Friday, January 24, 2014
Given the recent tumultuous times for the Philadelphia school district, this week’s announcement that 130 city educators have been implicated in a cheating scandal is not earth shattering. The cheating investigation, conducted by state education officials and the Pennsylvania Office of Inspector General, found a suspicious number of erasures and corrections of wrong to right answers on state standardized math and reading tests taken from 2009 to 2011. The test improprieties are alleged to have occurred at 53 Philadelphia area schools, about 20 percent of the total number of schools in the city. The 130 educators have been accused of providing students with answers, erasing wrong answers or supervising those who did without reporting them.
The Philadelphia school system, the nation’s eighth largest school district, has been under tremendous pressure for much of the year. As Derek has covered in this blog, Philadelphia’s schools were hard-hit by the state’s decision to change its education-funding formula from one based on the local costs of educating the district’s children to one based primarily on enrollment. Twenty-three schools were closed. Coupled with an overall $1 billion cut in the state education budget, Philadelphia schools came up well short of the money needed to operate and had to borrow $50 million to open its remaining schools in September. Principals were reduced to asking parents to pay hundreds of dollars per child to attend public schools. The budget crisis led to a $350 million deficit this school year, which created shortages of school nurses, counselors, security officers, and reduced special education services throughout the district.
Like their counterparts in the Atlanta cheating indictments last year, Philadelphia’s educators are under pressure to show gains in proficiency on high-stakes standardized tests. When those gains do not happen within a year or two, the incentive to cheat is strong. Cheating can mean saving jobs, avoiding being branded as a “failing” school, and winning bonuses and federal incentive funds when the students are deemed to be proficient in reading and math.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Special education advocates are protesting the revival of a controversial bill in the Wisconsin legislature to give students with disabilities vouchers to attend private school. Four Wisconsin legislators announced a bill Tuesday that would give up to $14,000 per student for children with disabilities to attend private school. The legislators said that the vouchers would allow special needs students to leave failing schools and instead attend schools of their choice. Parents and advocates for special needs children have formed a grassroots effort called Stop Special Needs Vouchers (SSNV). SSNV says that the vouchers "would funnel critical taxpayer funding out of public schools and into private voucher schools which lack vital accountability." The group argues that the bill would exempt private voucher schools from complying with the standards in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and may leave children with disabilities without a school if the school cannot meet students' needs or suddenly closes, as Milwaukee’s LifeSkills Academy recently did. The group says that the LifeSkills Academy example is particularly important because as a private voucher school, it received $2 million in taxpayer funds then closed abruptly after only one of its students showed proficiency in reading on standardized tests in two years. The school's unannounced closure left its students scrambling to find new schools in the middle of the academic year. (LifeSkills' owners have moved on to open a special needs voucher school in Florida, where legislation for private school scholarships for special education students was passed in 2001.)
Wisconsin's previous attempt to provide private school vouchers to special needs children came under sharp scrutiny prompting a lawsuit and an advisory letter from the DOJ to Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction in 2013 warning that "[t]he state cannot, by delegating the education function to private voucher schools, place students beyond the reach of the federal laws that require Wisconsin to eliminate disability discrimination in its administration of public programs." The measure was shelved then because of strong opposition. A paper by the National Council on Disability, School Vouchers and Students with Disabilities, supports SSVN's concerns. Two findings from the paper note the difficulty of using vouchers in private schools if the vouchers do not cover the cost of needed supports in students' Individualized Education Programs:" Because vouchers can only cover a portion of costs of special education over and above the cost of private school tuition in many cases, particularly for students with moderate, low-incidence and severe disabilities, such programs may benefit only the affluent who can afford to supplement vouchers to cover actual costs. Since school districts will lose students and a proportion of state funds due to transfers to private schools, it is possible that public schools will be left to serve only poor students with more significant disabilities, and at a reduced level of financial support. ...  The principle of school choice, and voucher programs in particular, have not been adequately shown to be internally consistent and mutually reinforcing with regard to the other three principles of IDEA reauthorization (accountability for results, increasing local flexibility, and a focus on what works) outlined by the U.S. Department of Education." Read more about the Wisconsin bill here.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
The Gainesville, Georgia School District has approved a measure that would allow their school resource officers to carry rifles. The deal came as part of an agreement with the local police department, which will share half of the cost of the safes in which the rifles are to be kept at school. The discussions began shortly after the Newton shootings, when the police department approached the district about safety measures. At risk of stating the obvious, it is problematic when police departments help set school policy, even when that policy pertains to safety. Police expertise is certainly important on such matters, but should not "steer the bus." This sounds like a militarization of an environment that is supposed to be education. Second, it has never been my understanding that any of these mass school shootings are a result of insufficient firepower at school. Rather the problem is that weapons entered the school in the first instance. I know Jason Nance has written a lot around these issues right in recent months. See here for his most recent article.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
This past summer, North Carolina passed legislation altering the tenure rights of public school teachers. Teachers who have not already accumulated four years of service in a district are deprived of any opportunity for career services and only qualify for year-to-year teaching contracts. Teachers who previously qualified for or earned tenure will lose their protections beginning in 2018.
Yesterday, the North Carolina Association of Educators and six tenured teachers filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the legislation. They put forward two theories. First, they assert that taking away tenure violates the state constitutional protection against deprivations of life, liberty, and property. They argue tenure is a vested property right. To take it away, the state would have to compensate teachers, which it has not here. Second, they assert the legislation violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against impairing contracts. The tenure relationship between teachers and districts creates contractual rights on the part of teachers and now the state has stepped in and impaired those rights.
The full complaint is available here.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
The city of Hoover, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham, attracts families because of its highly rated school system. That attraction may be lessened next year because the school board voted to eliminate school bus service for most students in 2014. The Hoover City Board of Education’s school budget will have a $17 million deficit next year ended bus service to save money. This week, parents, activists, and the NAACP held a press conference in downtown Birmingham to protest the decision. First, they said, there is little evidence that cutting bus service will realize substantial savings. Yesterday, we posted an infographic by Trisha Powell Crain of alabamaschoolconnection.org that questions the district’s estimated savings of $2.5 million (Crain’s numbers shows that the savings will likely be under a million dollars). Protestors say that costs have little to do with the decision—that the real motive for stopping school bus service is to ease out students who perform poorly on standardized tests. A Hoover mother of three said in al.com that"[w]e all know the elephant in the room is there's a demographic of black children and Hispanic children that they don't want here. [Diversity was] OK when you were importing all the black kids to come and play football. You just didn't count on their cousins coming with them.” School officials deny that the move is an effort to get rid of black, Hispanic, or low-income children in Hoover. Critics of the decision also point out that families will avoid buying homes in Hoover without any bus service for their children, which will affect property values. Hoover mayor Gary Ivey has rebuffed that criticism, saying property values in Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook, Birmingham’s wealthiest suburbs, have not declined even though they have no school bus transportation. Meanwhile, another city leader, Hoover Councilman Gene Smith, has paid nearly $30,000 of his own money for a study of the impact of the school bus cuts on Hoover's property values and socioeconomics. Smith says that he will reveal the results of the study on November 18. Spokespersons for the Department of Justice and the Alabama Board of Education say that they are monitoring the Hoover situation. In this age of accountability testing, declining test scores has implications for school funding, teachers’ jobs, and property values. Three Hoover schools are discovering those stakes when they landed on Alabama’s “failing schools” list last year for not making adequate yearly progress.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
An Alabama town’s decision to eliminate bus service next year is supposed to save money, but may be instead highlighting the perverse incentives of accountability testing reform. The Hoover, Alabama school system, which is in a suburb of Birmingham, controversially decided to end bus transportation for all except children with special needs starting in the 2014-15 school year, saying that it would save $2.5 million of the district’s $160 million budget. The Hoover district denies that getting rid of the buses that serve half of its students has anything to do with test scores, property values, or the increasing ethnic diversity in the area. But eliminating school buses, as Trisha Powell Crain says at alabamaschoolconnection.org this week, will not bring substantial cost savings, or at least not any that will show up in classrooms. She made the attached graphic about school finances. The likely place where the money would go is for the $2.8 million increase on the district’s debt payment. This cost savings disconnect was brought home when Hoover announced its plans to pay for students to have iPads and Nooks in the 2013-14 school year. Locals have two theories about stopping the school buses: the first is that the district ended bus service to discourage recent immigrant families from remaining in Hoover, since their children will not have a way to school. The second theory is that the district is discouraging academically and economically disadvantaged students from moving into Hoover because those students may lower the district’s standardized test scores. I vote for mixed motive. Alabama is famously uncomfortable with immigration, so the increased diversity may be a factor in the changes. Other affluent districts around Hoover do not offer school bus transportation. Lower-income and immigrant families settle in Hoover because of the district’s good school ratings and bus transportation, as school board member Paulette Pearson pointed out this spring, saying that the bus system makes Hoover “as a bit of a haven, so [families] come straight to us. … We make it easy because we have some housing in our area that's pretty affordable, and they can take advantage of that.” But I also suspect that Hoover is trying to ease out lower-income and immigrant students to keep standardized test scores high. Because accountability testing has been made the divining rod of a good education, school districts feel that they cannot have a critical mass of students who do not perform well on standardized tests. In other words, the district is shedding students who most need a solid education.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
Pennsylvania Charter School Reform Bill Proposes Lifting Enrollment Caps and Eliminating School Districts' Oversight
The Education Law Center of Philadelphia (ELC) is advocating against proposed charter school legislation that would lift charter school enrollment caps and shift oversight of charters from local school districts to universities. The proposal aligns with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s plan to encourage charter school growth by making it easier to open charter schools. The Education Law Center agrees that lifting caps will increase charters’ enrollments—but at the cost of financially hobbling local school districts that have to pay those charters per-pupil fees and other costs. Uncontrolled charter school growth may in essence defund public school systems by increasing costs on already-lean school budgets to support them. Moreover, writes David Lapp of the Education Law Center, giving universities the power to authorize and oversee new charters, eliminates any accountability for charter schools to “equitably serv[e] a community’s vulnerable student populations, such as minority students, students with severe disabilities, students for whom English is a second language, students in deep poverty, students experiencing homelessness, or students in foster care.” Pennsylvania has 119,500 students enrolled in 176 charters throughout the state. Readers of this blog have followed the tumultuous year in Pennsylvania education on this blog here, here, and here. Those of us who work at universities might agree with Lapp that higher ed institutions do not have any special expertise or information to become good stewards of a state charter school system. Universities can build such systems, as Drexel and Temple are contemplating, but that too will have costs, particularly as higher ed institutions are themselves facing declining enrollments and tighter budgets. Read the Education Law Center’s paper here.
In recent days, a few high profile calls to focus on poverty and inequality, as opposed to education innovation and “reform,” have been issued. Tuesday, the New York Times ran a story, In Public Education, Edge Still Goes to Rich, that emphasized the fact that, while our nation proclaims to be the land of opportunity and that education is the gateway to that opportunity, our education system is rife with gross funding disparities. On average, we spend less per pupil in schools with high levels of student poverty than we do in schools with low levels of poverty. Similarly, we also allow poor states to fend for their selves. New York, for instance, spends more than twice as much per pupil as Tennessee.
Last week, everyone from an audience member watching an educational debate between Arne Duncan and Fredrick Hess to Diane Ravitch has charged the Department of Education with chasing a fool’s errand and taking poor kids along for the ride. The audience member charged Arne Duncan with policies that favor the advantaged over the disadvantaged. And Diane Ravitch has charged in her new book and in promotional events that there is no fundamental crisis in education that needs reform. Rather, we need to tackle poverty. Our other so called reforms are but a side show that undermines instead of improves education.
Two weeks ago, the Southern Education Foundation released its report on the growing levels of poverty in public schools and shrinking education budgets available to address it. Fortunately, the media gave the report substantial coverage for a week or so and the report has reverberated through the messaging of various other policy commentators. My post called it a wake-up call. If unaddressed, the diverging trends of poverty growth and budget shortfalls pose a fundamental threat to quality education.
The fact that these voices are joining in a chorus is good news. It is going to take a sustained and aggressive campaign to put poverty and equality back at the top of the agenda. For a couple of sessions of Congress, Representative Chaka Fattah, for instance, has introduced student bills of rights that would require equity as a condition of receiving federal education funds. As one of the sole advocates for equity in Congress, his efforts have yet to go any where.
At the local level, we are got mixed messages in the elections this week. In Colorado, the referendum to increase taxes for schools failed (which many consider a remedy for the state's currently constitutionally inadequate system). But in the New York City mayoral race, Bill de Blasio won. His platform called for stemming the charterization of public education and supporting the neediest rather than closing them.
Once could attempt to write off the loss in Colorado to the fact that voters had another option on the ballot that they approved--school construction funding--and that the tax increase had a few wrinkles in it. The voters did not know exactly what the money would be spent on, nor that all the money would necessarily stay with schools. The tax itself also would have instituted a graduated tax system rather than the flat one they had before. One could also discount the de Blasio win, as many other issues were on the table. But regardless of how one interprets these results, the chorus of voices reminding of us the core problem of inequality and poverty will have to grow for serious change to occur.
Friday, November 1, 2013
Two years after passing a sweeping anti-immigrant bill, Alabama is relenting. The bill had wide-ranging impacts on immigrant communities (and those interacting with them) that touched on almost every aspect of their lives. Some may recall that the bill included a measure that required schools to verify the immigration status of newly enrolled K-12 students. The day after the bill went into effect, news reports indicated that scores of Latino students, in particular, went missing from school. This included students who were, in fact, citizens or were legally in the country. I never caught news of these students returning. Alabama apparently achieved its presumed purpose: to encourage these families to leave the state. I imagine that few of those uprooted families have intentions of returning to Alabama, but the settlement agreement negotiated by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other civil rights group with the state protects them if they do. The state has agreed to permanently abandon this and other aspects of the bill. See here for more details.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
After Paying $2.2 Million, Normandy School District Votes to Stop Paying Tuition and Transportation Costs to Transfer Districts
To avoid running out of money by March, the Normandy School District voted Thursday to stop paying tuition and transportation costs for the hundreds of students who chose to attend a transfer district this year. The district in St. Louis County also voted to layoff 100 employees (including 71 teachers) starting next month and to close an elementary school in December. The district estimates that layoffs and school closure will save more than $3 million. The unaccredited Normandy district is struggling to come up with the money to pay for students who transferred out of the district this school year. It has already paid receiving districts $2.2 million in tuition and transportation this school year for students who transferred out of Normandy under Missouri’s new school transfer law. The district estimates the cost of tuition and transportation for students who transferred will be $13 to $15 million. Riverview Gardens, the other unaccredited district, says that it has enough reserves to get through the school year. Read the story here.
A Las Vegas elementary school joins those in Atlanta and D.C. in facing an investigation into “statistically improbable test scores,” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Last week, the Nevada attorney general’s office subpoenaed the principal and six staff members of Matt Kelly Elementary School, where students’ reading test scores tripled in the last two school years. Kelly Elementary School’s test results have historically hovered between 51 and 24 percent in reading and math proficiency across all grades. That pattern was evident in the 2010-11 school year, when fewer than 25 percent of Kelly Elementary School’s fifth-graders read at grade level. A year later, however, the school’s fifth-grade reading scores soared to to 77 percent, more than tripling the previous year’s scores. In the 2012-13 school year, Kelly’s fifth-grade reading scores held steady at 72 percent proficiency. Clark County School District officials said that the district requested in August 2012 that the Nevada Board of Education review Kelly Elementary’s scores. Kelly Elementary is considered one of seven high-need schools in the school district; all seven have high black populations and poverty. Each of those schools receives $400,000 more a year than other district schools.
Monday, October 28, 2013
Last week, I posted on the uniqueness of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz's suit against the state board of education for engaging in secret meetings. I was most interested in how the courts would react here as compared to suits filed by students. Before the courts do anything, however, the case is already taking a surprising twist. Four of the state board's members penned an open letter asking her to drop the suit. The full text of the letter is after the jump.
Friday, October 25, 2013
Students from a Dallas Fort Worth School allege that a music teacher separated the African American students from the white students and then demeaned the African American students, including calling them "stupid." Charges of racism are now being leveled at the teacher. The district is investigating. In my attempt to track down the facts-- which are pretty fuzzy--on thisstory, I ran across a few other similar stories. I would have thought that blatant classroom discrimination segregation would be an isolated story, but two stories suggest it may not be.
The first story relates to another teacher in Minnesota calling African American students "fat" and "stupid" in class. The families subsequently filed a discrimination lawsuit. If these were only isolated statements, they would be unlikely to lead to liability under Title VI, but the claim is that the teacher had repeatedly used such language and the school had refused to address it, which makes their claim stronger.
The second story was not malevolent, but even more remarkable. In 2011, school officials in Lancaster, PA admitted to segregating African American students from the rest of a school's students and then dividing the African American students further by gender. The separation is purportedly brief, lasting just six minutes each day and 20 minutes twice a month. When brought to light, the officials defended the plan, indicating it was motivated by their desire to address the specific challenges that African American students face and to close the achievement gap. The school, however, seems to be overlooking its own biases as one of the likely causes of the underachievement of African American students. That these biases are in play is reinforced by their stereotypical notion that African Americans are the only students in the district with risk factors that need to be singled out and that all African Americans are seriously at risk. Were these assumptions not below the surface, the total and rigid segregation of African American students would have been illogical to the district. In short, the district appears to have been well intentioned, but good intentions do not keep bias or discrimination at bay.
In 2013, Pittsburgh Public Schools district rolled out its plan to deal with financial and academic problems in a report called “Envisioning Educational Excellence: A Plan for All of Pittsburgh's Children." Among other things, the plan calls for school closures. But a group of parents and educators called the Great Public Schools (GPS) Pittsburgh coalition, are worried that closing more schools will exacerbate the district’s problems, as we've seen in Philadelphia and Chicago this school year. (See Derek and Danielle Holley-Walker's posts about Philadelphia’s Perfect Storm, here and here.) GPS is even more concerned that the Envisioning plan (financed in part by the Gates Foundation), chose ineffective methods to gather community input about the school closures. Community views were solicited primarily through a few one-on-one meetings with selected parents and online surveys and feedback. The problem is that some parents, who are living at or near the poverty line, do not have ready access to the online tools that Envisioning used to gauge community views. Envisioning’s authors may have already decided what the affected communities' views would be—that closing schools as reform measures is disfavored. One part of the plan is to change “community attitudes” so PPS will learn “how reform-minded urban districts have driven change in … community attitudes, values, and buy-in.” So GPS instead went door-to-door to ask nearly 1,000 parents what they thought about school closures in their communities. The graphic below is a snapshot of the survey results. Read what else the community had to say at Yizercation, What Pittsburghers are Really Saying about School Closures.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
The lion's share of education law cases involve students, teachers, and organizations suing school officials. Courts are often reluctant to engage in these cases, with school discipline being the prime example. I, of course, argue that our nation, as well as our schools, are bound by the rule of law. Thus, when constitutional and statutory rights are at risk, courts must engage in a full good faith analysis of the issues.
Yesterday brought news of Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Glenda Ritz, filing suit against the state board of education. She argues that Governor Mike Pence is attempting to strip her of constitutional authority as chair of the state board of education by encouraging the state board to hold secret meetings without her. Doing so, she argues, violates the state's open meetings law. The underlying substance of those meetings involves changing the quality rating system for the state's schools, a significant issue, of course.
I will keep you posted on the courts' receptivity to her claims.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
As noted earlier this week, the situation in Philadelphia's schools had descended into the chaos of a perfect storm. One would think that the Governor eventually would have had to act. The death of a 12 year old girl after a day at school where the nurse had been dismissed due to budget cuts is not the sort of thing a Governor wants to defend. Yesterday, Governor Corbett stepped up and released $45 million so that Philadelphia schools could rehire teachers and assign students back to their normal classrooms (some were apparently in split grade classrooms). A lot of credit goes to civil rights leaders from outside the state, like Wade Henderson, David Sciarra, Ben Jealous and Marc Morial, for putting the Philadelphia schools under a microscope and then shining a national spotlight on them. Once they did so, the Governor acted quicker than most.
This important victory, however, may be shortlived because the underlying problem remains untouched. Philadelphia, and several other districts in the state, are in this mess because the Governor abandoned the funding formula that Governor Rendell had enacted. Forty-seven other states in the country understand that school funding must be based on enrollments, demographics, and local costs (even if their formulas do not perfectly reflect these factors). Governor Corbett returned Pennsylvania to the dark ages of school funding when he abandoned Rendell's formula and appears content to stay there. For more discussion on the formula, see David Sciarra's essay from yesterday.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Derek recently wrote about the financial hits that St. Louis area schools are taking under Missouri’s new transfer law. Under the Missouri scheme, unaccredited school districts have to pay tuition and transportation costs for the 2,600 transferring students who have used the law so far. Recently, however, Missouri lawmakers are realizing that the law has an unanticipated cost—families are taking advantage of the student transfer option to establish residency in unaccredited districts then immediately transferring their children to accredited schools. These “bouncing” transfers can get students into higher-rated suburban schools that would be otherwise unavailable because of residency requirements. Nothing in the Missouri statute stops such “bouncing” transfers or caps the number of transfers that families can have in a school semester. Nor do students have to enroll or attend an unaccredited shool -- they just have to establish residence in that district. State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal told the St. Louis Beacon yesterday that the law allows families “to just move into an unaccredited district, then turn around right away and transfer elsewhere, [which] amounts to “educational larceny.” Lawmakers are finding it difficult to count how many families are using the loophole because of transience rate in city schools is already high. Sen. Chappelle-Nadal estimates that the unaccredited Normandy High School could run out of money by next March. Read more here.
Friday, October 11, 2013
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
The South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) has found that school district Florence County School District 1 failed to correct violations of federal disability law after three complaints were filed within a year involving the same family. On September 20, the SCDE sent a third resolution letter showing that Florence 1 violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) on eleven occasions and failed to follow through with corrective actions in previous SCDE directions. The SCDE had sent two prior resolution letters, one in November 2012, for a student in Florence 1, and another in July 2013, for a complaint involving the student’s younger brother because his academic resource class did not have a certified special education teacher. Relations between the students’ mother and Florence 1 became so heated that the mother was arrested following an argument at the school when she arrived to get her son and school staff could not tell her where he was. The family’s third complaint was filed in late July 2013, alleging that Florence 1 was still not complying with the IDEA. The school district’s officials told the Florence Morning News that they are puzzled that SCDE continued accepting their compliance plans without comment but then found them wanting after complaints were filed. Nevertheless, the principal of North Vista Elementary, where one of the brothers attends school, is taking the SCDE’s action as constructive criticism, saying, “We want to learn from [the decision] and want to improve for all students.” Disability law issues in Florence County are doubtless sensitive as the U.S. Supreme Court found that one of its districts violated the IDEA twenty years ago in Florence District Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993). Read more about the findings in Florence 1 District here.