Who Is In Charge

Respite on ed issues unlikely for Tuesday’s winners

From the White House to Capitol Hill, the winners in this week’s elections won’t have much time to savor their victories.

Image of voter putting ballot in ballot box.Even as federal policymakers sort out the political landscape, the remainder of 2012 and the early months of 2013 are likely to be dominated by divisive, unresolved issues with broad consequences for K-12 and higher education — some of which require immediate action.

Chief among them: sequestration, a series of planned, across-the-board budget cuts that are set to hit almost every federal agency Jan. 2, including the U.S. Department of Education, unless the president and a lame-duck Congress act to stop them.

And when lawmakers in the 113th Congress take office in early January, they also will confront a yawning shortfall in the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students attend college; grapple with a planned rise in student-loan interest rates; and pass a spending bill financing the federal government for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year.

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On top of that, federal policymakers must cope with thorny implementation questions on major policy initiatives, including dozens of waivers that eased states’ obligations under the No Child Left Behind Act. And they must find a way to renew a laundry list of long-stalled K-12 legislation — most notably, renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the NCLB law — in what will likely remain a politically polarized Washington.

The work will begin well before Jan. 21 — Inauguration Day. As of last week, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney had sketched out a detailed plan for how to handle sequestration, which would result in an 8.2 percent reduction to most programs in the U.S. Department of Education. While some spending would remain untouched — such as federal student loans — the key formula-funded programs on which school districts depend would be cut.

“That is going to be a huge mess” for the occupant of the White House in the coming year, James W. Kohlmoos, the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, in Arlington, Va., said in an interview before the Nov. 6 election.

A lame-duck Congress is “the most difficult and challenging and confusing time” to solve long-simmering problems related to taxes, spending, and entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, said Mr. Kohlmoos, who served in the Education Department under President Bill Clinton.

Looming fiscal issues

If sequestration “trigger cuts” are not averted, programs aimed at equity, including those for disadvantaged students, now funded at $15.75 billion, would be cut by almost $1.3 billion, according to an analysis by the White House Office of Management and Budget. And special education programs, now funded at $12.64 billion, would be cut by about $1.03 billion.

Still, most of the reductions to education spending wouldn’t hit in the middle of the 2012-13 school year, giving schools until next fall to figure out how to absorb them.

The one glaring exception: the $1.2 billion Impact Aid program, which provides money to 1,200 school districts, including those that are home to a high number of American Indian students living on reservations or students whose parents work at a military base in the district. It also helps districts that have lost tax revenue because they include big plots of federal land. Districts in the program would lose their aid Jan. 2.

The uncertainty has been hard on school systems that are heavily dependent on the impact funding, such as the 2,600-student Douglas district in Box Elder, S.D., which is located near Ellsworth Air Force Base. Thirty-eight percent of its students are connected to the military.

The district stands to lose about $500,000 to $600,000 on a $21 million overall budget if sequestration goes through, estimated Loren Scheer, the superintendent.

“The unnerving part for all of us is that we just don’t know,” Mr. Scheer said. “The sooner [lawmakers] make up their minds, the better off everyone is going to be.”

“It shouldn’t take an election” to force action, he said.

Mr. Scheer said he hopes Congress won’t “kick the can down the road again” by coming up with a temporary solution, which, in his view, could spell larger cuts later.

But Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a lobbying coalition in Washington, said a short-term fix during a lame-duck session of Congress appears to be the most likely outcome.

“Even under a scenario that there’s some bipartisan agreement in the lame-duck, the best-case option is that they agree on a framework and we spend the next six months” sorting out the details, he said. That would “push off the real decisions until next year.”

And sequestration isn’t the only postelection spending challenge lawmakers are facing. Congress still needs to pass a final budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Since lawmakers were unable to agree on a spending plan in time, the federal government has been operating on a massive extension bill since then that expires in March of next year.

In spending bills drafted earlier this year, House Republicans sought to eliminate major Obama administration priorities, such as the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation competitions. Senate Democrats sought to keep funding for most programs at current levels.

Higher education headaches

Policymakers will also have to grapple with a roughly $7 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program. The White House and Congress will be under significant pressure not to cut the maximum Pell Grant of $5,500, analysts say.

Still, policymakers may make changes to Pell Grant eligibility. A budget proposal that has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives would trim the overall cost of the grants by refocusing them on the neediest students.

“Pell is very popular politically,” said Kevin Carey, the director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, in a pre-election interview. “It’s one of 15 or 20 things that defines a budget publicly. Whoever is president is going to have to find room to maintain Pell’s funding.”

Indeed, during the campaign, both presidential candidates made it clear that Pell Grants were a priority. Mr. Obama continually reminded voters that funding for the program had doubled under his watch. And, despite pledges to trim government spending overall, Mr. Romney singled out Pell Grants as an area he would like to expand.

Lawmakers will also have to decide how to cope with a planned rise in interest rates on federally backed student loans; the rate is scheduled to double, to 6.8 percent, next summer. Earlier this year, Congress passed a one-year extension of the lower rate of 3.4 percent — but not before a protracted, partisan battle over how to pay for the change. The issue became part of the presidential contest: Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney pressed Congress to keep the rate at 3.4 percent.

With all the emphasis on cutting and trimming, it is unlikely that whoever is president will have much money left over to pay for new initiatives, said Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Instead, any new policy initiatives will likely need to be financed with existing funds, he said.

Given the current, constrained fiscal situation, “the most you can do is take [an existing program] and redirect it to some other areas,” he said. “The possibility [is] of some internal reshuffling; [there’s] not much possibility of substantial new programs.”

Tackling waivers

Also in the balance: the waivers offered to states seeking wiggle room on complying with pieces of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have been approved for waivers. Some of those plans — including in Arizona, Georgia, and New Mexico — are based on teacher evaluation or accountability systems that haven’t yet been fully implemented.

That means “there are going to be lessons learned, tweaks needed,” said John Bailey, a co-founder of Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting firm in Washington, who served in the White House under President George W. Bush. (He also advised the Romney campaign, but spoke for this article only as an analyst.)

“There are going to be states that want to make changes to the waivers,” he said.

The waivers, which will only be in place for up to two years, will need to be renewed—or not—during the next presidential term, unless Congress is able to pass a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The Education Department will also need to continue oversight of key Obama administration programs, including the dozen winners of the Race to the Top state grants, many of which have reworked their timelines when it comes to important pieces of their applications. Two states — Georgia and Hawaii — have had their grants, or parts of them, placed on high-risk status, jeopardizing their funding.

The reauthorization of the ESEA, which has been pending since 2007, remains on federal lawmakers’ to-do list. Neither party was thrilled with the process behind the waivers, which both Democrats and Republicans said stepped on congressional authority. But the partisan divisions in Congress have made it difficult for lawmakers to enact their own vision for renewal.

“The big sleeping giant is ESEA reauthorization,” said Mr. Bailey. “If the White House makes it clear that this is a priority, there could be a path forward in Congress.”

Lawmakers also must tackle a legislative logjam that’s held up renewal of laws dealing with higher education, special education, career and technical education, workforce development, and child-care and -development block grants.

Common Core rolls on

The results of the federal elections are unlikely, however, to have major implications for the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Although some conservatives have grumbled that the effort smacks of too much federal involvement, the standards appear to have support — or at least not a good deal of opposition — from leaders in both parties.

Mr. Obama took partial credit for the standards on the campaign trail. His administration made adoption of rigorous, uniform standards — including the Common Core — a condition for states seeking NCLB waivers. It also gave states that adopted the standards an edge in the Race to the Top grant competition and steered $360 million to the creation of assessments that align with the standards.

But key Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also support the effort. During the campaign, Mr. Romney said he would not require states to join the initiative and would not steer federal funding to bolster it, but he also made it clear that states should be able to adopt the standards if they wanted to. State elections are likely to have more influence on the future of the Common Core than the result of the presidential race will.

“It’s moved [so far] down the path that I think we would see the momentum carrying on,” said Mr. Kohlmoos of NASBE. “The key now is for states to feel a sense of ownership of Common Core.”

Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this story.

Federal education decisions on the horizon

The victors — and, in some cases, the lame ducks — will have a long to-do list on federal education policy and budget matters awaiting them after the Nov. 6 vote. Lawmakers and the president will have to decide how to:

• Avert or come up with a plan to weather a series of 8.2 percent across-the-board cuts that are set to hit nearly every federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Education just after the turn of the year under “sequestration.” President Barack Obama and the lame-duck Congress will be under the gun on this issue.

• Make up, in the coming year, for a yawning budget gap in the Pell Grant college-aid program, estimated at roughly $7 billion.

• Cope with an increase in student-loan interest rates, which are set to double next summer.

• Oversee a series of waivers that give states relief from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act in exchange for embracing the Obama administration’s education improvement priorities.

• Handle a series of pending reauthorizations of key education statutes, including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the laws governing special education, career and technical education, and higher education.

Source: Education Week

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: