Federal Dateline

Small Districts Overlooked by Class Size Initiative

by KARI ARFSTROM


You may have seen the glowing headlines touting how the nation’s 40 largest school districts used their class size reduction funds from the federal government to hire 3,558 new teachers--an average of 89 teachers per district.

Here at AASA we say congratulations and welcome the new teachers to the profession. We don’t belabor the fact almost every school needs additional funding to hire teachers for critical shortage areas, such as reading and math. But this represents a classic case of one size not fitting all when it comes to small schools and federal assistance.

Most new education programs dreamed up in the hallowed halls of Congress or across the way at the White House work well in urban and suburban districts, but hardly any thought is given as to how the program will play out in rural, small districts.

Limited Reach
Consider the president’s favorite education law--the Class Size Reduction Act, also known as "The 100,000 New Teachers Program." At AASA, we think it is terrific that the 40 largest urban school systems have hired so many new teachers and will be able to provide professional development services to more than 23,000 teachers.

But look at what this program meant for rural, small schools--stories that don’t make the networks’ evening news programs or get praised in White House press releases. In Arthur County, Neb., the 90-student school district received $1,417 for their class size reduction allotment. The Washakie County School District 2 in Ten Sleep, Wyo., received $12,700 for their 141 students. About $9,000 was given to the St. David, Ariz., Unified School District 21, with a student population of 470. And the Lolo, Mont., Elementary School District 7, enrolling 625 students, received $26,000.

No one is complaining about the federal support. Rural superintendents will take whatever they can, but how do you hire a classroom teacher for $1,500--even when you’re creative about squeezing every last cent out of a dollar? These enterprising school leaders do it time and again.

In Arthur, Neb., the school district, led by Superintendent Mark Sievering, consorted with its local educational service unit on using the money for professional development. All 14 teachers in the system will benefit because the district meets class size requirements. The superintendent in Lolo, Mont., Elmer Myers, used his modest stipend to hire a qualified 2nd-grade teacher and to provide staff training. In St. David, Ariz., Superintendent Guillermo Zamudio has committed the funds to offset the cost of hiring a new certified 1st-grade teacher, though only on a part-time basis.

Greater Flexibility
A few changes were made to the Class Size Reduction Act last fall. School districts, regardless of enrollment, will be able to spend up to 25 percent on professional development, up from 15 percent last year. Districts that do not receive enough money to hire a teacher to reduce class size may use their own funds to offset the salary of an additional teacher or for professional development, instead of being forced to pool their money in a consortium. This change alone will help the rural, small districts.

Another legislative change that takes effect this fall allows funds to be used for kindergarten, in addition to 1st through 3rd grades. Also, in districts where more than 10 percent of the elementary school teachers are not certified, school officials may request a waiver to use more than 25 percent of the funds to ensure that at least 90 percent of their elementary teachers are certified.

While AASA applauds the efforts to correct shortcomings in the law, a worthy proposal exists. Instead of lumping rural, small districts in larger federal programs and having every school district make a run for the federal dollars, why not create a program strictly for the smallest and most rural of school communities? That’s what the Rural Education Initiative Act, promoted by our association, would do if passed and funded in time for fall 2001.

This proposal would give rural, small school superintendents the ability to take the limited funds from programs such as Eisenhower, Title VI and Safe and Drug-Free Schools and do something meaningful with them to affect student achievement. The district would decide how to spend the dollars.

If signed into law, several small formula funds could be combined, further increasing the pool to bolster math and reading improvements in schools. Some folks in Washington are apprehensive about allowing this much local control of federal dollars. They aren't sure that superintendents are able to account for higher test scores, better student outcomes and increased community satisfaction. They are afraid that if federal funds are not earmarked specifically for safe and drug-free programs (all $800 of what some districts receive) that schools will not address these issues.

Our Rural Initiative
We know otherwise: Superintendents of rural, small districts would embrace high accountability in exchange for additional funds with specific goals.

The Rural Education Initiative passed the House of Representatives last October with bipartisan support. We are hopeful the Senate will do likewise this year. Congress needs to hear from local superintendents on all education issues, but particularly from rural, small school leaders on this issue.

One size does not fit all. We know some programs work better in urban and suburban areas. Some programs will work better in rural communities. School leaders should have the options of deciding how federal dollars should be spent, not just accepting what is handed to them.

Kari Arfstrom is director of special projects in the public affairs department at AASA.