Surviving A Thousand Cuts

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One of the bigger issues we have been advocating during the lame duck session is the child nutrition reauthorization. I had heard some of the proposed changes referred to as 'death by a thousand cuts'. As I reflected on that thought, it struck me that a similar title--'Surviving a Thousand Cuts'--was an excellent way to describe how school districts continue to bear the brunt of the economic recession.

Surviving a Thousand Cuts: America's Public Schools and the Recession is the tenth study in AASA's ongoing series looking at how school districts are impacted by and responding to the economic recession. The cuts from the previous three years are still in place, and being made deeper. In terms of the trend, this study found that school systems across the nation are bracing for additional budget cuts on the helps of expended federal emergency education funding. The write-up includes contextual information about the projected recovery of state budgets, and the horizon is far from rosy: While the national recession was declared over in July 2009, state and local budgets are unlikely to stabilize before FY13 (school year 2013-14).

I'm not glossing over the severity of cuts our members have had to make. The recession will end, eventually, and the need for a recession-centric study will go away. In that line of thought, I started transitioning the focus toward policy and advocacy. There will be a new Congress with the new year, and this survey asked AASA members to rank a variety of legislation and policy priorities they thought Congress should focus on when working on education policy. Ranked in descending priority, respondents reported a host of legislative and policy actions:

Legislative Actions:

  • Full funding of IDEA (87 percent): School administrators have tasked Congress with meeting a long-outstanding commitment to fund the additional costs associated with educating students with special needs. Covering a federal shortfall year in and year out with local district dollars represents a significant funding pressure for school districts across the nations. Full funding of IDEA would provide services for students with special education needs and allow local school districts to use local dollars to meet local district budgeting needs. The government’s underfunding of a federal commitment and mandate puts extreme budgetary pressure on states and locals to cover the shortfall, totaling $34.9 billion for FY08, FY10 and FY11 (anticipated). (Zember, 2010) The FY09 shortfall of $10 billion is not included in this total, as ARRA provided enough one-time IDEA funds to provide one year of full funding for IDEA.
  • Reauthorization of ESEA (65 percent): No Child Left Behind, the current authorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Education Act (ESEA) is widely acknowledged for many of its provisions, both good (disaggregating student data) and those that need improvement (adequate yearly progress, one-time snap-shot testing, and 100% proficiency mandate). Congress has been actively engaged in work to reauthorize the bill since the summer of 2007, with both Houses of Congress working in a bipartisan manner to reauthorize the bill. As each month of reauthorization passes by, local school districts are falling under increasing scrutiny and punishment under provisions of the law that are widely perceived as overly burdensome. Fully understanding the heavy lift that reauthorization represents in general, let alone in an election year (such as 2012), AASA strongly urges Congress to complete reauthorization of ESEA in 2011. 
  • Absent immediate reauthorization, regulatory relief for ESEA (59 percent): If, for some reason, Congress is unable to reauthorize ESEA in 2011, regulatory relief will become an absolute necessity. Burdensome provisions of current law will be exacerbated as an alarmingly high number of districts face sanctions. If the bill cannot be reauthorized in 2011, it is broadly acknowledged that the politics of an election year, such as 2012, will make it virtually for reauthorization to remain uncompleted into 2013. Local school districts should not be subject to cumbersome provisions widely believed to be broken and not working. To help school districts stem the tide of election year politics, Congress should work to provide regulatory relief. AASA has identified areas for proposed regulatory relief, should that be the course of action.

Policy Actions:

  • Distributing federal education funds through formula (69 percent): AASA members have long advocated for continued and increased investment in formula based programs. AASA urges Congress to maintain formula grants to provide a more reliable stream of funding to local school districts.
    • Such a strong emphasis on competition implies that competition alone produces innovation and student achievement. School districts and systems need a certain level of financial stability to undertake the ambitious innovation and reform proposed by the President’s budget, a level of reliability and consistency that cannot be achieved through competitive funding. 
    • Formula‐driven funding represents the dedicated funding stream that allows school districts to appropriately plan for and invest in innovation and reform. AASA is concerned that competitive grants would have a disproportionate negative impact on rural and small districts. 
    • With limited local resources, school districts do not have the time or the capacity to develop extensive competitive grant applications in order to be competitive. This will lead federal dollars away from students in poverty and to districts that have the resources for grant writing teams.
  • Opposing federal funding to non-public schools (vouchers) (62 percent): AASA has long worked to oppose vouchers, or the use of public federal dollars to allow families to pay for non-public school options. The position reflected in the survey results echoes that in AASA’s position statement:
    • AASA absolutely opposes undermining universal equal educational opportunity for all, supports the separation of church and state in public school funding, and opposes increasing the segregation of America's children by diverting public funds in support of vouchers and related initiatives. 
  • Requiring states and school districts to eliminate seniority in staffing decisions for teachers and principals (45 percent)
  • Targeting and distributing ESEA funds based on percentage poverty (32 percent): Title I of ESEA was initially created to help federal education funds reach disadvantaged students, primarily those in poverty. The formula by which these funds are distributed is flawed: One provision sends more money for each disadvantaged student in a large school district and less money for each disadvantaged student in a small district, even if the poverty rate in the smaller district is higher than the poverty rate in the larger district. It distributes money based on the number of students in poverty, instead of the percentage. AASA urges Congress to distribute Title I dollars based on percentage of students in poverty, because a 40% poverty is 40% poverty, whether the school has 15 students or 1500. 
  • Requiring school districts to use common evaluation rubrics for teachers and principals (22 percent)
  • Supporting charter schools that are subject to the same accountability measures as regular public schools (16 percent): AASA supports public school choice and charter schools that operate under the governance of local public school boards. There should be a level playing field, including non-discriminatory and unconditional enrollment for all children. The same regulations and accountability should apply to all schools receiving public funding. The manner in which charter schools are financed must be addressed so that their creation does not have an adverse effect on the quality of existing public schools.
  • Requiring school districts to base teacher and principal evaluations primarily on quantitative measures of student outcomes (11 percent)



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