May 2013 School Board News

On The Hill
New legislation promotes local governance, flexibility

By Michael A. Resnick

In recent years, school board members and educators have become increasingly concerned that U.S. Department of Education initiatives unnecessarily and counterproductively erode their authority to meet the on-the-ground needs and priorities of students and parents in their communities.

New legislation known as the Local School Board Governance and Flexibility Act, HR 1386 , was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) with four co-sponsors. This bipartisan bill would ensure that the benefits of local school board governance are supported in actions taken by the U.S. Department of Education.

Specifically, the legislation would clarify the department’s authority regarding key local governance functions. It also will strengthen the process for meaningful input from local school boards and educators before the department implements regulations, rules, grant requirements, and other materials that impact districts.

Current initiatives, such as grant requirements within the federal Race to the Top program and the conditions states must meet to receive waivers from certain No Child Left Behind requirements, involved significant changes in how education is delivered locally. Yet, these comprehensive and detailed initiatives were neither specifically envisioned by legislation nor vetted with Congress before being implemented.

In launching these initiatives, the department can check a box stating it met its legal obligation to touch base at the local level when it invited public comments for proposed rules and grant requirements. However, its response to local concerns has been largely perfunctory. Moreover, the Department of Education’s obligation to request comments in the formal rule-making process has been side-stepped at times by using formats that don’t require comments or a formal response to them.

In bypassing Congress and the local level, the department has unilaterally imposed its philosophy and priorities for changing key components of the nation’s education system within 13,500 school districts across 50 states. It has assumed a policymaking role that is not within the executive branch’s function. As a result, the role of Congress is being diminished, including its role to represent the perspectives of locally elected officials and the interests of their constituents. That is so important in fashioning federal policy for a nation as large and diverse as ours.

To address the problem, NSBA was pleased to work with Schock in developing HR 1386. As a former school board member, he knows first-hand the importance of local governance and the essential communication and balance of the representative roles of the three levels of government in establishing education policy. This important governance legislation was also co-sponsored by Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Patrick Meehan (R-Penn.), and David Valadao (R-Calif.) and enjoys the support of the American Association of School Administrators.

The legislation is aimed at achieving three basic goals that will re-establish the balance among the three levels of government and between the Congress and the Department of Education.

• First, H.R. 1386 prohibits the department from issuing any rule, regulation, program condition, or guidance material unless authorized by specific legislation if it conflicts with the authority of a local educational agency (i.e., school board), imposes unfunded costs on districts, conflicts with the state and locally-determined governance structure of districts and schools, creates duplication in reporting, or places conditions on grants that are not related to the legislation involved.

• Second, to implement legislatively authorized policies and programs, the bill requires the Education Department to provide school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers and their representative organizations at least 60 days to offer comments on any proposed rule, regulation, grant condition, or pertinent guidance material involved. To move forward, the department then must meet a higher standard than current practice by demonstrating that its proposals are educationally, functionally, and operationally viable based on the comments that it has received. Once a rule, regulation, grant condition, or guidance document is implemented, the bill also requires the department to make a formal finding within 60 days from a district’s showing that the provision does not meet the legislation’s requirements. And, if there is a problem, the department must show how it will be fixed.

• Third, H.R. 1386 will provide Congress with better information regarding the real world impact of the department’s activities. Specifically, department officials must report annually to lawmakers about school officials’ concerns with the implementation of the past year’s federal programs and initiatives.

This legislation was prompted by a growing trend within the Department of Education to independently develop and implement federal policy, but it also anticipates the future. Regardless of which political party controls the executive branch or the merits of specific proposals, a precedent should not be established to allow officials to unilaterally impose their philosophy of education or conditions for receiving federal assistance on local districts. It’s not how representative democracy or a three-level federal system of government should operate, and it does not ultimately produce a broadly supported federal role in education.

NSBA urges school board members to work with their superintendents and immediately contact their House members to add their names to the original co-sponsor list supporting H.R. 1386. Also, contact your senators when the companion Senate bill is introduced in the coming weeks. Paraphrasing Ben Franklin, who said our founders created a government that is “a republic if you can keep it,” we will only have local governance in education for as long as school board members fight to keep it.

For more information on working with your members of Congress to support this important legislation, go to www.nsba.org/advocacy. 

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


Talk About It
Our Monthly Topics Worth Discussing

Rural Ohio school districts sign oil leases
Carrollton Exempted Schools in Ohio’s rural Carroll County has signed a lease with Chesapeake Energy allowing the company to drill six or eight wells on school property, beginning sometime this year. Using a procedure known as “fracking,” the wells will be drilled about 850 feet from the district’s administration building, and only a thousand feet from athletic fields. In return for signing the lease, the district received almost $400,000 immediately in signing bonuses, and once the wells start producing five years from now, the district will receive 18 percent of the royalties. The district plans to use the funds to offset cuts in state and federal spending. Dozens of other districts also have signed leases, with some of them ill-advised. One district allowed a company to use nonproducing wells as disposal wells, which permitted the dumping of contaminated water on school property. Another district gave the drilling company unlimited use of its water supply, according to http://stateimpact.npr.org/ ohio. The degree of environmental and other risks posed by fracking is disputed, but Carroll Concerned Citizens has voiced concerns about potential spills, air pollution, water contamination, and the possibility of explosions on school property.

NYC teen pregnancy ads said to stigmatize teen moms
New York City’s teen moms are blogging to complain about a blunt city-funded ad campaign intended to discourage teen pregnancy. The city’s teen pregnancy rate has dropped 27 percent in the past decade, but more than 20,000 city teens still become pregnant each year. Most of the ads feature a minority baby who utters a castigating phrase to its mother, such as: “Honestly, Mom … chances are he WON’T stay with you. What happens to ME?” Planned Parenthood and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, criticize the ads for trying to leverage shame tactics and for implying that teen pregnancy causes poverty, when the reverse is actually true, says WNYC News online. The campaign ad is scheduled to run in the city’s bus shelters and subways.

Moms say food additives negatively impact learning
Two North Carolina mothers are petitioning the Kraft Foods Group to convince the company to remove dyes derived from petroleum from its food products, including Kraft’s Mac & Cheese, the familiar orange pasta in the iconic blue box. Lisa Leake and Vani Hari claim that two dyes -- yellow dye 5 and yellow dye 6 -- pose dangers to children and other consumers, and that a study has shown that yellow dye 5 increases the risk of hyperactivity in children. Yellow dye 6 has been associated with adrenal and testicular tumors, according to abcnews.go.com. The yellow dyes are banned in Austria and Norway, and the United Kingdom is phasing out their use. Leake and Hari found out that Kraft markets a dye-free version of its Mac & Cheese in the United Kingdom, which uses beta carotene and paprika instead of dyes to produce pasta with a deep yellow color. Leake and Hari have posted their taste test of the two products on YouTube (20,400 views in one week), the results of which find no discernible taste difference between the U.K. and the U.S. products. The petition, “Kraft: Stop Using Dangerous Food Dyes in Our Mac & Cheese,” has been signed by more than 246,000 supporters at press time and is posted on www.change.org.

Chicago residents protest charter schools
This past March, hundreds of North Side residents of Chicago’s 49th Ward, disappointed that their alderman, Joe Moore, had failed to attend a meeting hosted by the Northside POWER group to discuss future charter schools, marched from the White Field House to Moore’s house and planted 582 small yellow flags in his yard. The flags represented the 582 students enrolled at the Stephen F. Gale Elementary School, which until recently was on the Chicago Public School’s closure list. Moore has said he is unlikely to ever be entirely opposed to the presence of charter schools in his ward, according to the Chicago Tribune. His constituents say that bringing new charter schools to the ward means that fewer resources will be available for existing public schools and might lead to segregation.


Q&A with Diane Ravitch

From 1991 to 1993, Diane Ravitch served as Assistant Secretary of Education in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. Today, the author and education historian says the institution she served at the federal level is under an unprecedented threat from powerful interests intent on privatizing public schools.

In 2010, Ravitch published The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education. A keynote speaker at the 2013 NSBA Annual Conference in San Diego, she recently talked with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy.

Why is this a dangerous time for the public schools?

I see the trends intensifying, and there is now a full-blown privatization movement. At the time I wrote my last book, I thought there was some kind of an accidental convergence between, on the one hand, the testing movement associated with No Child Left Behind, and a growing, nascent privatization movement. I now have concluded that these are not an accidental convergence, and that one feeds into the other: The testing is being used as part of a larger narrative about the alleged failure of American education.

Charter schools -- especially for-profit ones -- are a challenge to public schools, but they still serve only a small fraction of students. Why are they such a big threat?

We’re going to cross a threshold. The charter movement began with the idea that educators were so incompetent that if you could just turn over the schools to private managers, whether they were educators or not, they would do a better job, and that they would perform miracles. It began with this rhetoric of saving minority kids from failing schools -- that’s sort of standard lingo. And so there are many cities now where charters are not an inconsequential part of the education spectrum.

Proponents of vouchers and privately run charter schools say they want to give parents more choice. Isn’t that a positive message?

They use all the progressive language to do things that, distinctly, are not progressive. When you close down public education, that’s not progressive. If the American public understood what was really happening, there would be this huge outcry, but it’s always bathed in the rhetoric of, “We want to help minority kids, save them from failing schools.”

And public education’s response?

We don’t have all that wonderful messaging. Instead, we’re constantly playing a game of saying, “Stop saying these things. You’re wrong.” It makes you sound very defensive. And they say, if you don’t agree with them -- this is one of their favorite lines -- you’re a defender of the status quo.

So if you believe in public education, if you believe in democratic control of local schools, if you believe in local school boards and state school boards, if you believe the people who are members of the community should have some say in what happens to the schools their children attend, you’re a defender of the status quo. If you believe that teachers should have a professional preparation and that they should be committed to the classroom, you’re a defender of the status quo. If you believe teachers should have some academic freedom and some protection for their freedom of speech and their right to teach, then you’re a defender of the status quo.

How should supporters of public education respond?

First of all to call it what it is, to recognize that what’s going on is a conscious effort to privatize American public education -- and the public doesn’t want that. I think it helps to show that, even by the “reformers’” own measures, privatization does not produce better education. It leads to terrible consequences.

You say charters are already weeding out disabled children, who cost more to educate and tend to bring test scores down. What are some other consequences?

We now have many studies showing that charter schools are more segregated than public schools, even in districts that already have a high degree of segregation. This is something that under Brown v. Board of Education shouldn’t be permitted. And yet it’s going on. The UCLA Civil Rights Project has done studies showing that charters are more segregated, both for black and Hispanic kids. We’re rolling back some of the most important gains in our history.

What’s the role of school board members in confronting all of this?

We have to reclaim the democratic aspect of public education: Schools belong to the people and not to corporations.


Your Turn
Good News Can Sell

The media often focuses on the negative, but you can help change that

As a former newspaper reporter, Your Turn’s editor would like to make one thing clear: We in the media do not dwell on negative news or look for that one bad thing that’s happening in your district -- unless, of course, it’s a really good story.

All right, I admit it: Bad news often makes for good stories. It’s an unfortunate fact of the journalistic world. And yes, in this month’s Reader Panel poll, more than 93 percent of you agreed that “negative and often inaccurate rhetoric about public schools is drowning out” the many success stories.

As you’ll see in this month’s cover story, you have a good point.

But there are many excellent education reporters out there, and they do indeed want to tell the rest of the story: Sometimes, they just need a little help. And who better to help them than your school district -- its communications department; its board members and administrators; its students, teachers and parents; its community partners. Good news can sell: You just have to, well, sell it better.

Some comments:

• Our PR department is always sending good news about what our schools, teachers, and students are doing. It seems to go on deaf ears. I have been a board member for over 20 years and do remember the times that it made a difference and we saw it in the news much more. Recently our district received a national award for outstanding high school districts for our success in involving more students in successful use of AP courses. It was very exciting for us but the difficulty in getting local coverage was very sad. -- Vicki L. Johnson, board member, Arizona

• The emphasis is clearly on accountability. We need to achieve, and then demonstrate that achievement. However, it is increasingly difficult to do that. There is little media that is available to send that message. The print media is losing market share rapidly, and the broadcast media is declining in its impact. So much of the message has to be carried by our own generated content. And that is most likely to reach those already supportive of public education and committed to it. So, it is a very interesting challenge. -- Terry Ward, board member, Missouri

• We need to provide more support and instruction to superintendents around the importance of and tools for good public communications. Though it may not seem like a good use of tax dollars, school boards must fund these efforts or risk bringing down a system that the nation has worked so hard to build. While it is important to understand the educational aspects of running a district, since that is clearly the product, leadership must be trained in the much broader issues of operating a public corporation. -- Jim Butt, board member, Pennsylvania