Looking at the new Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s survey, “How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education,” it’s abundantly clear that Americans are interested, engaged and supportive of their local schools. There is also an overriding sense that many of these hard choices must be made at the local level with a community’s input–thus showing clear evidence for the need for local school boards.
The authors have created a scenario of choosing between critical programs and staff for public schools—choices such as laying off teachers, instructional leaders, arts and music classes and extracurricular activities. However, this survey is about four years late–many public schools are already operating on a bare-bones administration and have been forced to make tough choices to lay off teachers and cut academic programs. And with the federal government looking to implement sequestration this January, K-12 programs may see further across-the-board cuts.
While reducing the number of administrators seems like the obvious answer, as 69 percent of respondents chose, many of these officials play key roles in developing curriculum, managing services, and performing other duties that are directly tied to student achievement. Like any business, school districts need officials to manage budgets and operations to ensure that students are safe and teachers and principals can focus on their jobs.
The public sent a clear message that they prefer forgoing raises or slight salary cuts for teachers and other staff in lieu of layoffs. We’ve seen many examples of school boards, administrators and union representatives working together to navigate these budget choices. For instance, school board members and officials in the Boone County Public Schools in Florence, Ky., worked with their teachers union on a plan to forgo raises in lieu of layoffs, so that student/teacher ratios could be maintained. The labor-management relationship “is truly a relationship built on trust, accountability and respect,” as school board member and current President of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) C. Ed Massey recently told me, and the board has brought in coaches to help all teachers improve their skills. That’s an investment that has paid off in continuous improvement in student learning and college and career readiness, as evidenced by average ACT scores that have climbed from 19.5 in 2008 to 20.9 in 2012.
Fordham should not be at all surprised at the tepid response for full-time cyber schools, as too many at-risk students are performing poorly, or simply not logging in. The Center for Public Education found in its recent report, “Searching for the Reality of Virtual Schools,” that emerging research shows dismal results for some schools and there is little accountability for public funds.
One aspect of the survey is particularly flawed. The questions related to support for special education services show that, among other findings, 71 percent say programs should be evaluated on their effectiveness and “replaced” if deemed not effective.
The survey questions ignore the landmark 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) law that mandates a “free appropriate public education” in “the least restrictive environment” for every student identified with a disability. This was a major victory for students with disabilities who previously had been denied an education or received inferior services. Since the law’s passage the numbers of students with disabilities have increased tremendously, largely because of better diagnoses of conditions such as autism and in part because better medical treatments have allowed some severely disabled students to live and attend mainstream schools. More recent reauthorizations of the law have instilled new accountability requirements onto school systems to ensure that students with disabilities are meeting high expectations.
Yet the federal government has never come close to funding the 40 percent of excess costs for educating these students as lawmakers had promised in 1975. Each year NSBA and thousands of school board members and educators lobby the U.S. Congress to request full funding; however, funding currently stands at $11.5 billion, or about 17 percent, and is in danger of being reduced by $900 million through sequestration. This program has been a priority of both parties, as it frees up state and local funding to be spent on programs that each community deems to be its priorities.
A strong public education system attracts and retains businesses that are essential to local economies. Public schools must have the resources to give our students the knowledge and skills needed for long-term global competitiveness. Our nation’s future economic success depends on how smartly and adequately all levels of government invest in public education today.