Education News Digest: 4/9/10Posted on: 4/9/2010
School Budgets' Outlook Bleak as Stimulus Fades
School districts across the country are warning of widespread layoffs and severe cutbacks in programs as funding under the federal economic-stimulus package begins to dry up, according to a report released by the American Association of School Administrators.
The infusion of up to $100 billion in education aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which passed Congress last year, clearly helped districts avert personnel reductions, the report concludes. But many districts are facing a bleak fiscal picture as that aid starts to run out later this year, despite signs of improvement in the overall economy.
“The cessation of ARRA dollars, paired with the continued budget strains at the state and local levels …represents a one-two punch to education funding that will further insulate schools from economic recovery,” the report says, “and will likely translate into more budget cuts, more job cuts, and fewer resources for programs and personnel.”
The findings are based on surveys of 453 school superintendents and other district-level officials from 45 states, the most recent conducted last month. Increasingly, districts are looking to layoffs, staff furloughs, benefit cuts, and other measures to fill budget holes in the coming school year.
And district officials surveyed are concerned about the Obama administration’s proposals to increase competitive-grant aid during an economic downturn, as unveiled in the president’s fiscal 2011 budget request, while largely level-funding formula grants, a more reliable source of funding.
Most districts surveyed - 87 percent - also said that they did not see an actual funding boost from the recovery act, in part because many states cut their own education funding contributions, diverted money to other purposes, and then used ARRA dollars to backfill K-12 cuts. That “shell game,” as the report calls it, was not explicitly prohibited under the stimulus law.
Now, districts are facing the end of the stimulus flow - a turn of events widely known as the “funding cliff” - and many are bracing for drastic action. For instance, 90 percent of those surveyed expect personnel cutbacks in the 2010-11 school year, on the heels of a year in which 68 percent of those surveyed slashed positions.
Districts also are reducing employee benefit packages. Forty-six percent of those surveyed said they planned to trim health-care benefits in 2010-11, compared with 12 percent in 2009-10. And 20 percent of those surveyed said they would consider reducing pension contributions in 2010-11, as opposed to 3 percent in 2009-10.
More than a third of those surveyed, or 34 percent, said they were contemplating personnel furloughs during the 2010-11 school year. Twelve percent of districts implemented furloughs in 2009-10.
Schools also are increasing class sizes as a result of budget pressures. About 62 percent of districts surveyed said their classrooms would be more crowded in the 2010-11 academic year, up from 26 percent in the current school year and 9 percent in 2008-09.
Schools are also contemplating cuts that could affect learning-time. About a third of those surveyed said they were considering eliminating summer school programs, up from just 14 percent in the 2008-09 school year. And 13 percent of schools are mulling a four-day school week, up from just 2 percent in 2009-10 and 2008-09.
District officials are concerned about long-term implications of a federal shift in funding policy that would funnel increases more toward competitive grants than toward formula-grant programs.
For example, Title I grants to districts, which are aimed at helping disadvantaged students, are financed at $14.5 billion in fiscal 2010 and would receive the same in the president’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget. Special education would receive $12.5 billion in fiscal 2011, a 2 percent increase over fiscal 2010.
While noting their importance as a source of federal funding, the report also says that “competitive grants represent budget instability and are unlikely to be considered for the very long-term innovation and reform the Obama administration is hoping to spur.”
It goes on to say, “Financially strapped school districts across the nation were clear in reporting that they do not have the capacity to complete a competitive grant [application], and many would have to use resources to hire outside consultants.” That is particularly true in small, rural districts, the report found.
Faced with similar criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted that the proposed 2011 budget would keep funding for Title I and special education level, and that the administration is proposing $3 billion in new competitive-grant funding aimed at spurring education redesign and innovation.
Noelle M. Ellerson, a policy analyst at the AASA and the author of the report, said the findings underscore the importance of continued congressional action. The House of Representatives last year passed legislation that would provide $23 billion to help thwart cuts in education jobs. The Senate has not yet crafted a similar bill.
“This survey clearly illustrates a need for additional emergency funding for schools,” Ms. Ellerson said. And she said any new measures should include language prohibiting states from using federal dollars to supplant their own efforts in education.
Source: Education Week
Teacher Pay-for-Performance: A Growing Idea
For parents and politicians hungry for better schools, the idea of paying teachers more if their students perform better can seem as basic as adding two and two or spelling "cat." Yet just a handful of schools and districts around the country use such strategies. In some states, the idea is effectively illegal.
That could all be changing as the federal government wields billions of dollars in grants to lure states and school districts to try the idea. The money is persuading lawmakers around the country, while highlighting the complex problems surrounding pay-for-performance systems.
Some teachers, like Trenise Duvernay, who teaches math at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans, want to be rewarded for helping students succeed. Duvernay is eligible for $2,000 a year or more in merit bonuses based on how well her students perform in classroom observations and on achievement tests.
"It's a reward for doing what we all have a passion to do anyway - making sure our kids master the skills they need in order to be successful," Duvernay said.
Other teachers, like Debra Gunter, a middle school math teacher in Cobb County, Ga., say teachers can't control which kids walk into their classrooms.
"Your mother and father just got a divorce, your grandfather died, your boyfriend broke up with you: those kinds of life-altering events have an effect on how you do in class that day, through no fault of the teacher whatsoever," said Gunter, echoing the position espoused by major teacher unions.
Some researchers have found student achievement improves when teachers get performance bonuses. Others have found no correlation.
Matthew Springer, director of Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Initiatives, said the problem is that there are only a handful of valid studies, most from other countries.
"I think the jury is still out," he said.
The push for performance pay programs dates to 1950, but has mostly failed because districts and states didn't get buy-in from teachers and couldn't come up with objective ways to measure performance.
School districts in most states calculate pay based on seniority and level of education. For example, teachers who get master's degrees generally get a pay bump.
In a massive survey of the nation's teachers released in March, most said they value non-monetary rewards, such as time to collaborate with other teachers and a supportive school leadership, over higher salaries. Only 28% felt performance pay would have a strong impact and 30% felt performance pay would have no impact at all. The survey was conducted by Harris Interactive and paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Scholastic Inc.
Still, lawmakers and education officials in many states are pushing the idea.
Washington, D.C., schools just reached a tentative agreement with their teachers' union that would allow teachers to earn annual bonuses for student progress on standardized tests, among other benchmarks.
In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue is pushing for a law requiring teacher salaries to be based on student test scores and other academic factors rather than years of experience and education.
Oklahoma lawmakers are considering a similar bill that would create a pilot program for teacher bonuses. In Louisiana, Colorado, Florida and Minnesota, where a few local districts have been offering merit pay to teachers for years, lawmakers and governors are aiming to create statewide programs.
The states and D.C. hope to win some of the $4.35 billion in highly competitive federal "Race the Top" money available this year to states that embrace education reforms like merit pay and charter schools. Tennessee and Delaware were initial winners of the money, garnering $600 million in part because of their teacher merit pay programs and their use of student achievement data in teacher evaluations.
Other states - particularly those like Georgia, Florida and Colorado that were among the 16 finalists for the grant competition - are hoping to get performance pay laws passed in time to reapply for the money in June.
"We want to reward our educators who are truly making gains with our students," said Perdue, who has used Georgia's position as a finalist for the federal money to urge lawmakers to pass his performance pay bill. "To some, it's become more of a job than a calling or a passion."
Powerful teachers' unions in many states are fighting performance pay proposals, arguing that they lack thoughtful planning for how performance will be measured, and advocating that teachers should instead be paid more overall.
"If you don't engage teachers in the process of what the incentives are - they put them out there, and teachers don't understand them and don't believe they will work or be workable - they are not going to be incentives that mean anything. They'll actually do the opposite. They will demoralize people," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Meanwhile, trouble brews in some states merit pay programs that already exist. A judge ruled recently that an Arizona performance pay program is unconstitutional because it's open to only 28 out of more than 230 school districts.
In Florida, just eight of 67 districts participate, although a bill before lawmakers would create a $900 million pot to woo more districts to the program.
Source: USA TODAY
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