The Auto Industry’s Impact on School Districts
In car manufacturing areas, the financial troubles of the “big three” automakers—Ford, General Motors and Chrysler—are putting a bit of a strain on school districts.
At Van Buren Public Schools in Wayne County, Mich., just 25 minutes from downtown Detroit, officials are trying to make do with rising health care and state retirement costs, aged and failing technology, and an outward migration of students and families due to closed auto plants.
Linda Olson, the district’s instruction and personnel director, says any state funding increases that have been received over the last several years have not been in balance with costs. “We’ve been known to delay textbook adoptions in the past,” she says, “but we’re currently freezing all major adoptions altogether.”
The 6,300-student district has cut 39 staff positions for the 2008-2009 year, and the board recently voted to make $3.5 million worth of staff, transportation and athletic cuts for the 2009-2010 year.
District enrollment decreased by about 450 students this academic year due to parents’ loss of auto manufacturing jobs, with families moving either out of state or at least two school districts away.
“It seems that we hear daily of economic impacts to our community,” says Olson, remarking that a local engineering firm recently laid off 600 employees and a local newspaper had to lay off most of its staff.
Michigan’s unemployment rate is almost 3 points above the national average.
“The crisis has definitely impacted our ability to procure the technology that is needed for the district,” says Olson.
In Detroit, traditionally known as the automotive center of the world, Detroit Public Schools has been beset by declining enrollment and dwindling resources and facilities since the first slump of the automobile industry in the 1970s, says district spokeswoman Mattie Majors. Majors is not certain how the crisis may impact the district and next year’s budget, but she admits that the student population has dropped by between 7,000 and 9,000 per year for the past several years. And a number of school buildings have been closed or sold or leased to local developers and organizations.
“Costs are rising, but the money we’re getting back is not enough,” she says.
The picture is somewhat rosier in districts based near luxury auto plants. In South Carolina, one of the top 10 car-producing states, the Spartanburg County District 5 in Roebuck is reaping the rewards from its proximity to the North American BMW plant and headquarters.
In ten years the district has experienced a 65 percent jump in enrollment and has constructed four new schools in the past five years to keep up with student growth.
“In many communities, schools are on the frontlines of the economic downturn,” says AASA president Randall Collins, superintendent of Waterford (Conn.) Public Schools. “We need to ensure they have adequate funding.”
Algebra Ruling Sparks New “Math Wars”
A superior court judge in Sacramento, Calif., recently blocked a controversial order that would make California the first state in the country to require algebra testing for all its eighth-graders. The state board of education, which wants the exam—the test of record for federal accountability purposes—to be implemented, enacted the measure last July out of fear that not doing so would cost the state up to $4.1 million in federal funding.
But the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators sued to have the requirement overturned, questioning the board’s authority to make the decision and whether the state even had the money, staff and training to comply.
According to federal officials, the root of the problem is a discrepancy between California’s content area standards for eighth-graders—namely, algebra I—and what is actually tested on the state assessment. A general mathematics assessment is given to the 220,000 eighth-graders not enrolled in algebra I, and an algebrafocused test is given to the students who are enrolled in the class—a violation of NC LB’s statutory requirements.
“The statute requires that every student be assessed with the same content and same achievement standards,” says DOE official Jo An Webb.
California is currently the only state that has content area standards specific to algebra I for its eighth-graders, according to the Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum at the University of Missouri.
But should states even set such standards for eighth-grade students? Some education experts weigh in:
? Alfie Kohn, author and education critic
“Attempts to force all students to take algebra in eighth grade reflect the convergence of two disturbing trends: a one-size-fits-all approach to education that assumes students are interchangeable, and a belief that anything that’s harder must be better,” says Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve. “If some students are better served by taking other kinds of math, or by taking algebra later in high school, does it make sense to sacrifice these considerations on the altar of ‘tougher standards’?”
? The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
According to NCTM, algebra encompasses important concepts and skills that take time to develop, and it should “be a focus of math instruction from pre-K through grade 12.” Only when students demonstrate success with the prerequisite skills—not at a prescribed grade level—should they focus explicitly on algebra, they say.
? California administrator Jack O’Connell
“I strongly believe that algebra is, in fact, necessary,” says O’Connell, state superintendent of public instruction. Still, he says, “we cannot just tell students and teachers to get there on their own.” Without additional funding the system will fail.
? The National Mathematics Advisory Panel The final report of this body, established by former President Bush, says all school districts should ensure that prepared students have access to an algebra course—and that they should prepare “more students than at present to enroll in such a course by grade eight.”
? Russlynn Ali, education expert
Supporters of the defeated test are disappointed. “It’s incomprehensible that we have to argue about teaching kids more,” says Ali, vice president of the research group Education Trust.
New Report Casts Doubt on Student Morals
Be careful whom you trust, especiall y if it’s a student—That might be the message gained from a new report on the attitudes and conduct of almost 30,000 public and private high school students nationwide.
According to the survey from the L.A.-based nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics, 30 percent of students admitted to stealing from a store within the past year, up from 28 percent in 2006. Cheating in schools is also worsening, with 64 percent of polled students cheating on a test this past year. Students at nonreligious independent schools reported a cheating rate of only 47 percent, but 63 percent of religious school students reported having done so.
The researchers are referring to the results as a growing hole in our moral ozone. Interestingly, a whopping 93 percent of respondents to the survey, which examined cheating, lying and stealing trends, said they were “satisfied with their personal ethics and character.”
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
A. Woodrow Carter, superintendent of Capistrano (Calif.) Schools, has been placed on paid administrative leave. He got the job after the board’s first choice backed out due to district “uncertainty and instability.”
Randy Dorn, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, wants to do away with the WASL, a state test. But some are questioning whether he has the power to do so without legislative approval.
READY TO LEAD?
Chicago Transit Authority president Ron Huberman has been appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools, replacing Arne Duncan. On his plate is a plan to close or reorganize 22 schools. He has no professional experience as an educator.
Rossana Rosado, publisher and CEO of Spanish-language daily newspaper El Diario, has joined the board of Learn NY, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that New York City students receive a high quality education.
PARTNER IN CRIME
Gov. Schwarzenegger has tapped education and philanthropy consultant Glen Thomas to serve as California’s education secretary. Thomas will act as the governor’s chief liaison to the appointed state board of education.