Listening to five state association leaders talk Sunday about the challenges they face might have reminded you of that purported Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
Because public schools in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Georgia are all living through “interesting” times. Not particularly fun times, to be sure, but definitely interesting.
Two common threads (or is that threats?) marked their presentations for the Third General Session of National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Federal Relations Network Conference: The difficulties posed by a severe lack of money, and the challenge coming from various — and often united and well-funded — proponents of vouchers, charter schools, and privatization.
“Even if they feel they can’t get their legislation through, it still gives them a platform to attack public education and school board governance,” said Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association.
The good news, several of the state executives said, is that the state associations and NSBA are not waiting for their opponents to define public education but are actively telling their own stories – to their constitutions, to parents, to legislators – highlighting successes, and setting the record straight.
Studies show that most citizens give their local public school “As” or “Bs” for quality.
“Then why are we having this discussion” about alternatives to public schools? asked Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
The reason, as Koocher and others explained, is the power and money behind public school critics. In Pennsylvania, for example, three different groups have come together to argue for more school choice: those who sincerely believe charters and other choice options will improve schools: those who are invested in attacking public education; and businesses that see public education as “a cash cow” said Thomas Gentzel, that state’s executive director. He said that, in forming your strategies and talking points, it helps to know which group you’re addressing.
One of the more convoluted – and long running – budget crises is occurring in California, leading Vernon Billy, executive director of the California School Boards Avocation, to close his presentation with this tongue-in-cheek advice: If someone starts a conversation with “’Well, you know, in California’….run.”
Currently, the state is planning to cut the education budget, but it is still asking districts to fund programs as if they had as much money as last fiscal year, Billy said. This has been convenient for the state and unions and other interest groups with which it has been negotiating, but it places all the fiscal responsibility on districts, which must either plow into their reserve funds or borrow money to stay afloat.
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a state referendum on increasing taxes, but if it does not pass, Billy said, the state is looking at more cuts of as much as $5 billion. Still, school districts are being told to spend as if they had as much money as last year; and, meanwhile, in an effort to preserve state funds, the state is deferring scheduled payments to schools.
“We still have our electric lights to pay for. We still have our employees to pay,” Billy said. “We still have our health and welfare costs rising. Those things are not changing.”
Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado School Boards Association, gave a more positive report on developments in his state. As a result of hard work and continued dialogue, the legislature was able to pass new teacher evaluation rules that for the first time would provide a mechanism for districts to fire low-performing but tenured teaches without having to spend thousands of dollars in litigation costs.