As BoardBuzz has been reporting, Milwaukee Public Schools are helping to find new schools for nearly 200 students left “school less” when a judge shut down a financially mismanaged voucher school last week. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel continues to cover the story as parents seek new schools for their children. A Journal Sentinel columnist also weighed in on the larger lessons to be taken from the incident. “Mandella essentially went out of business due to financial mismanagement, leaving hundreds of mostly African-American students without an institution of learning,” Eugene Kane wrote.
School Board News Today, an online publication of NSBA, provides timely and relevant stories and analysis from NSBA and other news outlets to school board members, administrators, and all others interested in K-12 education.
Articles from February, 2004
The Utah state legislature has backtracked from its bill to rebel against the No Child Left Behind Act, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. Instead, the state will do an interim study, likely to focus on NCLB costs to the state and possible conflicts with state education policy. The bill’s sponsor, Republican State Representative Margaret Dayton said “there was a concerted effort out of the state to make sure this bill died.” The state was the focus of intense efforts by federal officials, who the Washington Post reports dispute state cost studies like Utah’s in part because the studies “assume a perfect world, in which every goal of No Child Left Behind is achieved.” The Post quotes Ron Tomalis, the senior advisor to Rod Paige who was sent to Utah, as saying, “Right now, between 40 and 50 percent of children are reading on grade level. Say we don’t get to 100 percent, we only get to 85 or 90 percent, we will still be in a much stronger position than we are now.” As we’ve said before, this is a legitimate point, although it’s a rhetorical departure from the ideal of leaving no child behind.
Meanwhile, the debate has erupted anew, this time in Minnesota, with the publication of a legislative auditor’s report estimating that NCLB will cost the state $19 million per year in test costs and up to $20 million per year to provide supplemental services or public school choice at underperforming schools. State Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke claims the projections are “wildly off,” according to the Pioneer Press. She complains that the study assumed that the law would not be changed and that the federal government would not increase education spending. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles counters that it would have been inappropriate to incorporate such pure speculation into the study. Several state lawmakers have expressed suspicion that NCLB is designed to set schools up to fail, including one skeptical legislator who told Yecke she thinks the idea behind the act is “so we can go to the vouchers that you and President Bush support.” But the auditor’s report cautions that few Minnesota superintendents are willing to “thumb their noses” at the law and that they believe in NCLB’s goal of improving the academic achievement of every child. There’s also a lot of money on the line.
BoardBuzz finds one connection between these stories worth watching. In both cases, defenders of NCLB said that the act may not cost as much as estimates project because we might not fully attain its goals or because the law may be changed. As far as we know, this is something new. NSBA has called for changes to the law, but, like Minnesota superintendents, shares NCLB’s goals. There’s no escaping the fact that leaving no child behind in a vibrant 21st century democracy and economy is going to be expensive. The feds have some credibility issues right now, but it would be a shame if all the rhetoric invoked against NCLB’s costs and problems results in backtracking from its goals.
U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, in a Washington Post op-ed Friday, apologized for his remark on Monday that the National Education Association is a “terrorist organization,” saying that political posturing on education sometimes goes too far. “I admit that this week I too, ratcheted up the debate with a very poor word choice to describe the leadership of the nation’s largest teachers union,” Paige wrote. “I chose my words carelessly, and I am truly sorry for the hurt and confusion they caused.” The piece is an impassioned defense of the No Child Left Behind Act.
There is no doubt that for many of us education stirs deep passion and emotion—and in some ways that is a good thing. After all, education isn’t just a business. It isn’t just a political issue to be debated in election years. For so many Americans—teachers, school board members, parents and others—working to ensure that all children receive a quality education is a way of life. NSBA has said it before. NCLB sets lofty goals, but they are the right goals. Reaching them will demand hard work from all parties and a genuine partnership among federal, state, and local officials. And it will certainly require less rhetoric and more listening from all sides. For details on NSBA’s recommendations on NCLB, click here.
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said that nothing in the federal constitution requires taxpayers to provide sectarian education the same access to public monies as other institutions. State constitutions like Washington’s can provide stricter safeguards of constitutional rights than the U.S. Constitution provides.
The court specifically rejected the notion that Washington’s policy was motivated by “anti-religious animus.” Indeed, the court pointed out the long history of such policies in America. Nevertheless, we can expect to hear a great hue and cry about “anti-religious bigotry.” Voucher backers like to call these state constitutional protections “Blaine Amendments” and say they’re all about “anti-Catholic bias.”
This is a silly attempt to divert attention from the real issues. In fact, when President U.S. Grant proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit states from using taxpayer money to support religious school, Catholics praised him for “taking the religious issue out of politics.” Exit polls show Catholics overwhelmingly opposed voucher proposals in Michigan and California in 2000, despite multi-million dollar promotional campaigns by the voucher crowd.
Bottom line: The special consideration the federal and state constitutions afford religion does not violate religious neutrality or represent hostility toward religion. Quite the opposite. The Bill of Rights does treat religious expression differently from other kinds of expression precisely because of the importance our society places on freedom of religious conscience. As NSBA General Counsel Julie Underwood put it, “Not requiring taxpayers to pay for religious activities is a longstanding American tradition, a proud part of our national heritage of religious liberty.”
NSBA filed an amicus curiae brief in the case, joined by school boards associations from Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Virginia, as well as the American Association of School Administrators, the Horace Mann League, and the Public Education Network. NSBA pointed out that the court consistently has rejected the argument that government infringes upon First Amendment rights when it declines to subsidize them.
NSBA’s long-standing opposition to vouchers is based on a variety of factors: the drain of public dollars from public schools; the inherent lack of public accountability in such programs; the fact that they have not improved student achievement; and, that the needs of too many children, particularly those with disabilities, are often ignored. Our Voucher Strategy Center lays out the public policy case against vouchers. But we also know that many opponents of vouchers believe such programs violate their state constitutions. Yesterday’s ruling may well have a major impact on what already had been a very slow spread of new voucher programs across the nation.
Today we focus exclusively on the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision yesterday in Locke v. Davey, a big win for public schools and the children they serve. “It encourages public education to continue to resist voucher initiatives that, in the name of ‘choice’ and ‘religious neutrality,’ threaten to deprive public school children of precious resources,” says Anne L. Bryant, NSBA Executive Director.
On its surface, the case was about a student who was denied a Washington state scholarship after he chose to pursue pastoral studies. At some level, he inspires some sympathy. But this is one of those cases where, as lawyers say, “Good facts make for bad law.” Voucher proponents had hoped the court would invalidate the many state constitutional guarantees that protect taxpayers from having to subsidize religious instruction. As Justice Stephen Breyer had noted during oral arguments, the implications of such a ruling would have been “breathtaking.”
Another school board is considering opting out of the No Child Left Behind Act, this time in Evanston, Illinois. According to a Chicago Tribune report, Evanston Township High School is widely recognized as one of the state’s best and most racially diverse schools, but this year did not make “adequate yearly progress” because not enough African-American and low-income students passed reading and math tests.
By opting out, the district would forfeit at least $131,000 in federal funds. U.S. Department of Education official Ron Tomalis says cash-strapped school districts should think twice before taking such a step. “You are talking about turning down resources to help children read or do math problems because of a discomfort,” he said, arguing that NCLB is well-funded because Illinois is receiving over $800 million. As BoardBuzz reported earlier this month, federal officials warned Utah that a decision to turn down NCLB money may adversely affect other sources of federal funding.
It’s certainly true that many school board members and educators have “discomfort” with NCLB, and change is never easy or popular. As federal officials rightly point out, excellent schools with persistent achievement gaps really are, in a sense, “in need of improvement.” NCLB recognizes this and can be a powerful tool for school boards to hold their schools accountable for making sure students don’t fall through the cracks.
But more than “discomfort” may be involved. Evanston school board president Margaret Lurie points out in the article that Evanston was already focusing on the achievement gap, before NCLB. And, as NSBA’s Director of Federal Relations Reggie Felton notes, “It may be costing them more money than they get.” Aggregate statistics about national or statewide funding are no answer to hard budget realities at the local level. Lurie confirms this concern and adds another: “And there’s the whole concept of having to worry about test scores when we feel we’re constantly working on student achievement.” Note the distinction she makes between test scores and academic achievement. Tough issue. More on that later.
The school board will consider the opt-out by the end of the school year, but the outcome is uncertain. “Politically, I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” Lurie notes. “It would have to be a strong case to present to the taxpayers.” Stay tuned.
South Carolina board members learn from student assignment controversies; Minneapolis school board backs away from controversial school closing plan; Chicago school board members are expected today to approve a new “in your face” dropout prevention plan; and North Dakota school boards will be allowed to opt out of a new plan tying truancy to driver’s license privileges, pushed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
The Milwaukee Public Schools are hosting open houses this week to help parents find new schools for the children displaced by last week’s closure of a troubled voucher school. Charter schools and private schools reportedly will participate in the open houses. What brought this about? Check out Monday’s BoardBuzz report.
Talk about a broken record. For the fourth consecutive year, the Utah Legislature has rejected an attempt to create a private school tuition tax credit program. Will the proponents ever take no for an answer? The Salt Lake Tribune has the details on this year’s legislative battle. At the center of the debate was whether the plan would take money away from public schools or save them money. The newspaper covered that topic recently as well. Congratulations to Utah, which joins Wyoming’s legislature in rejecting the diversion of public dollars from public schools.