regulate the kinds and nutritional values of all foods sold in schools, including those offered in vending machines on campus -- so-called competitive foods -- and in à la carte lines. Foods sold for fundraising or after-school events would be excluded from the new regulations. Health officials are worried that -- without additional regulation -- schools would offer pizza and French fries à la carte every day, undercutting the government’s efforts to improve the quality of foods offered at schools. But the School Nutrition Association argues that, once that pizza and those fries have been approved for sale in the lunch line, they have passed the test and should be available for sale in the à la carte line as well, according to Education Week. The USDA’s proposed regulations for all foods sold in schools are available at www.regulations.gov.

Police in schools
Police officers have been a presence in schools as school resource officers since the 1990s. Many districts have used federal subsidies to place these officers in high schools, middle schools, and sometimes even in elementary schools. Some districts -- including Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia -- have created their own police forces. Since Sandy Hook, districts that never before felt it necessary to have police officers roaming their hallways now are beginning to reconsider their position. Whether a police presence in schools can deter serious crime or discourage intruders has not yet been determined. What has been shown is that a police presence frequently leads to students -- particularly minority and disabled students -- receiving formal citations from officers for infractions that previously would have been handled by the principal’s office. In Texas alone, school-based police officers write in excess of 100,000 misdemeanor tickets for students every year. Students charged rarely get legal aid, can face hundreds of dollars in fines, and can receive a lasting record from the courts that can affect their ability to apply for college or military service, according to the New York Times.

Cheating -- D.C. public schools
A probe by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education has determined that teachers in 18 classrooms in 11 District of Columbia schools (seven traditional schools and four charter schools) were involved in critical violations of test security on high-stakes standardized tests administered to students in 2012. “Critical violations” of testing security include using prohibited electronic devices and providing the correct answers to students. Teachers in four other classrooms were found to have engaged in “moderate” infractions of testing security. The probe was conducted by an independent auditing firm, which also looked into the District of Columbia’s 2011 test results and concluded that three teachers had cheated, according to washingtonpost.com. There is some question about whether D.C. public schools’ test results were tampered with in 2008, as well. John Merrow, on his Learning Matters blog, Taking Note, recently published a confidential memo written by an analyst hired to investigate the large number of “wrong to right” erasures on high-stakes tests administered in D.C. schools that year. The memo made it clear that the analyst was concerned that preliminary results, at least, indicated that as many as 88 percent of all students tested were students of teachers implicated by the study.

Q&A with columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. has spent much of his professional life juggling two worlds -- and sometimes many more worlds than that. At age 25, he wrote the well-received memoir, A Darker Side of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano. Now a writer for the Washington Post’s Writers Group, he addressed members of NSBA’s Hispanic Caucus at NSBA’s 2013 Annual Conference in San Diego. He spoke recently with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy.

Are you a liberal or a conservative? From reading your columns, it’s hard to tell.

First, I'm glad to hear you say that. When I started writing for newspapers and, eventually, for websites -- 24 years and nearly 3,000 columns ago -- it was my goal to be unpredictable, hard to peg down, and known for calling balls and strikes regardless of who is pitching. Mission accomplished.

I'm liberal in some things (gay marriage, gun control, abortion, immigration, etc.), and conservative in others (death penalty, less government, lower taxes, accountability in public schools, etc.). Outside of politicians, partisan cheerleaders, and media commentators, that's how most people are. It's called being human.

You’ve been critical of both the Democrats and the Republicans concerning how they’ve dealt with immigration and other issues of importance to Latinos. Which party, do you believe, is better positioned to win Latinos’ votes in 2014 and 2016?

There is no doubt -- zero -- that the Democratic Party is better positioned to win Latino votes in 2014 and 2016 ... and also 2018 and 2020. I know this because, in the 14 presidential elections since 1960 -- 14! -- the Democratic candidate for president has always won the majority of the Latino vote. [But] no one should assume that, just because Democrats are “better positioned” to win the majority of Latino votes (because of brand loyalty, tradition, and bad alternatives) that this means Democrats deserve those votes. Oftentimes, they don't. But they get them anyway.

Were you surprised by the outcry from Latinos after you criticized U.S. Olympic runner and 1500 meter silver medalist Leo Manzano for taking a celebratory lap with the Mexican flag in addition to the U.S. flag?

I was. The response was incredible. And I'm proud of that piece, for getting people to think and touching a nerve -- maybe not in that order. There were more than 11,000 comments, both pro and con, on the CNN website (a good showing is 2,000). The piece split the parties (some Democrats liked, some Republicans disliked), and split families (my Mexican-born wife hated the piece, but her Mexican-born sister and mother loved it). My basic point was that there is a time and place for that sort of display, and this was neither the time nor the place. Many people agreed with me, including many Latinos.

How can U.S. schools narrow the wide achievement gap that exists between black and Latino students and the general population?

Much of what I know about education I learned in the trenches, working for four years after college, as a substitute teacher in my old school district. There is lot of reasons that the achievement gap is there. Some, educators can control; some, they can't. The No. 1 thing they can control: low expectations. Not all kids are going to have my experience (become class valedictorian and go to Harvard), but all kids can learn. And it's not an unreasonable request that they all perform at grade level and not below it. So schools can do a lot to narrow the achievement gap between black and Latino kids on the one hand and whites and Asians on the other by treating kids equally and not letting prejudices about who can learn and who can't get in the way of setting high expectations for everyone. 

Your Turn
How can you create unity on your board?

Some Reader Panel members struggle with this issue, but others say it's possible

If Your Turn were an advice column -- that is, if you actually expected us to help you answer the question we pose each month -- we’d be hard-pressed to respond to one understandably frustrated board member from … we’ll just say somewhere in the continental United States.

The anonymous reader is commenting on our question: “How can school board members help to create unity on their boards?”

“We have one newly elected member who has decided that it is ‘his way or the highway,’” the board member writes. “He loves the media, hates at least two of the other members (there are five of us in total), and loves ‘gotcha’ moments at board meetings. Unity is one thing, but he is so toxic that this has become a nightmare.”

That’s a tough one, to put it mildly. And the results of this month’s poll show this reader is not alone: More than 21 percent of you said unity is “an impossible dream” for your school board, and another nearly 11 percent said your board wasn’t working toward that end.

Advice for those of you struggling with this issue can be found on Page 14 in the article, “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy” by David Moscinski.

Fortunately, most responders -- 68 percent -- say their boards are indeed working toward board unity. Here’s what some of them had to say about what makes for a more unified school board: 

• Listen and accept others’ thoughts. Also, share your proposals and encourage discussion when they may not agree. Remember to put students first when you are deciding policy and procedures for your district. Always try to present what is best and will benefit all students. Reach out to the other board members and expect and accept different views and thoughts. Always pursue what will be the best direction. -- Larry McGinnis, board member, Kansas

• We have worked with a consultant to help us learn to listen deeply and speak respectfully. However, the good feelings lasted about a week, as old habits are hard to break. We do want this same consultant, a person we all value, to view a tape of a recent budget hearing that ended in a 4-3 vote, to see how we're doing and how we can improve. At least we all agree we need to work on our issues with each other. It is very difficult to achieve unity with one-issue trustees, or those with an agenda that does not include all our stakeholders. A lack of education on what it really means to be a school board member is a major problem. Also, the need for strong, experienced leadership from your superintendent and board president is essential. Mentoring new members should be required and formalized. -- Diane D’Angelo, board member, New York state

• Teamwork is the goal, not unity, and trust is the foundation. We will always have different opinions, and should, but board members and superintendent must work together as equals on a team and respect and value opinions and constituencies of others. They must work to trust one another and be trustworthy even while disagreeing. Developing both within-board and board-superintendent communications and procedures that ensure all constituencies are included is essential. Have outside facilitators (not district employees) work with the group (board and superintendent) to develop teamwork. Evaluate your board meetings. Have a self-evaluation at least annually. The board should evaluate its superintendent and the superintendent should evaluate his or her board by mutually acceptable standards. -- Ginny Moe, board member, South Carolina

• We have a new chair who is very careful to include all voices in discussion, always models politeness, and asks us to complete a survey at the end of each meeting to determine how satisfied individuals were with what we accomplished and how we worked together as a team. We have also started having more frequent “retreats” to allow us to become more informed on Common Core State Standards, evaluating district progress, etc. We set objectives in a fall retreat with 1. students’ achievement, 2. parent and community involvement as top goals. Our progress toward these is at least mentioned and sometimes discussed more fully at every meeting. -- Jane Sharp, board member, South Carolina