Monday, February 28, 2011

“All Children Deserve the Opportunity to Learn”

By Molly A. Hunter, Education Justice, Education Law Center*

These days, education “reformers” say they want to close achievement gaps. What they rarely talk about, though, is closing the huge opportunity gaps that cause achievement gaps.

Education Justice and ELC believe that the federal government has an important role to play in closing opportunity gaps and ensuring that all children get a high quality education. Recently, the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA)—ELC is a member—recommended steps the federal government should take to help narrow and close the nation’s opportunity gaps: “All Children Deserve the Opportunity to Learn.”

The reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, pending in Congress, is a chance to improve America’s education systems, and increasing access to opportunities is crucial to that improvement. FEA’s OTL statement is a road map for moving forward on the issues of Funding, Buildings, Training & Professional Development, Discipline, and Preschool:

  • Funding. “Adequate funding equitably distributed is a necessary condition to provide each child ‘a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education’…and therefore should be an essential goal of federal policy in public education.”
  • Buildings. “Many children in our nation’s…schools experience overcrowded and crumbling buildings lacking sufficient light, heat, air conditioning and bathrooms, and accessibility for students with limited mobility…Congress needs to work with states to ensure adequate school facilities, programs, and services in all schools.”
  • Training & Professional Development. “Highly effective teachers, leaders, and other school personnel…are critically important to student learning. FEA concludes that “Congress must take steps to ensure these professionals are available for children in all schools.” FEA “promotes high quality training and professional development as absolutely essential for improving schools” and has separately made recommendations for professional collaboration and development, as well as improved assessment….,” available here and here (emphasis added).
  • Discipline. Hampering learning for thousands of children, “too many schools across the country employ overly harsh zero tolerance [discipline] policies,” and “students of color bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these policies….” Therefore, “FEA urges Congress, in ESEA, to foster non-punitive and supportive learning environments for all students [and] fund the development of discipline and school climate policies that reduce suspensions and expulsions….”
  • Preschool. FEA also calls on Congress to increase opportunity through high quality preschool, which creates enormous benefits, such as higher achievement, less need for special education, higher graduation rates, and higher income as adults. Less than half of four-year-olds from our lowest-income families attend preschool (NCES), and for many who do, their programs do not meet minimum quality standards.

Call to Action

All Children Deserve OTL concludes: “To ensure a strong learning environment for all children, FEA asks Congress, in collaboration with the states and localities, to strengthen equity and put the resources, programs, and services required to ensure a genuine Opportunity To Learn into all schools.”

FEA’s OTL statement also aligns with and references the Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity To Learn, issued by leading civil rights groups last summer, and other recommendations on federal policy, such as:

Comments to House Committee on Education and Labor
A Pastoral Letter on Federal Policy in Public Education
Federal Policy, ESEA Reauthorization, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline
FEA’s Empowering Schools and Improving Learning and
The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education.

* Education Justice is the national program at ELC, Education Law Center, in Newark, New Jersey.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wisconsin Education Struggle in High Gear: Students and Parents Join Battle To Protect Opportunity To Learn

By Karen Royster, Institute for Wisconsin's Future

High schools students march around the Wisconsin State Capitol, arm in arm, singing new school cheers:

"We are the students – mighty, mighty students --
Everywhere we go – people want to know
why we’re here -- So we tell them,
We support our teachers – We’re here because of teachers…."

Across the state, school districts close while busloads of teachers, students and families converge on the Capitol in Madison. People are coming from diverse communities as well other states – North Carolina, Illinois, Kansas and Minnesota. Their goal is clear -- don’t let Governor Walker and conservative legislative leaders deconstruct the public sector unions and stop cuts in compensation for people who operate the schools, cities, counties and state programs every day.

The education community plays a central role in this massive protest. Wisconsin schools have faced cutbacks every year for over a decade – classes are getting larger, course options and extra-curriculars have been stripped away. Teacher wages have remained low which discourages many talented young people from choosing the teaching field. The newly elected Wisconsin Governor is making a difficult situation impossible.

Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill” is a draconian response to a manufactured crisis. In January 2011, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau told the Assembly and Senate that there was enough money for the biennium ending on June 30, 2011. Governor Walker pushed for $140 million in immediate tax cuts which created an instant deficit. He is now using that faux deficit as a pretext to undermine public sector unions by eliminating collective bargaining, reducing workers’ take-home pay and changing state rules so it will be difficult for unions to remain effective.

And the worst is yet to come. According to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Walker will call for a $900 million cut in school funding over two years while preventing districts from raising local taxes to cover the losses. This would reduce revenue by about $500 per student in 2011-2012. Since revenue limits were established in 1993, the smallest increase has been $190. This will be the first decrease. This cut in state aid to schools drags state funding down to 2002-03 levels. “It would be the largest cut in the state's history,” stated John Johnson from the Department of Public Instruction.

With collective bargaining removed, school districts are expected to deal with shortfalls by cutting employee compensation – which is already low. As one teacher wrote in a local paper, “I have been teaching in a Wisconsin public school system for the past 11 years. My salary and insurance supports a family of four. In the first three years of my children's public education, they qualified for the federal reduced lunch program.”

The Wisconsin public education system is already in crisis. After more than ten years of consistent budget cuts, most schools have already eliminated art, music, physical education, language classes, and reverted to distance learning for math and science in rural areas. Wisconsin has the largest performance gap in the US between African American and white students for science and reading. Urban schools have lost counselors, at-risk intervention programs and other support services for at-risk youngsters. Karin Schmidt, a parent from Madison WI, has two sons -- nine and 15 years old. Both are in classes with students who have significant special needs. Says Karin, “My nine year old is in class with a young boy with non-verbal autism who has difficulty holding still, get’s frustrated and angry lashing out around him. A big funding cut and the teacher could lose her classroom aide and have no help dealing with this troubled child. It will be almost impossible to keep classes going each day and other children will not always be safe.”

There are ways to strengthen schools and reduce the performance gap but less pay for teachers and fewer resources in schools blocks any real initiatives to improve student opportunities to learn and succeed.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Competition in education funding hurts students

The Hill
By Dennis Van Roekel - 02/01/11 03:49 PM ET

Many Americans, including President Obama, weren’t even born when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into outer space in October 1957. Yet everyone knew exactly what the President meant when he said during his State of the Union address, “This is our Sputnik moment.” Today the U.S. faces economic and innovative competition around the world. If we want to win the future in the same way that we won the Space Race, we must do what we did then – invest in education.

The President shined a spotlight on the importance of a long-term investment in education and recognized the critical role that teachers play in student success, calling for more respect for the teaching profession. His strong message of support for education and his call to fix No Child Left Behind is sorely welcome. However, as with many good things, the devil is in the details.

Global competition is a fact of life, but competition in education funding can have negative consequences. That’s why we have expressed concerns with funding models, like the Race to the Top program, that create winners and losers among our students. The federal government has a vital role to play in advancing the quality of education and ensuring equity and opportunity for all students.

The track record with Race to the Top calls into question this program’s ability to meet this critical objective. To date, 39 states were non-participants or losers in the Race to the Top competition. And according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, after two years of implementation and close to $4 billion dollars, many underserved communities – Black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian students, ELL students and poor rural states – have been poorly represented in Race to the Top’s distribution of resources.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act was intended to provide a level playing field and equal opportunity, but the competitive nature of Race to the Top has pitted students against their peers, and educators against their colleagues. The expanded use of competitive grant policies has the potential to dangerously undermine public education, and for this reason we believe this formula must not be a part of ESEA reauthorization.

In the push to renew ESEA, we must change the punitive approach of No Child Left Behind, especially the fanatical focus on standardized tests and the unrealistic AYP requirements that brand thriving schools as failures. We should focus on schools that are in the most desperate need of transformation. That’s exactly what NEA is doing in our Priority Schools Campaign, which is engaging our members in districts across the country and identifying more and new ways to help students succeed.

In short, we need to redefine the federal role in education: moving beyond testing, labeling and punishing, and partnering with states to transform public education for all students.

Dennis Van Roekel is the president of the National Education Association (NEA).

Link to article