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

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.