Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Why should I have to pay for the education of those people?"

On Monday, I posted on the Dream Act. Some people thought that I was beginning to launch a crusade for the Dream Act, but that was not my purpose. Actually, my purpose was to discuss a deeper issue about our attitude as a community towards educating people who don't look like us...people of different races, religions or appearances.

Last week, the school board held a public hearing on a one year increase in property taxes, a proposal which I voted against. During that public hearing, a citizen told us that he was troubled by raising taxes to pay for the education of Somali immigrants. Several people in the audience nodded knowingly with approval. Why should WE have to pay taxes to educate THEM. My no-vote had nothing to do with the view that we shouldn't have to pay for the education of people who don't look like us. My issue was that the tax, even though for just one year, wasn't accompanied by a plan to keep costs in check and to keep the district sustainable. My vote was about exhaustion from the constant cycle of cuts, taxes and endless bargaining, that never seem to resolve themselves into a sustainability plan from the State, which under our Constitution has the central responsibility for public education finance.

I wanted here to write a bit about this question of US paying for THEM. In doing that, I want to be crystal clear, as a no-vote, I'm certainly not suggesting that everybody who is against taxes is motivated by this question of whether the kids who will benefit include some people who are different from the rest of us. Most of the people in our community reject that point of view. But just as surely, I know that there are folks in our community who agree with the fellow who came to the podium and complained that we taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for certain immigrants. And it is to them, and about them, that this post is directed.

Let's begin with the central fact that the school district, the school board, and the children who go to our schools, had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to open our community to immigrants. That decision was made by the Governor, the State Department under the Bush Administration, and a variety of community leaders. Nonetheless, from time to time, a citizen points his finger at me and seems to blame me as a school board member for his anger at immigration and immigrants. Listen. As a school district, we welcome every student who walks in our doors, because we are in the business of educating all children. We believe that a community that leaves some of its children uneducated is a community that is in the process of destroying itself.

A public school district educates all children, and we are proud of that. If you think about it, there's something a little bit screwy about suggesting that we shouldn't be willing to pay for a world class education for all of our students, simply because we don't identify with some of them. Who is harmed, really, when you refuse to pay for the education of your children, neighbors children and grandchildren, because you have a problem with the race or religion of some of our students. . If this conversation makes you uncomfortable, I apologize, but there it is. We need to face the fact that all of the kids who go to our school district are children of God, and they all deserve a great education, even if they look or seem differently.

Some sociologists claim that when a homogeneous community (all white, all Lutheran, all Christian, all German, or choose your favorite here) experiences an influx of "outsiders," that the community suffers a crisis in community cohesion that can be very destructive of the long term resilience of that community. If a new group enters the community, the "old-timers" immediately begin to discuss their differences, and start to question whether the newcomers are legitimate members of the community. It happened when Irish Catholic immigrants arrived in predominately Protestant communities. It happened when German Catholics migrated into predominantly Scandinavian communities here in Minnesota. It can happen when Hispanic or blacks migrate into an all-white community. When a community struggles with its differences, it is struggling for its soul. Will we maintain our sense of community or lose it?

This idea, that the newcomers don't deserve the community benefits of education and other services to the same extent as the old-timers is a common topic of community conversation in many communities. If that conversation goes in the wrong direction, the entire community may choose to punish itself, by refusing to support education, municipal infrastructure, and other community assets, in a way that causes the majority community to harm itself, to avoid benefiting the minority community.

And this is the central question that we need to come to grips with as a community: are we going to believe in ourselves as a community as we become more diverse, or are we going to punish ourselves, all of us, because some of us don't want to support those of us who don't look like us.

If you are angry that Governor Pawlenty -- or George Bush, or whoever--volunteered Minnesota and St. Cloud to receive immigrants, do you really want to take that anger out on yourself, your children and grandchildren and the entire community? Or, do you want a community that insists that all children who live here are going to leave high school well educated, ready to work and support themselves and make a contribution to the community? Do you see those immigrants as a reason to punish the entire community because, well I'll be darned if I'm going to support education for "them." Or, are we going to find a way to pull this community together and make sure that people who come from a very different place and history, are challenged to understand our history, our language, our literature, and our civic tradition.

Which vision of our community is going to stand us in greater stead? The one that leaves children uneducated or one that insists that all of our young people do well?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dream Act and a bit of history

Education blog has been on vacation, lately, because I've been overwhelmed at work. But when I can catch a free minute, I've been reading an account of the Mexican-American war. This reading occured just as the Senate was rejecting the so-called Dream Act, which would have created a road to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. The Dream Act would have provided certain illegal and deportable alien students who graduate from US high schools, who are of good moral character, arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors, and have been in the country continuously and illegally for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment, the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency if they complete two years in the military or two years at a four year institution of higher learning. There are arguments for and against the Dream Act, but the coincidence of reading about the Mexican American War places it in a context that I hadn't considered before.

Mexico's colonial history dates from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. For the next couple hundred years, Mexico and our own colonies shared a parallel colonial history, each incorporating many of the governance traditions of our respective colonial mother, Spain and England. England visited upon its colonies the so-called liberal democratic tradition which offered a modicum of democratic governance to the propertied, white men of some wealth, and that tradition evolved eventually into our Constitutional government. Spain visited upon its colonies a substantially different colonial system, dominated by a central Viceroy. After attaining our respective independences, each country faced its own challenge from its former colonial mother country, but the second Mexican war with Spain extended far longer and was much more debilitating. By 1840, Mexico had considerable disadvantages in relation to the United States in terms of industrialization, economic growth, governance, and military power.

Under Presidents from Jackson to Polk, the United States pursued a policy of expansion and growth, and of subjugation of the native people who stood in the way of the United State's government desire to develop and populate new lands. This dispute over expansion created internal tensions within the nation, because politicians in the North saw expansion towards Mexico as potentially changing the balance in the Senate and Congress on the question of slavery. President Polk focused his administration on finding reasons to go to war with Mexico and eventually convinced a divided Congress to support a war of Mexican conquest.
After a costly war, with brutality on both sides, a war waged largely on Mexican soil, the army of the United States defeated the Mexican army. By the end of his administration., Polk's expansion policy had resulted in acquisition (conquest) from Mexico of all or significant portions of California, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. The economic and political consequences to Mexico and its people were ultimately to prove devastating. Mexico lost access to and control over vast water resources, leaving Mexico with the poorest and least farmable lands of its former empire. It lost control of gold, silver, and other mining resources, and as it turned out, it lost the future oil wealth of Texas. The immigration pressure from Mexico to the United States results, in part, from the economic destruction of the nation of Mexico, and in part on the less aggressive Spanish approach to industrialization and capital formation which characterized that nation.

One of the prices that a conquering nation pays for visiting economic destruction on a neighboring country is that the impoverished country cannot support its population leading to cross border immigration pressure for seekers of opportunity, employment and education. That means, that the conquering nation must either engage in costly aggressive, often futile efforts to stem the tide of immigration, or it must find ways to assure that the immigrants who do arrive are educated and incorporated into the population as full citizens.

Now before you decide to attack this blog from the left or right, I'd ask you to recognize that what I'm saying is embedded with historical and economic truth. If you are anti-Dream Act, you can support your argument from this historical perspective by saying, yes, I'm aware of the causes of those pressures, and it is precisely because of those pressures, that I believe that we must redouble our effort to keep our fingers in the dike and hold back the inevitable immigration pressures arising from economic inequalities. If you are pro-Dream Act, you can point out that a significant proportion of the child-immigrants have come to portions of our country that were originally part of Mexico, and that they have simply travelled from one part of the Mexican Diaspora to another. History furnishes arguments for either point of view.

Immigration has formed an important part of the economic, cultural and political history of our country and of North America. From 1881 to 1890, 41 percent of our nation's population growth came from immigration. From 1891 to 1900, 28 percent of our population growth resulted from immigration, and by 1900, nearly 14% of our nation's population were foreign born citizens. In the first decade of the twentieth century, more than half of the increase of our population was accounted for by immigrants, and about 14.6 percent of our population were foreign born immigrants. In each of those decades through the 1920's, immigration to the United States exceeded 3.6 million, ranging from a high of 8.8 million per decade to a low of 3.7 million. With the advent of the depression, and economic and political chaos worldwide, immigration into the United States fell to an all time 528,000 for the decade. The period of our greatest economic depression thus coincided with the period of our least immigration as well as a period of significant erection of international trade barriers.

The period from 1941 to 1990, witnessed a resurgence of immigration, particularly under the Presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980's under whose presidency immigration rose to 7.3 million for the decade. Under Reagan, immigration accounted for 1/3 of the nation's population growth and the percentage of our population that was foreign born rose from historic lows --5.4 percent in the 1950's, to 7.9 percent in the Reagan decade. This resurgence in immigration may be traced to several factors: the support by Republicans for immigration as a supply of cheap unskilled labor to support economic growth,and a corresponding rejection by democrats of a national policy of hostility to immigrants of Latino or Hispanic descent. It may reflect as well the growing disparity in wealth among the Americas.

The Dream Act was not about history, after all, it was about solving a major emerging crisis in America's demographic future, and I'll talk about that in my next post.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Legislative Education Reforms: Look before you Leap

I've started a series of posts on the topic of education reform in Minnesota. The premise of the posts is that with a new republican legislature and a new democratic governor, there's an opportunity for the new leaders to break new ground and make desperately needed reforms. As I was preparing my second post, yesterday's St. Cloud Daily Times reported a range of data on public employee salaries at the State level. I found the article really informative. It got me thinking: what if the Dayton administration and the republican legislature would begin their reform efforts by conducting a careful examination of good solid hard data? What if they began by holding hearings, listening to leading thinkers in education, and to folks throughout Minnesota who want reform efforts to succeed?

When a new political party sweeps into office, it arrives fully of energy, as if on steroids, ready to make changes. The topic of this post is to argue that before making decisions, the new leadership should begin their reform agenda with collecting some cold hard facts. There are plenty of needed reforms. The problem is that some of the reform ideas that are really popular will not work. A tremendous amount of damage has been done to public education at state and national levels by well-meaning reformers who have used their newly found powers to impose drastic but unworkable changes. My plea is, look before you leap. Collect some data; listen; make changes based on reforms of proven merit, not ideology.

Since well before I joined the St. Cloud Board of Education I've tried to keep track of the hearing-topics chosen by Senators and Representatives in St. Paul. It has struck me, that these hearings tend to focus on some of the issues of least importance. Things that are interesting, but don't really focus on topics that are really critical to making important decisions that could really make a difference for those of us in the hinterland. How about holding some hearings on the key critical topics that would drill down to the issues really facing public education? Drive out drivel, and get down to realities. Here are some topics that I wish the education committees would hold hearings on:
  • Minnesota collective bargaining: What are the hard facts regarding what has been happening as a result of Minnesota's current collective bargaining system in public education? What does the data tell us about the relationship between employee compensation and the level of public funding? Are school districts able to fund the increases that they are providing, or are they making cuts in order to fund them, and if so, where ? Is the collective bargaining system producing a result that is fair to employees and fair to school districts?
  • What does economics tell us teachers should get paid? There has been a whole lot of loose talk in Minnesota on whether teachers are getting paid too much or too little. It's time that we had took a really hard look at what we are paying teachers in Minnesota as compared to other states. We should look as well at what similar professions and pay and look at whether we are on course in Minnesota to pay what needs to be paid to attract the finest young people into the teaching profession in future years. Let's not answer this question based partisanship or whim. Our future depends upon providing the correct answer to this question.
  • What does the best research tell us it should cost to deliver a world class education, and how best should resources should be marshaled in a way to make sure that the necessary resources are used efficiently. Several years ago, a State bipartisan task-force began work on this question, which is really the most critical question facing our State, in my opinion. But somehow the issue got politicized, and the Republican Governor lost faith in the process. Democrats and advocates for public education accused the Governor of canceling the work of the commission, because the answer was coming back too high. Conservatives responded that the assumptions made by the Commission stacked the deck in ways that were forcing the answer to come back too high. Now, with the legislature in the hands of the Republicans, there is really no excuse for not getting the facts necessary to answer this question. Let's finish the job, and let's do it right. Mangling the facts to run education on the cheap will not work. Mangling the facts to elevate the cost of education beyond what is reasonably required will not work. Let's collect the best minds now to examine what we must spend to do the job right.
  • Special Education Finance: Since most Republicans have campaigned against unfunded mandates, its time for the legislature and Governor to take an honest look at what the current system is doing to public education. The facts are going to be rather, well, unpleasant. Year after year, governors and legislators have tried to sweep this problem under the rug, because the costs are so high. But you cannot reform by evading reality. Unless the legislature fixes the current special education finance mess, it cannot truly reform public education finance. Any effort to reform that leaves this problem unresolved, is doomed to total failure.
  • Study Programs that Really Work--and then provide incentives to adopt best practices; I would urge our colleagues at the legislature to take a look at the research on programs that actually have produced significant results, but to do so with great care and caution. The field of education is filled with charlatans who are selling snake-oil solutions. Their method is to find one isolated school somewhere in the country that is showing favorable results and then to claim that there is something about that particular school that is the magic bullet for all other schools throughout the country. The legislature should bring in the best minds in the country, particularly people who have carefully studied successful school systems and those who have actually run them.
As some of you know, I've been tremendously skeptical that the solutions most popular with national pundits and the chamber of commerce crowd will lead to reforms that are likely to do the most good. Not because I'm against reform. On the contrary, I believe that reform is desperately needed. But I believe that the chamber of commerce folks are deeply mired in a philosophy that works for running department stores, manufacturing plants, and restaurant chains, but that this philosophy is doomed to failure when translated to educational institutions composed of professionals. If we want real reform that promotes the very best practices that can really work, we are going to have to start out by opening our minds to data and research.

Look before you leap, Minnesota legislature. Reform, yes, but listen first, open your minds, work really hard to develop a workable solutions. If you do that, you will earn the gratitude of future generations. If you fail--if you are guided by mindless ideology--you are destined to destroy any chance to assure that Minnesota's next generation is ready for the 21st century.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reform agenda for divided government

School board members across the state are facing next year's legislative session with a great sense of anticipation and apprehension. Once again, we face divided government. The voters have handed the legislature to the Republicans and the Governor's mansion to Democrat Mark Dayton. (The chances that a recount can overturn a nearly 9000 vote margin are slim to none). Republicans have promised significant reforms in education, but what does that mean? Dayton arrives at the Governor's mansion independent of traditional constraints, because he was not the party-candidate. The sense of anticipation arises from the hope that Dayton and the Republicans might join forces and develop an agenda of proven reforms--reforms that have actually worked in the real world. The sense of apprehension is that partisan gridlock and partisan ideology might bring us gridlock, and worse, a few scatterbrained faddish reforms designed to help each party run against the other in the next elections.

There are all sorts of "reform" ideas that the Dayton crowd and the republican legislative crowd might advance that would be red-meat to their MSNBC and FOX watching zealots. Many of these reforms actually have very little basis in proven results. Few of them show up in the growing literature on what actually works in transforming schools. Many of them are veto bait that, whatever their merits, promise to head us down the path toward gridlock.

In the next few weeks, as time permits, I'm going to advance some reform ideas that should be passed and signed by the legislature in bipartisan fashion. I'm going to suggest that they are ideas that will make governance and operations of school districts vastly easier to operate, and which will translate into real benefits in the classroom for kids. And, from time to time, I'm going to attack some reform ideas that have been advanced as magic bullets, but which really have no sound research basis to support them, and I'm going to argue that its time for the Dayton people and the Republican legislative leadership to roll up their sleeves and work together to pass a courageous package of reforms that actually work for schools. Those of you who think that we should can tenure completely, for example, are going to find me skeptical that this would result in significant improvements that warrant deadlocking the legislature and Governor, which would most certainly be the result.

Here are some of the reforms that I think should pass, and can pass, that would make a significant positive difference for education:

  • Eliminate the additional state mandates for special education that force local districts to spend significantly more on special education than required by federal law. In our District, that would reduce our expenses by about one million of unfunded dollars per year. Listen: the Republicans have campaigned on eliminating unfunded mandates. If they can't enact this reform early in the session, then they didn't mean what they said.
  • Fully fund the balance of the unfunded special education mandate. It is fundamentally unfair, and I believe unconstitutional, for the legislature to force some school districts to spend vastly more to carry a statewide responsibility, than other school districts. Combine this initiative with a rigorous program of scrutiny to assure that local districts are spending their special education funds appropriately. Until now, the State Department has exerted supervision of local districts with largely push them to spend more, rather than spend efficiently.
  • Eliminate the bargaining penalty.
  • Prohibit collective bargaining contracts from containing automatic compensation increases that occur beyond the expiration of the duration of the contract. This feature in many school district contracts, places management in the position of having agreed, before bargaining, to increases significantly beyond the amount of funding increases coming from the legislature.
  • Grant management the power to implement the Pawlenty quality compensation reforms in return for the additional funding. I've said in the past, and I'll say again, in my opinion, the compensation part of quality compensation is the least important of the reforms found in quality compensation.
  • Prohibit strikes designed to force school boards to increase compensation at a rate faster than reimbursed by state funding. Public education will not be viable if school districts are forced to increase class size and cut programs in order to fund compensation increases. In tandem with this, develop a coherent legislative strategy to provide school districts with sufficient funds to attract and retain quality professional teachers.
  • Develop financial incentives to promote strategies that are proven to work in closing the achievement gap.
  • Transform professional staff development for teachers away from the existing program of university or quasi-university seminar education, toward internal professional staff development that is focused on implementing school and district improvement plans. Stop granting lane advancement for taking a course at the local community college, and grant lane credit for becoming a teacher leader who implements a great science program, a great math program with proven results in a local school.
Some of you may find these reforms too aggressive. Some may feel that they don't go far enough. In future posts, I'll discuss my rationale for these ideas, and discuss reform ideas that have been advanced by others.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fix Education Finance Now!

Its time to think about where public education finance is going in Minnesota. This last year, Minnesota took another giant step forward into financial instability in public school districts across the state. I've discussed the factors in my blog posts in the past, but the November elections put an exclamation on the continuing march towards financial collapse. The cycle of unsustainability continues to include:
  • Nearly one half billion dollars of special education funding shortfalls. The State keeps ratcheting up the cost of mandated special education expenditures, while growing the gap between those expenditures and state funding.
  • The freezing of state funding for regular education.
  • Funding shifts that impose significant delays on the receipt of state revenues by local districts, forcing school districts to borrow to meet payroll.
  • Spurred by the bargaining penalty and other significant financial pressures, compensation increases granted to licensed professional staffs which regularly exceed the rate of growth in state funding, and the State's failure to develop a policy that assures a bargaining structure that assures balance fair pay increases for licensed staff within state funding constraints
  • The failure in many districts to maintain or pass levies undertaken to make up shortfalls.
Let me mention several school districts as an example of this instability. For the seventh time in five years, Brooklyn Center School Districts asked voters to increase property taxes to pay for education. Brooklyn Center's last teacher settlement is reported by MSBA to provide a two year total package increase of 7 percent (and the MSBA reports understate the actual percentage cost). Brooklyn Center is increasing its compensation cost by 7 percent at the same time it is receiving no funding increase from the State of Minnesota.

Today's Tribune contains a timely article on this subject: Strapped School Districts start planning...." (Click on the link to view). It tells us that school districts all over the state are planning levy campaigns for November of next year, to make up the shortfall in what is expected to be a gruesome state budget. But before we get to that point, we need a sustainability plan at the state level.

Rochester placed two questions on the ballot this year. The first would have increased the current $450 levy by about $700 per student. The second would have added $120 per student, for a total increase of $820 per student. On January 5, 2010, Rochester avoided the state bargaining penalty, and increased teacher compensation by an MSBA reported 5+ percent over two years. On November 2, both Rochester's levies failed by significant margins. According to their Superintendent, Rochester now faces significant cuts in the next year. The District says that it is faced with a $5 million budget gap, some of which will be filled by remaining stimulus dollars, on a one time only basis. "We're going to have to start looking at some real cuts," said newly-elected school board member Julie Workman. "Class sizes will continue to increase, the programs will disappear, the options for students will dissipate," said the District's Dr. Hawkins.

Elk River School District settled its teacher contracts at an MSBA reported 4.2+% for the biennium on January 10, 2010. Its request to voters to renew--that is continue the existing operating referendum--passed by 59 votes, but a request to increase that levy further was resoundingly defeated. Its superintendent told the media that they could keep classrooms protected for this year, using stimulus money, but that if there were cuts at the State level, all bets were off.

The MSBA's 2010 referendum results show 43 districts out of 77 passed at least one operating levy question, but many of these districts merely renewed existing levies. Thirty four of the districts which tried failed to pass any operating levy question. Of the 43 that passed, 30 districts passed all questions and 13 had mixed results. The 77 districts asking for a levy was the highest number since 2007, when 101 districts requested levy referenda. The State of Minnesota continues to exhibit a patchwork of levy support, with some districts sporting levies of $1000 per student or more, and some districts with none. Nor is the levy support allocated according to need. Districts with significant special education deficits may have much lower levy support than districts with small special education deficits.

For those of you who think you have a simple solution, you are deceiving yourself. If it were that simple, well, we'd have it already. Financial stability in Minnesota requires courageous action at the State level, as well as the local level, and that means that Republicans and Democrats are going to have to put kids first this year. By putting kids first, I mean putting kids before everything else: before all organized lobbying and interest groups. Before labor. Before the anti Tax lobby. Before politics. The solution is going to require compromise, but the outcome should result in structural stability and parity between revenue and expenses.

In the meantime, public education needs to take a pause in compensation increases, until the legislature fixes the financial mess. A pay freeze begins by setting an example at the executive level, which means that district executives across the state should be showing leadership by freezing their pay and benefits for next year. Many districts have outstanding dedicated executives. Most earn their pay. But sacrifice begins at the top. Last year, our Board of Education cut its compensation by 10 percent. We did that not because the cut was a huge sacrifice. It was not. But we wanted to send a message that public education is hurting, and we simply cannot afford to increase compensation, when our revenues are frozen or declining. Social security has been frozen two years in a row. The public is not going to understand continuation of the cycle of increases not paid for.

At the State level, the governor and legislature need to provide us with a framework that leads to fiscal stability at the local level. It's time to stop penalizing school districts when they cannot settle their contracts sustainably. School Districts are beginning to witness voter backlash. Historically, voters want school board members who believe in public education, who value education professionals--who bleed education. But voters also cannot understand why we are running a system where in many districts compensation costs go up at a rate vastly greater than revenues. They are getting tired of the constant cycle of crisis and cuts. Eventually, if board members who deeply care about public education cannot find a way to maintain stability, candidates with fundamentally different agendas are going to step forward.

Along with temporary measures in public education, the State of Minnesota is going to have to recognize that it cannot continue to increase the health budget at the rate of 8.5 percent per year, year after year. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, nursing homes, counseling centers, and the entire health lobby are going to have to wake up and realize that there is no future for a state that insists on growing health care expenses at this unsustainable rate. When they advocate for an ever-increasing share of the State budget, they are destroying the State's ability to fund education as a consequence, and that is not good for public health in the long run. The State has frozen regular eduction expenditures per student for several years now. That cannot continue. But the 10,000 pound gorilla at the legislature is not K-12 education, it is health care and related expenses. So its time for the legislators who have strong health care constituencies to learn to say, no, we have to get sustainable. That's going to require a new attitude at the legislature. Legislators must learn to say no not just to the very poor, which is politically easy: they are going to have to learn to say no to the powerful health care lobbies who represent the big dollar industry.

The Minnesota K-12 education finance system is broken. As long as it is broken, it is going to be harder to find support for needed revenues. It is broken because its based upon the habitual practice of forcing up special education costs without corresponding increases in revenues. Its broken because its based on the assumptions that we can pay our employees more, without corresponding increases in revenues. Its broken because the State refuses to recognize that some revenue increases are necessary to fund deserved increases for education professionals and other staff. Its broken because we keep going to the property tax well over and over again, to make up the difference, and doing that is impossible in most school districts. Its broken because republican legislators and the Governor believe that it is acceptable to starve public education of revenues, while both democrats and republicans support growing the health care portion of our budget beyond sustainable levels.

We need a new comprehensive K-12 financial system, brokered at the State level, that begins with the concept that you don't increase expenses of anything, without increasing revenues. Along with that, when the economy recovers, even conservatives have to recognize that you can't have a great public education by freezing funding year after year.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In school efforts to end Bullying, Some See Agenda

A recent article in the New York Times ( In School Efforts to End Bullying, Some See Agenda) discusses the revival of culture wars in connection with bullying in schools. Bullying in schools is not about politics, morality, religion, race, or ethnicity. Bullying occurs when students with their own insecurities or personal inadequacies seek to resolve those insecurities or inadequacies by picking on students who they perceive as powerless and vulnerable. In simple language, if you feel bad about yourself, you try to prove that you are more powerful, or have higher status than someone else.

Bullies pick on people who they believe they can humiliate and get away with it. You might call them cowards, but I tend to look at bullies as kids who are feeling inadequate and insecure, and bullying is their perverted way of supplanting their feelings of inadequacy.

Who better to pick on than kids who nobody will protect? Minority students; kids who are withdrawn and socially isolated; students of a religion that is unpopular in your community; students who are perceived as having a gender orientation that the school community may not defend. Students who are serious academically, but not perceived as socially connected. I can taunt this person and gain some popularity, and others in the school won't turn me in. If I pick on popular students in the majority, maybe there will be consequences.

Our religious, ethical, and legal values demand that we protect all students from bullying. As educators and school boards, we seek to accomplish this objective by implementing systemic improvements. One systemic improvement involves making sure that every student makes a connection with an adult who is perceived as a safe place to bring concerns. We can tell students that if they are bullied, they can bring their concerns to a designated administrator, but some students aren't going to have sufficient rapport with that administrator to bring those concerns forward. We can increase the likelihood that students will come forward, and concerns will get addressed, if all adults in the school are part of the system that protects all students.

But the great challenge, to which the New York Times article refers, is the question of how to create an environment of tolerance, without stepping into the middle of the culture wars. I think the answer is pretty simple. Our curriculum can support understanding without advocating. When we say that students who hold minority views on religion or gender orientation are entitled to be treated in school with dignity, that does not imply that we are advocating their particular religion or views on gender orientation. There is no idea more central to our American approach to democratic values than this idea: that you can live in America free from persecution, even if your views are different from the views of majority.

If a student is a Marxist, we can insist that the student should be free from bullying, even if most of us despise Marxism. We can even explain that there are some good people who espouse Marxism, without creating an environment that is conducive to Marxism. If a student is an atheist, the same. We know that there are going to be other students who think that the atheist is going to be denied salvation and whose parents regard atheism as abhorrent. But public education can teach that the atheist is entitled to respect, without teaching that his views are acceptable, or should be acceptable, to other students. I use these examples, because plugging in gender orientation right now makes my point more difficult for some folks to understand.

I'm a prisoner of my generation. I still have trouble talking about gender orientation freely and openly. But I think the folks who want to turn this issue of protecting students into an adjunct of the culture wars are doing a great disservice. Public education cannot advocate that gay marriage, or same sex couples, is an acceptable lifestyle. Teaching that is in opposition to the deeply held religious views of many of our students and their families. But we can insist that those families and their children do not humiliate students who disagree, or who come from families who live differently. Our message, in my opinion, needs to be that in a public school, as in America, there are going to be folks who live differently and hold different values. We can honor their right to hold those values, without having to be convinced that those values are worthy of belief.

This is an easy issue for folks who think of public schools as a great forum to try to create friction and force people to choose sides in the culture wars. Neither side of the culture wars has the right to expect that public education will become subservient to those views.

If you have strong values and deeply held beliefs, good for you. We need more people, not less, who live their values and who put their values first and foremost. If you adhere to those values at home with integrity, you are going to find that your children will be strong enough to keep their values as well. And public education should not be undermining their faith. But really, if they hear that they must respect other children who have different values or different lifestyles, I trust that your children's values are not so weak that they will all of a sudden abandon their values. In public schools we want to say to your children, bless you for having strong values; public school is not a place where we try to undermine values--we honor them. In the meantime, we need you to come to the crucible of the public school, recognizing that others who have different values are entitled to exactly the same respect as you.

Friday, October 22, 2010

If you want a job, you have to show up for the job interview

Yesterday, the Times blasted a candidate for refusing to answer questions posed by the Editorial Board. Refusing to attend your editorial board interview is like applying for a new job, but refusing to show up for your job interview. No employer would consider hiring a potential employee who has the audacity to refuse to attend the job interview.

One of the most essential obligations of public service is to be accountable to the public, and the central feature of accountability in our democracy is responding to the questions posed by the press. Every job comes with obligations. You earn your pay by meeting those obligations. If you want to earn a public servant's pay, and hold a position of public trust, but refuse to be accountable, you are asking to get paid without doing the work that you are paid for. We rightly criticize teachers if they don't teach effectively, but still want to earn their pay. But a public servant who refuses to be accountable to citizens, is committing the same offense: he is asking to receive a public servant's pay without taking on the responsibilities that come with the job.

The St. Cloud Daily Times holds interviews for all local candidates. This year, school board interviews took about an hour and one-half. In addition to the editorial board of the times, a Times employee not on the news staff and a citizen member participated in the interview. A reporter attended as well. All candidates answered the same questions. We had an opportunity to discuss topics of our choice at the beginning and end of the interview. In addition, each candidate met for about an extra half hour with a reporter and answered questions before a video camera, and the tape of the interview will be posted on line, so that there is no question what we said. In my opinion, attending these interviews is an essential job qualification.

One of the most sacred obligations of public servants is to recognize who they work for--the people. In a fascist or communist country, public officials don't have to answer tough questions. The dictator of North Korea isn't a servant of the people of Korea, and for that reason, if a newspaper reporter asks him a question he doesn't like, he refuses to answer When public officials refuse to hold themselves accountable, they are behaving like the people are their servants, rather than the other way around. Sure, there are lots of times when I get ticked off at those pesky newspaper reporters and editorial writers. Over the years, they haven't always been kind to me, and I get pretty ticked off when they write an editorial or newspaper article that criticizes me or the positions I hold. No matter how upset I get, however, I have to remind myself that we live in a country where the government officers are servants of the public, and not the other way around.

This issue has nothing to do with what a candidate thinks about race, or about taxes, about immigration or about the quality of public education. That's where I part company with yesterday's editorial. It has nothing to do with whether you are a liberal or a conservative, a tea party proponent, or a member of the Green Party. A candidate for office who presumes to run for office but refuses to answer questions from the press is claiming the right to hold office without doing the duties of the office. He wants to get paid, but he doesn't want to be accountable. You wouldn't hire a doctor who refuses to check your pulse or who doesn't use a stethoscope. Why would you hire a public servant who claims that he isn't accountable to you.

In the last couple of years, a number of candidates across the country have increasingly chosen to claim the right to ignore questions from people with whom they disagree. These candidates, whatever their philosophy, are advocating for something other than constitutional democracy. They want to hold a public trust, but they assert that they can choose to hide under a rock from the people, just because it makes them uncomfortable to have to answer a hard question. Sometimes the reason that they give is that the questions are not fair. Sometimes they claim that the questioner is asking the wrong questions. And sometimes, they claim that the questioner is too liberal, too conservative, or too pro-business, or too pro-labor. When a person aspires to be a public servant, they have made a choice to be accountable and take some tough questions. If you start down the road to public service by believing that you aren't accountable, or that you are only accountable to the people you agree with, you are headed down the wrong road. When you get elected, you are sworn to serve all citizens, not just some.

Being accountable is not just a public responsibility, it is an important part of making sure that you do your job as a public servant well. Listen. Unless you are really careful, getting elected to public office can be hazardous to your common sense. If you win an election, you are in danger of starting to think that, well, I got elected, I work hard, I know a whole lot more than everybody else, so why should I have to listen to those people who are foolish enough to challenge my opinion. The truth of the matter is that no matter how smart you are, no matter how much you work at it, no matter how much you think you know, you cannot do your job well unless you are constantly listening and examining. The biggest mistakes are made when we are the most certain that we are so right that anybody who disagrees with us is stupid or uninformed. Getting elected does not make you smarter: it makes you accountable.

I work very hard for what I believe in, sure. I have strong opinions, yes. But the moment that my strong opinions lead me to think that I can ignore my responsibility to answer to the press, or to individual citizens, then I'm headed down the path ignoring my public responsibilities.

This isn't about who is smart and who is not. You can be a public servant with a high school diploma or with a PhD, but if you refuse to hold yourself accountable, you make yourself ignorant, because the process of engaging in dialog and answering questions is an essential component of understanding what you need to know to do your job. Countless times, I've gotten a pesky call from a reporter from the Times, and it is actually that question that has caused me to realize that there's something more to an issue that I need to understand. When I don't know the answer to a question from a reporter, that's a sign that I'm not ready to vote, and I need to do some more homework. If you don't have the spine to take a tough question from a reporter, then you don't have what it takes to be a public servant, whatever your politics.

The longer that I'm on the school board, the more I become convinced that public servants do their job way better when they have an open mind to other points of view and new information. And if a person who aspires to public service is unwilling to subject himself to hard questions when he is running for election, then there isn't much hope that the person is going to be accountable after his or her election. There are too many elected officials who only listen to the people who they talk to over coffee at the local cafe or pub. There are two many elected officials who listen only to a few business leaders at the chamber of commerce, or to a few labor leaders. You can't do an effective job if you choose only to listen to the people who agree with you, or who tell you what a great job you are doing. Not too long ago, a citizen woke me up to a problem in the way that the district handled the playground construction projects. I didn't like what I heard, but I needed to hear it. If you close your mind to people who disagree with you, or who ask you tough questions, you lose the ability to do the job that you've been paid to do.

Maybe you think that a candidate agrees with you. But if the candidate refuses to answer questions, how the heck do you really know. Any fool can claim that he's a conservative, a liberal, a tea party backer. Any fool can claim to dislike immigrants, or to be friends of the oppressed. Any fool can claim anything. Part of the way that democracy works is that when we aspire to public service, we have to stand up and take the heat. and account for what we believe.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Fighting to keep class size down

In 2003 as part of the operating referendum campaign, the board of education made a commitment to parents to reduce average class size, and the 2004 Board of education, on which I served, passed a resolution instructing the superintendent to budget so as to keep that commitment. When I ran for the board in 2003, there were a lot of people who were very skeptical of that the commitment would last for long, because they simply did not believe that the Board of Education and superintendent would be willing, or able, to actually keep the commitment to use operating referendum funds for class size reduction. Partly this skepticism was a matter of trust. But also, it derived from simple economics. The amount of money in the referendum was, and is, a small percentage of our teaching budget. You cannot keep class sizes down with operating referendum money alone, you have to do it by managing the rest of your budget.

The goal to keep our student to teacher ratio down involves swimming against a heavy current of financial challenges. Last year, the Anoka School District reduced their licensed positions (primarily teachers) by 74 and their non-licensed staff by almost 50. Huge cuts are happening all over the State of Minnesota. According to survey released by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts in September of 2010, Metro area school districts have been forced to lay off almost 1,700 employees and cut more than $285 million in spending over the past two years because of cuts to operating budgets. The survey found that the second consecutive year of a state funding freeze and shifts in aid payments resulted in 830 staff layoffs in the 2010-11 school year alone. AMSD members are projecting a $187 million budget gap going into the 2011-12 school year based on the current funding levels. These funding cuts are larger than those for the past two years and would likely result in even more layoffs, increased class sizes, and even more drastic steps.

The Board of Education has been tracking our efforts to keep class sizes from growing ever since 2004, and you will find the statistics in our annual budget this year. When we measure teacher-student ratios, we look at two measures, called ISPR and TLSPR. In my view, the most important ratio is called the "Instructional Staff-Pupil Ratio." (ISPR). This is a measure that compares the number of students ato classroom teachers only. A lower ratio means that a teacher has fewer students in the classroom, on the average. Obviously, some classes are above the average and others below, and typically, we do better in the lower grades than the upper grades. When citizens passed our 2003 levy, the board pledged to bring the ISPR down, and we've striven to keep that pledge for the last 7 years. That ratio has fallen from 27+ in 2003 to 23 in 2008-2009.

The other ratio that we monitor is TLSPR, which measures "total licensed staff-pupil ratio). That ratio includes non-classroom teachers (primarily special education), counselors and so on. That ratio was 13:1 in 2003 and has risen to 15:1 in 2008-2009, primarily as a result of cost controls that the superintendent and board imposed on special education. Still, our TLSPR is as low or lower than the TLSPR for the other 9 school districts that the State usually compares us to. Our district is putting a relatively high proportion of its budget into teachers and we are making an effort to avoid doing what Anoka had to do last year, that is, to make slashing cuts in the teaching force to make ends meet.

We've been able to maintain the ISPR established in 2004 with the help of thje operating referendum, which is substantially below the state average for districts comparable to St. Cloud. One of the great struggles that we face in the coming year is whether we can continue to manage our budget so as to continue to keep class sizes down . One thing that might help us to accomplish that objective is if we can continue the recent trend towards upward enrollment. As I pointed out yesterday, seven years ago, our district had been losing enrollment at the rate of about 200 students per year. Since 2005, our overall enrollment has stabilized, but our elementary school enrollment is up by about 275 students, which may be the beginning of a significant turnaround. Elementary enrollment at Clearview, Kennedy, and Madison are up a combined 300 students. As I said, this is not happening by accident. Each of these schools has been engaged in a major effort to link actively with their separate communities by providing educational programs that these communities want.

Another key will be if the legislature and Governor reverse the practice begun by Governor Pawlenty 8 years ago to shift money out of special education so as to sort of hide the true magnitude of underfunding in education. The genius of this idea is that when the state pulls money out of special education, the maintenance of effort law prevents local districts from making compensating cuts in special education. They have to pull the money out of regular education. When local districts cut regular education, the Governor can say, that's not my fault, look at the money we provided regular education. This practice of robbing the special education budget to keep the regular education funding budget in balance has been tremendously harmful to our school district, in particular, and to other school districts that are carrying the bulk of special education responsibilities for their region. If the new legislature and governor continue this practice of using special education reductions in this way, we are going to be in for some really rough sledding in the next couple of years.

Friday, October 8, 2010

District's Enrollment on the Rebound

Today I want to talk about about the emerging turnaround in our enrollment and what that means for our school district. During the 1990's and in the first years of the decade thereafter, our school district's enrollment declined at about 200 students per year. A significant part of that enrollment decline occurred initially in the elementary grades, and when you lose students in the elementary grades, that decline moves through each grade, year after year, because of course when you lose students in first grade, the next year you lose them in second grade. We are still losing enrollment in the upper grades as a direct result of the declines that occurred about a decade ago.

When you lose 200 students, that costs the school district about one million dollars in revenue. Now when you lose 200 students, you have to cut teachers, because you don't need as many teachers. Because Minnesota law imposes a seniority system on school districts, when you lose 200 students, you must lay off the least expensive licensed professionals first. That means that when you lose 200 students, you lose more revenues than you do expenses, and that means that the district goes in the hole financially, unless it makes even more cuts than the number of students would suggest. Declining enrollment districts are thrust into grave financial difficulty. The fear is that declining enrollment thrusts you into a declining spiral in which enrollment losses leads to cuts, and that those cuts drive more families away.

When you gain students, the reverse is true. You must hire more teachers to take care of the new students, but since you hire those teachers at an entry level, your revenues increase more than your expenses. That's why a school district like Sartell, for example, has such big financial reserves. As a growing school district, they have far more teachers at the beginning of the pay scale than at the top. That means that their average teacher cost is way lower. Growing school districts take in more operating revenue from the state than they need; declining enrollment school districts are mired in financial challenges.

Beginning in about 2005, our school district gradually began to make a turnaround in enrollment. Its too early to tell whether that will be a permanent trend, but the signs are encouraging. Our elementary enrollment is up approximately 275 in the elementary grades this year. Early enrollment statistics can change on us, but the signs are really encouraging. If that enrollment increase continues into the secondary grades, its going to cause an even greater increase in the next decade as the larger enrollments work their way up through the grades.

Where is our enrollment increasing? A major component of our elementary enrollment increase is occurring at schools that have made significant efforts to provide programs that attract parents and students and to reach out to their community to develop community provide in their local school, and especially at the western and eastern ends of our district.

Since 2004, Clearview elementary has increased its enrollment from 396 to 542.
That school, its leadership, its staff and its parent supporters have made an outstanding effort to become integrated into the fiber of the community in that region. The more a school becomes a part of its community, the more it listens, the more it involves parents actively, the better it is bound to do on the enrollment front. Several years ago, the parents and leadership of Clearview Elementary decided to introduce Spanish immersion, and that program has proved extraordinarily popular. Its bringing new families to the school and the success of that program is a central part of the pride that parents and students feel for what they have done out there. The success of Clearview in growing its enrollment is not only vital to our whole school district, but it is an asset to the the cities and township in that region.

Since 2004, the elementary enrollment of Kennedy elementary is up by 123. When I joined the Board of Education, we were hearing from community leaders in St. Joseph that they were losing hope that the school district were capable of meeting the community's needs. There was even loose talk about trying to leave the district altogether. The Board made a commitment to address the need of that community for a school that could be central to that community's future, and the new Kennedy K-8 school was an important part of that commitment. Enrollment is up significantly in the elementary grades, and that increase is a testament to the fact that the leadership of the school and a strong parent organization are providing a school program in which the community takes pride. When local schools maintain strong ties to their community, and when they integrate parents into the school community, they thrive.

Madison Elementary has increased its enrollment from 501 to 627 since 2005. Now you have to make allowances at Madison, because Madison lost its 6th grade to North during this time, and then it gained a small chunk of territory from Westwood (which is up 55 students since 2004, by the way). But still, the gains at Madison are impressive. Madison too is a school that has made a significant effort to improve its connection to its community and to parents. Part of the increase as well can be attributed to the immersion program, which has attracted families who otherwise might have left the district. The immersion program has developed a strong, active, involved parent group who have become advocates for that school. It has created a buzz about Madison as a school where change is under way. Whether you are a fan of immersion or not, in theory, you can't argue with success: the market is telling us that immersion has had a significant impact on enrollment.

Often I hear from people: "why don't you run schools like a business?" And this is one place where they are right. Running local schools as a community asset; listening and involving parents; providing programs that parents want; creating a community buzz; these are all good business, and if the trend continues, its going to provide a financial boost to the district in the coming years.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

LEAF Fundraiser....FoodFest

LEAF - District 742

First Annual Food For Thought Fundraiser This Sunday, October 3rd!

Sunday, October 3rd • 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Tech High School Front Lawn
Join us for this first-annual fundraising event featuring a variety of food from area restaurants. All proceeds will support academics in the district and the P.A.K.R.A.T. literacy program at our schools. Enjoy delicious food, friendly conversation and activities that include performances by GREAT Theatre, visits from children’s book authors, games, face painting and more!

Ticket prices include admission, food and a
contribution to child literacy in District 742.

8 Adult food tIckets: $20 in advance /$25 at door
5 Student food tickets: $5 in advance / $7 at door
Advanced tickets available at District schools or
Growing a stronger community through academics, activities,
arts and athletics.

The District 742 Local Education & Activities Foundation (LEAF) endowment fund provides supplemental funding for academics, activities, arts and athletics in the district’s schools.

PO Box 1132
St. Cloud, Minnesota 56302

Monday, September 27, 2010

School Districts Becoming State's Banker: Danger Ahead

Friday's Strib carries a story that the state budget office announced earlier this month that it's tapping K-12 education funding for $142 million. The way this works is that money that should be paid out of the State treasury to school districts to meet payroll and other expenses will be held back. School districts will still have to meet their payroll, of course, but they will have to go into their reserves to pay for them. The state will "owe" the unpaid funds to school districts, but pay them at some undetermined time in the future, possibly in May of next year. This is actually a drop in the bucket: the state has already delayed payments to school districts totaling $1.9 billion. So what's another $142 million?! The State is using school districts as a bank, but a bank that makes loans, interest free, with no payment due date, and on demand.

This is a form of deficit spending. The state is causing school districts to spend more than the state is currently funding. But, under the Minnesota Constitution, the State is required to balance its budget. What that means is, of course, that the State of Minnesota cannot borrow (or bond) to keep its operations going. The State can borrow to build a bridge or road, because bridges and roads are capital assets that last over a long period of time. So, the authors of our Constitution deemed it appropriate to allow the State to borrow for road and bridge building over a long period of time (borrowing by issuing long term bonds), just like you might borrow to buy or build a house. When you borrow to build a capital asset, your liabilities go up, but your assets go up as well. So you haven't reduced your State's financial position.

On the other hand, borrowing to pay for current operations was deemed dangerous by the authors of our Constitution, because the legislature might be tempted to spend more than it was willing to tax for. But in recent years, the leadership in St. Paul has re-discovered an evasion of this Constitutional principle. Instead of borrowing by issuing bonds, they tell school districts to borrow instead. And so, all over the State, when teachers work for school districts, they will be paid with funny-money, funny because the school districts will pay the teachers with money borrowed through the issue of aid anticipation certificates, a form of short term bonds, or by drawing down their reserves. Now because interest rates are low right now, these aid certificates carry relatively low interest rates. But even so, the cost of this borrowing device can mount. Anoka Hennipen School District has already made $400,000 in interest payments this year.

To be technically accurate, some of the borrowing isn't strictly borrowing. Because some school districts have large unreserved fund balances, and the State can draw on these fund balances--suck them up as it were--to assist the State in its operational budget. One has to consider the probability that at some point a Governor who doesn't much care for paying these funds back, will decide that these school districts had too much money in the first place, so why pay it back, ever.

Now as the State digs itself deeper and deeper, and school district borrowing mounts, the risk to the State's financial viability increases. Republican Governor candidate Emmer has stated that if he is elected, the State will not begin to repay these state-forced loans until 2014. That allows him to tell the public that he has a plan to hold school districts harmless and still avoid painful taxation. But there is a grave danger in continuing to go down this path.

The success of this aid shift routine all depends upon continued low interest rates, and currently short term bonds are drawing extraordinarily low interest rates. But what will happen to the cost of this borrowing if the interest rates rise significantly? The State is playing a dangerous game here. If we continue to borrow and shift, we become addicted to it, because its so easy to make people happy when you can provide government services going without having tax for them. People are very angry about taxes right now. They also get angry if we increase class sizes, or cut back on nursing care assistance, and so on. So the solution is to find tricky ways of borrowing that don't technically violate the constitution. The risk will mount that if interest rates rise precipitously, the cost of this borrowing will rise extraordinarily and the house of cards will collapse.

Municipal bond interest rates, and related interest rates are now at historical lows. At any time in the next months or years, those rates could rise significantly. When that happens, the value of currently issued long term municipal bonds will fall precipitously, and the cost of new issues of short and long term borrowing will also rise precipitously. At that point, the folly of our current delusional finance system will become manifest.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why I voted against the preliminary levy

I got an irate email from a citizen berating me for the fact that the Board of Education is considering a property tax increase for next year. I said, wait a minute, I voted against the increase proposal along with my colleague Dr. Les Green. But, his email claimed, we board members all got together and agreed that the board members who were up for election would vote no, and the ones who weren't up for election would vote no. Wow, that's a bit of paranoia, and totally false.

Five board members voted to consider the possibility of a tax increase next year. Three of the yes votes are up for election (two for a board position and one for a state office.) Two of the yes votes, Lalley and Harner, are not up for election. Two board members voted against considering the possibility, myself and Dr. Green, and I'm up for election this year, and Dr. Green is not. If the Board of Education was going to try to manipulate things (and we did not) then we could have arranged it so that the three board members up for election for school board voted no, and the four not up for election voted yes. We voted the way we voted, because that is what our conscience told us to do.

The vote on Thursday did not impose any tax. The people who voted for the preliminary levy did not vote to raise taxes: they voted to preserve the option to raise taxes in the event that the State imposed slashing cuts. They said, if those slashing occurs, we want to have the option to consider an increase, as painful as that may be. Dr. Green and I voted against the preliminary levy because we wanted to send the message that would could not support the tax increase option when that option came before the board for final approval. I had several reasons for taking this position. First, we are in the midst of a financial crunch that is impacting families and business in our community. While it is true that our district has the lowest tax rates of the big four neighboring districts here, I just didn't feel that this is the time to consider an increase. Second, last year, when we did our bond and levy, I said that I would support it, because we would NOT be increasing property taxes. And, in fact, our property tax rate stayed exactly the same, or dropped just a bit. I felt that having made that commitment, I needed to stay true to my word.

Third, I believe that the funding crisis that we face here is manufactured by irresponsible policies at the State level, and it is time that we here in St. Cloud and elsewhere in Minnesota School Districts say, enough is enough, stop imposing spending mandates on local districts without the funding to pay for those mandates. Last night, I mentioned. that the Anoka School district had a ten million dollar shortfall, that it made up by using $3 million of its fund balance, cutting 74 licensed positions and 47 unlicensed positions. I pointed out that at the same time, State mandates forced Anoka to spend $28 million more than revenues provided for special education. Anoka is forced by law to spend 28 million dollars than it has. If the state merely provided Anoka with full revenues for special education, Anoka would not have been required to make cuts at all: it would have been able to reduce property taxes substantially by eliminating its operating referendum.

There is a direct connection between the amount of property taxes at the local level and State unfunded mandates. In our school district the state is forcing us to spend $8 million more than we have for special education. We have frozen that budget for five year now, and every year, the state takes more away from us, making our deficit bigger. If the State fully funded its special education mandate, we could eliminate our operating referendum entirely, and still have money left over to spare. The only reason that we have property taxes here in St. Cloud for operations is that the State forces us to spend money that we don't have revenue for and they keep increasing the size of the mandate deficit. So my vote said, enough is enough, governor and legislators get this fixed.

If you want to help us do something about property taxes here in St. Cloud, I suggest you talk to the republican and democratic candidates for State office. Just ask them if they will promise to fully fund special education. Tell them our school district has cut every last dollar that the law allows us to cut; we can't cut another dime, because its against the law. Ask them if they will promise to join with other legislators and stop making us run our special education program at a deficit. Tell them if we did that in St. Cloud, we could cut property taxes significantly. Ask Banian, Gotwald, Hosch, Pederson and Hentges: Do you promise to stop making school districts run their special education programs at a deficit.? Don't take BS and evasion for an answer.

I've tried to be a straight shooter on this topic. I will not vote to increase property taxes this year. Its King, Gotwald, Hosch, Pederson or Hentges--Dayton, Emmer, or what's his name, that are going to have to decide whether to run our district in the ditch by continuing Pawlenty's practice of forcing up the cost of special education while driving down financial support for our district. Right now, the governor candidates and most of the legislative candidates are not facing up to this issue. So far, none of the republicans, and most of the Democrats, won't even talk about this issue. School property taxes are largely the result of the nearly half billion dollar special education deficit passed onto school districts by the governor and legislature ever year.

Later this year, the board will have to decide whether to increase property taxes. Dr. Green and I have said that we will not support that. But no other board member has yet voted to actually increase property taxes. The yes votes merely said that they refuse to decide until they know what the state is going to do. And that is not a lunatic position, as some have portrayed it. While I happen to have landed already in the No-camp, I think it is very unlikely that there will be any yes-votes at all when the time comes, unless state legislators inflict major further cuts in public education.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Doubling Student Performance Requires Collaboration, Persistence, and Humility

A couple weeks ago ago Thursday,I started writing on the concept of doubling student performance. The term doubling comes from a book by Allen Odden of the University of Wisconsin, titled Doubling Student Performance and finding the resources to do it." The concept of doubling, speaks to making a quantum leap in the performance of a sub-group of students who are not reaching proficiency. Odden's book reports the results of the University of Wisconsin's research into how school districts have taken these students--who are not performing at acceptable levels--and "doubled" their performance. Odden urges school districts to consider major strategic changes in the way that they deliver instruction, and he contends that the strategies requires are within our reach, but only if the teachers, administrators and board make a significant systemic commitment to the changes that are required. I want to take a minute in this post, however, to interpose a cautionary note.

Doubling focuses on raising the performance of students who are not realizing their full potential, and especially those students who are in the lower quartiles of performance. Its a huge undertaking, often aspired to, but often subject to failure. The entire charter movement in Minnesota was launched under the Perpich administration primarily to address this mission on the theory that competition in the marketplace would foster significantly better results for the students in the lower quartiles. In fact, while many charter schools do an exceptional job, independent State auditor reviews have shown that on the average charter schools have not done any better at this than traditional public schools.

My cautionary note is that we must undertake any gigantic effort like this with a heavy dose of humility--a humility that says, we don't know all the answers. We have to adjust what we do to what is working. We need to recognize that the history of education is littered with sudden changes in direction in which the entire education establishment suddenly concludes that what we have done before is fundamentally wrong, and that a new approach will deliver us to an educational promised land. The teaching of mathematics has swung wildly in the last several decades from basic arithmetic, to "new math," back to basic arithmetic, and then to an approach that sought to integrate mathematics with real life problem solving. For more than a decade, the middle school philosophy drove rigor out of some of our nations middle schools fueled by an educational ideology that virtually prevented the teaching of algebra until grade nine, banished foreign language from the middle grades, and focused heavily on emotional and social development. In the last five years, however, middle school education has swung so heavily in the other direction that across the country we are now virtually requiring that all students take algebra at least by 8th grade, even if they are not ready to do so. Anytime we undertake a mission, and doubling is a mission, we need to take care that missionary zeal does not lead us to do foolish things.

So as we undertake the doubling idea, we must be constantly humble--open to the possibility that we are succumbing to a new educational fad. I find the approaches described in the "Doubling" to be quite persuasive. In my next posts, I'm going to continue to list and discuss the ten doubling strategies identified by Odden that have been proven to work. Still, as we attempt to adopt these approaches here in St. Cloud, and in other school districts, I think we must exercise great care to make sure that the reforms we adopt make sense and that they are producing results. That involves listening to teachers, to parents, and constantly reviewing the testing results to make sure that our efforts are producing the progress we anticipate. It involves also communicating clearly the vision that we are undertaking, to bring the entire community on board. Making big change requires, well, ......big change.

My cautionary note was inspired also by an article in the August 31st's edition of Education Week which discusses the collapse of an early doubling initiative in the San Diego public schools initiated by then San Diego Superintendent Bersin and his academic Chancellor Anthony Alvarado (who had previously initiated major reforms in a New York City District). Faced with abysmal test scores, especially among San Diego's large non-English speaking student population, Bersin initiated a massive initiative called Blueprint for Student Success, which ran from 2000 until Bersin's 2005 Superintendent contract was not renewed. Bersin imposed a number of the strategies identified by Odden in his book on doubling. But the reforms lacked community support and were challenged as imposed through inflexible, dictatorial top-down measures. By 2005, the reforms were so controversial, and opposition to Bersin and Alvarado's methods so widespread, that the Blueprint for Student Success was terminated and Bersin's superintendency along with it. Another factor in the termination of the Bersin-Alvarado Blueprint for Student Success was the implementation of significant statewide cuts in financial support to education in California that forced termination of some of the most costly aspects of the Blueprint.

Now, a recent research report,Lessons in Reading Reform, Finding What Works published by the Public Policy Institute of California attempts to evaluate the successes and failures of the five year run of the Blueprint for Student Success. According to the report authors:

The reforms succeeded in boosting the reading achievement of students who had been identified as lagging behind at the elementary and middle school levels. The key element that seems to have driven this success was a significant amount of extra student time spent on reading, with a possible collateral factor being widespread professional development for district teachers. The combination was neither cheap to implement nor a magic bullet. But in elementary and middle schools it demonstrably worked. In high schools, with one exception, it did not.

The overriding impression from Lessons in Reading Reform--the report on the San Diego experience--should be that doubling efforts must be accompanied by a heavy dose of humility, as I have said. Anyone who claims to have discovered a magic bullet is mistaken. Anyone who claims that quantum leaps in achievement can result from the edict of a single visionary leader, or that it can be imposed by fiat from a school board, is deeply mistaken. I think that the lessons of the Blueprint's failure may be the following:

  • Any effort to implement major reforms must be accompanied by constant review to assess and report on results
  • Major reforms require clear communication with the community so that the community
  • Major reforms require resilience in the face of attempts to defend the status quo, but caution to assure that change is not made simply to be making change
  • Doubling efforts require time and here again, the support of the community, within the public system and in the community is critical to staying with those efforts.
  • Doubling efforts require collaboration within the education community to make sure that we are doing things that actually work

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

After School Academy

Today, I post on something a bit more mundane than the earth-shaking policy issues discussed in some prior posts. Nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting to mention some of the things that we are doing to address an important objective of the district--to attract more students into a college bound success path. Our school district has begun a number of initiatives to increase the number of students who are actively engaged in college preparatory work. The one I want to mention today is the creation of three College Bound After-School Academies. We know that many of the students who fail to thrive in high school or who fail to go on to college actually have the potential to thrive. One of the ways to get these students on the learning path is to make a connection between learning and a successful career. Last year, we held two sessions with parents and successful students from "first-generation" students, that is students whose parents did not go to college or other post high school career preparation (technical college, community college, etc). We heard that one of the keys to success is getting involved with other students who have "made the right choices," that is, to work hard, stay in school, and take difficult course work.

That's the goal of these academies, to provide a weekly session for students who need a boost to get on, or stay on, a strong academic path.

The Health Career Service Academy meets Monday afternoon from 3:30 pm—6:30 pm. It provides students with "the opportunity to explore careers involved in promoting health/ wellness and diagnosing and treating disease. Occupations include skilled jobs in nursing, laboratory, information technology, radiology, pharmacy, home health care, nursing assistance and more!" The students will learn CPR and 1st Aid, hear from many health care professionals, participate in service learning experiences." And, as part of the program, they will create a personalized plan for college and career success in the health field.

The Engineering & Math) Academy meets Tuesday afternoon from 3:30 pm—6:30 pm. It provides opportunities for students interested in a career in science, technology, engineering or math? "This program gives you the opportunity to explore careers that involve the design, development and creation of products using technology and machines. Occupations include skilled jobs in machining, metal and plastic processing, computerized machine operations and programming, engineering, drafting, welding and more! You will experience a broad range of STEM careers first hand." Students will go on field trips to local businesses, explore local colleges and create a personalized plan for college and career success.

The Super Success Skills Seminar - Digital Media Career Focus meets on Thursday afternoons. This program is designed to better prepare students for college and career with a technology focus. Activities include: creating your personalized path to post-secondary education, attending field trips; participating in team building and leadership activities; experiencing college first hand and listening to community speakers.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Emmer, Dayton, Horner Education Budgets: Call me disappointed

As we head into the meat of the gubernatorial and legislative campaign season, perhaps it is a good time to try to cut through some of the talk about the state of Minnesota school finance. We hear various candidates telling us that they are going to hold education harmless in one way or another, but still it seems to me that the campaign dialog is not drilling down to hard reality that doing that is going to take a whole lot of more thoughtful and courageous action than anyone is talking about today. The problem is on the funding side, on the spending side, and above all on the unfunded mandate side. Candidates rail about unfunded mandates, but they fail to recognize that most of the mandates cannot be removed, because they are federal mandates. Special education mandates, labor cost mandates, and funding reductions--concealed from the public eye through tricks and slights of hand--are creating a public education financial train-wreck than none of the statewide candidates seem willing to confront.

It is really hard to find something in the proposals of the three current candidates that might restore fiscal stability to Minnesota Public Education. The Emmer Budget states that he would freeze the state general fund spending for public education FY 2010–11 is set at $13.8 billion, a figure that Dayton claims is actually a cut. Emmer's website says: "Tom Emmer is committed to ensure that this critical spending of the budget is not reduced." Emmer promises to hold K-12 education harmless, but he fails to account for the one billion per biennium special education shortfall that is increasingly crippling school districts. In addition, Emmer suggests that he while he will freeze the general education budget, he will then redistribute those funds in ways that would cause significant cuts for school districts that Emmer does not identify. Under the Emmer Budget all school districts will be making significant cuts, and a number of school districts are going to receive devastating cuts, but he just isn't telling us which ones.

The Horner Budget is devoid of sufficient specifics to really understand what he is going to do with education and offers no clue that Horner has a grasp on K-12 finance. The Dayton website promises to provide more resources to K-12 education to make up for the revenue shifts and what Dayton argues is a decline in the inflation adjusted general fund formula. But Dayton offers no proposal to make sure that the increases that he would provide will restore financial stability to K-12 education. His proposal seems entirely on the revenue side, while avoiding any discussion of the cost side, which is critically important to K-12 education.

Call me disappointed.

In the last two years, the Minnesota basic funding formula was frozen, that is, the basic funding formula per student stayed exactly the same. In the prior two years, the funding formula increased a total of 3 percent, so that the formula increased by an average of 3/4 of one percent per year over those four years, losing significant ground to the rate of inflation and even further ground to the rate of school personnel cost increases. But that tells only part of the story. Special education expenditures in Minnesota have been increasing at a rapid rate driven primarily by state policy. Special education spending in Minnesota is doubling every 14 years or so. Total enrollment in all forms of public schools in Minnesota has fallen by about 1 2/10 percent since 2003, although in the last several years it has begun to rise again and is projected to continue to rise. But special education enrollment in the state of Minnesota has risen during that same time period by over 9 percent. In the same seven years, special education expenditures has risen by 500 million, and special education revenues to districts has risen by 400 million, increasing the shortfall by 100 million. But in the next several years, that shortfall is slated to grow massively and no candidate has offered a plan to do anything about it.

Rising Special Education Deficit Created by State Policy

This funding gap is completely out of the control of local school districts. In St. Cloud, we have frozen special education expenditures for four years, and still our funding shortfall in special education has grown substantially. That's because as other school districts increase their spending (while we keep ours frozen) the state reallocates the funding shortfall and gives us more of the shortfall. The Pawlenty administration, through a series of Commissioner rulings has forced special education costs upward while regularly submitting special education budgets to the legislature that significantly increase the gap between forced spending and state and federal reimbursement. That has allowed the Pawlenty administration to claim that they are holding districts harmless in regular education, while failing to mention that they are taking money out of special education from many districts. And, since it is against state and federal law to make compensating cuts, the result is to inflict reductions in the general fund formula, but out of the public eye.

In the last two years, as the funding formula has been frozen, most school districts have had to pull more and more money out of their regular education budget and transfer it over to their special education budget to cover the shortfalls coming out of the Pawlenty and legislative appropriations. Our efforts to freeze special education here in St. Cloud--imposing the greatest cost control allowed by state and federal law -- has still resulted in an increasing special education deficits. Other districts which have not been able to implement those cost controls have begun to surpass us significantly in the size of their special education deficits. Our ranking in special education deficit per student is falling significantly, but still our deficit rises.

But the State is projecting that this special education deficit problem will actually get worse over the next three years, and none of the candidates is proposing to do anything to reverse this problem. In the next several years, the Pawlenty administration is projecting a significant widening of the gap between state mandated spending and state reimbursement. Unless something is done about this, holding school districts "harmless" by freezing the regular education budget will be nothing but smoke and mirrors. The state will be forcing school districts to make huge cuts in their regular education programs by forcing them to transfer the money out of regular education and into special education. Again, this is not the result of wanton spending by local districts: it is the result of intentional efforts by the Pawlenty department of education to drive up the cost of special education, while widening the gap between mandated spending and state provided revenues.

Fund Balance Reductions....Rising Labor Costs

The Association of Metropolitan School District has issued a recent report on what metropolitan school districts have been doing to keep financially afloat. That report says that the 33 member organizations pulled money out of their fund balances for a total of $50 million, or on the average about $1.5 million per district. You can find the AMSD's Budget survey by clicking here. Now these fund balance reductions mean that these districts overspent their revenues this year at the average rate of 1.5 million dollars per district, and unless they keep cutting their fund balances (if they have any left to cut) they will have to make cuts of 1.5 million per district, on the average, just to stop the bleeding before any shortfalls are dealt with. Last year, those same districts made total "budget reductions" of $91 million for an average budget reduction of about $2.75 million per district. Also, a number of these districts face potential losses in operating referendum revenue if their operating referendums are not renewed.

Now when school folks talk about budget reductions, what they really mean is the amount of reductions that are required by revenue shortfalls combined with labor and other cost increases and revenue reductions. Rising labor costs are an important component in what is causing the budget reductions described in the report. Let's take Anoka-Hennipen district for an example. The gap between state funding increases and labor cost increases is out of control, and no candidate is offering a plan to deal with that either.

Anoka Hennipen Example. Let's take some numbers from the AMSD Budget Survey and look at what Anoka-Hennipen is facing next year. Anoka-Hennipen took $3 million out of its budget reserves this last year to avoid making further cuts. As I have said, in order to stay even, without increasing compensation costs a dime, Anoka-Hennipen will have to find another $3 million in cuts next year, or bleed down its reserves next year again by that amount, and of course, that cannot go on forever.

Anoka Hennipen reported budget reductions of $7 million just last year, in addition to the $3 million in reserve reductions. Anoka settled its teacher contracts at a MSBA reported total package cost increase of 4%, that is 2 percent per year. (Anoka Hennipen is using a reporting system that understates the actual total package cost as compared to the way our district reports total package cost. Our total package increase was 3 percent, but using the MSBA technique would be even lower, and so its compensation increases grew comparatively faster than these numbers would indicate) So, part of the reason that Anoka had to find a way to get rid of $10 million in expenses is that it raised its labor costs at 4 percent plus, when the State gave it no increase in regular education and likely reduced special education. You can claim that Anoka-Hennipen is just plain foolish, but that ignores the legal and practical structure surrounding public education in Minnesota. Anoka is running its school district and handling its labor costs in accordance with the collective bargaining rules imposed by the legislature, and its actions are the natural and probable and inevitable consequences of that state mandate. The consequence of that system is that employees receive compensation increases, and those increases may well be deserved, but they happen without any requirement that the State fund those increases. In order to make public education fiscally solvent, funding and pay increases are going to have to come in balance and it is going to take state action to make that happen. I'm not trying to engage in an argument here as to whether teachers are underpaid or overpaid. I'm trying to make a point about fiscal dysfunction: Minnesota has a system that forces up labor costs faster than the State provides revenues to fund those labor cost increases.

Whether you think that it should be brought in balance by draconian cuts in teacher pay, or whether you think that it should be brought in balance by increasing revenues to fund inflationary pay increases, the answer is the same. The current system is leading us down the road to ruin, and it is going to take a fundamental change in state policy to allow that to happen.

Now back to Anoka Hennipen. To produce the 7 million dollars in savings last year, Anoka Hennipen had to cut 73 licensed (mostly teacher) positions and 42 non-licensed positions. If the state "holds school districts harmless" by freezing the formula again and significantly increasing the special education shortfall--which is what politicians mean these days by holding K-12 harmless--then Anoka Hennipen is going to have to make significant cuts in teaching staff even if it doesn't increase staff pay by a dime. It would cost Anoka Hennipen another 36 teaching positions and 20 non licensed positions to avoid drawing on the fund balance another year.

But wait, is anyone seriously thinking that Anoka Hennipen is going to be able to get by by freezing teacher compensation completely next year? In order to do that, Anoka-Hennipen would have to freeze health insurance compensations, freeze base pay again, and also freeze completely steps and lanes. To be frank, Minnesota labor law makes that virtually impossible, even if Anoka Hennipen thought that was fair and wise. In order to make this possible (assuming it were fair and wise) the State would have to make significant changes in the balance of power between labor and management, something which even most republicans have not been advocating and is not found anywhere in the Horner or Dayton programs.

So what, then, does "holding K-12 harmless" mean in this context. It means continued evasion by all of the political parties and evidently all three of the candidates. It means more smoke and mirrors and more pretend. The solution won't be easy; in order to get K-12 on an even keel, and to prevent massive crippling cuts, its going to take a whole lot more honesty, a whole lot more courage, than any of the candidates have shown thus far.

Those of you who think the solution is for school boards simply to "live within your means" frankly just don't get it. In Minnesota, its against the law to live within your means. The State doesn't let you and political leaders won't step up to the plate and admit it. The whole problem is massively more complex than the politicians are letting on and its not going to get solves by a magic wand from politicians who are living in denial.