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Executive Perspective                                     Page 47

 

One Whammy After Another    

 

BY DANIEL A. DOMENECH

 Daniel Domenech

When I became executive director of AASA back in July 2008, I knew there would be challenges, but nothing like the economic recession that hit us that November. You may recall it began with significant increases in fuel prices over the summer that forced school districts to take immediate measures to cope with expenditure increases that had not figured in the budget development process of the previous spring.

At that time, we instituted the first of what now have been 12 surveys of the membership on the economic conditions facing schools throughout America.

The response that summer, just prior to the beginning of another school year, was to turn down thermostats, eliminate field trips, cut back on transportation costs and, for a small percentage of the respondents, establish a four-day school week. This last measure immediately grabbed the attention of the media and there was a rash of coverage and television stories focusing on this new phenomenon.

Insufficient Offset
But the inconvenience of rising fuel prices was replaced by the bigger crisis in the financial markets and the dropping real estate values. By spring 2009, school districts were faced with unprecedented budget reductions caused by declining real estate tax revenue and the losses in income and sales taxes that are the primary source of state aid to education.

If not for the $700 billion in stimulus dollars for education, the 2009-10 school year would have been truly calamitous.

The stimulus dollars helped, but they were not sufficient to overcome the loss of local and state revenue sources. Generally, across the country, states used the federal dollars to supplant rather than supplement state aid to schools, and in many localities the federal dollars were similarly used to replace local revenue losses.

Consequently, school districts began cutting back on staff, programs and services to children. Summer school and after-school programs were scaled back, textbook purchases and the acquisition of instructional materials and supplies were postponed, and facility maintenance projects were placed on hold. The number of school districts moving to the four-day school week increased.

In spite of the most severe economic impact on schools since the Great Depression, there has been no reduction in the level of expectation of student performance. In fact, expectations have increased, and the call for reform is greater then ever.

The federal dollars came with strings attached, as the Obama administration used them as carrots to drive their policy initiatives. Many districts and states now realize the costs of implementing the initiatives that came with the federal dollars are greater than the money they received, adding to their financial stress.

Meantime, no relief from No Child Left Behind has followed. The much-anticipated renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has not taken place, and there is no indication it will happen before the presidential elections. The only “relief” has come through a waiver process that uses a relaxation from regulations in exchange for instituting the administration’s policies now that stimulus dollars have run out. So, added to the burden of No Child Left Behind, are the additional requirements that came with the stimulus dollars, Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, Innovation Grants and now waivers!

Another Requirement
In the quest for reform, districts now have to evaluate teachers and principals based on student performance measured by the very standardized tests that have been declared invalid or unreliable. Rather than moving away from a test-driven school culture, we are now telling our teachers and administrators that their jobs and, in some cases, potential pay increases, depend on how students perform on those tests.

We also are in the midst of the adoption of the Common Core State Stand-ards. Considered to be more challenging than the standards currently in place in many states, the CCSS promise to be a set of national, not federal, standards that will unite our country in pursuit of the same educational goal.

As districts look to implement the standards being adopted by their states, they wonder where the money is going to come from to develop the new curriculum, train the teachers to use it, purchase the textbooks and instructional materials that will align with the new standards, and acquire the new instruments that will assess student performance on the CCSS. If we survive the economic recession and the current wave of reform, we’ll be just fine.

Daniel Domenech is AASA’s executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org

 

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