Category Archives: Funding Education

Where should are tax dollars go and where are they actually going?

Should Schools Go to Four-Day Week to Reduce Costs

Recently, the teachers in our district were asked to give suggestions regarding ways that our district could cut costs since our most recent school levy went down in flames again and money is increasingly tight. Since we have made drastic staff cuts already and are about as bare-boned there as we can get, administrators and our school board are looking for creative alternatives to cutting costs, and who better to ask than teachers.

One suggestion that most of us sent in was to reduce the work week to four days which saves one day’s worth of operating costs for a district. So imagine my interest when I read that a recent Washington Post survey showed that a growing number of school districts are doing exactly what we have recommended.

While the numbers of schools that are trying this approach to cut expenses is not huge, it has more than doubled from an estimated 120 districts in 2009 to 292 currently. (This is out of an estimated 15,000 public school districts.)

This approach to reducing costs allows districts to save money on transportation and administrative costs, which include janitorial work, electricity, heat, busing, school lunches, etc. In order to shorten the week, the four days that school is in session would have to be extended.

One of the concerns to this method is that it can be a logistical problem for working parents who would have to find child care for their younger students on the day that school is not in session. A survey conducted in September among Florida business owners found that 65 percent of entrepreneurs in the state were against a 4-day week. On top of their concerns over the nightmare parents might experience in seeking day care for their students, they worried about the potential risk of leaving older students home alone unsupervised. They also expressed trepidation that the move to a 4-day week might severely impact the lowest-paid employees of school districts: food service personnel and bus drivers.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has expressed his displeasure with the growing trend saying that it would eliminate after school programs and would “hurt children” academically.

In a report in 2009, researchers at the University of Southern Maine found that there was “either no impact or a positive impact on academic performance” when schools moved to a 4-day week. However, according to Kathy Christie, chief of staff of the non-profit Education Commission of the States, which provides information to policymakers to help them make decisions regarding education, more research is needed in order to determine whether this trend is worthwhile or not. Last year, Christie told CNN, “There really is no strong research on how it affects student achievements.”

In lieu of thorough research, proponents of a 4-day week claim that student attendance would be higher if parents had one day a week to schedule doctor’s appointments and other errands that can only be accomplished during the week. This makes a lot of sense; students leave school all of the time for doctor, dental, and orthodontist appointments. And quite often, parents take their child out in the morning for an appointment and never bring them back all day.

Yet, while some districts are talking about reducing the school week, some districts who are struggling academically are considering adding a day to their week. Baltimore schools are considering adding Saturday school, and the superintendent of Memphis City Schools actually submitted a proposal earlier this year which would require students in elementary school up to fifth grade to attend school six days a week.

Our district has had to be creative in the past in order to be fiscally responsible. During the energy crisis in 1976-1977, I am told that the schools in our district went on split sessions, with elementary students attending school in the morning and older students attending in the afternoon in the same building. This allowed them to shut down one building for the winter, thus reducing fuel costs. By all accounts, students seemed to do just fine.

If a 4-day week can get school districts through this lean time, so be it. Teachers will rise to the occasion and make it work until our economy picks up again, and we can go back to normal. Drastic times call for creative measures. And this is an alternative that could work in these drastic times.

LA Schools Agree to Boost Equity for Minority Students

The Los Angeles Unified School District has been under scrutiny for 19 months while they underwent a civil rights investigation. On October 11, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the investigation showed the district created wide academic disparities since it has failed to provide an equal education to English-learners and black students.

The district agreed to resolve these disparities through various methods, and Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who revealed the agreement at a news conference which was held at LAUSD headquarters, said that the plan would ensure that every student in this school district, the second largest in the nation, would receive the same academic opportunities “regardless of race or national origin.”

Duncan said that he was encouraged by the district’s willingness and sense of urgency in voluntarily agreeing to resolve the disparities rather than waiting to be ordered to do so, especially since these issues are “incredibly complex and politically charged.”

“Though we still have a long way to go before we see that English learner students and African-American students are consistently getting what they need to perform up to their fullest potential, I’m confident today’s agreement will help address the causes of concern that prompted our review,” he said.

While Duncan did not say that students’ civil rights were being violated and didn’t reveal detailed results of the investigation, a statement by the Education Department made it clear that it will monitor whether the district is complying with the agreement until educational codes are being met.

This agreement resulted from a “compliance review” by the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which was disturbed by wide achievement gaps between the district’s lowest performing student groups as compared to other students. For example, according to the district’s 2009-10 report card, only 5% of English language learners at the high school level ranked as proficient in either English or math. As for black students, 32% ranked as proficient in English and 9% in math. Yet, the overall district average was 37% in English and 17% in math.

John Deasy, the superintendent of LAUSD, acknowledged that disparities existed and worked with federal officials to reach a solution. The district will have to find ways to fund the measures as the plans for specific areas are developed.

A huge problem with this district’s English-language program is that it has allowed non-native speakers to stay in English-learning programs for years, sometimes through their whole school career, without ever meeting the criteria to move out into mainstream classrooms. As a result, many students have either fallen behind their grade level or dropped out of school in frustration. For example, in the 2009-2010 school year, only 14.4% of English learners were reclassified as fluent.

The district has now agreed to revamp this program by the next school year, placing special emphasis on high school students who haven’t been considered proficient in English, so that they will be able to take the courses they need to in order to graduate. This will be a challenge, as the district has the highest number of English-learning students in the United States.

Under this new agreement, English-learners will receive grade-level courses, teachers will be trained to work with multiple English-proficiency levels, and special education teachers will also receive English-instructional materials.

And there is a component in the program which targets black students in an attempt to boost their “academic language proficiency” beginning in elementary grades.

Three other areas of concern with the investigation were the findings that black students are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs but overrepresented in suspensions and disciplinary actions. Additionally, the investigation revealed that schools with predominantly black populations lack appropriate technology and library resources.

The district said it will work to resolve these disparities with evaluations for gifted and talented programs which are fairer for black students and fairer decisions regarding disciplinary actions. (It is a mystery to me how they will achieve this without letting students into gifted and talented programs who don’t really belong, just to pad the numbers, and decreasing the severity of disciplinary action so that there are less suspensions.) They also agreed to provide more computers and increase library book collections in schools that have a high black population. (I wonder where they will find the funds for that expenditure.)

Although no details were revealed, the agreement called for a school-based community pilot program to be launched in an African-American neighborhood which would provide health and social services for the community.

The president of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, Warren Fletcher, praised the Education Department for shedding a light on the areas that need improvement, while at the same time pointing out that the district has laid off more than 1,200 teachers and has closed libraries in several of its schools.

Of the agreement, Fletcher commented, “It’s very general. We have to see how those services are going to be provided.”

As I read this article, I could not help but feel frustrated, as I’m sure those who teach in these schools are feeling, too. As usual, the fingers are pointing at the school district, but how does a district in the heart of Los Angeles cope with the problems of a big city, a huge non-English-speaking population, all of the challenges of city life with drugs, gangs, and violence, less government funding for sorely needed programs, a massively reduced teaching staff resulting in bigger class sizes, and now, more demands with no additional resources to meet those demands?

The school district is failing these students because the city is failing these students. Fix the problems in the surrounding neighborhoods, and the schools will be free to do what they are there to do; teach its students, not fix its students.

Part Two: Public Schools Lose Too When Online Students Fail

Colorado K-12 Online Schools

This is the second in a series regarding Colorado’s online schools and studies that are looking at their growth, their general ineffectiveness, and their funding, as reported on by Education Week. (I suggest that you read yesterday’s blog first before reading this one.)

First, because online schools cater to students who need flexible scheduling or struggle in more conventional classroom settings, these schools are thriving, not just in Colorado, but all across the United States.

Here’s a little background to help you understand how they work. Students usually take classes on computers which are provided to them by the online schools and get teacher support either through email or virtual chats. Some schools require a certain amount of live or virtual teacher contact, but others don’t.

In Colorado in 2007, the practice of online schools getting higher per-pupil funding changed; now online students are funded at a flat rate of $6,228, which is a little less than average per-pupil funding statewide.

This set amount of per-pupil funding is based each year on student counts taken at the beginning of October. Colorado anticipates that it will spend $100 million in state funds for around 18,000 to attend online schools, but in each of the past three years, half of the online students have left their school within a year.

In fact, looking at a comparison of the October student count data and districts’ end-of–year data, it shows that the number of mid-year transfers was at the minimum 1,000 students a year, and probably more. If you do the math, that translates to at least $6 million annually going to online schools for students who aren’t even there.

The fall of 2008, saw the largest attendance in online programs with 10,500 enrolled, but 5,600 had left those schools by the following fall. In the fall of 2009, 7,400 new recruits replaced those who had withdrawn, but more than a third of these students left by the end of that school year, according to the I-News Network and Education News Colorado analysis. And by October of 2010, only about a quarter of the students remained after two years.

State educators and lawmakers are rightfully concerned that profit and overzealous student recruitment has become more important than educating students.

Shaffer, the state senate president, said, “There isn’t much effort put into keeping those kids in that school. It’s all about boosting their numbers for the count date, then forget about the kids.”

Randy DeHoff, who spent 12 years on the State Board of Education before becoming GOAL Academy’s director of strategic planning last November, said, “One of the things the online schools need to do a better job of in that recruitment and enrollment phase is trying to give a student a real clear idea of what an online program’s about (and) what their responsibilities are.”

“I think it’s problematic for the student in terms of we know that mobility contributes to a lack of success for students,” Diana Sirko, deputy commissioner of education in Colorado said. “What we hear from some of the school districts who receive children halfway through the year who’ve started in online is there may have been a two or three-month gap as they left one and began the next.”

When I-News/EdNews studied test scores for online students previously attending traditional schools, they found that scores dropped once they entered online schools. As a matter of fact, they found that 59% had scored proficient or above in reading in a traditional school, but a year later in online school, only 51% achieved that score.

For example, the St. Vrain School District in Longmont lost 70 of its students last year to GOAL, after heavy on-line recruiting by the program. GOAL recruiters also drove around in recreational vehicles with their school’s logo on the sides making pitches to high school students during their school lunch hours. GOAL even has storefront operations in many malls along the Front Range.

According to DeHoff, their recruiting goal is to reach students not being served by traditional schools, because, he says, GOAL targets at-risk students. “We’re not trying to steal kids from districts, we’re there serving the kids that districts either can’t or don’t want to serve,” he said.

Yet, according to St. Vrain Superintendent Don Haddad, many of these recruited students returned to St. Vrain schools in the middle of the year, academically behind. He claimed their time at GOAL was “wasted.”

“These institutions, what they do is borderline unethical behavior in my mind,” said Haddad, who supports online learning as a tool. “It’s a money making proposition and they have no problem sending the kids back after the October count. The sales job they get up front, it’s a travesty.”

Haddad reported that the district lost more than $400,000 in state funding last year due to GOAL’s recruitment of St. Vrain students.

Further aggravating to some superintendents in Colorado schools is the fact that some online programs are actually sponsored by other school districts that typically receive a portion of their per-pupil funding. Hope Online is sponsored by the Douglas County School District, but very few of the district’s students use the Hope program. Regardless, Hope pays Douglas County about $2 million a year for support services such as professional development and special education.

Amy Anderson has been named to oversee innovation and choice, which includes online schools, for the Colorado Department of Education. She understands the usefulness of online programs for some students, but like so many others, she is concerned about the turnover.

 “There are other schools that are just churning kids and I don’t feel that is good for kids,” Anderson said. “So how can we prevent that? Those are the challenges that the authorizers of online charters are starting to talk about.”

But two of Colorado’s school districts who have been adversely affected by outside online schools have come up with a creative way to combat the recruitment of their students. Florence and St. Vrain are starting their own online programs.

Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? At least they would have a bigger stake in their kids doing well no matter which type of education they chose, and the money stays in the district, where it belongs. Smart move!

Public Schools Lose Too When Online Students Fail

Some very troubling news from Education Week states that it isn’t just charter schools pulling taxpayers’ money from public schools; online schools do as well. And recent studies out of Colorado reveal that these online schools are not nearly as successful as the public schools which help fund them. 

According to Education Week, Colorado taxpayers will spend $100 million this year alone on online schools. Yet state education records and interviews with school officials show that, in general, these schools are failing their elementary and high school students. And if this isn’t enough to rile you up, millions of the tax dollars going to K-12 online schools are going for students who aren’t enrolled there anymore.

On top of that, public schools take a further hit when former students who leave these online schools because they have fallen even further behind academically return to public schools which are expected to absorb these students and catch them up. All the while, the online schools and their parent companies get to keep the state funding. Does this make any sense?

Education Week cited the example of high school senior, Laura Johnson, who was one of 39 students who left Florence High School outside Pueblo, Colorado, last year to enroll in GOAL Academy which was one of the largest online charter schools in the state.

Laura and a dozen of her former classmates returned to Florence disillusioned by their experience and behind academically. Here are the sad statistics: when these 39 students left to go attend GOAL, almost a quarter million dollars in state funding (comparable to four to five teachers’ salaries) went with them, but when the dozen returned to Florence mid-year, the funding did not follow them. Instead, GOAL got to keep it.

A 10 month investigation by I-News Network, a Colorado based in-depth news consortium, and Education News Colorado, a nonprofit, used previously unreleased Colorado Department of Education data to follow 10,500 students who were enrolled in the 10 largest online schools starting in 2008. These students accounted for more than 90% of all online students in the 2008-09 school year. Quoting from the study, here is what it found:

• Half the online students wind up leaving within a year. When they do, they’re often further behind academically than when they started.
• Online schools produce three times as many dropouts as they do graduates. One of every eight online students drops out of school permanently—a rate four times the state average.
• Millions of dollars are going to virtual schools for students who no longer attend online classes.
• The churn of students in and out of online schools is putting pressure on brick-and-mortar schools, which then must find money in their budgets to educate students who come from online schools mid-year.

Earlier this month, after hearing the findings of this study, State Sen. President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said, “We’re bleeding money to a program that doesn’t work.” And last week, he asked that the state audit committee complete an emergency audit of online schools before the state legislature meets in January.

Shaffer said that the public had a right to know the findings, especially in light of the state’s budget problems. “We spend over $100 million a year on online schools now—in an environment where we’re cutting $200 to $270 million a year from brick-and-mortar schools,” he said.

Online programs’ officials cite a variety of factors which contribute to the high numbers of students who leave their programs. Heather O’Mara, executive director of one of Colorado’s largest online programs, Hope Online, listed these: brief experimentation with a new approach to learning, parents not home to oversee their children’s studies, and working with at-risk students who see these schools as their last resort.

O’Mara said, “We are all so different, we are serving different audiences and students are enrolling for very different reasons. At Hope, we particularly target kids who are at risk, who have not been academically successful, not only at their previous school, probably several schools before that.”

And yet, according to the I-News/EdNews analysis, only about 120 students of the more than 10,000 who entered online programs last year were identified as previous dropouts who were returning to school, and only 290 entered after spending the year before in an alternative school for troubled youth. Additionally, among the 2,400 online students who had taken a state standardized reading test in a brick-and-mortar school the year before, more than half had scored proficient or better.

Dropout rates were also studied, and the results showed that in the state’s online schools, dropouts outnumbered graduates by three to one, while the opposite of that was true in terms of the statewide average, where graduates outnumber dropouts by three to one.

I am sure that I am not alone when I say, this just doesn’t make any sense, especially when our public schools are taking such a beating financially already.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow when I wrap up this blog about online schools in Colorado…

Indiana Vouchers Prompting Many to Change Schools

Indiana School Vouchers

Under a new law in Indiana, which is considered to be the nation’s most extensive school voucher program, thousands of students are transferring from their local public schools to private schools, particularly to religious schools. As a result, many Catholic schools which have been on the brink of closing are seeing an increase in enrollment, which is allowing them to stay afloat. But what does this mean for the public schools that have been left behind?

Under this new law, signed into effect in May by Gov. Mitch Daniels, a whopping 3,200 Indiana students are receiving vouchers to attend private schools, a figure that will likely increase over the next few years as parents become more aware of this option and current limits as to the number of applicants allowed are lifted.

Before this law was passed, most voucher systems were limited to students who were attending schools which were failing, those with special needs, or those who came from poor families. But with the passage of this new law, students from middle-class homes and sound school districts are now eligible for vouchers, too.

Probably not surprisingly, according to figures provided by the five dioceses in Indiana to The Associated Press, almost 70% of those vouchers which have been approved throughout the state are for students who are choosing to enroll in Catholic schools, and most of these are in large cities such as Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, South Bend, and Gary, where many of their public schools have been struggling academically.

John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, was not surprised by these numbers since most Catholic schools already have state accreditation, are more established, and have more space available. This is not the case with some of the other private schools which are part of the voucher system.

Sign outside Our Lady of Hungary Catholic School

Two short years ago, Our Lady of Hungary Catholic School in South Bend was on the verge of closing due to low enrollment. Since the passage of this new law, enrollment has increased almost 60% over its enrollment last year.

In 1953, at the school’s height, it had 702 students, but last year, that figure had dropped to 135. It is currently reporting an enrollment of 213 students. Due to this increase, the school has had to hire three more teachers, and all of its students are separated into single classes now except for seventh and eighth graders. This is a huge change from the past when grades were combined due to low enrollment.

Principal Melissa Jay said, “This has exceeded all crazy expectations.”

Other states, like Ohio, where voucher programs have been introduced, have experienced a similar increase in parochial school enrollment. Chad Aldis, the executive director of School Choice Ohio, said that when students from low-performing public schools in Ohio were able to use vouchers to enroll in private schools, approximately 70% used theirs to attend Catholic schools.

But this is a situation which has concerned advocates of public schools since the voucher system was announced. Students who leave take these vouchers or government-issued certificates with them, which can be applied instead to private schools for tuition, thus taking necessary tax dollars with them which would normally go to local public schools.

Some opponents of the voucher system claim that it violates separation of church and state. Be that as it may, it most definitely hurts public schools which already are facing significant cuts to their already lean budgets.

President of the Indiana State Teachers Association, Nate Schnellenberger said, “The bottom line from our perspective is, when you cut through all the chaff, nobody can deny that public money is going to be taken from public schools, and they’re going to end up in private, mostly religious schools.”

As a result, some school districts are going so far as to plead with parents not to move their children out of their public schools. The South Bend school district stands to lose $1.3 million in funding if every student who signed up for vouchers leaves their district.

As a result, Carole Schmidt, the district’s interim superintendent told the principals in the district to call the parents of these students who are leaving the district to try to convince them to stay. A bold move which I hope pays off!

I know that many of you out there think the voucher system is great. I have debated with several of you over the last year about this very topic. So I know this will probably open a hailstorm of heated opinions, but let me try once again to state my opinion calmly.

I have no problem whatsoever with parents choosing where to send their children to school. That is most certainly a decision that is theirs to make. However, to siphon tax dollars which were originally earmarked for public education, especially at a time when most school districts are already facing devastating budget cuts, is irresponsible. And it certainly will do nothing to improve the quality of education in these schools whose budgets will be further reduced.

Some of you have argued that public schools mismanage their money and need to utilize what they have more productively, and that is probably somewhat true. But please remember, it isn’t the teachers who are mismanaging the money. We have no say in how our district’s resources are spent. Yet we will be the ones who have to find creative ways to cope with limited resources, which means digging even deeper into our own wallets, when our salaries are either being frozen or reduced. And we will be the ones who will be expected to provide the same quality of education to our students in spite of outdated textbooks, outdated technology, and ever decreasing personnel.

The district I teach in is growing all the time, so this voucher system really doesn’t affect me or those I work with. We also have maintained our ranking of “Excellent with Distinction,” so we are a school which would tend to draw students rather than lose students to other schools.

But my heart goes out to schools in Indiana which are located in big urban areas. They face so many struggles already, both within and outside their schools, and this seems like just one more setback in a long list of setbacks for these districts and for the many good people employed there.

Detroit Teachers Face 10% Pay Cuts and Additional Concessions

More disheartening news came for teachers in Detroit on July 28, where they were told that all Detroit Public School teachers would be taking a 10% wage cut starting with their August 23rd paycheck.

Roy Roberts_20110623172211_JPG

Detroit Public Schools face a $327 million deficit, and it was up to Roy Roberts, the district’s emergency manager to make difficult decisions to save additional money. Public Act 4, which was approved earlier this year by Michigan’s Congress and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder, is a law which gives emergency managers like Roberts significant powers to turnaround municipalities and school districts that are struggling financially. Roberts used these powers to override contracts with eight unions to impose a 10% pay cut while increasing employees’ health care contributions to 20%. Additionally, the school district will no longer reimburse teachers for unused sick days when they retire. Roberts says his plan will save the DPS $81.8 million.

Roberts stated, “These wage concessions and health care cost-sharing plans are being implemented because we are in an extremely difficult financial period for Detroit Public Schools.”

The district had already made significant cost cuts in the 2011-2012 budget by closing schools and cutting 796 positions.

Unions were told last Friday of Robert’s decision, which overwrote the previous union contract, and Keith Johnson, Detroit Federation of Teachers president stated that the union was “not pleased with it” and would “not accept it.” Johnson plans to fight this plan which would set up a potential test case for Public Act 4.

In an interview with Fox 2’s Ronnie Dahl, Johnson said, “We’ve done a number of things in order to save this district from themselves, and yet the district continues to want to pimp us. And that’s what it really comes down to; they’re trying to pimp us. And we’re not having it.”

Johnson referred to the contract ratified 19 months ago with Robert’s predecessor when he said, “We have given $93 million to this district in this particular contract in cost savings. And yet, as much as we continue to demonstrate a willingness to give through collective bargaining, now the district has decided it simply wants to take. So, if you decide you want to take, we’re going to strike back.”

Johnson also claims that it is the administration, not teachers, bus drivers, or custodians who are at fault for this deficit, and said, “They want to heap the responsibility for their irresponsibility on the backs of the working force, and we’re simply not going to stand for it.”
Later, in an interview with WJR-AM 760 on Monday, Johnson explained why he felt they were in a better position to challenge Robert’s authority under Public Act 4. “I think it is the best test case because we negotiated this agreement during a financial agreement with an emergency financial manager,” he said. “And I think that puts a unique perspective on where we are … in terms of challenging this.”

Roberts told Frank Beckman from 760 WJR later on Monday, that while he understands the union’s frustration with the added forced cuts, they were a responsible option that was not available to his predecessor.

Roberts explained, “Times are different. I’m here under a different public act. Public Act 4 really gives me the authority to run the district. If I was a foolish person, that might be too much authority to put in one’s hands. I’m not a foolish person.”

In the meantime, Johnson is encouraging his members to report to their assigned positions as scheduled on August 29. He says he will honor the current collective bargaining agreement, but it would appear that they will fight this battle on forced concessions in court as opposed to striking.

“I negotiated this deal in good faith, I’m going to honor it in good faith, and I’m going to ask my members to do the same,” Roberts said.

When Charlie Langton, Fox 2’s legal analyst was asked if Roberts was legally able to force the concessions he has called for, he read the following directly from Public Act 4: “… in his sole discretion now the emergency financial director can reject, modify, or terminate an existing contract.” Roberts was therefore within the guidelines of this act when he changed the contract.

Langton went on to explain that all Roberts would have to be able to prove if he is challenged on his decision, is that there was an economic problem within the district, and a $327 million deficit would certainly qualify as an economic problem, and that he isn’t targeting a specific group of workers, and since everyone will equally share in the pay cuts and other concessions, including union and nonunion workers and Roy Roberts himself, he is safe there as well.

So, it looks like these drastic measures will probably stand up in court, and the employees of Detroit Public Schools will have to tighten their belts if they want to keep their jobs.

Please know that I don’t make that statement lightly. It’s hard enough to survive financially when the cost of living continues to escalate and your salary is frozen. How much harder it will be for the employees of Detroit Public Schools to face higher living costs when their income is being cut so drastically!

Atlanta Public Schools’ Success Turns to Failure in the Biggest Cheating Scandal Ever

In February of this year, I blogged about the Atlanta Public Schools which were being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations for possible cheating on their state tests. Well, the news is in, and it isn’t pretty!

On Tuesday, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal released a statement from his office revealing the report from the GBI: 178 teachers and principals were involved in undoubtedly the biggest test-cheating scandal in our country’s history. Would it surprise you to learn that 38 of the 178 who were involved were principals, which tells you how high up this operation went, and 6 of them would not answer investigators’ questions? The report also indicated that 82 of the 178 have confessed to cheating.

Atlanta Public Schools earned national prominence over the last ten years (and, yes, that is about how long this has been going on) due to the steady improvements they were making on their test scores. Because of these improvements, they received both notice and funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations. Sadly, this report makes it clear that those gains were made due to 44 of the 56 schools which were under investigation in this school district erasing and changing test answers. In a district with 100 schools, that means almost half of the APS were involved in this scandal!

Scathing news, but there’s more! The report states that the district repeatedly refused to investigate or take responsibility for the cheating, and the central office actually told some of the principals to be uncooperative when the investigators talked to them. One administrator went so far as to tell their employees to tell GBI investigators to “go to hell!” Teachers who tried to report what was happening were referred to as “disgruntled” in order to discredit their warnings, and one principal went so far as to open an ethics investigation against someone who was trying to report the truth.

The house of cards crumbled earlier this year when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and state investigators discovered a pattern which has become consistent in other incidences of cheating on state tests. In each case, there has been  a dramatic increase at one critical grade level which drops drastically the next. In all of these comparable situations, there was also a high incidence of erasure of wrong to right answers.

A state investigation found former Atlanta schools superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides either ignored or destroyed evidence of test cheating across the district.

Superintendent Beverly Hall, who has been the head of the school system for twelve years and was named U.S. Superintendent of the Year in 2009, mainly due to the amazing gains that had been made by an inner-city school system, has resigned from her position under a cloud of suspicion. Although she admitted to wrongdoing, she did not take any blame herself. In fact, she blamed the scandal on other administrators. But while investigators say she hasn’t been directly tied to any of the wrongdoing, they maintain that she probably was aware of what was happening, or at the very least, she should have been aware.

One article I read gave examples from the 800 page report by GBI of the pervasiveness of the cheating. At Parks Middle School, one of the worst examples, the percentage of eighth-graders who exceeded expectations rose from 1% to 46%. Audits of the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) reveal that 89% of the classrooms at this school were flagged by the state for possible cheating, and several of the school’s teachers have already admitted that they provided answers to their students or changed test scores.

The report further states that once Christopher Waller became the principal at Parks “the school immediately made dramatic gains on the CRCT and other tests.” It states that Superintendent Hall should have realized something was not right, but instead Waller and Parks Middle School were publicly praised for the achievements they had made.

Also in the report was the fact that four educators from Gideons Elementary confessed that they met at a home in Douglas County one week to change students’ answers from wrong to right. They called it a “changing party.”

Investigators found evidence of intimidation of teachers to get them to comply with what was happening around them. For example, the principal at Fain Elementary forced a teacher to crawl under a table in the middle of a faculty meeting to humiliate the individual because the teacher’s students’ test scores were so low!

And a teacher from Perkerson Elementary told the investigators that a student who sat under a table randomly filling in answers on the CRCT somehow had passed. And the report indicated that although several of this school’s first grade students passed the reading test, they were having great difficulty reading in third grade.

On Wednesday, Mayor Kasim Reed responded to the devastating report from the GBI, saying, “Yesterday morning was really the hardest day I have had as mayor of Atlanta or anytime. Just to hear all of it laid out in a fashion, that is almost irrefutable, by a serious person (Gov. Deal) is really, very hard.”

Reed admits that city leaders should have recognized that something wasn’t right. He said, “We all have a part of the blame here. The statistical differences certainly should have shocked people within the profession, and I think we should have looked harder as well. I think that we will turn this into something positive. We are going to stop the harm. There were children being moved and advanced that shouldn’t have. We are going to let everyone know, it is all hands on deck. But, we are going to recover and we are going to get through it and have a better system. Because the things that occurred here simply will not be allowed to occur again, and that is what we have to take from this.”

Maureen Downey, the education columnist for Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, “The [Atlanta] teachers, principals and administrators wanted to prove that the faith of the Broad and Gates Foundations and the Chamber of Commerce in the district was not misplaced and that APS could rewrite the script of urban education in America and provide a happy, or at least a happier, ending for its students. And that’s what ought to alarm us, that these professionals ultimately felt their students could not even pass basic competency tests, despite targeted school improvement plans, proven reforms, and state-of-the-art teacher training.”

This has been a difficult blog for me to write because it will unfortunately reinforce some of those negative opinions out there concerning public schools and its teachers. But these are the facts, and I am presenting them to you without any comment for today. Tomorrow I will voice some thoughts and feelings regarding this horrific scandal. For now, I just have to let this all percolate for awhile in the hope that it may lose some of its bitterness.

Milwaukee and Detroit Public Schools’ Budget Cuts Announced

I hate to start the month of July with bleak news, but it can’t be helped. In the past week, I spotted two articles which are definitely a sign of the times. They help to emphasize the sad economic plight of our nation’s public schools.

The first article that caught my eye comes from the state of Wisconsin announcing the layoffs of 519 staff members in Milwaukee Public Schools. CNN stated, “The layoffs are effective Friday, the beginning of the third quarter, when cash-strapped state and local governments are forecast to shed up to 110,000 jobs, according to IHS Global Insight.” (IHS Global Insight offers “economic and financial analysis forecasting and market intelligence.”)

Class sizes will more than likely increase since the layoffs include 354 teachers, and students will undoubtedly be using old textbooks, according to Superintendent Gregory Thornton. 

These drastic cuts are a result of Gov. Scott Walker’s two-year budget plan which was signed on Sunday. This plan cut spending to schools by approximately $200 less per student. With roughly 82,000 students attending Milwaukee Public Schools, this plan cut $182,000 from their district’s budget.

Ouch, right? The sad truth is that these kinds of cuts are occurring everywhere in our nation. Let’s look at Detroit where they face the same difficult dilemma but were able to find an alternative to laying off teachers.

Facing $230,000 in budget cuts, Detroit Public Schools have cut 853 jobs, and the employees who stay are being forced to take a 10% pay cut in order to operate under a $1.2 billion budget proposed by their state-appointed emergency financial manager.

Released on June 23, the draft of the budget also calls for $200 million to be cut from the $327 million budget deficit through the sale of long-term bonds and an additional $48 million in purchased and contracted service cuts.

However, according to Roy Roberts, the district’s financial manager, most of the 4,400 teaching positions will be spared. Instead, there will be cuts in school administrators, clerical and professional staff, counselors, teacher aides, and central office supervisors.

At a time when the district has already been experiencing declining enrollment, the threat of additional cuts could drive more parents away.

“This budget will require us to live within our means while supporting the educational plan that’s been put in place,” Roberts said in a news release. “We must elevate the schools in terms of academics, performance and providing a safe environment for children. We have to build a first-rate system of schools that parents choose to send their children to.”

One way they are trying to attract parents is by maintaining or reducing class sizes, which is incredible when most schools are increasing class size. The plan is to expand pre-kindergarten programs thus keeping class sizes to 18 students, to keep class sizes from kindergarten to third grade the same at around 25 students, and to decrease class sizes at fourth and fifth grades from 33 to 30 and from sixth to twelfth from 38 to 35.

Anthony Adams, the district’s school board president, voiced concern as he reminded the district that past attempts to balance the budget and get rid of the deficit have not been successful.

“For the last two years it’s been the same story,” Adams said. “They all sound good. The reductions in staffing should be good, especially if he is saving teachers. The proof is in the implementation.”

Two drastic plans to reduce budget deficits. One will reduce teachers which will increase class sizes. The other keeps teachers while maintaining or lowering class sizes, but those teachers are working for far less. Both include reduction of other staff members, but Detroit primarily focuses on only those kinds of cuts thus maintaining the instructional level but at the cost of clerical, support,  and administrative services.

There is no perfect solution to the mess all public school districts are facing. As Anthony Adams said, “The proof is in the implementation.”

School districts everywhere will have to ride out the storm and do the best they can with whatever personnel, services, and materials they have left after the slashing is done.

Ohio Governor Kasich vs President Obama on Senate Bill 5

I’m certain that citizens of Ohio have heard the debate that fired up between President Obama and our Governor John Kasich. But in case the rest of you haven’t, let me fill you in on the drama in Ohio over SB5.

It started on Tuesday of last week when Cleveland’s Romona Robinson from WKYC TV met with President Barack Obama to talk about issues which Cleveland and Northeast Ohioans are facing in this tough economic time. Robinson’s first question was to ask the president’s view on Senate Bill 5, Ohio’s new law which would significantly restrict collective bargaining for 350,000 public workers. Under this law, wages and certain work conditions could be negotiated but not health care, sick time, or pension benefits.

Obama talked for awhile about the challenges all states are experiencing during these difficult times, stating that some of the problems being faced would have been worse if states hadn’t received funding through the Recovery Act implemented two years ago. He explained that this act provided a lot of relief that allowed states to balance their budgets and avoid laying off teachers, police officers, and firefighters.

He continued to explain that states are faced with tough choices now that the federal government is pulling back and their revenues have not fully recovered. So, what does that mean for public workers, as far as he is concerned?

President Obama stated the following: “The one thing that I’ve said very clearly is let’s make sure that we’ve got shared sacrifice; that we make sure that the burden doesn’t just fall on one set of folks. Let’s certainly not blame public employees for a financial crisis that they had nothing to do with, and let’s not use this as an excuse to erode their bargaining rights.”

“And so, whether it’s Wisconsin or what we’re seeing in Ohio, I strongly disapprove of an approach that basically says people who are doing their jobs, providing vital services to their communities, that somehow, they are finding themselves not able to collectively bargain. That doesn’t mean that they may not have to provide some concessions; that there shouldn’t be some negotiations about wages. All those things are appropriate, but let’s respect their right to collectively bargain.”

When Robinson asked him if he would campaign against SB5, he said, “Well, as I’ve said before, I think it is a mistake, and I’m happy for everyone in Ohio to know that I think that approach is a mistake.”

So, how did Governor Kasich, who supported and signed SB5, respond to Obama’s criticism of this law and its potential mistreatment of public employees?

In an interview on a Cleveland television station where he was asked how he felt about President Obama’s statements regarding SB5, Kasich said, “The president of the United States has, I think, a $13 trillion debt. Why doesn’t he do his job? When he gets our budget balanced and starts to prepare a future for our children, maybe he can have an opinion on what’s going on in Ohio.”

I am grateful that President Obama spoke out against this legislation which, like Wisconsin’s law, is clearly trying to break the power of unions at the expense of the workers these unions protect; workers who serve their community in so many important ways. But, I confess that I wish the president would do more than vocalize his concerns over SB5 and help to shut it down.

Wisconsin’s law, which will affect 175,000 workers (exempting police and firefighters), is temporarily blocked, and opponents of SB5 are busily collecting signatures in the hope that voters will be able to overturn this measure. Public employees must collect 231,000 signatures by June 30 in order to get a referendum on the November ballot.

Teachers Nationwide Facing Pink Slip Phobia

Pink slips! They are becoming so commonplace in this economy, that it’s becoming harder with each passing day for teachers to keep up their morale. How do we cope?

With more state legislatures calling for tighter budgets, and the loss of federal stimulus money to school systems, we will be seeing more pink slips across our nation. Although the purpose of these slips is to warn teachers of the potential for lay-offs, they have become leverage for some education leaders to push voters, teachers’ unions, and districts to find ways to locate other financial resources to save jobs.

State law requires that districts send out these slips to give teachers who might be released from their position an adequate amount of time to find other employment, if such a thing exists. Generally the number of pink slips sent out by a district is higher than the number of teachers actually laid off. But this doesn’t make them an easier pill to swallow, as teachers often wait weeks or months to hear their fate, creating low morale and tension in school districts across our nation.

The tension in some states such as California and Rhode Island is even greater as state law requires that these pink slips must be sent out in March, which is way before state and local budgets are finalized. This results in significantly higher numbers of teachers receiving slips in order for districts to be in compliance with state codes or their district’s bargaining agreements, creating panic in the school systems involved.

We saw it in Providence, Rhode Island, were each of the district’s 1,925 teachers received pink slips, a decision for which Mayor Angel Tavares received much criticism. And we saw it in Los Angeles where, due to a $408 million deficit, the district sent out about 4,500 pink slips to its teachers in March. In both cases, these slips have been sent out before budgets have been finalized and more informed decisions can be made. For teachers in Los Angeles, who are anxiously waiting to find out if they will have a job, decisions will not be made until an updated budget is completed in May and enrollment projections, teacher resignation and retirements, and other measures are factored in.

Typically, nontenured teachers are the ones who are let go, but in Los Angeles, and other districts, the cuts go so deep that some of the teachers who are receiving pink slips have been teaching since 2001 and have tenure. And those teachers who are not laid off may find themselves being shuffled to different schools in their district, teaching new grade levels, and learning a whole new curriculum.

Having spent two years on a RIF list (reduction in force) when I was a younger teacher and had just returned from maternity leave, I know the agony of the wait; that desperate time where you don’t know if you will have a job in the fall. And I know the hopelessness of trying to get a teaching job elsewhere, and times were better then.

Teachers with pink slips know desperate times provide few options, and many of those who are actually laid off will probably be forced to seek employment outside of education. And so they wait, fearful of the future, bitter over the possibility of dreams lost, and wondering how they will survive financially if the worst happens.

A living Hell…