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.