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Posts Tagged ‘legislation’

IS Public Education a Deciding Issue?

October 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Education blogger Jeff Bryant asserted in his column yesterday that education policy could be a determining factor in several gubernatorial races in the coming weeks. But, as he notes, in some cases it will result in the election of a “lesser-of-two-evils” candidate as opposed to the election of a candidate who is willing to undo the budget cuts, evisceration of contracts, and emphasis on standardized testing. While polling data indicates that “The top testing turnout message overall emphasizes education, specifically Republicans’ efforts to cut programs for students while giving tax cuts to the wealthy”, the fact remains that several candidates getting hefty support from teachers unions are NOT advocates of increased funding but rather less strident in they opposition to education than their opponents.

As I’ve noted in several earlier posts, I hope that public education advocates will NOT be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils in 2016. Those who seek increased public education funding should rally behind whichever Presidential aspirant pledges to end the standardized testing regimen that has been in place for a generation and the privatization movement that NCLB and RTTT has aided and abetted. If the testing is not stopped the drumbeat of “failing public schools” will continue and the public will be increasingly disinclined to fund a failing enterprise.

Fee-For-Service Redux

October 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterday I wrote a post describing the latest funding scheme advocated by the business community and taxpayers groups whereby schools are starved of funds and private foundations and/or school fundraisers are expected to fill the void. The post was prompted by a NYTimes article by Mokoto Rich describing how this gambit is effectively adding to the disparity between affluent schools and schools serving children in poverty and effectively diminishing the support for increases in broad based taxes needed to increase the base funding for public education.

For readers who might have concluded that this was a problem only in the Northeast because it was reported in the NYTimes, today’s Google feed offered evidence that the same phenomenon is occurring in the heartland by providing a more detailed analysis of the study completed by the University of Indiana-Bloomington that was the basis of Rich’s article. According to the study, private funds for schools have increased but the schools serving lower income students have benefited least and… the increase in “voluntary funds” has not offset the aggregate loss in taxes:

Nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping support public schools have grown dramatically over the past two decades. And they are raising a lot more money than a few years ago.

But the growth hasn’t come close to offsetting the reduction in tax revenues for schools that came with the recent recession, according to a study by Indiana University researchers. And the support is uneven, with students in high-poverty schools less likely to benefit from voluntary fundraising.

This whole gambit of shifting the burden to “end-users” has consequences that match my personal experience as a superintendent during the time frame the study covers:

The researchers analyzed trends and relationships in data from thousands of U.S. nonprofit school-supporting organizations that filed annual IRS reports between 1995 and 2010. Findings included:

  • The number of such organizations, including local school foundations, booster clubs and parent-teacher organizations, grew from 3,475 in 1995 to 11,453 in 2010.
  • The money they raised, adjusted for inflation, grew from $197 million to $880 million, or nearly 350 percent.
  • The share of school districts with at least one such nonprofit organization increased from 12 percent in 1995 to 29 percent in 2010.
  • Large school districts are more likely to be served by at least one fundraising organization; but the money raised, per pupil, declines as district enrollment gets larger.

School districts with greater capacity — as measured by property tax revenues per pupil, the share of individuals with a bachelor’s degree or more, median household income, and relatively low unemployment rates — have higher probabilities of being served by at least one school-supporting nonprofit and receive more money, per pupil, from the nonprofits.

While school-supporting nonprofits have exploded in number and revenue, the researchers conclude the money they raise isn’t enough to tip the balance in how schools are funded. Among school districts that got help from one or more nonprofit organization, average voluntary per-pupil funding in 2010 was $28; that compares to approximately $10,600 per student that public schools spent. Meanwhile, state tax receipts — a key source of support for schools in many states — have declined by 12 percent since the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

I believe the researchers were charitable in assigning the decline in state revenues to “the Great Recession”. The decline in revenues has also been helped by an increase in corporate tax breaks and reductions in state income taxes that were sold to the public as a means of stimulating economic growth. The privatization movement has only made matters worse for students in high poverty schools. The fact that these tax cuts and privatization movements happened in States under the leadership of Republicans who want to “starve the beast” and neoliberals who want to “run government like a business” is no coincidence. The sad reality is that once broad based taxes are reduced and privatization is introduced, the funding States ultimately provide to “students in high poverty schools” is unlikely to return unless some politician is courageous enough to insist that better schools will require higher taxes. In the meantime the mainstream media like TIME magazine will run cover stories blaming teachers for the failings of underfunded schools…. and the death spiral will continue.

Moving Toward Fee-For-Service

October 23, 2014 Leave a comment

I scoured Mokoto Rich’s latest NYTimes article, “Nation’s Wealthy Places Pour Private Money Into Public Schools, Study Finds” in hopes of finding a quote explaining the underlying rationale for the trend described in the headline, which is to move schools toward a fee-for-service model as opposed to a public utility model.

Several years ago when I was Superintendent in MD in the mid 1990s, some leaders of the local business community introduced the idea of creating a foundation to fund some elements of the budget that they felt were discretionary. Their thinking was prompted by the experiences of  states where budget caps were forcing districts to cut things like field trips, elective courses and school clubs and school-based organizations were picking up the costs through private donations. In effect, the business community was seeking to shift the burden away from broad-based taxes toward the end users…. that is making public schooling a fee-for-service enterprise like, say, trash collection.

At the same time as this idea was being floated in the county, I was serving on a State “Blue Ribbon” panel created by the Governor that was examining the funding formula in the state. In retrospect, I can see the connection between these two initiatives more clearly. While the legislators serving the less affluent districts in MD were trying to raise the State’s base contributions to a higher level in hopes of providing their students with an equitable opportunity, the business community was trying to find ways to offset the effects of the loss of State funds they sought through capping taxes by developing “workarounds”.

Over the next 15 years I witnessed a continuation of this tug-of-war between those favoring an increased base in school funding and those advocating a de facto “fee-for-service” model, a tug-of-war that manifests itself in the following ways:

  • The portrayal of  “public schools” as “government run schools”: As the American public’s suspicion of anything associated with the government increased as a result of their belief that “government is the enemy” the so-called “school reformers” re-branded “public schools as “government run schools”. Raising taxes for a “program run but the government” would not meet favor with voters who believe that “the marketplace” can spend more wisely.
  • The increased acceptance that fees are an acceptable means of providing non-mandated programs: My first experience with a fee-for-service model was in the early 1980s with the institution of a fee for Drivers Education based on the rationale that Drivers Ed was not a graduation requirement and taking the course provided a benefit only to those students whose parents could afford a car for the student to drive. In effect, it was an effort to shift the overall cost of an education program that benefits affluent students away from taxpayers who arguably needed relief. When I went to lead schools in Exeter NH I inherited a district policy that required high school students to pay for the bus if they lived within 3 miles of the school building based on the rationale that State law did not mandate transportation for students within that range. In Hanover NH, the district I led in the early 2000s, I inherited a plan whereby the district charged athletic fees each season that covered all of the non-personnel costs for sports that were in place when the fee was instituted. The rationale was that Little Leagues and soccer programs charged fees and parents were accustomed to paying for their children to participate in those town-sponsored activities. I found many of these fees troubling, but I knew that undoing a practice that creates a revenue stream is extremely difficult in a time when many other pressing priorities were in play. Moreover, whenever fees were debated in budget sessions members of the public and Board members would cite practices in CA and several midwestern states where book fees, activity fees, and athletic fees are commonplace. By the time I retired three years ago, the charging of fees for service, once rare, was increasingly commonplace.
  • The increase in privatizing services within schools: As noted in prior posts, schools typically privatize transportation, food services, special education related services, and many non-instructional services related to business operations and technology. With every portion of the budget that is privatized it becomes increasingly easy to argue that another segment of the budget— say music lessons or even tutoring— can be outsourced to lower the budget without compromising the education program.
  • The narrowing of the mission of public education: While much has been written about mission creep in public education, including an article I wrote for a local newspaper over five years ago, the reality is that legislators and the voting public increasingly see school funding being limited to those courses that are graduation requirements and whose focus is academic. The standardized testing regimen as only made this worse by effectively de-emphasizing art, music, and physical education in favor of “academics” at the elementary level and viewing secondary education as preparation for work or college. This narrowing of the content results in schools shedding “non-essential” programs in the arts and “non-essential” electives and extracurricular activities in high schools adding to the joylessness for students and driving parents to either enroll their children in after school elective programs or take their children out of school completely.
  • The expansion of the fee-for-service model across all government services: The “government is the enemy” mentality has increased the level of privatization in other government agencies including the armed forces, parking, and, yes, the return of  toll roads.

These trends do not bode well for those who advocate an increase in the base in school funding, especially given the acceptability of the workarounds for affluent parents. Given the choice between higher taxes to provide physical education and the arts for all children and paying a fee to enroll their children in arts programs and physical activities their children enjoy, it is not surprising that parents accept the less robust program in their schools. From the taxpayers perspective, it is an even easier decision: low taxes will always trump services for children in another town if not their own community. Without the full throated advocacy for equitable funding for all schools, funding that would require the same per pupil expenditures as the most affluent districts now pay, we will never have true equity of opportunity…. and the fees will keep increasing.

The Oligarchs Are Winning the PR Battle

October 22, 2014 Leave a comment

The NYTimes headline reads “Nation’s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip” and Peter Baker, the author of the piece, fails to connect the dots and come to the obvious conclusion:  the steady loss of confidence is a victory for the oligarchs who started the “government is bad” meme and kept the drumbeat going with every chance it had… and the combination of  inept political leadership and diminishing government resources is paying off! Anything with a “government” label attached is ipso facto incompetent and anything run by the private sector in a marketplace free from regulations is ipso facto superior. So those who own and operate deregulated corporations are benefitting and the rest of us are suffering…. especially the children raised in poverty who are left being in those “government schools” and whose parents get fewer and fewer benefits… unless they work for a company that pays them minimum wages in which case they “earn their food stamps” (sic).

And as we come to a national and local elections that are bought and paid for by the “dark money” of the oligarchs, voters are staying home in droves because the system is rigged so that the primary elections yield only mirror image candidates. Getting the government confidence back on track will require an investment by taxpayers… but getting that investment requires faith that the spending will be worth it. When you vote in a couple of weeks, select the candidate who is willing to break this vicious circle. It’s the only way “government schools” will rebound.

State Takeovers Haven’t Worked

October 21, 2014 Leave a comment

Recently elected Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s op ed column in yesterday’s NYTimes is a case study of why State takeovers of urban districts have failed… but Baraka downplays major reason for the State’s failure, which is inadequate funding. Instead, Baraka emphasizes the loss of local control as being the primary reason for Newark’s persistent failure. While I agree that the loss of local control is detrimental and the restoration of an elected Board is necessary, it will be insufficient without a corresponding increase in State funding…. and if I were Baraka I’d be looking for a substantial increase in the range of well over a billion in capital spending a millions in annual spending.

In the column Baraka recounts the history of the State’s takeover, which he insinuates was linked to a 1994 NJ Supreme Court ruling on inequitable funding in the State. He recounts the endless cycle of experimental programs that were abandoned if they failed to achieve breakthrough success levels. He also recounts the way a recent $100,000,000 grant from Facebook magnate Mark Zuckerberg was wasted on a merit pay program and the current mismanagement of the schools by State appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.

One citation in Baraka’s essay jumped out at me: Over the years, the court-ordered remedies for Newark’s schools were eroded or ignored. A $6 billion schools construction program never materialized. He wrote these two sentences near the beginning and never returned to this fact later…. and this is the kind of promise that was the underpinning of most state takeovers. One of the rationales for State takeovers of urban districts was that the local boards were corrupt and that in their effort to provide patronage jobs and construction contracts to cronies the locally elected boards ignored the needs of children. As part of their takeovers the States promised new schools, more funding, and better programs for children. Instead, urban school systems served as de facto patronage for hedge-funders seeking profits for new schools and the facilities were closed or sold to developers seeking to gentrify neighborhoods. The patronage shifted from the cities to the States and while children didn’t benefit from the changing of the guard the state political leaders did.

While I DO believe restoring local control is imperative… I think it is more important that STATE money be provided to upgrade the facilities in Newark (and as noted in an earlier post Zuckerberg’s $100 million won’t come close to helping) and to increase the operating budget so proven programs like those Baraka advocates can be funded. Without more funding Newark schools– and all schools under the control of the State— will not improve.

What If We Abandoned Standardized Tests?

October 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Valerie Strauss used her Washington Post column earlier this week to share FairTest’s proposal that we declare an indefinite moratorium on standardized testing so that districts could “…cut back their own test mandates (and) provide time and incentives for states and districts to revise their assessment and accountability programs.”

The most compelling argument for discontinuing the standardized testing regimen is offered in the concluding paragraph:

NAEP shows that overall gains in reading and math (since the advent of standardized testing) have just about halted. Progress toward closing achievement gaps has also slowed. Test-and-punish programs are wreaking havoc in many urban neighborhoods by contributing to school closures and resulting community destabilization.

A few days ago I shared a DRAFT of the ideal education platform in this blog that suggested a similar action. From my perspective the discontinuation of standardized testing with the exception of NAEP would give states the chance to use the Common Core as the basis for developing their own sets of standards and engage school leaders and parents in a dialogue about what measures are most important. This is echoed in FairTest’s proposal, which is summarized in the final sentence of the blog post:

The new (accountability0system would provide much stronger evidence of learning and progress, reveal far more about whether programs are working, and improve rather than undermine teaching and learning, for our most vulnerable children.

In closing, here is a reprint of the campaign position I would hope SOME Presidential candidate will take in the run up to 2016. Which ever candidate does so will get at least one volunteer in NH who will knock on doors and make phone calls.

  • Discontinue the use of standardized tests as the primary metric for rating schools. By now parents, teachers and voters are fully aware of the misuse of standardized testing in our public schools. They realize how demoralizing this testing is for teachers, school communities, and—most dishearteningly— for students. The use of standardized achievement tests to rate schools is narrowing the curriculum by pushing out subjects that cannot be tested inexpensively. This emphasis on testing dehumanizes the school by making the preparation for tests the focal point of classroom instruction. Worst of all, the testing provides the public with misleading, meaningless, and seemingly precise data that fails to measure the true value of schooling. The test results do accomplish one thing: they help persuade the public that our public schools are failing. If elected I will suspend the testing mandated by Race To The Top and issue a waiver exempting school districts from all tests mandated by No Child Left Behind. In place of these tests, I will direct the Secretary of Education to work with practitioners, post secondary institution leaders, and business leaders to devise an accountability framework that each state will use to develop their own unique means of measuring school effectiveness. One size does not fit all in the classroom, and we’ve learned the hard way that one size does not fit all in public schools.

Obama Could End Testing Today

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I was frustrated to read a Christian Science Monitor article titled “As Overtesting Outcry Grows Education Leaders Pull Back on Standardized Tests” for several reasons. The comments and/or questions following quotes from the article will provide some insights into my frustration:

As the outcry against the overtesting of American children has grown, state and local education leaders – in a move endorsed by President Barack Obama– have announced a new focus on dialing back the volume of standardized testing and dialing up the quality.

“I have directed [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan to support states and school districts in the effort to improve assessment of student learning so that parents and teachers have the information they need, that classroom time is used wisely, and assessments are one part of fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools,” Mr. Obama said in a statement Wednesday night.

Wait a minute! He’s supporting an improved assessment of student learning that is linked to a “fair evaluation of teachers and accountability for schoolsAs long as teacher and school evaluations are linked with STUDENT test results districts will have a de facto incentive to test students early and often. And hasn’t the President read ANY of the research on VAM? There IS no valid means of linking test scores to teacher performance!

Whether a student faces a large number of tests is not solely determined by federal or state testing mandates, but is largely the product of local district decisions, concludes a report released Thursday by the Center for American Progress.

Wait a minute! As noted frequently in the blog, Race to the Top was a de facto mandate that States adopt the Common Core and also adopt standardized tests that had to be used, to quote the President, “as one part of fan evaluation of teachers and accountability for schools”. While the number of standardized tests administered throughout the year IS a local decision, the administration of a minimum number of high stakes tests is not… and the consequences of administering such tests is described above.

“As states and districts work to clear out unhelpful, unnecessary tests, it would be a grave mistake to stop annual statewide standardized assessments,” noted the Education Trust, a nonprofit working to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students. “Parents deserve to know how their students are performing … when compared to their peers.”

We know how the comparisons will play out right now: well funded schools serving affluent students will outperform underfunded schools serving children raised in poverty. This isn’t a mystery. It’s been true for at least fifty years. How will MORE assessments help us unless we provide ALL students with the same level of programming and opportunity as the students in the most affluent schools receive?

More than 30 state and urban school leaders endorsed the new statement of principles, which supports Common Core aligned state testing. Among them was John King Jr., the education commissioner in New York. The state recently received a federal waiver to avoid double-testing 8th grade math students, and has offered grants to districts to help reduce nonessential testing.

When John King pushes back on the legislature’s unwillingness to provide equitable funding to public schools and pushes back on Governor Cuomo’s decided favoritism toward deregulated for profit charter schools and disavows VAM, he can be singled out as a school chief pushing back against testing.

Two paragraphs DID hit the nail on the head:

“Hollow pledges to ‘review the entire array of assessments’ are insufficient. In the short run, we need … an elimination of test-based consequences for students, teachers and schools,” said a statement from FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, applauded the state and local leaders’ effort to reduce testing and ensure high quality, but said in a statement that it “addresses the symptoms, not the root cause, of test fixation…. It’s unconscionable that everything about our schools, our kids and our teachers is reduced to one math and one English high-stakes standardized test per year” under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Finally, and most importantly, President Obama could end this madness. He ignited the over testing with Race to the Top: he can end it abruptly by eliminating all standardized tests except NAEP, which is minimally disruptive to schools and provides the most statistically significant findings. I hope that at least one candidate running for President will make a pledge to do that… otherwise the factory model will persist and we will continue to sort and select students based on their parents education and income and the wealth disparity will increase.