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News Clips

News Clips – July 19-27, 2009

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STATE  
Shortcomings of budget will be evident in schools / State Journal-Register (also Chicago Tribune)
Test scoring, not content, leads to public mistrust on ISAT / Chicago Tribune
Millions cut from education initiatives / Chicago Sun-Times
Illinois State Board of Education cuts budget by $180 million / Chicago Tribune
State Board of Education forced to adopt smaller budget, reduces funding for dozens of programs   Peoria Journal-Star (also State Journal-Register, Rockford Register-Star, Galesburg Register-Mail)
Belleville school district to buy $35 million worth of subsidence insurance / Belleville News-Democrat
Warren High fighting state agency's accusations over student testing / Daily Herald
Terminate regional superintendent, but do it wisely / Libertyville Review
Chicago schools: District officials probe admissions at top public schools / Chicago Tribune
Flowers asks for certification hearing, stalls removal from office / SouthtownStar
Warren High says $400 ad deal is OK in tough economy / Daily Herald
Early education takes hit in budget / State Journal-Register (also Peoria Journal Star)
Head is spinning from all the red ink / SouthtownStar
Metro-east district awaits decision / Belleville News-Democrat
Ill. spent less than US average per pupil in '07 / Chicago Tribune
State May Not Cut Pre-K Funding After All / CBS2-Chicago

NATIONAL
Charter schools set for online trial run / Journal Gazette
Parent-Paid Aides Ordered Out of City Schools / New York Times
Duncan's Call for School Turnarounds Sparks Debate / Education Week
Report Urges Halt to Extra Pay for Master’s Degrees / Education Week
Obama to Unveil Guidelines for New Education / The Wall Street Journal
Education Reform's Moon Shot / The Washington Post
Court: Schools can pay to sue state / Argus Leader (SD)
As Charter Schools Unionize, Many Debate Effect / New York Times
Stealth Education Reform Beats the Health Debacle / The Huffington Post

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STATE

Shortcomings of budget will be evident in schools
Letter by Ken Swanson, President of the Illinois Education Association, 7/20/09

The Illinois General Assembly has fumbled yet another opportunity to act responsibly on the state budget.

At a time when Illinois' children, as well as the sick and the elderly, needed courageous leaders, little courage has been on display at the Statehouse.

The Senate Democrats were the exception, voting to raise revenue sufficient to fund current state programs and put the state on solid fiscal footing for the first time in many years.

However, House members, rather than raise taxes to reduce the costly state debt and pay for services to the needy, as well as for the state services that all Illinoisans use, supported another bogus budget based on borrowing.

After Gov. Pat Quinn undercut Senate Democrats, the bogus budget was the only viable plan - viable, but far from adequate. And the damage will be seen in schools this fall.

Illinois public school teachers know that children cannot do their best when their basic needs are unmet. We also know that families cannot provide the level of support needed for success at school when they are consumed with angst about taking care of their families.

The members of the Illinois Education Association consider the delivery of quality services to Illinois children and families to be very much their business; that is why we advocated for a fair budget that meets the needs of all of Illinois.

Our state deserves political leaders who care more about the needs of the people than about the acquisition and maintenance of power.

We will partner with like-minded organizations and continue to advocate for a responsible budget that meets the need of all Illinoisans.
 
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Test scoring, not content, leads to public mistrust on ISAT
Commentary by Paul Zavitkovsky of Chicago, Chicago Tribune, 7/21/09

Public conversation about the Civic Committee's recent study of Chicago school achievement has focused quite properly on where the best leverage is for making real improvements in school effectiveness. Much of that conversation has been about whether Chicago school reform has or hasn't succeeded, and whether charters and other controversial initiatives are a good way to produce the improvements that all our children deserve.

Reasonable people will continue to disagree about the answers to these questions.

Meanwhile, it's hard to argue about the need for good information. The core message of the Civic Committee's study is that continuing distortions in the way test results are reported leaves everybody guessing about what's actually going on.

With so much at stake, it's important to be clear about the source of the problem.

The Tribune editorial of July 11 ("Still behind") got it partly right by saying that pressure from No Child Left Behind has led state officials and their partners in the testing industry to "dumb down the test." But the way that's being done has less to do with lax standards and easier test content than it does with how the test is being scored. There are still plenty of challenging items on the ISAT - you just don't have to get many of them right to get a passing grade.

Using grading and reporting rules that make results sound better than they actually are is a fixable problem. Repairing public trust will be harder.

We want to believe that something really good is happening when the percentage of low-income African American males who meet or exceed 8th grade reading standards jumps from 47% to 62% between 2001 and 2008. But when average scores for these same students drop from the 29th to the 24th percentile compared to all students tested, it means the achievement gap is widening and the problem is being masked.

Thoughtful reporting of state test information can be a powerful tool for supporting student and adult learning. The problem we're facing is that current forms of reportage are built on bad science and are producing false intelligence at all major levels of policy and practice. Failure to confront this problem undermines public confidence in everything that testing touches and invites another decade of squandered opportunities to do right by the students, parents, teachers and policy makers who are depending on us to find a better way.

(Zavitkovsky is a clinical faculty member in the Urban School Leadership program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Much of the data on Chicago test scores that was reported in the Civic Committee study is based on his research on Illinois reporting practices.)

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Millions cut from education initiatives
Worse ahead next year? - Preschool, gifted programs hit
Rosalind Rossi, Chicago Sun-Times, 7/22/09

State education officials Tuesday slashed millions of dollars from dozens of initiatives -- ranging from preschool to after-school to gifted programs -- and warned of a "catastrophic'' year ahead, when $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars will dry up.

Acting in emergency session, State Board of Education members faced with shrunken state revenues approved a $7.26 billion budget for this coming school year, down $146 million, or 2 percent, from fiscal year 2009.

Officials said they were forced to make a "Sophie's Choice'' among which programs to axe. Even $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars spread over the new fiscal year and the one preceding it was not enough to fill the yawning gap.

Taking the biggest hit was early childhood education, which lost $123 million. The action "rolls back about five years of progress'' and means an estimated 30,000 children will lose preschool services this fall, said Sean Noble of Voices for Illinois Children.

All state money for gifted education was "zeroed out,'' along with dollars for two after-school programs -- one of them started by the wife of Mayor Daley.

Efforts to help the blind and dyslexic, teacher recruitment in hard-to-staff schools, high school students taking Advanced Placement classes and teachers who earn rigorous national certification all took whacks.

Bilingual education was trimmed 25 percent, or $19 million. However, Board of Ed chairman Jesse Ruiz warned the cut doesn't mean districts are "off the hook'' for providing the state-mandated program.

Ricardo Meza of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund wondered how districts could serve the same number of kids with less money.

"Are they going to increase class size for bilingual ed?'' Meza asked. "Not identify kids properly or exit them too soon or not provide services at all?''

Ruiz predicted the next state education budget will be "catastrophic'' without the buoy of federal stimulus dollars. This time next year, the Board will have to cut $1 billion just to maintain its new, hobbled budget, officials said.

However, districts will receive $160 more per pupil under the new funding plan, and categorical spending -- most of it for special education -- will increase by $145 million.

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Illinois State Board of Education cuts budget by $180 million
Early-childhood program takes the biggest hit
Stephanie Banchero, Chicago Tribune, 7/22/09

The Illinois State Board of Education slashed its budget by $180 million Tuesday, spreading the pain of the state's dire economic situation across dozens of programs that serve thousands of children.

The board actually cut $400 million from targeted programs but was able to offset some of the damage by increasing general state aid, the money that flows directly to school districts based on enrollments.

But education advocates across the state immediately warned that the cuts in targeted programs will lock 30,000 children out of preschools, put thousands of high school dropouts onto the streets and rob blind children of the Braille books they need for class.

They called on lawmakers to go back to Springfield, rework the budget and fully fund the programs.

"It's unconscionable that Illinois lawmakers have put politics before the most vulnerable children in our state," said Diana Rauner, executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an advocacy organization for early-childhood development programs.

The state's vaunted early-childhood program took the biggest hit, losing a third of its $380 million budget.

"Without high-quality early-childhood programs, low-income children will arrive at kindergarten unprepared and will struggle throughout their school years to catch up," Rauner said.

The funding cuts came a week after Illinois lawmakers adopted a $26 billion state budget that averted a tax increase but relies on borrowing $3.5 billion to cover employee pension payments. Lawmakers left it up to education officials to decide how to spread the pain in school programs.

The state board reluctantly slashed foreign language, arts and agricultural education programs. They sliced teacher and principal training programs and wiped out gifted education.

State Supt. Christopher Koch said the board tried to keep the highest level of funding for priority programs, but there was not enough money to go around.

"This is a sad day for all of us," he said.

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State Board of Education forced to adopt smaller budget, reduces funding for dozens of programs
Adriana Colindres, GateHouse News Service, 7/21/09

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Lawmakers abandoned their responsibility by failing to adequately fund Illinois' educational system, the chairman of the State Board of Education said Tuesday as the panel met in emergency session to slash millions of dollars from programs.

The State Board of Education adopted a statewide education budget of $7.2 billion, which reflects reduced funding from the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn.

The new education budget, which is $180 million less than last year's, slices the amount of money allotted for numerous programs, such as early childhood, bilingual and agricultural education.

The spending plan calls for an increase in general state aid and boosts the so-called "foundation level" by $160 – to $6,119 per student.

But it reduces or eliminates funding for dozens of other programs.

Agricultural education, for instance, will lose half of the funding it got last year, leaving it with about $1.7 million. Funding for early childhood education is being cut by a third, and bilingual education programs will see a 25 percent reduction.

Board Chairman Jesse Ruiz criticized lawmakers for not finding extra revenue that could have gone toward education.

He said he and several lawmakers recently attended a ceremony where Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a new statewide capital construction program.

Some of them urged him to make sure the Board of Education wouldn't cut funding for certain programs.

"But they didn't give us the resources not to do that," Ruiz said.

Gaylord Gieseke, interim president of Voices for Illinois Children, offered similar criticism in a news release, saying that children are "paying an outrageously high price for Illinois leaders' failure to raise adequate state revenues."

Ruiz said that with the 2010 elections just around the corner, education advocates need to make greater demands of political candidates and press them on how they plan to fund education. He urged the advocates, including teacher unions, to be wary about making political contributions to candidates.

"Keep your dollars in your pocket, and give it to a school before you give it to a candidate," Ruiz said.

State School Superintendent Christopher Koch warned that without additional revenues, next year's education budget picture would be even bleaker. That's because $1 billion in federal economic stimulus money is being used in this year's budget, but it won't be available again.

Jerry Brookhart, Peoria County regional superintendent of schools, was among two dozen or so education advocates who spoke at the meeting – either to ask for more funding or to thank Board of Education officials for not cutting their funding more drastically.

Brookhart compared the board's situation to the novel and film "Sophie's Choice," in which a mother must choose between her two children to decide which one will live.

"What child are you going to throw away?" Brookhart said. "Best of luck to you in making these really tough choices."

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Belleville school district to buy $35 million worth of subsidence insurance
Rickeena J. Richards, Belleville News-Democrat, 7/22/09

BELLEVILLE -- The Belleville School District 201 school board took a precautionary measure Monday when its members approved the purchase of $35 million worth of mine subsidence insurance.

"We're not predicting doom and gloom; we just want to be covered on it," Superintendent Greg Moats said. "In today's world, we want to try and make sure the district is protected."

The coverage, which also includes earthquake insurance, will cost about $82,000.

It will supplement the $50 million worth of earthquake coverage that costs the district about $24,000 and is included in the district's $447,000 insurance package, which covers things including workers' compensation, liabilities, property and vehicles.

The board approved buying the insurance at its regular meeting Monday, following a recommendation by its finance committee.

Jeff Dosier, assistant superintendent of finance and operations, described the insurance as "very necessary" to board members at the meeting.

"We just felt that the mine subsidence insurance was important given the size and value of our buildings and the close proximity, particularly at Belleville East, with mine subsidence," Dosier said. "We feel like we needed to get this subsidence insurance."

The Belleville East campus is less than half a mile southwest of Belle Valley North Elementary School, which has been sinking because of mine subsidence since 2007.
 
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Warren High fighting state agency's accusations over student testing
By Bob Susnjara, Daily Herald, 7/23/09 

Denying it committed any wrongdoing, Warren Township High School will fight a finding by Illinois' top education office that it is treating students differently for testing purposes in violation of state and federal requirements.

In dispute is how about 150 underperforming juniors were not allowed to take the Prairie State Achievement Exam over two days in April. Gurnee-based Warren District 121 officials said the poor students were not blocked from testing as a way to increase average test scores.

District 121 board members last year approved an administration recommendation to boost the academic program's rigor. Warren officials said the action was cleared in advance by the Illinois State Board of Education - the agency now leveling accusations against the district.

As part of the effort now under scrutiny, it was agreed students must have earned 11 credit hours by the fifth semester and completed other requirements to take the Prairie State tests as juniors in spring 2009. Pupils are supposed to benefit by being more prepared to meet the testing standards.

Results from the exam given to Warren juniors are highlighted in an annual school report card of student academic performance.

About 150 of 1,000 juniors didn't earn the required 11 credit hours in time or meet the higher standards for English, math and science, so they couldn't join classmates in the Prairie State process in April, Warren officials said.

But in the directive issued Monday by the state, Warren was informed an investigation showed the district was treating the juniors differently for testing purposes. Melina Wright, the agency's No Child Left Behind liaison, stated Warren is violating state and federal requirements.

"This practice must cease immediately," wrote Wright, who warned the loss of federal funding is at risk. State board of education spokesman Matt Vanover said Wright is on vacation for the rest of the week.

At a meeting Tuesday night, Warren Superintendent Phil Sobocinski and other administrators contended the state granted permission for the new academic standards knowing that meant some juniors wouldn't take the exam. Sobocinski said District 121 has plenty of supporting documents and will appeal the order within 30 days.

"We're saying (to the state), 'We wouldn't have done this if you told us we couldn't do it,'" he said.

Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Mary Perry Bates stressed the district did not establish the more challenging academic standards to prevent poor students from taking the exam to boost its annual report card scores.

Bates and District 121 board President John Anderson said the problem possibly could have been avoided if the teens in question were classified as third-year students, based on their lack of credit hours, and not juniors.

Sobocinski said information from the state led Warren to list as juniors the students who were ineligible for the Prairie State exam.

"There's a perception we've done something illicit," he said. "There was no attempt to do that."

Wileen Gehrig, director of instruction and school improvement, said the pupils who did not participate in the Prairie State exam won't be harmed. She said they may take the ACT college entrance exam in October, which was part of the Prairie State spring testing.

Vanover said state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch will rule on the issue. His decision will come after education office staffers issue a recommendation.

Bates said other suburban high schools have been using academic criteria similar to Warren's for the Prairie State exam.

Separately, retired Warren teacher Richard Bryan last month lodged a complaint with the state accusing the district of improperly denying some juniors from taking the achievement test. Vanover confirmed Bryan's claims are under investigation.

Officials from the state informed District 121 the order demanding students not be treated differently for testing reasons is unrelated to Bryan's accusations. Koch will be responsible for deciding Bryan's complaint.

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Terminate regional superintendent, but do it wisely
Libertyville Review Editorial, 7/23/09
 
After years of mismanagement, the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education should be closed -- once and for all.

Last month, Cook County state's attorney's investigators raided the office in Westchester and Regional Superintendent Charles Flowers' home in Maywood. They confiscated computers and documents as part of an investigation in apparent mismanagement in the office.

A state audit in June found the following problems:

• liabilities exceeding its total net assets by $941,844,

• cash advances given to two employees for nonbusiness purposes,

• no receipts to support 70 percent of the charges on Flowers' government-issued credit card,

• Flowers' family members on the payroll, and

• late or no payments including employees' payroll, health insurance and rent on the building.

Days after the raid, the county filed a lawsuit against the office and Flowers for defaulting on a $190,000 loan.

The problems with the office are not new. A similar audit in 2007, before Flowers took over, warned the office was $413,000 in debt.

Flowers was ushered in as a reformer in July 2007, but two years later the office has doubled its debt and appears to have even more problems. Flowers blames the current office's financial problems on his predecessor.

Regardless, nearly $1 million will be absorbed by the state and county, even though neither clearly has the means to take on more debt. No wonder taxpayers are spitting mad with the government waste.

On the surface, the bill introduced by state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-57th, of Northbrook, to eliminate the regional superintendent's office has merit.

The work of the regional education office -- issuing teaching certificates and reviewing school finances of 143 school districts and 700 schools outside Chicago's city limits -- would be given to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Nekritz and her fellow legislators need to ensure that the State Board of Education will be able to take over these limited tasks. Will teachers' and schools' needs be met locally (not requiring trips to Springfield)? Will the state board of education be able to handle concerns in a timely manner?

Removing a costly layer of government administration is a smart step in the right direction for increased efficiency in government, just as long as the state education can handle these new duties and it doesn't cost taxpayers more in the long run.
 
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Chicago schools: District officials probe admissions at top public schools
Magnet, gifted schools and selective-enrollment high schools included
Stephanie Banchero and Azam Ahmed, Chicago Tribune, 7/23/09

Chicago Public Schools officials launched an investigation Wednesday into how students are admitted into the district's vaunted and highly competitive selective enrollment schools.

School officials declined to publicly discuss the probe into admissions practices at gifted and magnet schools and selective enrollment high schools -- some of the most sought-after schools in the city. In a brief news release, they said information "recently came to the attention" of schools chief Ron Huberman that existing policies may not have been followed.

But district sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is under way, said the district law department noticed problems with the high school admissions process two months ago. This week, an unspecified problem cropped up at one high school, prompting the probe of all 52 of these application-based schools.

Entry into magnet schools is supposed to be through randomized lottery. Admittance to selective enrollment high schools and gifted elementary centers is supposedly based on merit.

But whispers have long swirled that some students get spots in these top-flight schools not by chance or merit, but by whom their parents know or how much money they make.

"We are carefully reviewing the existing selective enrollment policies and guidelines, and we will be implementing additional controls in the near future," Huberman said in the news release.

The district also plans to hire an auditing firm to review the admissions process and decide whether additional controls are needed.

The investigation comes a week after the Chicago Tribune made inquiries into whether clout plays a role in students landing coveted spots in these elite schools.

It also happens against the backdrop of a probe into university admissions practices. Gov. Pat Quinn created a state panel to look into allegations that the University of Illinois gave special treatment to applicants with powerful patrons, including state lawmakers, donors and trustees after a Tribune investigation uncovered the practice.

The selective enrollment CPS schools were created in the 1980s when the city settled a civil-rights dispute with the U.S. Department of Education over segregation.

The resulting agreement created a system of magnet schools with goals for a certain racial breakdown in enrollment. Students are admitted through a race-based lottery. The idea is to attract families into integrated schools by offering specialized or high-quality education.

Entry into the elite high schools is based on a point system, with 1,000 as the top score. Points are generated based on a student's middle school test scores, grades, attendance and entrance exam score.

The district allows magnet school principals to hand-pick up to 5 percent of their students. Last year, they extended that right to principals at the nine selective enrollment high schools, even though some principals acknowledged that they were already doing it. The principals can consider only extenuating circumstances such as a special talent or family crisis, not the applicants' political ties.

Competition to get into these premier schools is fierce. District officials would not provide the most recent statistics, but two years ago, the city's magnet schools received eight applications for every opening. At the gifted schools, there were 6,800 applications for 1,600 spots. The nine selective enrollment high schools receive thousands of applications for a few hundred spots.

Principals at these schools recount tales of parents begging to get in, organizing fundraisers, donating large sums of money or volunteering to work in the classrooms. Some parents subtly point out that they know public officials or prominent business executives.

Some principals say they have even gotten calls and letters from elected officials.

The principal at Edison Regional Gifted Center asked her local school council to insert a clause into her contract that prohibits her from admitting students who do not test high enough to get into the school, a source said. She could not be reached for comment.

Alan Mather, principal at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said he has felt pressure from parents and politicians. Before joining Lindblom, Mather was an assistant principal at Northside College Preparatory High School, one of the crown jewels in the Chicago system. He said elected officials sometimes called seeking admission favors. He declined to name them.

"Did it work?" he asked. "Of course not. We played by the rules. We sent all those requests straight to the Office of Academic Enhancement."

Other principals said they, too, sent such requests directly to the academic enhancement office, which oversees selective enrollment schools. Abigayil Joseph, who runs the office, declined to speak with the Tribune.

Robert Bank, whose son was rejected from Northside, said he is "disgusted" with the process and lauded the investigation. Bank said his son scored 965 out of a possible 1,000 on the entrance exam and posted school test scores in the 90th percentile.

Bank's son was accepted to Lane Tech High School, a selective enrollment school that performs below Northside. He chose Notre Dame High School in Niles instead.

"A lot of these politically connected people ... are taking spots from people who are struggling to get through if not straight-out disadvantaged," said Bank, a one-time unsuccessful aldermanic candidate in the 45th Ward. "It is a privileged society. They get the top-paying jobs, the slots in the schools. ... They get all the breaks."
 
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Flowers asks for certification hearing, stalls removal from office
By Duaa Eldeib, SouthtownStar, 7/23/09
 
Regional Supt. Charles Flowers will remain in office – at least for the time being.

Flowers requested a hearing to appeal the Illinois State Board of Education's move to revoke his professional certificates, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education confirmed this afternoon.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office served Flowers July 10 with a notice it planned to revoke his certificates. ISBE received word Monday from Flowers, who had 10 days to request a hearing before his certificates were revoked.

Flowers cannot serve as head of the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education without the certificates, an ISBE spokesperson previously said.

In the notice, State Supt. Christopher Koch wrote that certificates may be suspended or revoked upon evidence of "incompetency, unprofessional conduct, neglect of professional duties, failure to meet other reasonable requirements ... and other just causes."

Specifically, Flowers failed to approve school calendars or state aid claims submitted by local school districts, certify bus driver training instructors and process teacher certifications, Koch said in the notice.

The SouthtownStar, which first detailed the alleged financial and ethical misconduct, began its investigation in April. The state released an official audit in June that confirmed the SouthtownStar's findings - which included an office nearly $1 million in debt, plane tickets to Mississippi for family members, upscale dinners and limo charges, thousands of dollars in cash and salary advances, family and friends on the payroll and administrators getting paid for consulting services done during working hours.

Flowers is now the target of a Cook County state's attorney's office criminal investigation. In June of 2008, he took out a $190,000 loan from the Cook County Board for the office already in $413,000 debt from the previous administration. Now, that state's attorney is alleging in a lawsuit to recoup the money that Flowers engaged in a scheme to defraud Cook County and avoided officials when he defaulted on the loan.

Also, state's attorney investigators raided Flowers' Maywood home and the Westchester Regional Office July 1.

Flowers, who has had sporadic attendance at work since the raid, did not return multiple phone calls for comment.

ISBE officials are in the process of assigning a hearing officer, who will have 90 days to make a recommendation on Flowers' certificates to Koch and the State Teacher Certification Board.

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Warren High says $400 ad deal is OK in tough economy
Bob Susnjara, Daily Herald, 7/23/09

Shoe Carnival Inc. will pay the $400 to Gurnee-based Warren District 121 for the right to hang a banner and have other promotional activities at five Blue Devils varsity football games this year.

District 121 Athletic Director Mark Pos said his telephone hasn't been ringing off the hook recently with advertisers willing to part with money. He said Shoe Carnival wants to tout its Gurnee Mills location.

"In today's economic times, I'm surprised someone has come to us," Pos told Warren board members at a meeting Tuesday evening.

School board members voted 6-1 in favor of accepting Shoe Carnival's ad dollars. Roberta Pfeiffer, the lone dissenter, said it seems the company will get too much exposure for the $400.

Plans call for Shoe Carnival to have a banner on a fence along Warren's football field from about 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. on the five game days, Pos said. The deal also will provide for a Shoe Carnival announcement on the public-address system and an opportunity for the company to distribute coupons to fans.

"That ($400) is not enough money," Pfeiffer told Pos. "I know you're excited in this economy."

Evansville, Ind.-based Shoe Carnival's most recent report in May showed first-quarter sales of $167 million and $4.8 million in net earnings. Shoe Carnival calls itself a leading retailer of value-priced footwear and accessories.

Pos said Shoe Carnival's $400 "is better than nothing" and will be used for equipment purchases. He said the company's advertising cash stems from a new initiative with high schools.

Warren collected $4,600 over two years from a sports marketing contract with AT&T Inc. and Allstate Co. that began in 2006. Pfeiffer questioned whether schools are a proper setting for corporate ads as one of two objectors to that deal.
 
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Early education takes hit in budget
Adriana Colindres, GateHouse News, 7/27/09

Education advocates, especially those who deal with Illinois’ youngest residents, are trying to figure out how to cope with millions of dollars in spending cuts that the State Board of Education grudgingly approved a few days ago.

The reductions were necessary because the overall state budget, adopted earlier this month, trims education funding for the first time in years. Though more money was set aside for some parts of the $7.2 billion education budget, including the per-pupil “foundation level,” fewer dollars were left for other programs, including early childhood and bilingual education.

In slicing about $400 million Tuesday from those programs, state board officials said they sought to protect as many students as possible and give school districts a high degree of flexibility.

They didn’t downplay the impact of the cuts, which apply to the fiscal year that began July 1.

“Students, teachers, administrators, they’re all going to feel this,” state School Superintendent Christopher Koch said.

Board Chairman Jesse Ruiz said even if lawmakers find a way to funnel more money into education next fiscal year, that won’t make up for the services and programs that children will lose this year.

“We’re talking about one year in the life of a child that can never be the same, can never be redone,” Ruiz said.

The most damaging cuts are in early childhood education, which sustained a $123 million hit, representing nearly one-third of last year’s funding.

That translates to an estimated 30,000 kids who won’t be able to attend pre-school.

Reducing spending for early childhood education is unwise, said Diana Rauner, executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which serves at-risk children and their families.

“If you don’t make those investments, you pay for that over the very long term,” she said.

Early childhood education helps close the so-called “achievement gap” between the test scores of students who are white and students who are black or Hispanic, Rauner said. It also contributes to the development of adults who become productive members of society, including the work force, she said.

But providing pre-school to fewer at-risk kids means more of them will have a tougher time later when they’re full-time students, she said. Some will drop out, while others will be held back a grade or will need special education or remedial classes.

Individual school districts and other providers don’t know yet exactly how the budget cuts will affect their programs and services. Employees at the State Board of Education are in the midst of “a lot of processing” to figure that out, spokeswoman Mary Fergus said Friday.

“There is a very strong awareness that we need to work quickly,” she said.

Looking forward, advocates said they plan to keep pushing lawmakers to increase state revenues.

Larry Joseph, who heads the Budget & Tax Policy Initiative at Voices for Illinois Children, said Voices and other organizations will try to push for passage of an income tax hike plan that the state Senate approved this year. He said lawmakers should act quickly.

“The longer they wait, the more difficult it will be to catch up,” Joseph said.

Joseph’s analysis of state government finances forecasts deep trouble again next year: a budget shortfall of $10.3 billion.

Rauner said that despite the grim situation, there is a bright spot.

“The programs work. The investments make sense,” she said. “We know how to help children enter kindergarten, ready to learn.”

“But it’s also appalling,” she said of the funding cuts. “If we had a cure for cancer, and then they said we’re not going to make it, people would be up in arms. We have a remedy for the long-term problem in our work force. Don’t you think we ought to actually do it?”

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Head is spinning from all the red ink
Column by Rich Miller, SouthtownStar, 7/27/09

Moments after members of the Illinois State Board of Education voted to cut the board's budget by a net $180 million last week, an activist group, Voices for Illinois Children, sent out an urgent e-mail to supporters.

The group sketched out the pain the cuts would cause (the net cut actually disguises a $389 million reduction to individual program lines). A 33 percent cut to early childhood programs, for example, could mean the loss of preschool for 30,000 children.

"This budget immediately erases five years of progress in early learning," the group's interim president was quoted as saying in the e-mail. Voices has an interim president because its founding president now is Gov. Pat Quinn's chief of staff. The group was ecstatic when Jerry Stermer took Quinn's top job, but the champagne bottles are long empty.

The Voices e-mail also pointed out that Quinn was given $1.2 billion in discretionary spending authority by the General Assembly, which, the group noted, Quinn could use to close that education funding gap.

A different organization, Illinois Action for Children, sent out a blast e-mail shortly after Voices did.

"Governor Quinn has the power and the moral authority to reinstate this funding, and we are calling on him to do that before it is too late for children and families in Illinois," the group's president demanded.

They'll all have to get in line. Social service providers already have been eyeing Quinn's $1.2 billion cash stash to patch their own budget holes created by the Legislature.

And they're not alone, either. The General Assembly allowed Quinn to use the money for pretty much anything, including operations, so the employee unions may demand a piece of that $1.2 billion to reduce the number of threatened layoffs.

Actually, once word gets around about this discretionary authority, Quinn might wake up one morning very soon and wish he didn't have it. That line of demanders will be long, angry and probably not very sympathetic about the governor's Solomonic dilemma.


But that little pot of gold pales in comparison to the cuts which still have to be made.

Gov. Quinn also was given the authority (which he'll need) to set aside up to $1.1 billion in state spending to fund a "contingency reserve." Almost every aspect of state spending was included in the provision - except for the General Assembly and every constitutional officer besides the governor, of course. That means cuts.

The new budget law also requires the governor to make at least another $1 billion in unspecified cuts. More pain. The actual deficit is somewhere around $5 billion, so those two reduction items will only make up one part of the governor's budget management headache.

And then there's the alarming problem of a rapidly emptied state unemployment insurance trust fund that nobody has really dealt with as of yet. Right now, the state is borrowing from the federal government to replenish the fund - and piling up more crushing debt in the process. That's not gonna look good to the credit rating agencies, which are fixing to whack Illinois with yet another downgrade.

And then there's next year's budget deficit that the governor has to take into consideration when spending money this year.

A couple of days after it demanded Quinn spend part of that $1.2 billion stash on education, Voices for Illinois Children released a report showing next year's budget deficit will be at least $10.3 billion. That's about what I've been saying for weeks. One-time revenue gimmicks and the federal stimulus package this year added up to more than $5 billion. And new spending next year - pensions and debt payments on the borrowing this year -adds almost $2 billion more. Plus, the state is carrying over a deficit from last year that won't be paid this year, so that $3.2 billion gets added to the total.

Is your head spinning yet from all this red ink? Mine certainly is.

Maybe Quinn ought to just take that $1.2 billion and put it in the bank and save it for next year.

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Metro-east district awaits decision
Must it repay millions used to link classrooms to the net?
Mike Fitzgerald, Belleville News-Democrat, 7/27/09

After a five-year battle, East St. Louis School District 189 is awaiting a decision on its appeal of an agency ruling that it must pay back almost $6.5 million in tax dollars spent linking classrooms to the Internet nearly a decade ago.

A lot is riding on the appeal: Millions of dollars in prospective technology grant requests under the federal E-Rate program are being denied until the dispute is resolved, according to a March 30 letter to District 189 from the Universal Service Administrative Co.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit company oversees the E-Rate program on behalf the Federal Communications Commission, which is handling the District 189 appeal.

Each year, USAC awards up to $2.25 billion in technology grants to schools and libraries nationwide, with the money coming from taxes on telecommunication companies that are passed on to consumers. More than $22 billion in grants were awarded to the nation’s schools and libraries between 1996, when E-Rate began, and 2007, federal records show.

In 2000, USAC awarded District 189 a $6.5 million grant to wire all its school buildings to the Internet. Four years later, USAC auditors determined the district must repay the money because it had broken purchasing rules by failing to have signed contracts in place with vendors who installed phone lines, routers and other high-tech gear.

When the school district submitted its application to E-Rate, the district “did not have a legally binding agreement with your service providers, which meets your state and local or the FCC’s definition of a contract,” states a Feb. 26 letter USAC sent to Garrett Hoerner, the school district attorney.

The company had written earlier that District 189 failed to show it had binding contracts with vendors Sonacom IT Partners, of St. Louis, and Ameritech — later acquired by AT&T — before applying for the E-Rate dollars.

Chester Bluette, District 189’s research and technology director, declined to comment on the case. “I’m following all regulations and all rules,” Bluette said.

Douglas Clark, the District 189 spokesman, also declined to speak about the appeal, other than to state that an audit of the district is taking place.

“We’re not releasing any statements or making any statements to the media with regard to this matter until we find out what the audit results are,” Clark said.

Hoerner, the District 189 lawyer, denied in a March 27 letter to the FCC that the school district had failed to execute legally binding contracts with the service providers.

But even if the school district had failed to execute such contracts, USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division “should seek recovery of any disbursed funds from the aforementioned service provider, not the District,” Hoerner wrote.

Meanwhile, District 189 is dealing with the repercussions of a so-called “red light” enforcement action.

Until the payment dispute is resolved, “no further disbursements will be made until the complete debt owed to USAC and the FCC is satisfied and/or arrangements have been made to pay the delinquent debt,” according to the March 30 USAC letter to Bluette obtained by the News-Democrat under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Ameritech received $4.3 million to install internal connections throughout District 189. Ameritech did not have a formal contract with the district, which relied instead on purchase orders, an audit showed.

In addition, Sonacom — which has since closed its doors — received $2.13 million to install phone lines, routers and perform other high-tech upgrades. The firm conducted work on 11 schools before a contract was signed, according to the audit.

The E-Rate program is an offspring of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It aims to help schools and libraries buy discounted Internet access and telecommunications equipment, with the discounts varying from 20 percent to 90 percent.

In 2005, a U.S. House of Representatives committee issued a report that concluded E-Rate had wasted millions of dollars during the previous nine years. In addition, the program suffered from lax FCC oversight, local mismanagement and poor safeguards against fraud, waste and abuse, according to the report.

What’s more, these criticisms have been highlighted by a series of scandals involving bribes and bid-rigging that have rocked E-Rate programs in school districts around the nation, including Georgia, Kansas and Connecticut.

In late June, the Dallas Independent School District settled federal charges that it had ripped off the E-Rate program by awarding contracts based on bribes and noncompetitive bids. As part of the settlement, the school district agreed to pay back $750,000 and drop requests for $150 million in federal funding.

In 2008, the district’s former technology chief was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison for bribery and money-laundering involving E-Rate computer contracts.

Not just school districts have been stung by allegations of misconduct involving E-Rate contracts.

In February, telecom giant AT&T agreed to pay $8.2 million to the federal government to settle allegations the company had breached the federal False Claims Act. The settlement stemmed from allegations that employees of its technical services division had engaged in noncompetitive bidding and had received E-Rate dollars for products and services ineligible for program discounts.

Despite these scandals, E-Rate has achieved its original goal of making sure the nation’s schools and libraries were wired to the Internet, said Mark Wigfield, a FCC spokesman.

“It’s been a tremendous safety net, not only for students, but also for libraries,” Wigfield said. “Where if somebody can’t get Internet at home, many public libraries also have Internet service. So it is really pretty successful in terms of meeting its goals.”

Wigfield acknowledged E-Rate’s problems over the years. The program also has benefited from “a process of trying to improve it and trying to tighten it up and bring enforcement action where it’s required,” he said. “While at the same time remaining flexible enough so the kids can use it.”
 
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Ill. spent less than US average per pupil in '07
Associated Press, 7/27/09

CHICAGO - Public schools in Illinois spent $9,555 per pupil in 2007, slightly below the national average.

U.S. Census Bureau figures released Monday ranked Illinois 21st in the country in per-pupil spending. On average, each state spent $9,666 per pupil in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available.

Public schools in New York ranked first in the nation at $15,981 per pupil, while Utah ranked last at $5,683.

The Census report also breaks down public school revenues by source, including federal, state and local governments.

The percentage of public school system revenues from local governments was highest in Illinois at 58.9 percent and lowest in Hawaii at 1.6 percent.

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State May Not Cut Pre-K Funding After All
Mike Flannery, CBS2-Chicago, 7/27/09

Gov. Quinn Tells CBS 2 He Hopes To Reverse Board Of Education Recommendation Reporting

Gov. Pat Quinn may have had a change of heart on a budget cut that would cut pre-kindergarten programs for more than 30,000 toddlers.

CBS 2 Political Editor Mike Flannery reports on Monday the governor himself called it a bad idea. Quinn's agreed to cut at least $1 billion from the state budget. He said he now hopes to avoid eliminating programs for pre-schoolers.

Teachers at Through A Child's Eyes haven't been paid in weeks. The not-for-profit Foundations for Early Learning, which runs the pre-school, has run out of cash. The state hasn't paid $128,000 it owes from the last fiscal year. And now the state's proposing to reduce what it pays by hundreds of thousands more.

"This is a community who needs us," said teacher Vicki Joseph. "It's a crime that this place is closed. A crime."

And teacher Marijo Pollmann said losing her job at the pre-school may force her to put her house up for sale.

"And this is a bad time to do that. But, you know, you lose a whole salary, plus job cuts for my husband. This is devastating," Pollmann said.

School officials blame the shutdown on the state's deadly combination of cutbacks and slow pay.

"The children that are in the program are already behind. And they're just going to get further and further behind in terms of their academic performances," said Bob Cammarata, executive director of Through A Child's Eyes.

But Quinn said Monday he's now hoping to reverse a recommendation by the State Board of Education to cut pre-school for 30,000 youngsters.

"Well the State Board of Education made that recommendation, but I have the final say. So we're going to be reviewing everything," Quinn said.

Pollmann is dreading having to tell families they can't come back.

"It's gonna be heart-breaking. You can see by Mom's face. She was all set. And now she finds out that there's nowhere for her children to go next year. It's just a shame," she said.

Pollmann is one of the 14 teachers who have not received their paychecks; the state owes them $27,000. In effect, the State of Illinois is forcing those teachers to loan the $27,000 to the state to get it through its budget problems.

There is hope now, though, that the state might come forward with enough money to pay the teachers.

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NATIONAL

Charter schools set for online trial run
Niki Kelly, Journal Gazette, 7/19/09
 
INDIANAPOLIS – These days, Hoosiers use computers for myriad tasks – paying bills, buying presents, filing taxes, renting movies and even working from home.

And now a few hundred Indiana schoolchildren will get the chance this fall to go to school from the comfort of their own home under a new pilot program for virtual charter schools.

Legislators lifted a two-year moratorium on the schools when they inserted the pilot into the state budget in late June.

“Different kids find themselves in different circumstances in life and having a virtual charter school option is important,” said Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn. “If a student gets sick or has a disability, we don’t want them to fall behind. Also, sometimes a classroom holds a high achiever back.

“To tailor a curriculum around the individual kid is better for the child. Everyone doesn’t fall into the same categories. Flexibility is good.”

But others are concerned that the provision establishing the pilot program lacks details, especially about current and future costs.

“It was force-fed to the General Assembly, a hostile injection into the education system instead of a cooperative process,” said Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, chairman of the House Education Committee. “We needed to do it the right way, to have a real debate with clear regulations and accountability.”

Several bills on the topic failed during the regular legislative session, and the provision was placed into the state budget during last-minute negotiations.

To start slowly, lawmakers approved a pilot that would help 200 kids in the upcoming school year and 500 children in the 2010-11 school year. And it’s supposed to focus on students who have medical disabilities or circumstances that prevent them from attending traditional public schools.

By definition, a virtual charter school is one that provides more than 50 percent of its instruction through long-distance learning, online technologies or computer-based instruction.

There are already two hybrid charter schools that come close to this – the Hoosier Academies in Muncie and Indianapolis – except that more than half of their instruction is face to face with teachers at learning centers. These institutions could likely become full-time virtual charters with ease.

“Today’s society has dictated a different need for children,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said, noting that Indiana has to develop multiple pathways for success. “Virtual charters are one option to do just that.”

Cam Savage, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the provider of the pilot virtual charter school could be announced as early as this week.

He said the program will have open enrollment statewide with a maximum of 200 students to be chosen through a lottery system. It will be completely computer-based, though the grades it will cover are unclear at this point.

The provider of the program will receive funding based on 80 percent of the average statewide basic tuition support per pupil.

The estimated cost is about $3.2 million for the two-year program, but how the program is financed depends on where the children come from.

Legislators included a significant restriction on the student population that could save money.

It says at least 75 percent of the students enrolled in the pilot had to be counted in the public-school enrollment the prior year. This means the state is already funding those students in some school district and the money will simply shift to the new charter school.

But if children who are currently home-schooled enter the program, they will cost the state additional money because those students aren’t covered by state funding now.

“It will be a good curriculum for home-schoolers,” said Sen. Connie Sipes, D-New Albany. “We aren’t paying for them now, so it will cost us more money.”

This additional cost has been a rallying cry against the program for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

“The experience in other states is these things grow quickly – $20 million, $30 million,” ISTA lobbyist Dan Clark said. “We had no additional money for full-day kindergarten or remediation, but we started this program without a full vetting of the cost.”

Bennett understands the concern and said that is why he agrees with how the pilot was structured: “it makes sure we’re not creating another financial hardship on the state.”

Lynette Quinn, president of Indiana Families for Public Virtual Schools, discounts the home-school effect, saying many of those families want a Christian-oriented education with flexibility in curriculum that a public school – even a virtual charter school – can’t provide.

She also noted those students would then have to take the state ISTEP+ test.

But Quinn is concerned about the constitutionality of the 75 percent-25 percent split of students, noting Indiana is supposed to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.

In general, she thinks the option is good for children with special medical needs, behavioral issues or even children in rural schools who currently have no charter school options in the state. And a number of parents whose children are training for the Olympics have expressed interest, she said.

“It’s an alternative, and it’s not for everyone,” Quinn said. “This is not a threat to the traditional school environment. It’s an enhancement.”

Sipes, a former elementary school principal, isn’t opposed to using the method for a small group of students with special needs but is concerned about broadening it too much.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I just think it’s important for kids to be around other kids,” she said. “Learning to interact with one another, to tolerate differences, is part of going to school. I want kids and people in general to learn how to get along with each other.”

Quinn said there are online technologies that allow students and teachers to do problems together on a “whiteboard,” let teachers to communicate with students verbally and through a chat box and even allow students to talk to each other.

“It’s completely interactive – not just sitting at the computer all day just stuck,” she said. “The computer is just the school bus.”
 
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Parent-Paid Aides Ordered Out of City Schools
Winnie Hu, 7/19/09

For years, top Manhattan public schools have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from parents to independently hire assistants to help teachers with reading, writing, tying shoelaces or supervising recess. But after a complaint by the city’s powerful teachers union, the Bloomberg administration has ordered an end to the makeshift practice.

Principals have been told that any such aides hired for the coming school year must be employees of the Department of Education, their positions included in official school budgets.

But such employees can command nearly double the pay of the independently hired assistants, and several schools on the Upper East Side either have told current employees they will probably not have jobs in the fall or have put off hiring new employees. That has incensed many parents, who see the aides less as a perk than as a necessity to cope with growing class sizes in well-regarded schools like the Lower Lab School for gifted children, where the average class size is now 28, and Public School 290, where broom closets are used as offices and the cafeteria doubles as a gym.

“The reason the teaching assistants are here is because they’ve been stuffing so many kids in these classes,” said Patrick J. Sullivan, co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association at the Lower Lab School (P.S. 77), where parents spend $250,000 a year on the teaching assistants. “Nobody wants to break any rules, but 28 is just too many kids for one teacher.”

Rebecca Daniels, a mother of two and past president of the Community Education Council for District 2, which stretches from the Upper East Side to TriBeCa, said the move exemplified how city education officials could be oblivious to classroom needs. “I mean,” she said, “how much do parents have to put up with?”

Supplemental fund-raising from parent groups has long raised questions of fairness. While the ability to provide extras — teaching assistants, books, computers and art supplies, enrichment programs — has helped keep middle-class families in urban public schools, it also can make it more difficult for schools in poor neighborhoods to compete.

And education officials and union leaders say that the informal system of hiring teaching assistants that has sprouted up over the past decade raised security concerns because it was not necessarily subject to the city’s screening process. “It’s hurting our union members, and to some extent it could be hurting kids because we don’t know how qualified they are,” said Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, which filed a grievance in October about the hiring.

Ann Forte, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the city had prohibited parents from directly paying the salaries of school staff members since the 1990s. She added that parent groups could still raise money to add to the staff, as long as they give the funds to their schools, and the assistants hired are employed by the Department of Education.

In a March memorandum, Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor, instructed principals to immediately report P.T.A.-paid employees to the Department of Education for background checks and fingerprinting.

In response, 18 schools reported a total of 195 employees, including classroom aides, art instructors, lunch monitors and people who help with after-school programs, according to the Education Department. Of those employees, at least 49 had not previously been fingerprinted (some school administrators conducted the checks on their own).

Some of these schools are among the most sought-after in the city, admitting students through a competitive selection process, or serving neighborhoods where families choose to live so their children can attend the local schools.

P.S. 77 reported the largest number of hires, 43; P.S. 290 on the Upper East Side had 28; and a citywide gifted program known as the Anderson School, on the Upper West Side, had 21. Other schools included P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, P.S. 166 and P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side, and P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights.

The current teaching assistants generally earn $12 to $15 an hour, compared with as much as $23 an hour, plus benefits, for the unionized paraprofessionals. Even if schools were willing to pay the higher salaries, they could not keep their assistants because of a citywide hiring freeze.

Average class sizes in the early grades across the city have stayed fairly stable around 21 since 2003, but some Manhattan schools have seen theirs swell. Most of the nearly $150 million in state aid used to reduce class sizes last year went to schools serving low-income students.

Parents at P.S. 290 say they began paying for teaching assistants more than five years ago to provide an extra layer of supervision as enrollment skyrocketed. The assistants there do not help with instruction, but instead hand out papers, take children to the nurse and help supervise recess, where students often have to play on the street. The suggested donation to a teaching assistant fund is $700 a year per child, and half of the school’s families contribute something, for a total of about $200,000 a year.

“This is not like the movers and shakers of Wall Street; this is a middle-class school,” said Emily Heckman, whose 7-year-old son will be entering second grade. “We’re doing this because we’re stuck — we have kids coming out of the windows.”

Parents at several schools said they did not know whether there would be any teaching assistants this fall, citing the additional cost as well as confusion over how to proceed without violating the city’s regulations. “We’re living in this land of limbo trying to find out what happens next,” said Sandi Atkinson, co-president of the P.T.A. at P.S. 116 in Murray Hill, which spends about $100,000 annually for up to nine teaching assistants shared by the kindergarten and first-grade classes.

At P.S. 6, each kindergarten and first-grade class was assigned a full-time assistant, who earned $12 an hour; second- and third-grade classes shared them. The 17 assistants cost nearly $300,000 a year.

The system was so successful, according to parents, that it evolved into a training ground for future teachers: At least half of last year’s assistants had graduate degrees in education and New York State teaching licenses. In recent years, 10 former assistants have been hired as teachers at P.S. 6.

School administrators said that hiring union members not only would cost more, but would also probably bring in people with less experience; the typical paraprofessional does not have a four-year college degree. The school is considering using some of the money raised for teaching assistants to hire a part-time teacher to run enrichment and academic intervention programs.

Sally Holt, whose son, Lucas, 4, is starting at P.S. 6 in the fall, said the caliber of the teaching assistants was one reason she moved from the Upper West Side in 2005.

“I’m afraid of him being lost with a crowd of kids,” she said. “The more adults in the room, the better the chances that his strengths will be recognized and nurtured, and his weaknesses will be addressed.”

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Duncan's Call for School Turnarounds Sparks Debate
By Catherine Gewertz, Education Week, 7/21/09
 
The U.S. secretary of education’s call to “turn around” the nation’s 5,000 worst-performing schools has found a warm welcome among educators and policymakers who see that focus as long overdue. But it has also sparked debate about how—and whether—such an enormous leadership and management challenge can be accomplished.

Arne Duncan is pressing for attention to chronically underperforming schools as one of four areas that states must address if they are to receive federal economic-stimulus aid. Those schools have failed to make academic progress year after year, the secretary said in a June speech, but “too many administrators are unwilling to close failing schools and create better options.”

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Duncan wrote in a Commentary that month in Education Week, school officials have not made dramatic changes in troubled schools but have “taken the path of least resistance.”

Now, Mr. Duncan is seeking to rally an army to overhaul learning in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools over five years. He’s calling on “turnaround specialists,” charter school groups, unions, school districts, and states to do their part.

Few dispute that bold action on low-performing schools has been lacking. But even with new political leadership and money, the job may require more of the field than it can deliver.

“I worry that we don’t have the capacity to do it, and I’ve worried about it for 10 years,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation who is now a partner in the education advocacy and strategy group VA/R Partners, based in La Jolla, Calif. "But it's time to take on this issue. We'd never solve this problem if we didn't have a leader pushing on it.

“We didn’t know how to go to the moon when Kennedy put that out, either. This is a bigger challenge than that. This is our moonshot. And it’s not one moonshot, it’s thousands.”

Quick and Dramatic

The federal government is dangling a lot of money for school turnaround work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed by Congress at the urging of President Barack Obama in an effort to spur the nation’s economy, includes $3.5 billion for the Title I school improvement grant program. The current fiscal year’s budget includes $545 million specifically for low-performing schools, and the Obama administration has requested another $1.5 billion for that purpose in the fiscal 2010 budget.

Definitions of “school turnaround” vary. Some include closing schools or hiring new staff members; others don’t. Most definitions share the view, however, that what distinguishes a “turnaround” from “school improvement” efforts is that it delivers dramatic improvement within a few years.

The private sector, where the idea was born, itself has a mixed record on corporate turnarounds, according to Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

“Turnarounds can be a valuable tool for improving underperforming schools,” Mr. Hess said in an article he co-wrote for the American School Board Journal last year. “However, the hope that we can systematically turn around all troubled schools—or even a majority of them—is at odds with much of what we know from private-sector efforts.”

In a June 22 speech, Mr. Duncan outlined four basic ways to turn around low-performing schools, assuming one year of planning. He urged educators to begin planning now for the first round of school takeovers in the fall of 2010.

Under the first option, a new school leader recruits new teachers in the spring. The previous teachers must reapply for their jobs but most don’t get rehired. In the second version, the school’s staff and leadership are replaced, and the school is handed over to a charter management organization or for-profit education management organization.

In the third scenario, most of the school’s staff remains, but major steps are taken to revamp school culture. Schools that take this approach must, at a minimum, establish a “rigorous” performance evaluation system, along with more supports, training and mentoring; strengthen curriculum and instruction; increase learning time; and give leadership teams more flexibility to make budgeting, staffing, and calendar decisions. Mr. Duncan warned that this approach can’t be used as a “dodge to avoid difficult but necessary choices.”

The fourth option closes a school and enrolls students in a better school.

Role of Charter Schools

Mr. Duncan’s special plea for help from the charter school sector has raised questions about charter managers’ interest in, and capacity for, fixing low-performing schools.

Greg Richmond, the president of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers, whose members oversee half the country’s 4,000-plus charter schools, said it would be “a challenge” to persuade high-quality charter-management organizations to step into the fray. Successful CMOs, he said, have excelled opening perhaps one new school, and exerting a lot of control over its design and replication. Such schools are publicly funded but largely independent in their operations.

“The reason why they are excellent schools is they are very thoughtful about what it is that makes them excellent, and they pick their opportunities carefully,” Mr. Richmond said. “Turnarounds are more reactive. The school system calls more of the shots. So a CMO is losing some of that control.”

Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington, argues that opening new schools is indeed a more promising turnaround strategy than revamping existing schools by the thousands.

“The good CMOs don’t start fresh by coincidence,” said Mr. Smarick, who was a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush. “Starting fresh is how the good ones like KIPP and Amistad get it right,” he said, referring to the Knowledge Is Power Program, whose network includes more than 80 charter schools, and the Amistad Academies, three New Haven, Conn., charter schools.

But Jordan Meranus, who oversees turnaround work for the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, thinks school management organizations will respond favorably to Secretary Duncan’s pleas.

He points to the work of Mastery Charter Schools, which took over three floundering Philadelphia middle schools in the past few years and has produced gains of 40 percentage points on state tests there. Mastery, which is in NewSchools’ investment portfolio, is often cited by Mr. Duncan.

“These organizations are doing this, they are doing it multiple times, and they’re demonstrating that it’s possible,” Mr. Meranus said. “Combine that with school operators—scores of them—that will partner with reform-minded districts and states to take on this work, and we have the makings of a new cohort that can do this successfully.”

Two-by-Fours and Scalpels

Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a reform organization that works with 76 New York City schools, said that in 20 years of work, he has seen some schools that had to be shut down and started fresh elsewhere, and others that managed significant improvements while staying open.

“You need to have an accurate diagnosis of why each of those 5,000 schools are failing,” he said. “It’s crucial. Sometimes you need a two-by-four to get change. Other times you need a scalpel.”

He added that district operations must be reimagined alongside school operations if schools are to get the necessary freedom and support to flourish.

William E. Guenther, the president and founder of Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, a Boston-based group that designed a turnaround framework in 2007 and is helping states use its strategies, said the prospect of fixing 5,000 schools over five years doesn’t have to be daunting. That’s 1,000 schools, or an average of 20 schools per state, annually, he said.

“Are we really going to stand up in front of those kids and their parents and say we can’t take a shot at turning around 20 schools a year?” Mr. Guenther said.

As education leaders and managers mobilize to do turnaround work, they must avoid past mistakes, Mr. Guenther said. Instead of changing only the people or programs in low-performing schools, their operating conditions must also be changed, he said, including providing more autonomy for school leaders.

Mass Insight’s framework envisions “lead partners” that work—with a state-level unit’s support—to coordinate all programs and services within a school, and that are held accountable for student achievement.

Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist who located the 2,000 high school “dropout factories” that Mr. Duncan repeatedly highlights as symbols of needed turnaround, said he believes the education field possesses the knowledge to make low-performing schools work well.

In struggling high schools, for instance, educators know what has to be done: Below-grade-level skills must be addressed, and a range of approaches can do that, Mr. Balfanz said. High-poverty schools have more inexperienced teachers, so special support must be provided to them, he said. And, he said, effective approaches for combating student disengagement and truancy, and providing tutoring and social supports, are all out there.

Still, he said, the knowledge base for all those efforts is not “codified, easily accessible, and packaged for broad consumption.”

“We have a knowledge base about what works and what doesn’t, and the conditions under which it works,” Mr. Balfanz said. “We need to draw on that. The challenge is getting the right strategy in the right place, and getting the know-how to more people.”

‘Top to Bottom’

In Hartford, Conn., one of the school districts singled out by Secretary Duncan for success in turning around low-performing schools, leaders have found that it requires a new school principal and staff members, more school-level autonomy, and a year of planning that yields a complete redesign of a school’s operations.

“You can’t just change a couple things in silos, like a new principal or staff. You literally have to redesign a school from top to bottom, specifying every detail, so everyone there knows what they are committing to,” said Steven J. Adamowski, the superintendent of the 25,000-student district, which redesigned one high school and two elementary schools last year.

Mr. Adamowski, who helped lead school improvement work at the American Institutes for Research before going to Hartford in 2006, said the danger in turnaround work is to do “too much in a shotgun manner,” without “going deep.”

The University of Virginia’s business and education schools run a joint program that trains teams made up of a principal, school staff members, and a district-office “shepherd” to do rapid school turnarounds. It began in Virginia seven years ago, has trained 84 principals and 272 team members, and has expanded to other states and districts.

Daniel Duke, an education professor with the program, said those experiences have not shown that school closure or wholesale staff replacement is necessary. But a new principal is key, and the quality of that leadership is crucial to the practices that will determine a successful turnaround.

For instance, educators often say that teachers should meet in teams to analyze data, but they might do that at schools where turnarounds work as well as those where they don’t, Mr. Duke said. The difference is a principal who can lead the staff in being open to what the data tell them, not “warding off” conclusions about how instruction needs to change, he said.

Responding to Call

Regardless of the debate over the fine points of turning around schools, and who should do that, organizations of many stripes are responding to the turnaround call.

Joseph Wise, the chief education officer at EdisonLearning, said the New York City-based school management company has “staffed up pretty aggressively” to position itself for more turnaround work. It has added staff members with expertise in school turnaround, and started a new team to help the company’s regional managers plan strategy with school boards, superintendents, and charter school boards.

Mr. Meranus of the NewSchools Venture Fund said that in the past two months, more of his organization’s investment partners have been calling for guidance on getting into turnaround work.

New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit group that trains and places new principals, is getting more inquiries from its state and district partners about expansion, said Jon Schnur, its chief executive officer. One state, for instance, has expressed interest in having New Leaders expand from one district to multiple districts statewide, with a particular focus on the lowest-performing schools, Mr. Schnur said.

Mr. Guenther of Mass Insight cautioned that the big turnaround push, with its attendant funding, risks attracting those unprepared for the work.

“States will have lots of money they have to spend quickly,” he said. “Providers could just hang out their shingles, rename their existing staff, and call themselves turnaround partners.”

Even with its risks and challenges, many see the high-visibility call for school turnarounds as an unprecedented opportunity.

“This is a transformative moment in time,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a recent interview. “If we blow it, if we don’t come up with models that work, it’s a disappointment to people.”
 
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Report Urges Halt to Extra Pay for Master’s Degrees
By Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week, 7/21/09
 
States are spending billions in education dollars each year rewarding teachers for earning advanced degrees that show little correlation with improved student achievement, a report released yesterday concludes.

The policy of giving teachers salary “bumps” after they earn master’s degrees in education “is in the drinking water everywhere, but we know the relationship between the degree and student achievement is nonexistent,” said Raegen T. Miller, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.

Mr. Miller co-wrote the policy brief—one in a series on school financing in the economic downturn—with Marguerite Roza, a professor at the Center for Reinventing Public Education at University of Washington, in Seattle.

By decoupling such degrees from salary schedules, states and districts could free up funding for other types of compensation policies that might promote student achievement, the authors suggest in the report.

The brief arrives even as transformation of teacher-compensation systems rises to the top of the national agenda, propelled by the $200 million in additional money provided through the federal economic-stimulus package.

Big Numbers

Districts in every state provide additional pay for teachers who hold master’s degrees, either by granting the teachers annual stipends on top of their base salaries or by altering the district salary schedule to award “lane” increases to those who earn the degrees.

A handful of other states, such as New York, require teachers to hold such degrees to obtain the highest level of licensure. Regardless of the mechanism, the accompanying salary bumps are typically career-long, not just one-shot increases.

Between federal, state, and local funding sources, states devote 1 percent to 2 percent of their current annual education expenditures to those added costs, according to the report.

The figures vary depending on the number of teachers in the state, the percentage of those who hold the degree, and the average salary bump teachers receive from acquiring the degree. In all, states spend about $8 billion annually compensating educators for holding a master’s degree in any subject.

Researchers have found that in certain content areas, such as mathematics and science, holding an advanced degree bears a positive relationship to student achievement. But many more teachers hold master’s degrees in education.

In terms of per-pupil expenditures, the cost amounts to $319 per student in Washington state, which pays more than half its teachers upwards of $10,000 annually for having a master’s degree. It is lowest in Texas, which has only 27 percent of its teachers holding an M.A. and awards such teachers about $1,400 a year each in additional pay.

Uncommon Change

Although dozens of states and districts have begun to set up performance-based pay systems over the past decade, far fewer states and districts have examined the cost of master’s degrees. Even some of the most prominent performance-pay models, such as Denver’s ProComp plan, allow teachers to make more for earning the credentials.

More recently, detaching compensation from the attainment of master’s degrees was one of the initial proposals of District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee when the city’s collective bargaining agreement came up for renewal in 2008.

That proposal, though, was overshadowed by a controversial two-tiered pay proposal that would have allowed some teachers the opportunity to take part in a performance-based system in exchange for relinquishing tenured status for one year (Pay-for-Tenure Swap for D.C. Teachers Under Debate Aug. 27, 2008).

In phasing out bonuses for advanced degrees in education, states could use the savings to institute comprehensive changes to teacher compensation. Although the research connecting performance-based pay to improved student achievement is thin and inconclusive, piloting and evaluating such plans would allow districts to home in on ways of better aligning pay to goals for boosting student learning, Mr. Miller said.

Such reforms could be politically challenging, but districts and states could render them palatable if they grandfathered in current teachers and changed policies only for those entering the profession, the report suggests.

“The variation between states on these pay increases shows that not everyone has the same feeling about the value of these degrees,” Mr. Miller said.

The stakeholders with the most to lose from such a restructuring of teacher pay could be schools of education, whose enrollments are supported by the salary incentives currently in place. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, however, has generally supported efforts to link graduates of teacher colleges to their students’ performance and to better integrate content-area coursework and pedagogy.

“Paying teachers for earning a master’s degree was a response to issues of inequity and caprice that existed in the last century,” Sharon P. Robinson, the president of AACTE, said in an e-mail. “With the advent of new fiscal constraints, districts must give thoughtful consideration to teacher pay, with teachers, and with a view toward new principles in human-capital management as well as questions of productivity.”

The idea is not necessarily anathema to teachers’ unions, either.

For instance, James R. Carlson, the UniServ director for the Kettle Moraine, Wis., local of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a National Education Association affiliate, and the director of the Educator Compensation Institute, recently unveiled a proposed compensation system that would grant salary bumps only to teachers who earned advanced degrees in a content area or in cognitive science.

“We have to embrace contemporary research if we’re going to generate new sources of income in the compensation system,” Mr. Carlson said. “The status quo is not good enough.”

Under his proposal, teachers could make more money by earning advanced certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, conducting “action” research, and gradually taking on additional roles as lead teachers and mentors.

UniServ staff members provide bargaining expertise to local NEA affiliates, and Mr. Carlson hopes that, with the right incentives, several interested local affiliates will consider the proposal.

“Hopefully, better economic times will convince state legislators to fund pilot projects to see if these things are worth doing,” Mr. Carlson said. “That’s the right way to go about this.”
 
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Obama to Unveil Guidelines for New Education
Robert Tomsho, The Wall Street Journal, 7/24/09
 
Aiming to spark a new round of change in the nation's schools, President Obama is expected to tell states on Friday what they need to do to qualify for part of a $5 billion pool of new federal funding.

Created as part of the $100 billion stimulus fund targeted for education earlier this year, the so-called "race to the top fund" was designed to fuel innovation in the classroom. Of the related funding, $4.35 billion will be distributed to states and $650 million will be reserved for school districts and nonprofit groups.

Amid deep recession-related cuts in education budgets, many states are already scrambling to make policy changes to help them qualify for the grants. Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, said 46 states are cooperating on creating a common academic standard for their public schools and seven states have lifted limits on the number of charter schools that can operate within their boundaries.

"This is about challenging the status quo," he said in an interview Thursday, adding that the funds are also designed to bring "unprecedented resources to children at a time of desperate need."

The first round of grants from the fund is expected to be awarded early next year and only a few states are likely to land them, administration officials say.

According to the related regulations that the president is scheduled to unveil at the Department of Education on Friday, states will not be eligible for the funds at all if they have any legal or regulatory barrier preventing the use of student achievement data from being used to evaluate teachers and principals.

States will also be judged on how well they work with other states in developing common academic standards. Currently, under the federal No Child Left Behind law, states are free to set their own standards for what students should learn. They vary widely and, in many cases, scores on state achievement tests appear out of sync with national test results.

States applying for the grants will also asked to show that they are paying teachers based on performance, intervening faster to turn around their lowest-performing schools, authorizing more charter schools and closing achievement gaps such as those between white students and their black and Latino peers.

Mr. Duncan said states unwilling to make such changes won't get the new funds. "They will lose out," he said.

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, a professional group of top education officials in the states, said the regulations are pretty much in line with what educators have been expecting but added that they look "for pretty aggressive action on the part of the states" applying for the funds.

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Education Reform's Moon Shot
Commentary by Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, Washington Post, 7/24/09

To every governor who aspires to be his state's "education governor," this is your moment. Today, President Obama is to announce the draft guidelines for applying for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund -- by far the largest pot of discretionary funding for K-12 education reform in the history of the United States.

Since its inception in 1980, the U.S. Department of Education has traditionally been a compliance-driven agency with only modest discretionary funds available for reform and innovation. By contrast, the Race to the Top fund marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the federal government to create incentives for far-reaching improvement in our nation's schools. Indeed, the $4.35 billion available in Race to the Top easily outstrips the combined sum of discretionary funds for reform that all of my predecessors as education secretary had.

For states, school districts, nonprofits, unions and businesses, Race to the Top is the equivalent of education reform's moon shot -- and the Obama administration is determined not to miss this opportunity. We will scrutinize state applications for a coordinated commitment to reform -- and award grants on a competitive basis in two rounds, allowing first-round losers to make necessary changes and reapply.

What are we looking for? The president starts from the understanding that maintaining the status quo in our schools is unacceptable. America urgently needs to elevate the quality of K-12 schooling and boost college graduation rates, not simply to propel the economic recovery but also because students need stronger skills to compete in a global economy. As he has put it, "education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success -- it's a prerequisite for success." Yet tragically, too many schools fail to prepare their students for college or the workforce.

Under Race to the Top guidelines, states seeking funds will be pressed to implement four core interconnected reforms.

-- To reverse the pervasive dumbing-down of academic standards and assessments by states, Race to the Top winners need to work toward adopting common, internationally benchmarked K-12 standards that prepare students for success in college and careers.

-- To close the data gap -- which now handcuffs districts from tracking growth in student learning and improving classroom instruction -- states will need to monitor advances in student achievement and identify effective instructional practices.

-- To boost the quality of teachers and principals, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects, states and districts should be able to identify effective teachers and principals -- and have strategies for rewarding and retaining more top-notch teachers and improving or replacing ones who aren't up to the job.

-- Finally, to turn around the lowest-performing schools, states and districts must be ready to institute far-reaching reforms, from replacing staff and leadership to changing the school culture.

The Race to the Top program marks a new federal partnership in education reform with states, districts and unions to accelerate change and boost achievement. Yet the program is also a competition through which states can increase or decrease their odds of winning federal support. For example, states that limit alternative routes to certification for teachers and principals, or cap the number of charter schools, will be at a competitive disadvantage. And states that explicitly prohibit linking data on achievement or student growth to principal and teacher evaluations will be ineligible for reform dollars until they change their laws.

Neither I nor the president is naive about reform. I served as superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools for seven years -- and saw firsthand that the system often served the interests of adults better than it did its students. Still, I reject much of the pessimism and age-old apathy about school reform. I have visited 23 states in the past six months and have met countless students, teachers, parents and administrators who hunger for change. I have seen high-performing schools and districts that are closing achievement gaps, raising graduation rates and shipping off to college kids who never thought it possible.

Since President Obama took office, numerous states have adopted reforms that would have been almost unthinkable a year ago. This spring, 46 states signed on to a state-led process to develop a common core of K-12 standards in language arts and math. At the same time, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado and Illinois have lifted restrictions on charter school growth.

Despite the obstacles, I remain optimistic about America's capacity for transformational change. The edifice of education reform may take years to build. But the Race to the Top starts today.
 
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Court: Schools can pay to sue state
Taxpayer money may finance funding suit
Josh Verges, Argus Leader, 7/24/09  
 
School districts can finance a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the state's K-12 education funding system, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled.

The unanimous decision means lawyers representing the school districts will be paid for their work and individual school board members no longer face the threat of having to personally pay back their districts.

It also buoys their hopes that the Supreme Court also will overturn Circuit Court Judge Lori Wilbur's decision on the underlying case.

In the opinion, Justice Judith Meierhenry cited the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark desegregation decision on Brown v. Board of Education in writing that "education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments." Scott Abdallah, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said language like that suggests the justices are of the same mind as his clients.

"The Supreme Court certainly underscored the tremendous importance of public education in South Dakota," Abdallah said.

A group of parents sued in 2006, asking Wilbur to declare K-12 funding to be inadequate. The South Dakota Coalition of Schools, which received dues from 96 of the state's 168 school districts, intervened and helped pay for the case.

The state threatened to audit the coalition, saying it's illegal for school districts to sue the state. The coalition then asked the judge for a declaration that they can, but Wilbur agreed with the state, effectively cutting off the plaintiffs' funding.

The plaintiffs' lawyers continued working the case anyway and lost a second time when Wilbur ruled in April that the way the state pays for K-12 education is constitutional. Abdallah appealed the decision to the Supreme Court earlier this month; he said he expects oral arguments to take place sometime next year.

Abdallah said the latest ruling is a victory for the little guy. He hopes it will encourage more school districts to contribute to the lawsuit.

"It underscores that ordinary citizens and democratically elected citizen school boards have a constitutional right to challenge decisions that are made by even our most powerful politicians in South Dakota," he said.

Gov. Mike Rounds frames the controversy as a waste of tax dollars on both ends of the case.

"The State Supreme Court ruled that local school boards can pay their lawyers with tax dollars to sue the state," Rounds said in a statement. "If local school boards want to keep spending even more money on this lawsuit, I would suggest that they talk to their local taxpayers before writing more checks to lawyers."

The main legal question this week was whether a subordinate body of government, such as a school district, can sue its creator. They cannot, in most cases, but the justices found exceptions by which school districts can ask for an interpretation of the constitution when funding is at issue.

The justices cautioned that the districts' standing is limited to cases where they are seeking only a declaratory judgment: A judge can say the state isn't adequately funding education, but she can't make the Legislature do anything about it.

Rory King, who represents the parents who first filed the lawsuit, said the ruling gives education lobbyists leverage for future money fights with lawmakers.

"I think it's a real boost for school districts," he said. "Of course, if they lose the funding case, that will take some of the wind out of the sails."

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As Charter Schools Unionize, Many Debate Effect
Sam Dillon, The New York Times, 7/26/09

CHICAGO — Dissatisfied with long hours, churning turnover and, in some cases, lower pay than instructors at other public schools, an increasing number of teachers at charter schools are unionizing.

Labor organizing that began two years ago at seven charter schools in Florida has proliferated over the last year to at least a dozen more charters from Massachusetts and New York to California and Oregon.

Charter schools, which are publicly financed but managed by groups separate from school districts, have been a mainstay of the education reform movement and widely embraced by parents. Because most of the nation’s 4,600 charter schools operate without unions, they have been freer to innovate, their advocates say, allowing them to lengthen the class day, dismiss underperforming teachers at will, and experiment with merit pay and other changes that are often banned by work rules governing traditional public schools.

“Charter schools have been too successful for the unions to ignore,” said Elizabeth D. Purvis, executive director of the Chicago International Charter School, where teachers voted last month to unionize 3 of its 12 campuses.

President Obama has been especially assertive in championing charter schools. On Friday, he and the education secretary, Arne Duncan, announced a competition for $4.35 billion in federal financing for states that ease restrictions on charter schools and adopt some charter-like standards for other schools — like linking teacher pay to student achievement.

But the unionization effort raises questions about whether unions will strengthen the charter movement by stabilizing its young, often transient teaching force, or weaken it by preventing administrators from firing ineffective teachers and imposing changes they say help raise achievement, like an extended school year.

“A charter school is a more fragile host than a school district,” said Paul T. Hill, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “Labor unrest in a charter school can wipe it out fast. It won’t go well for unions if the schools they organize decline in quality or go bust.”

Unions are not entirely new to charter schools. Teachers at hundreds of charter schools in Wisconsin, California and elsewhere have long been union members, not because they signed up, but because of local laws, like those that extend union status to all schools in a state or district.

Steve Barr, the founder of one large charter network, Green Dot, said his group operates its 17 charter schools in Los Angeles and one in the Bronx with union staff because it makes sense in the heavily unionized environment of public education.

In recent months, teachers have won union recognition at schools including the Boston Conservatory Lab School, a school in Brooklyn that is part of the Knowledge Is Power Program, an Afro-centric school in Philadelphia, four campuses in the Accelerated School network in Los Angeles, and a Montessori school in Oregon. Moves toward unionizing have revealed greater teacher unrest than was previously known.

“I was frustrated with all the turnover among staff, with the lack of teacher input, with working longer and harder than teachers at other schools and earning less,” said Jennifer Gilley, a social studies teacher at the Ralph Ellison Campus of the Chicago International Charter School, who said she made $38,000 as a base salary as a starting teacher, compared with about $43,500 paid by the Chicago Public Schools.

The potential for further unionization of charter schools is a matter of debate.

“They’ll have a success here and there,” said Todd Ziebarth, a vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “But unionized charters will continue to be a small part of the movement.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the gains of the past year “a precursor.”

“You’re going to see far more union representation in charter schools,” Ms. Weingarten said. “We had a group of schools that were basically unorganized, groups of teachers wanting a voice, a union willing to start organizing them, and now money in our organizing budget to back that up. And all of that has come together in the last 6 to 12 months.”

She quoted Albert Shanker, her union’s founder, as saying charter schools should be “incubators of good instructional practice.”

“I’m adding to the argument,” Ms. Weingarten said. “Let them be incubators of good labor practice.”

The largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has no national charter organizing campaign. But some of its state affiliates have helped charters unionize.

Some recently unionized charters say they are feeling their way forward.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, known as KIPP, which operates 82 mostly high-performing charter schools nationwide, is facing first-time negotiations with teachers at its KIPP Amp Academy in Brooklyn, where teachers this spring won affiliation with the United Federation of Teachers.

KIPP is also facing demands for higher pay at its high-performing Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore, which has been unionized under Maryland law since its founding.

“Our schools had largely been left alone,” said Steve Mancini, a KIPP spokesman. “Now we’re getting all this union attention.” One goal KIPP will seek in negotiations in New York and Baltimore, Mr. Mancini said, is to preserve the principals’ right to mold their teams.

Whether KIPP can maintain that posture in its negotiations remains to be seen. Another question is whether the strains of unionization will affect the culture of collegiality that has helped charter schools prosper.

Here in Chicago, where students at several Chicago International campuses have scores among the city’s highest for nonselective schools, teachers began organizing last fall after an administrator increased workloads to six classes a day from five, said Emily Mueller, a Spanish teacher at Northtown Academy.

“We were really proud of the scores, and still are,” Ms. Mueller said. “But the workload, teaching 160 kids a day, it wasn’t sustainable. You can’t put out the kind of energy we were putting out for our kids year after year.”

Some teachers disagreed. Theresa Furr, a second-grade teacher at the Wrightwood campus, said she opposed unionization.

“Every meeting I went to,” Ms. Furr said, “it was always ‘What can we get?’ and never ‘How is this going to make our students’ education better?’ ”

For Joyce Pae, an English teacher at Ralph Ellison, the decision was agonizing. Her concerns over what she saw as chaotic turnover and inconsistency in allocating merit pay led her to join the drive. But after school leaders began paying more attention to teachers’ views, she said, she voted against unionization in June.

Union teachers won the vote, 73-49.

“If nothing else,” Ms. Pae said, “this experience has really helped teachers feel empowered.”

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Stealth Education Reform Beats the Health Debacle
Opinion by Tom Vander Ark, EdReformer.com, 7/26/09

Watching the Sunday morning arguments about health reform, I was struck by how fortunate we are that Obama's team snuck education reform into the stimulus bill. While most of the $100 billion for education just partially backfills cuts, it forced states to acknowledge the Department of Education's priorities of standards, accountability, and choice. The remaining 5%, nearly $5 billion in grant programs, will be used to feed the rabbits (the states ready to move) and won't be held back by the rebel, laggard, and the complacent states. It sure beats having an education reauthorization fight to go along with the health care debate.

This week the Department of Education released selection criteria for the $4.3 billion Race to the Top (RTT) program for states. Of the 19 criteria, these eight form a powerful reform package:

1. Developing and adopting common standards
2. Developing and implementing common, high quality assessments
3. Fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system
4. Differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance
5. Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals
6. Intervening in the lowest-performing schools and districts
7. Increasing the supply of high-quality charter schools
8. Building strong statewide capacity to implement

Standards. RTT requires states to work together to develop college and career ready standards. It's crazy that each state has their own. An unintended consequence of NCLB has been a lowering of standards (to show higher passing rates). Common standards will encourage investment in next generation content and new online assessments as well as making it easier to compare performance across state lines. However, there are lots of ways states and interest groups could still muck this up.

Assessment. States are encouraged to work together to develop better tests including those designed to improve teaching and learning. This part of the proposed language should be more forward leaning--it's a big chance to move most state testing online and to incorporate adaptive tests that quickly zero in on a student's learning level.

Data. The ten elements of Data Quality Campaign, pushed for more than five years by the Gates Foundation, are a required component of the grant. Early adoption states like Florida put data to work to narrow the achievement gap. Because most curriculum will soon be digital, the trick with tests and data will be creating a frame flexible enough to encourage individual progress rather than lock step age cohorts. State policy makers should ask, "will this work for virtual schools?"

Teacher evaluation. RTT requires that states eliminate any barriers to linking student achievement data to individual teachers and using it for evaluation, placement, and compensation. Wow--that's a big deal. But most of the barriers exist in local contracts and practices. It will be interesting to see if states can actually make some changes.

Teacher distribution. The grant program requires that teacher effectiveness data be used to make sure that low-income students get good teachers--easier said than done. Teacher distribution is a function of local contracts and budgets and a lot of personal choice. And we're not very good at measuring effectiveness. The push for alternative certification (which is great) complicates the desire for equitable distribution--even reform groups have a hard time agreeing on how to ensure equitable distribution.

Intervention. This is Duncan's big push--to replace or transform the worst 5,000 schools in the country. The proposed language for intervention is pretty good but it doesn't require that bad schools be named. The definition of low-performing doesn't include graduation rates and it must--how else will we target and replace the 2,000 drop out factories?

Charter schools. States have been scrambling to lift charter caps in preparation for RTT application--a big early win. There's a nod toward charter facilities and equal funding but not a strong set of requirements. I'm afraid charters will continue to get jerked around by local districts.

Capacity. There's nothing controversial about capacity--we just don't have any. State education offices are thinly staffed to administer the complex codes their legislatures right. It's too bad the first phase of the grant program won't open until late 2009 but it is obvious that states will need time to plan and build support for their plans. None of the states have the program management staffing to do this right. RTT and foundation grants will help. Let's hope some of it sticks around after the grants run out.

It's unfortunate that the Department directs that at least half the RTT money must be distributed to districts based on a federal formula, but it's a about the only way they can ensure that high need districts get help.

I've been worried that political pressure, probably linked to the health care debate, would force the Department to spread RTT funds like peanut butter. But if they stick to the intent of the proposed language, it will be hard for a senator to make the case that his/her state deserves funding when they just don't measure up.

Instead of fighting a reauthorization battle, Team Obama is pushing preauthorization reform. While they will be disappointed in the number and quality of state applications, a few states will show the way for the rest and in doing so will reframe the reauthorization debate--and promote equity and excellence for all American students.

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