March 2013 School Board News

On The Hill
The school board agenda for the 113th Congress

Michael A. Resnick

In late January, more than 700 local school board members and state association leaders went to Capitol Hill, bringing to the new Congress a compelling message for timely action in four key areas of national education policymaking.

The meetings, held just a few weeks after the 113th Congress started its work, were part of NSBA’s 40th Annual Federal Relations Network Conference (FRN). They came as Congress faces key votes on a number of issues that will shape the federal role in education for some time to come.

First, they raised concern over the future of federal education funding, especially as Congress takes up budget sequestration. They impressed upon their representatives that education is a strategic investment, where the cost of cutting programs is far outweighed by the long-term benefit to our country’s economy and quality of life.

The tax extension law enacted last December reduced the amount of across-the-board sequestration cuts to an estimated 5.9 percent. But the impact of the cut in 2013-14, followed by nine years of spending caps, would be highly injurious to many districts. While sequestration cuts to education would reduce the national debt by a .0002 micro-slice each year, a 5.9 percent cut would cause districts to lose about $250,000 for every 5,000 students enrolled. The impact would be even greater on districts that disproportionally enroll more children from low-income families, even though their educational needs are likely to be the greatest.

With crucial votes coming up in the next 60 days, many FRN members brought to their lawmakers the resolutions their school boards have passed in opposition to the cuts. If your district hasn’t joined NSBA’s resolution campaign, we encourage you to do so to ensure all members of Congress hear from the school boards they represent. (See www.nsba.org/advocacy for more information about the campaign and the list of boards that have passed resolutions.)

The FRN’s second issue involves a bill that NSBA has developed to establish certain limitations and procedures for the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that the rules and grant conditions it issues do not unnecessarily encroach upon local school board governance.

Over time, programs such as Race to the Top and the conditions for No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) waivers have been issued with a level of top-down specificity already not envisioned or contained in legislation. This has significantly impacted the role and decision-making of local school boards.

Rather than by unilateral agency fiat, NSBA firmly believes national policy initiatives should be established through legislation based on a broad and publicly debated consensus among members of Congress, one that includes input from their local constituencies. Even then, it’s important that the rules, grant conditions, guidelines, and other actions proposed by the department provide for a meaningful opportunity for local input. It also must ensure that the educational, operational, and financial impacts of any requirement are viable at the local level.

NSBA’s bill addresses those concerns, and FRN members asked their representatives to co-sponsor this important legislation to protect local decision-making and ensure national policy is set through the representative function of the U.S. Congress.  We also urge you to ask your representatives and senators to co-sponsor this important legislation.

Third, FRN members renewed their desire for Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). At the start of the 2013-14 school year, districts in a majority of the states will begin to implement several significant NCLB waiver conditions that their states accepted. Meanwhile, districts in other states will continue to labor under the full brunt of NCLB’s counterproductive requirements.

Congress should step up and reauthorize the law before the 2013-14 school year to avoid unnecessary confusion and waste. A delayed reauthorization could remove or alter some of the waiver conditions -- or move school districts in yet other directions. The law was last reauthorized 11 years ago, so the action Congress takes -- budget sequestration for example -- likely will have a lasting impact for years to come.

FRN members also advocated for the federal level to support proactive school safety programs, following the terrible school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. School-centered initiatives brought to congressional attention included funding for trained school resource officers, coordination of services with law enforcement and mental health agencies, emergency training for school personnel, needs assessment programs, and enforcement of the Gun-Free Zone law.

The school board members were clear that a comprehensive approach is needed. Ultimately, however, it must be left to local officials to determine the need and action required in their schools.

NSBA’s issues for the 113th Congress are big in scope, long lasting in impact, and sure to maintain a high profile. Consequently, they will require substantial advocacy by local school board members across the country. How successful the collective “we” is in achieving these goals for our schoolchildren will depend on the action that individual board members take to urge their representatives and senators to pass the legislation needed. Will you join this important effort? 

Michael A. Resnick (mresnick@nsba.org) is NSBA’s associate executive director for federal advocacy and public policy. His column, “On the Hill,” appears monthly in ASBJ. Go to www.nsba.org/advocacy for more information on each of these issues and to learn what you can do.



Ready or not, here comes Common Core

Our Reader Panel members are getting their teachers trained to test for the new state standards, but funding, technology, and compatibility concerns remain

Nearly nine in 10 Reader Panel respondents (87 percent) say their districts are planning to provide professional development for teachers, administrators, and other staff so they can administer the Common Core State Standards assessments. But readers are concerned about a number of issues, including how to fund the training to ensure that their teachers are sufficiently prepared by the 2014-15 school year, when the electronic assessments are expected to be unveiled.

On a related matter, 47 percent of Reader Panel responders say they are “proficient” at using electronic devices, and another 45 percent say they are “competent and expanding my use” of them. Five percent are having difficulty with the devices, and another 3 percent say they don’t like or want to use them.

Below are comments on how well districts are providing professional development for the Common Core assessments:

• We have implemented a 1:1 Blended Learning initiative with more than 8,000 iPads. We had a year's pilot program and do ongoing professional development with our staff. In addition, we’ve added technology coaches to work alongside with teachers out in the buildings. We have volunteered to test an entire grade level on a device this spring. -- Karyle Green, superintendent, Indiana

• It's absolutely preposterous to think that every school system in our country will be able to facilitate Common Core State Standards online assessments by 2014. Simply put, the technology infrastructure isn't available for many school systems, particularly in small, rural settings as sequestration looms large on the horizon. -- Dan Schlafer, board member, Tennessee

• In our school district, all students in grades two through eight currently take the Measures of Academic Progress annual assessments via a computer and an Internet connection. In addition, students use iPads, iPods, Chrome books, and laptops across grade levels and curricular areas. The transition to Common Core online assessment should be smooth here due to the abundance of technology as part of everyday instruction and learning. -- Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent, Illinois

• To provide the necessary professional development to teachers, staff, and administrators for administering and obtaining optimal test results from electronic assessments, we first need to find funding for technology support. Currently, the state of Arizona is providing zero dollars for soft capital funding that could be used for this technology. Our ballot request for local funding for these technologies was not supported by the voters in our district. With declining enrollment due to new charter schools within our district boundaries, a soft housing market, and a weak economy, we will be facing additional budget cuts for the coming year. We are providing professional development to implement Common Core, but without technology funding, we are limited in regards to professional development for electronic assessments. -- Jennifer Papworth, board member, Arizona

• As an Apple/Mac school, we are seeing issues with state planning for online assessment using PC hardware. We have compatibility issues with the assessment -- either in download or both download and functionality. There are work-arounds, but it does not make utilization convenient. -- Hy Schlieve, superintendent, North Dakota

• If we want to lead our students into the future, we all have to become proficient with electronic devices. -- Ron Pierce, board member, Delaware



Q&A with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t going to tell you how to run your schools, or even how to teach science. The astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City says school board members probably have a better handle on these things.

“I’m just sort of a STEM person at large,” said Tyson, former host of “NOVA scienceNOW” and one of the keynote speakers at NSBA’s Annual Conference in San Diego in April. “It’s a report from the field, a report from the depths of our society and culture.”

It’s a society and culture, says Tyson -- a frequent guest on television talk shows like “The Daily Show” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” -- that needs to pay more attention to what’s going on in the worlds of astronomers and microbiologists. He talked recently with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy.

Are we as scientifically literate as we should be?

No. The nation is becoming profoundly absent of scientific literacy. Now I don’t want a law saying someone has to be scientifically literate. I want people to want to be scientifically literate because they feel empowered by it, enlightened by it, and it’s something that will stimulate a curiosity in them that they once had, or never knew they had, in their youth.

So we don’t know much about evolution or the asteroid belt.

It’s the combination of being a scientifically illiterate person and gaining cultural or political power. That’s a combustible combination, because then you end up making decisions that affect countless other people based on ideas and thoughts that are missing the fundamentals of how the natural world works.

A few years ago, your planetarium declared Pluto “not a planet,” thus upsetting the cosmological certainty of countless elementary school students. Were there repercussions?

Essentially, a file drawer of hate mail from third-graders. One of my favorite letters is, “Dear Scientest” (spelled T-E-S-T). “Why did you make Pluto not a planet anymore? If that’s people’s favorite planet, then they’ll no longer have a favorite planet. And if there’s people on Pluto, then they’ll no longer exist.” [People] thought we just got rid of Pluto.

And the media reacted?

Oh, my gosh. The subtlety of the argument didn’t make it into the headlines. In fact, the New York Times reported on it, [writing] “Pluto not a Planet? Only in New York.” That was the headline on Page One. I wrote a whole book on this. It came out in 2007. It’s called The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.

I hear you also messed with America’s Favorite Movie (at least among teenage girls in the 1990s). Something about the night sky being wrong in “Titanic”?

I complained publicly only because so much of the marketing platform of that film was on how accurate it was. If authenticity is important to you, you should have gotten the sky right.

You said director James Cameron was annoyed but eventually reconsidered and, for the release of the IMAX 3-D version, changed the sky in a key scene to the way it would have looked that night in the North Atlantic.

The most important scene is the sky straight above Kate Winslet’s head, when she’s singing deliriously, floating on that plank. So I gave him that sky. In fact, I gave him a little latitude because the exact overhead sky wasn’t as good as the one a little to the left. You can fudge that and say she wasn’t looking exactly overhead, but was looking at an angle. You want to give people artistic space to work with.

And they used it.