Archive for February, 2011

Unions and Principals-both on the ‘Outs’

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

School districts in forty-four states and Washington, D.C. face a cumulative deficit of $125 billion in the fiscal year July 2011-June 2012 (Education Sector projections). With the current uproar in the U. S. over debt, deficit, and the downfall that will ensue if unions don’t give up collective bargaining, the transformation of failing schools is way off the radar.

High-volume quarrels fill the media. Union supporters remind us that the reason for the debt and deficit in all states but Wyoming is the recession. A slow recovery still hinders employment and lowers revenue available to fund services-like police, fire fighters, state legislature cafeteria workers, and teachers.

It is difficult to understand the connection made by conservative legislators who lay the blame on public sector union pensions and health benefits and collective bargaining. As if, when times were good, the legislators didn’t vote to make these funds available. As if, in hard times, taking away collective bargaining rights are going to make money appear by magic.

As this blog has noted before (see post 1-19-11), the same legislators provide data showing that public sector union employees have higher pensions and benefits than private sector workers, even those in unions. Is that an argument in favor of eliminating collective bargaining? The oppression of workers in big corporations-low pay, limited pension and weak health benefits–is another reason for the difficulty in improving the economy.

Seems like the troubled sides need help from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Do you think Wisconsin legislators, for instance, would agree?

At a recent conference “Advancing Student Achievement through Labor-Management Collaboration” in Denver, Colorado, February 15-16, 2011, participants sat down to address the real problem for U. S. schools. (Edweek, 2-18-11) The goal is to improve teacher evaluation, revise salary scales, and devise models to turn around failing schools. The event highlighted school districts that had found models to improve collaboration between unions and school district administrators.

About twelve districts were featured from New Haven, Connecticut, to Douglas County, Colorado. The important point was that in spite of tough budget situations, progress and transformation has happened. As far as collective bargaining, the advice was to get out of the win-lose model.

With such models, the issue of rapidly throwing out ineffective principals, a guideline of the U.S. Department of Education, can be less regimented. It’s true that new leadership in a school designated for ‘turnaround’ can generate a new way of thinking, especially if the new principal has been part of leadership training.

But appointing a new principal doesn’t guarantee success. Is the school improving under the current leadership and needs more time to get to a level of school improvement? Is the district administration supporting turnaround?

Dealing with school leadership has been an issue well before the change in U.S. Department of Education leadership. Preparing School Principals: A National Perspective on Policy and Program Improvement by Hale and Moorman, 2003, analyses the change: a long time lack of definition about a principal’s position to current proposals naming five key elements of leadership.

However, for those who watch the change it is amazing how quickly impetus to improve schools and school leadership has occurred with the new Department of Education guidelines. The problem nowadays is to educate enough principals willing to take on the challenges.

Tossing out principals will not always improve the school; district support for best practices will. Just like voting out collective bargaining with unions will not improve the economy; long term investment will.

Cut school funds? Good idea?

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D) announced his budget Tuesday that includes somewhere around $325 million to $375 million in budget cuts for school districts.  He says that K-12 education is the state’s most important priority, but…

Colorado’s public education budget has gradually become the state’s problem since the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) passed in the early 1990s.   What used to be a 40-60 split between state and districts is now a 65-35 split.

The recession has amplified the problem.  Property tax revenues have dramatically declined and will continue to flatline, as it may take a decade before the foreclosure wrench is over.  Since properties are reassessed only every two years, recovery will not come soon.

The state budget is short $1.2 billion for 2011-12.  With school finance representing about 40% of the state’s General Fund, cuts will hit schools disproportionately to other programs funded outside the General Fund.  Which brings us to the state’s severance tax.

Colorado, like other western states, has lots of minerals, oil, and gas resources, but especially gas.  With the price of oil rising over the last few years, the state’s natural gas has become more valuable and has attracted drillers back to our more rural counties.  Northwestern Colorado, the home of Dinosaur National Monument, is experiencing another boom, as drillers are putting down wells and filling our small rural towns with lots of workers and their needs for good roads, clean water, clean air, and education for their kids.  Ah, the rub.

The state collects two taxes to help with the impact of extraction: the ad valorem property tax and the severance tax.  The property tax is assessed against the value of the gas extraction as property.  The severance tax is assessed to compensate for the lost resources, never to be returned to the earth.  Cities, counties, and school districts use the property tax.  Royalty owners can deduct 87.5% of the property tax off their severance tax.  The state is supposed to keep the remaining 12.5%.

Traditionally, the state has recycled much of the severance tax back to the rural counties for roads, clean water, sewage treatment, and other infrastructure needs.  The cities and counties have counted on this money as their towns boom and bust with the energy industry.

But now the whole state is bust, and the legislature wants to retain severance tax money to bridge the state’s budget gap.  Rural cities and counties are crying the blues, as well as other traditional severance tax collectors such as the Colorado Water Conservation Board.  This Board uses severance tax money to give out loans to water districts for water projects.

So traditionally, the severance tax money has been kept pretty far away from public education.  With the budget gap, the state needs to pull back some of this money from water, agriculture, cities and counties to prevent complete public school funding catastrophe.  As Hickenlooper says, “Public education is our most important priority.  What can be more important than educating our children to prepare them to be quality workers for our future?”

What can be more important?  Water projects for dam repair and storage?  Roads?  Tourism?  The Governor has chosen to put $17 million into tourism, money that might otherwise go to public education.  He has also chosen to put dollars into economic development and job expansion.  He has chosen to pull out only $31 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board, out of $116 million.

What he has not done is set a water conservation policy that will reduce the need for agriculture and municipal water storage.  He has not set an extraction policy that will ensure the state receives the best value for its minerals, oil, and gas property.  He has decided that the state is not in the mood to raise revenue, because Coloradans have to vote to increase any tax, including the severance tax.  He has decided not to make the case to the state’s population that now is the time to review our tax policy and contradictory tax constitutional amendments.

The Governor has decided that now is the time to cut state revenues, even though the state has been cutting for the last three years.  He is apparently receiving advice from the business community that its interests are more important than public education, and six year olds can take it on the chin.

Unfortunately, the 2011-12 budget is just the beginning for school districts.  The revenues look bad for several years out.  And the Governor has already committed to at least two years of every government worker sucking it up, even though they have already experienced two years of up sucking.

State Republicans are firm against raising taxes, and are even trying to restore tax credits lost last year, including for bull semen, a uniquely Colorado tax feature.  Many Republicans want tax decreases, even as they say that education is their most important priority.  Frankly, with public school teachers unionized, public education will never be the Republican’s most important priority.  And with the Democratic Governor in thrall of cutting state revenue, public education, no matter what he says, is not his top priority.

Watering and feeding business and agriculture supersedes watering and feeding the brains of the state’s children.

More on Tenure – Good riddance? Save Money?

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Two weeks ago a number of newly-elected governors joined a few die-hard education officials in another tirade about teacher tenure. The gist of the argument states that education improves when teachers unions give up tenure.

Even after labor’s one hundred years of bargaining to gain fair pay, safe working conditions, health and pension benefits, and the right to work without arbitrary dismissal, the easy thing to say when revenue dries up is unionized teachers have too much.

Anecdotes abound about highly paid teachers who are past their days of productive teaching. Classes full of students with low scores on state tests are the fault of those teachers. If they were gone, student scores would go up, schools would improve, and districts would not need so much to balance the budget. That’s what the rant tries to make the listener believe.

Nowadays, approximately 2.3 million public school teachers in the United States have tenure. It is true that the system can generate problems. The union system protects incompetent teachers by making dismissal difficult and time-consuming, by doling out money for paid leave and substitutes.

Here is what districts and states do to mitigate the problem of incompetent teachers. (From the November 17, 2008, Time article, “A Brief History of Tenure” by M. J. Stephey.)

The least effective is what California Governor Schwarzenegger called “the dance of the lemons” which means move poor teachers around to other schools. Then comes separation agreements, i.e., pay to leave-sounds like what happens to corporate CEO’s.

In 1997 Oregon abolished tenure, but replaced the benefit with two-year renewal of contracts and programs to help low-performing staff.

In other states, tenure is revoked, but due process remains before dismissal. A few states, like Colorado (see post 9-29-10), are trying a system to avoid tenure altogether by basing evaluation on yearly goals that determine salary and professional movement. A set of steps for improvement is provided before the teacher is dismissed.

The trouble with the obsession over abolishing tenure is that dismissing incompetent teachers and banking the funds will not save the low-performing schools, nor the funds that have disappeared because of a recession or a state legislature’s poor budget management.

Poor school finance measures fail to provide equal opportunities for students. In California in May 2010 (see post 6-2-10) a lawsuit on the behalf of teachers, students, parents, and school boards was brought to court against the state. To summarize, the status of California education finances are inequitable, inadequate, and overly complex.

Here are five proposals (At Issue: School Finance Reform by Margaret Weston, November 2010) from the Public Policy Institute of California, specifically devoted to California’s budget mess, but applicable to many states’ school budget problems. The steps are proposed with the funds available in California’s 2010-2011 budget. No revenue increase is expected.

Meet resource needs. No state can expect success using a one-size-fits-all spending ratio. Some students require more extensive help; for example, transportation costs are higher for distant rural students.

Structure incentives properly. For instance, English Language Learners struggle to achieve academically, but if the state awards failing schools, where is the financial incentive to help those schools improve?

Allocate funds transparently. Dispensing funds to school districts is only understood by a few financial wizards. Why? If the state needs revenue for schools, the tax-paying citizens need to understand the system.

Treat similar districts equitably. Allocate base funds at equitable per-pupil rates. Allocate extra costs equally; for example, to ELL students and special education students. Now, the expenditure rationale is almost always based on historical factors, not the current reality.

Balance state and local authority. Individual school districts have unique needs. Plan for local decision-making authority in exchange for accountability.

The report never speaks of eliminating tenure as a tool to improve school budgets. It does mention accountability, where tenure issues meet a better evaluation process for teacher, administrator, and school board.

Eliminate tenure-Ensure teacher quality

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

In the State of the Union speech earlier this month, President Obama spoke of moving education for the nation’s children up front. The time to exert ourselves is now. We can make improvements that will help the country grow long term.

Great! But the road to student success brings to mind a plethora of factors: tests, budgets, vouchers, evaluation, curriculum, core standards, classroom management, teacher preparation. The list goes on and on.

But wait! A number of state governors are making loud noises about teacher tenure. They are positive that eliminating just this single hundred year old fixture of teacher protection from arbitrary dismissal will solve the problem of low-performing schools.

Every teacher knows the stories of weak colleagues with high salaries and poor classroom management who couldn’t be dismissed without lengthy hearings and attempts to help them improve. And every teacher knows the stories of teachers who were harassed by administrators because they stood up for their rights until they left the profession.

Simply tossing teacher tenure from the state’s education legislation may be the easy thing to do, but would hardly be the solution to teacher quality or achievement for students.

Other measures are being debated.

For instance, Memphis city school system is trying to settle its budget woes by merging the city schools with the suburban schools of Shelby County, Tennessee. Such a merger has set off a conflict of rich and poor, urban vs. suburban needs, shifting costs. Still, those disputes are attempts to improve the achievement of students-the goal of education.

Maybe vouchers are the end all and be all. The Florida legislature has written another bill to make money available for students in failing schools to move to private schools. It could be one way to dismantle low-performing schools, but how to judge whether the particular private school is going to help the new students?

In New York City Schools, Learning Leaders is a volunteer organization that provides tutors and parent education to promote literacy for a school’s low-performing children. The results indicate higher scores on standardized tests, improved attendance, enhanced social skills and behavior. The model is an intense focus on factors to improve achievement for students.

How about three models espoused by organizations to improve teacher quality? William J. Slotnick of Community Assistance and Training Center has helped Denver Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina. They focus on models where teachers and principals set goals and select measures for yearly student achievement. Teacher evaluation is based on success in completing the goals.

A report on establishing teacher quality, written by Education Resource Strategies in Watertown, Massachusetts, suggests guidelines for schools, districts, and states. All suggestions are based on a bottom up strategy which should ensure teacher and union participation.

Here are the five suggestions: create teams to plan for change; empower the teams; build better steps to recruit highly qualified personnel to carry out the plan; help teachers achieve potential; reward personnel contributions to student achievement.

A third model offered by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality describes similar steps for improving student achievement and teacher quality. The NCCTQ report specifically takes up the ‘third rail’ of teacher tenure when addressing teacher evaluation issues.

In California all of the problems noted above are hitting the schools: budget woes and merging districts; education experts advocating vouchers; unions offering accountability models for teacher evaluation; models showing ways to improve student achievement in failing schools. It is highly unlikely that the California legislature will cut teacher tenure from the education code. It will, however, be part of a revised teacher evaluation system.

It will be a hard row to hoe. But the ask is to move forward, make change for the good of the country.