Archive for January, 2009

January
30th 2009
Colorado Charter Schools May Be Saved by Smaller Building Grant Fund Cuts

Posted under Education Politics & Federal Government & Parents & Public Charter Schools & School Choice & School Finance

A week ago I brought your attention to concerns from Colorado charter school parents and leaders that grant money for facility projects was at serious risk. Public charter schools already face significant inequities when it comes to receiving funds for construction and maintenance.

But cutting back the state’s charter school capital construction fund from $10 million to $5 million – as initially proposed by the governor and lawmakers on the powerful Joint Budget Committee (JBC) – also put eligibility for federal grant funds at risk, a double whammy.

So news like this from the Colorado League of Charter Schools is really good concerning the circumstances:

We are excited to report that our efforts at the Capitol, and especially your calls, emails and persistence have paid off. The JBC has revised its proposal and is now recommending that charter school capital construction funding be cut by $2.5 million instead of $5 million. Your efforts helped save $2.5 million in funding for charter schools. We couldn’t have done it without you!

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January
29th 2009
Citizens Speak Out Loud and Clear for Transparent Colorado School Spending

Posted under Education Politics & Independence Institute & Parents & School Accountability & School Finance & State Legislature

A couple weeks ago I noted that “Leaner Budget Times Call for Colorado Schools to Post Finances Online”. Yesterday the state senate education committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 57 (PDF) – which would do just that.

Despite the great potential for government cost savings, opponents and a few committee members expressed concerns that schools couldn’t afford to enact transparency during these trying budget times. But if not now, when? Continue Reading »

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January
28th 2009
Feds’ Magical Money Tree Blowing Dollars Away from Education Reform

Posted under Education Politics & Federal Government & Innovation and Reform & Public Charter Schools & School Finance & Teachers

Last week I asked whether the federal “stimulus” bill and its magical money tree would do any good for education reform. It didn’t take long to have that naive question soundly rejected.

The Flypaper blog’s Obama Administration Reform-o-Meter has taken a plunge with the news that the $125 billion in education funding attached to the so-called emergency spending measure is becoming less reform-friendly. Take the Senate committee’s approved version:

The Teacher Incentive Fund (which supports merit pay programs): gone. Charter school facilities dollars: gone. Money for data infrastructure projects: gone. Language ensuring that charter schools have equitable access to the money: gone. The teachers unions firmly in control of the Democratic Party: back with a vengeance.

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January
27th 2009
Private Schools Facing Real Challenges from Economic Downturn, Too

Posted under Federal Government & Parents & Private Schools & School Finance & Teachers

Times are tough out there. I don’t have a lot of perspective yet, but there’s no doubt the economy is hurting. And that means not only are real people hurting, but – as the Wall Street Journal reports – so are private schools:

Trinity Episcopal School survived Hurricane Ike last fall. But then another storm hit — the economy.

The Galveston, Texas, school, where tuition is between $5,000 and $8,000 a year, has seen its enrollment drop 12%, says David Dearman, the head of the school. Many parents of its students were among the 3,000 workers laid off by the area’s largest employer, the University of Texas Medical Branch. At the end of 2008, the school’s endowment was $800,000, down about 20% from July.

The school has ramped up donation efforts through its Web site, and held car washes and bake sales. It stopped using substitute teachers — other staff members now step in when a teacher is out sick. “Our school will survive, but it will take years to recover,” Mr. Dearman says.

Trinity Episcopal School is one of many kindergarten-through-12th-grade private schools caught in the middle of an economic tempest: anemic endowments, dwindling donations, financially strapped parents slashing tuition from the family budget, and an exodus to suburbs with more appealing public schools where costs are lower.

Private schools of all stripes – whether parochial or independent or whatever – play an important role in meeting the education needs of many families. Through the current recession, some of them are bound to fail and close. Others will weather the storm stronger than before. New private schools promise to emerge as the economy turns around.

But we at least can hope private schools don’t come begging for the federal government’s magical money tree. That wouldn’t be good news.

Colorado readers who are private school parents, employees, or board members, how is your school faring these days? What measures are being undertaken to weather the financial storm? I haven’t seen a story from the local traditional media sources, but I’m curious to know.

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January
26th 2009
School Leadership a Big Part of Education Reform Puzzle

Posted under Denver & Independence Institute & Principals & Public Charter Schools & Teachers

Earlier this month I let you know about the teachers union’s efforts to organize two New York City KIPP charter schools, and shared with you the insights of a couple people who know a lot more than I do about this stuff.

But then I read something this nice teacher lady Kathy Kullback (who is a friend of the Independence Institute) wrote over at Backbone America about her own professional horror story with poor school administration. She concludes with this insight often overlooked among education reformers:

Poor school leadership practices are why teachers’ unions flourish and why there is tremendous growth in the charter school movement. I applied for positions to charter schools close to my home and where I had previous relationships because they have their own hiring practices and do not participate in the non-renewal ban. Not only was I treated very well, but they also gave me recognition for a job well done. How often do any of us receive that! [emphasis added]

Figuring out how to seriously improve school leadership across the public education system is a very difficult policy knot to untangle. But in the meantime, high teacher-friendly praise for charter schools!

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January
23rd 2009
The Case Against Cutting Facilities Funds for Colorado Charter Schools

Posted under Denver & Education Politics & Governor & Public Charter Schools & Research & School Finance & State Legislature

Over at the Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli asks the question “Could the recession be good for the charter school movement?” and gets some insightful answers from experts like Todd Ziebarth, Robin Lake, and Bryan Hassel. I’m too young to pretend I know the answer to a big question like that. Please go read what they have to say for yourself.

But here in Colorado, I know that charter school leaders see the situation as a challenge. Economic slowdown has cut state revenues, and lawmakers have to look at where to cut the budget. One of the decisions on the table is whether to cut funding to the charter school capital construction fund from $10 million down to $5 million. This money goes to buy or lease property, as well as to do building construction, renovation, and major maintenance.

The proposed cut might not be a huge deal if charter schools were funded equitably in the first place. You can listen to Colorado League of Charter Schools executive director Jim Griffin explain the handicaps public charter schools face in facilities funding, and what sort of effects the proposed reduction might have:

I can’t answer big questions like the ones Mr. Petrilli asks, and I can’t give advice to the big people in the State Capitol who have hard decisions to make. But they really need to think seriously about the ramifications of slashing the charter school capital construction fund before they decide to pull the trigger on any sort of budget changes.

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January
22nd 2009
Will the Feds’ Magical Money Tree Help Support Effective Education Reform?

Posted under Education Politics & Federal Government & Parents & Teachers

If Barack Obama and the Democrats really are going to pull $122 billion off the magical money tree and send it to fund education programs in the states, could we at least hope the dollars are spent sensibly on effective reforms?

For example, will the feds dump freshly-printed greenbacks into traditional, union-controlled teacher licensure programs that do nothing for the bottom line of education? Or might they consider using the cash to improve the quality of the teaching workforce – you know, boost effective performance pay so we can reward good teachers, and repeal harmful tenure laws so we can get rid of bad teachers?

Surely some reasonable share of the $122 billion could be used to make a real positive difference. Right?

I’ve already been told my problem is that I’m not old enough yet to be properly cynical about all this. I’m not ready to admit that, but I have been trying to find the seeds to plant a magical money tree in our backyard. That way, I can have my own bazillion-dollar weekly allowance without hitting up my parents or the federal government.

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January
21st 2009
Do You Really Think All That “Stimulus” Money Will Go to Help Kids Like Me?

Posted under Education Politics & Federal Government & Independence Institute & School Finance

I’m only 5 (almost 6) years old, but I’m no dummy. The reason we all ought to be skeptical of the “it’s for the children” line is the political realities of how the money is spent.

In his Pajamas Media column, Greg Forster unravels the uncritical support of our new President’s grand plans to throw billions of dollars at schools as part of a so-called “stimulus” package:

I suspect that pretty much nobody in Congress really believes the Keynesian theory. There are two real motivations behind all stimulus bills. First, it creates an opportunity for politicians to claim credit for any good economic news that subsequently comes along. Second, it’s an excuse to shovel money at powerful constituencies, from whom you can later demand reciprocal support.

It’s the latter reason that will determine how the new school spending in the stimulus bill will be spent. The money won’t go where it’s needed. It will go to the gravy train.

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January
20th 2009
John McWhorter: Why Don’t More Schools Use Direct Instruction?

Posted under Education Politics & Private Schools & Public Charter Schools & reading & Research & Urban Schools

In a recent article in The New Republic, John McWhorter from the Manhattan Institute wants to know why the Direct Instruction method for teaching reading that has proven so effective is so little used to help correct the achievement gap for poor minority students:

Yet a solution for the reading gap was discovered four decades ago. Starting in the late 1960s, Siegfried Engelmann led a government-sponsored investigation, Project Follow Through, that compared nine teaching methods and tracked their results in more than 75,000 children from kindergarten through third grade. It found that the Direct Instruction (DI) method of teaching reading was vastly more effective than any of the others for (drum roll, please) poor kids, including black ones. DI isn’t exactly complicated: Students are taught to sound out words rather than told to get the hang of recognizing words whole, and they are taught according to scripted drills that emphasize repetition and frequent student participation.

In a half-day preschool in Champaign-Urbana they founded, Engelmann and associates found that DI teaches four-year-olds to understand sounds, syllables, and rhyming. Its students went on to kindergarten reading at a second-grade level, with their mean IQ having jumped 25 points. In the 70s and 80s, similar results came from nine other sites nationwide, and since then, the evidence of DI’s effectiveness has been overwhelming, raising students’ reading scores in schools in Baltimore, Houston, Milwaukee, and other districts. A search for an occasion where DI was instituted and failed to improve students’ reading performance would be distinctly frustrating.

It’s hard to argue with the research that shows the direct instruction method works to boost the ability of most disadvantaged kids to read. Some schools – including private schools and public charter schools – use DI as part of their core program. Why isn’t it more widely used? You’d have to ask the bureaucrats and union officials who oversee the vast government school system.

(H/T Joanne Jacobs)

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January
16th 2009
Leaner Budget Times Call for Colorado Schools to Post Finances Online

Posted under Parents & School Board & School Finance & State Legislature

It’s going to be a tough fiscal year for education officials used to managing ever-expanding tax-funded budgets. 2009 just might be a year in which policy makers and administrators find ways to cut out the fat and focus the lean spending on classroom success.

One way to help is to empower everyday citizens – like my mom and dad, and thousands of other Colorado taxpayers – with detailed financial information online so they can help find cost savings. What am I talking about? It’s called online financial transparency. Can you imagine if school districts and other local education agencies all had searchable databases on their websites that allowed you to see exactly how money is being spent?

What once was a distant dream is fast approaching reality. My Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow explains it all in his new backgrounder Shining the Light on Colorado School Spending.

Transparency promote greater public accountability and confidence that local schools are being run efficiently and effectively. In many cases it also pays for itself. Today’s technology means it requires little time and cost to put up these databases. Hopefully, some Colorado school district will take the lead and do this on its own initiative. But even if not, some state legislators have brought forward Senate Bill 57 (PDF) to make it the law of the state.

We’ll see what happens.

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