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

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”

 

Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: