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The story seems right out of an educator’s version of The Da Vinci Code. A mysterious newcomer appears on the scene. His ideas are met with acclaim, despite uncertainty about his motives or what the impact of his ideas will be. Nearly overnight, his influence spreads. Soon after, a handful of doubters raise concerns. A secret memo is revealed. Just at the brink of success, the newcomer’s efforts are largely thwarted.
The mysterious newcomer is the little-known Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, who has in very short order emerged as a major player in state-level education reform. The idea is the so-called 65 percent solution—requiring that districts spend nearly two out of three dollars on classroom expenses. In little more than a year, the effort has spread remarkably quickly to ballots, statehouses, and governors’ mansions. Byrne is trying to get all states to adopt the proposal by the end of 2008. A Harris Interactive poll last year showed that 70 percent of those surveyed backed the idea.
According to advocates, the plan would transfer billions in “new” money to classrooms—without any need for tax hikes. Byrne points to statistics showing that states with the highest test scores spend the most in the classroom, and states with the lowest spend the least. Currently, the national average for classroom spending is about 61.5 cents on the dollar, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Not surprisingly, district superintendents who would have to abide by the new laws are among those most concerned, along with labor groups fearful of spending cuts. They cite the need for local control and flexibility and raise concerns about implementation issues. Some critics claim that accountability systems in states and in No Child Left Behind have made it easier to create doubt in public education. Others feel that the proposals distract from the focus on student achievement. Indeed, the correlation between classroom spending and achievement may not hold at the district or school level.
A study in Texas sponsored by a variety of education groups last year found that even some of the state’s highest performers didn’t meet the 65 percent benchmark—and that lower-performing districts spend more on instruction than higher-performing ones. Student demographics play a role, as does district size.
Earlier this year, Standard and Poor’s found no statistically significant relationship between the 65 percent threshold and student test scores in the 25 states it examined. Figuring out what is a classroom expense is the key to whether the new laws mean much. Some states are using federal definitions, which include teacher salaries and athletic expenses but not money for counselors, librarians, transportation, nutrition, or administrative salaries. Others are making up their own definitions and procedures.
Lately, attention has shifted to the issue of whether the initiatives are a political subterfuge. According to some reports citing a secret memo distributed among Republican lawmakers in Texas, the effort is also intended to bolster Republican claims of supporting education and to divide and weaken Democrats in the ’06 and ’08 elections.
In the meantime, the idea’s real-world impact remains unclear. While there is a tremendous amount of state-level activity surrounding the proposal, a number of the state initiatives have stalled or been watered down, and few are yet in effect. Below is a tally of some of the latest state 65 percent initiatives and where they stand.
Illustration: ©Digital Vision (RF)/Veer
1. MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR NEIGHBORS
Sometimes, a school just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Vernon Hills High School was built in 1999 in a beautiful business park in Illinois that is home to corporations including CDW, American Hotel, and Rust-Oleum. CDW, a computer and technology company, gave $80,000 for scoreboards. Rust-Oleum approached the school and asked to contribute $100,000 for the right to have the company’s name on the school’s athletic field for 20 years.
And the perks don’t stop with those two. “We are so fortunate to be in this area,” says VHHS Principal Ellen Cwick. “American Hotel Corporation allows us the use of 29 of their acres—at a dollar a year—until they build on it. These companies and our Career Advisory Council meet four times a year to discuss a number of topics, including setting up internships. We are able to have a gorgeous facility, and we’re proud of the partnerships we have.”
2. GO NONPROFIT
The school district of Newburyport, Massachusetts, is the beneficiary of the nonprofit Newburyport Education Foundation (NEF), a small group that has been chartered to offset the financial pressures from rising operating costs, technology needs, and special education. Its goal is to raise funds for district programs that might not get money from the federal government.
NEF’s Make Your Mark program raises funds through the granting of naming rights of classrooms, offices, and other areas of the high school. Opportunities range in price from $3,000 to $100,000 and are noted by a handsome plaque prominently displayed outside the room.
According to NEF executive director Christin Walth, other communities are initiating similar projects. She adds that while many small school districts move into a regional district, Newburyport is able to retain its independence to pursue a variety of quality programs. Supplementing the foundation’s efforts is the Newburyport Education Business Coalition, Inc., a grant program for educators that is supported by local businesses to strengthen the relationship between them and schools in the community.
Three banks in the area have made generous donations, including a pledge of $10,000 a year for 10 years for science and technology initiatives.
3. MAKE A MATCH
New York City–based not-for-profit web site DonorsChoose matches needs with resources that public schools may not be able to provide. Teachers submit project proposals for materials or even for experiences that enable students to learn. Needs are fulfilled as interested individuals, referred to as citizen philanthropists, select projects to fund.
Typical proposals run from $200 to institute Magical Math Centers to $1,100 for a project titled Cooking Across the Curriculum. As of March 2006, more than $5.8 million has been donated to 342,402 students in need.
The Department of Education in New York City sought an initiative to engage alumni of public schools who want to give back to their alma maters. The department, which could not easily handle donations of less than about $100,000 and did not want to turn down smaller gifts, will launch a co-branded web site this September with DonorsChoose, which is able to funnel smaller donations to designated recipients.
As the first nonprofit in this area to use e-procurement technology, DonorsChoose acquires products and services and delivers them. Two goals are met: The teacher is not burdened with the task, and complete accountability can be established.
Now operating in areas as diverse as North and South Carolina, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and New York, the organization plans to serve every U.S. public school with support from expansion funders and corporate sponsors.
4. LOOK FOR THE BIG-PICTURE GIVERS
In a more traditional giving structure, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF), which is based in Austin, Texas, has committed a $2 million grant over four years to the University of Chicago Center for Urban School Improvement (USI). The grant is slated to create and provide professional development and other supports to a network of 12 elementary schools and nine partnership schools on the South Side of Chicago. Other funders include the Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.
This support of school leaders is one part of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Renaissance 2010 initiative to close underperforming schools and create 100 new elementary and high schools, two of which are up and running. The immediate goal is five charter schools (PreK–8) and a new charter high school next year.
As well as functioning as leadership coaches to principals and fostering informal networking, USI staff members run summer forums. MSDF, endowed at $1.2 billion, currently has 150 active grants. Among key initiatives of the foundation is New Leaders for New Schools, with a focus on partnering with new educational leaders in Chicago; Oakland, California; and New York.
BY THE NUMBERS
A recent report published by the New Teacher Project illustrates some disturbing trends when it comes to hiring and firing staff in urban school districts.
40%Percentage of all school vacancies that were filled by incumbent teachers over whom schools had little or no choice in hiring.
4Number of tenured teachers terminated for poor performance out of five cities surveyed with a total teacher population of 70,000.
10-30%Percentage of new teachers hired after students have begun the school year.
Source: Unintended Consequences: The Case for Reforming the Staffing Rules in Urban Teachers Union Contracts, The New Teacher Project, 2005
Three Big Deals
STI, provider of education data management solutions for K–12 schools, partnered with Fairbanks LLC and the Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) to assist Alabama school systems in tracking special education services and facilitating the Medicaid billing process. The Medicaid Direct Service Claiming program, started by the partnership, began in the summer of 2005 and is being rolled out across the state. With the help of the program, Alabama school systems collectively may recoup an additional $10 million to $15 million annually in Medicaid reimbursements.
The Georgia Department of Education announced that the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests for grades 1–8 and the Enhanced Georgia High School Graduation Tests for grade 11 will now report Lexile measures. By June 2006, more than 1 million Georgia students will use the Lexile Framework. The program improves students’ reading skills by providing a common scale for matching reader ability and text difficulty.
MATCH, a grants initiative, has made $26 million available for Jewish day schools in the United States. MATCH is supported by a group of philanthropists to provide a 1:2 match of funds for certain grants to Jewish day schools and education projects. Those eligible for matches were either new or current members of the Jewish Funders Network.
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American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) International Conference & Exposition 2006
June 4–8, 2006
Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
The 2006 ASTD International Conference & Exposition will bring together teachers, technology coordinators, business executives, product developers, staff developers, and curriculum specialists. The conference helps participants implement training and performance-improvement programs in their organizations. The program features more than 250 sessions in nine tracks, Conferences-Within-a-Conference to provide intense, focused learning experiences, general sessions, preconference workshops, and certificate programs.
NUTN 2006: Managing and Maintaining Quality in Distance Learning—Building on a Solid Foundation
June 10–12, 2006
Radisson Plaza Hotel
The National University Telecommunications Network (NUTN) in cooperation with the University Continuing Education Association (UCEA) and the Sloan Consortium will present the NUTN 2006 annual event. The theme is managing and maintaining quality in all aspects of an organization’s distance-learning programs.
Technology in Education (TIE) 20th Annual Conference
June 20–23, 2006
Copper Mountain, Colorado
For teachers, technologists, administrators, and library/literary specialists, TIE offers attendees more than 200 technology training sessions. More than 80 percent of the sessions are hands-on. The majority of presenters are classroom teachers, who share lesson plans and strategies that work. This year’s theme is “Thanks for the Memories,” to celebrate the conference’s 20th anniversary. Nancy Willard will be the keynote speaker. She is executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.
National Educational Computing Conference (NECC): Explore, Discover, Set Sail for the Future
July 5–7, 2006
San Diego Convention Center
Join more than 16,000 teachers, technology coordinators, library media specialists, teacher educators, administrators, policymakers, industry representatives, and students from all over the world to discuss how to shape the future of education through educational technology. This year, NECC will focus on developing the course for a better future.
13th iEARN Annual Teachers Conference and Youth Summit
July 3–7, 2006
University of Twente
Enschede, the Netherlands
Nearly 1,000 educators and students from 80 countries come together for a week to share how they are integrating technology and international collaboration into their classrooms. The Annual iEARN Conference is the world’s largest such international gathering of both practitioners and Ministry of Education officials and is open to anyone interested in collaborative online project work.
MOVERS & SHAKERS
Meria Carstarphen, 36, will be the new superintendent of St. Paul (MN) Public Schools. She replaces Patricia Harvey, who resigned her position at the end of 2005. Carstarphen currently serves as the chief accountability officer for District of Columbia Public Schools. Superintendent Clifford Janey hired Carstarphen in the fall of 2004. She has overseen the introduction of new English and math standards in D.C. as well as teacher training and new standardized tests for students. She beat out candidates from California, Tennessee, and Florida.
Lemont-Bromberek (IL) School District hired a St. Louis–area superintendent as its new leader after his predecessor was charged with soliciting a prostitute. Tim Ricker, 52, has been superintendent of Mehlville School District in St. Louis County since 2001. He replaces Thomas Cusack, 62, who resigned in October 2005 after being charged with offering $40 to a female police officer posing as a prostitute.
he Virginia Beach School Board hired James Merrill to become the superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools on July 1. Merrill has been superintendent of Alamance-Burlington (NC) School System for six years. Merrill’s contract with Virginia Beach extends through June 30, 2010.
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How many of you would be eager to accept this invitation:
TIME: Your precious summer months
PLACE: A sweltering gym or cafeteria, where you’ll be stuffed into a student-size seat
EVENT: A professional development course led by an out-of-date host by way of a 26-inch television strapped to a metal cart
You’d rather set mosquito traps, you say? Not so fast. Professional development is undergoing a much-needed face-lift. Tired programs are moving from passé to interactive. These summer events will provide useful tips and breakthrough knowledge on a case-by-case basis.
1. Summer sessions sponsored by the School Specialty Educators’ Symposium, a new division of School Specialty Inc., boast of “changing the very concept of professional development.” Programs in 40 cities, from Baltimore to San Francisco, broadcast via satellite on August 2 and 3, provide a cheap alternative to costly travel. “These are not talking heads,” explains Educators’ Symposium CEO Sally Chapman. “We’re trying to add zip.” http://www.educatorsymposium.com
2. Pam Weber, the director of professional development for the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) International has revamped its programs, scheduled for June and July in New York, Idaho, Arizona, Oregon, and Montana. ASBO also offers web seminars year-round.
3. The School Leadership Series, a part of ETS's Pathwise
series of professional development, will use similar technologically charged
tactics for its 10 workshops that can be taken during the summer or the school
year. ETS hopes to achieve individual professional growth for administrators
by adding perks online, with CDs of handouts and slides, and an array of presenters
ready to give administrators a wake-up call this summer.
4. The American Association of School Administrators plans a similar offering of online services and interactive conferencing abilities for its July 16 to 19 conference in Keystone, Colorado, demonstrating that professional development for educators has finally moved out of the stuffy auditorium and into the high-tech arena. http://www.aasa.org
5. Fordham University Graduate School of Education sponsors its ninth annual National Principals Leadership Institute (July 8 to 15) in New York City. Invited keynote speakers include Rudy Crew, Donna Brazile, and Lani Guinier. In addition, the American Management Association participates by offering an optional one-day seminar for attendees.