Update

Update

Education news from schools, businesses, research and government agencies

DOE's $2 Billon Windfall: Use It Or Lose It

For the first time, the federal government has informed states there is about $2 billion in federal funds owed to them. Essentially, the feds are saying, "Use it or lose it" by late September.

The federal program, Elementary and Secondary Education Act created in 1965, did not give much direction to states on how to spend federal money.

In the early 1970s, Congress created an amendment that, combined with other rules, govern how states can spend money under the program, which is now No Child Left Behind, says Patricia Sullivan, deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. CCSSO helps states understand how to spend federal money and also encourages states to spend appropriately.

States are only allowed to spend that money according to state and federal law. They have 27 months to commit the funding for projects and up to five years to spend it, Sullivan says. The money is sitting in the U.S. Treasury and is already committed, but because of federal law, and in some cases state law, states are not allowed to draw the money unless they have already spent it.

"There are times when money gets returned to the treasury, but it's only a tiny percent of the funding," Sullivan says. For example, some local school districts may forget to tell the state they are not going to spend some money, or some state laws prohibit them from spending federal money on such programs as charter schools, Sullivan says.

GOP leaders have reportedly argued that the overflow of money means schools have enough money to carry out improvements, as required under NCLB.

But in a June letter from Ted Stilwill, president of CCSSO, he explains to U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, that the overflow of money does not mean NCLB is adequately funded. "It is also most inaccurate to suggest that because states and schools have not spent their funding, it is going unused," Stilwill writes. "Most [funds] are already committed to pay for specific projects; they are in a queue waiting to be expended for ongoing contracts."

Efforts to reach officials at the U.S. Department of Education were unsuccessful. As of mid August, the education department had not yet released a special report to answer how much federal money will revert back to the treasury and how much states spent for programs but have not yet been reimbursed, Sullivan says.

--Angela Pascopella

Weighing the Impact of N.Y. Schools' Scandals

Allegations that schools administrators in separate incidents stole at least $2.7 million from two districts in New York's Long Island are reverberating with calls for much tighter fiscal controls at districts throughout the state. So far, though, the impact appears limited to New York.

The scandals erupted in February in Roslyn, an upscale community on Long Island's North Shore, where former Superintendent Frank Tassone and Chief Financial Officer Pamela Gluckin were charged with stealing $2 million in district funds. Gluckin allegedly spent $1 million of district money on waterfront homes, boats and luxury cars while Tassone allegedly used district money for vacation and jewelry.

At press time, Tassone had an August criminal court date scheduled, while Gluckin is to appear in criminal court Sept. 20.

After the allegations against Tassone and Gluckin came to light, a suspended supervisor of buildings and grounds for the Roslyn district, Thomas Galinski, stepped down from his job in July after officials found evidence that he billed the district for personal trips.

In another district, William Floyd Schools in Suffolk County, former treasurer James Wright was charged with allegedly stealing at least $700,000 in school funds. He is expected to appear in court at a later date.

Despite the apparent involvement of at least several officials in the Roslyn system, the problems appear to have gone unnoticed for so long due to the district's strong performance in standardized testing over the years and in turning out graduates who went to college.

When auditors first discovered that Gluckin had allegedly embezzled money, the Roslyn school board accepted her resignation on condition that she return the $250,000 believed to have been taken, Newsday reported. The allegations against Tassone emerged in an anonymous letter to the district in February.

In July, a task force assembled by the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association issued a report with recommendations for tighter fiscal controls to help prevent a recurrence of the financial scandals.

Among its recommendations are calls to better educate school boards on understanding financial documents. The association also calls for school boards to avoid conflicts of interest with financial auditors by not involving them in accounting tasks they would later be asked to audit.

Such conflicts of interest "tend to happen over the course of the year because you establish a relationship with your auditor," says Gary Bixhorn, president of the Suffolk County superintendents group.

The association also called for an independent audit of every New York school district by the state comptroller's office every five years.

Bixhorn says the dramatic events in Roslyn were certain to gain national attention. But he stopped short of predicting that districts across the country would review their processes with the kind of intense self-scrutiny and public meetings that have marked many of Long Island's 125 districts since the scandals.

Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says the Long Island scandals, particularly in Roslyn, did not pose the risk of a national epidemic because they were so "over the top."

"The good news clearly is that these are fairly isolated incidences," Houston says. "The bad thing is that there is a lot of anger on the part of a lot of the superintendents [nationwide]; they're sort of tarnished by what a few did."

--Allan Richter

PC Giants Embrace Enviro-Friendly Dumping

In response to public pressure, Hewlett-Packard and Dell announced in July new incentives for consumers to recycle old electronics. HP is accepting old electronics dropped off at Office Depot outlets across the country free of charge through Sept. 6. Dell will pick up old computers at people's homes if they buy a new Dell.

Environmentalists estimate 60 billion pounds of electronics will be purchased, used and tossed in the U.S. between 2006 and 2015, according to siliconvalley.com, and toxic chemicals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury found in computers contaminate dump-off areas. Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, says she hopes companies will start designing PCs specifically for recycling with fewer amounts of toxic chemicals.

More PCs Please!

Sixty-two percent of K-12 teachers say that having computers in the classroom improves student performance on standardized tests, according to a survey released by CDW-G, a technology provider for the government and education industry.

However, many respondents think their schools need more computers, and 79 percent say they need more technology training. Seventy-seven percent say they only have a few computers, and students have to share them. "Technology has become ingrained in the educational process," says Chris Rother, vice president of education at CDW-G.

Culture of Trouble makers Plagues Schools

A teacher begins class waiting to teach until student chatter ceases. She confiscates notes and asks a student to remove his feet from the desktop. These minor infractions derail teachers and nibble away at teaching time, says Jean Johnson, senior vice president at Public Agenda.

Teaching Interrupted, a recent Public Agenda report, finds secondary school discipline problems threaten student achievement and drive teachers out of the profession. More than one-third of teachers have considered leaving the profession or know someone who has left because of discipline issues.

The national survey found most schools deal effectively with serious offenses, but minor infractions take a toll. Seventy-seven percent of teachers admit they would be much more effective if they didn't spend so much time dealing with disruptive students. The problem appears more prevalent in urban and high poverty schools.

 About 80 percent of parents and teachers say discipline issues begin at home.

About 80 percent of parents and teachers say discipline issues begin at home; parents' failure to teach discipline is a primary cause of school problems.

Some parents compound the problem by filing lawsuits to overturn school discipline decisions. Nancy Udell, director of policy for Common Good, says most schools face a "kitchen sink" of regulations to enforce disciplinary decisions. Suspension typically requires reams of paperwork and witnesses. Students are aware of these barriers, says Udell. Seventy-eight percent of teachers claim students are quick to remind them of their rights.

Ninety percent of teachers and parents support enforcing rules for minor problems to establish a tone and avoid larger problems.

Treating special education students who misbehave like other students receives strong support among teachers; currently 76 percent say misbehaving special education students are treated too lightly even when misbehavior isn't linked to the disability. Johnson says increasing the principal's authority to make disciplinary decisions could help. Udell adds that districts could limit regulations thwarting discipline, such as requiring hearings with witnesses and, in some cases, lawyers, prior to a suspension. And establishing alternative schools for chronic offenders could help.

"Teachers and administrators don't necessarily need training to handle discipline," Johnson says. "They need a change in mindset and policy."

Johnson and Udell agree the exception is new teachers; they believe mentoring could improve their classroom management skills.

--Lisa Fratt

www.publicagenda.org

State and Local Funds Not Enough

A report released by the National Education Association suggests education spending is not keeping up with the increasing number of students and their needs. State and local governments are still providing the bulk of education funding. As a result, there has been little growth in average revenue, average teacher salary and the average expenditure per student enrolled in a K-12 school.

The average teacher salary has decreased across some of the nation. In 2002-03 it was $45,891, a 2.8 percent increase since the previous year, but this year, salaries are only expected to increase 2 percent. With 400,000 new students who entered schools last fall, less-than-desirable salaries are not attracting the 16,000 qualified teachers needed to keep up with increasing student populations.

Embarrassing Testing Errors

More than 4,000 people who took the Praxis P.L.T. 7-12, a test used to license teachers, failed due to grading mistakes made by the Educational Testing Service.

The errors, which occurred between January 2003 and April 2004 when the test was given to about 40,000 people, may have cost many people full-time jobs. When investigations were completed, about 4,100 prospective teachers ended up passing. ETS says it will reimburse candidates the $115 test fee, estimated to cost close to half a million dollars, as well as the cost of any materials needed to prepare for the exam.

Largest Ed Union Sees Promise in Kerry

Money and political support for presidential candidate John Kerry are beginning to roll in from the National Education Association, who has endorsed him for president.

On a quest to increase school spending and reform No Child Left Behind, the NEA is targeting 15 swing states, rallying members and working to organize political house parties. While about 25 percent of its members say they identify with the Republican party, the union has never endorsed a Republican for president. On top of that, $9 out of every $10 dollars the NEA raises goes to Democrats.

Federal Grant a Good Start

California charter schools will receive $75 million from the federal government during the next three years to create 300 new schools, adding to the 371 already existing charter schools. Because charters aim at reforming education by setting a good example, says the Mercury News, the government wants them to spend 10 percent of the funds showing other public schools their quality methods.

Start-up costs are always a huge burden and will likely be a portion of the other 90 percent. However the grant will not be enough to cover facilities, one of the biggest problems facing charter schools, because many districts side-step laws requiring them to share construction bonds and provide comparable space.

L.A. Combats Absenteeism

Through a public relations campaign and incentives for students, the Los Angeles Unified School District is looking to boost attendance. Student perks will include special assemblies and field trips. Expanded partnerships with law enforcement to reduce truancy and possible changes in the way student suspensions are carried out are other ideas the district is considering.

Average daily attendance is around 93.5 percent. Some officials want to raise it to above 95 percent, but high school attendance lingers around 90 percent.

California funds schools based on attendance, about $26 per student per day, so increases in attendance could bring much needed gains to the district.

Hand Scanners In Middle School

School officials in a Florida middle school are taking a hands-on approach to attendance this fall--literally.

They are using biometric hand readers to take attendance at Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton. Students will also use the hand scanners to check out library books and purchase food in the cafeteria.

The school is one of several in the nation turning to biometrics to help keep track of students. Don Estridge Principal Debra Johnson said the scanners, donated by Ingersoll-Rand, will enable teachers to focus more on students and less on time-consuming tasks such as morning roll calls and library checkouts.

"It's really a productivity tool, to help free up time,' says Johnson. "Technology does a nice job of taking care of rote tasks."

The scanners may also be used in the future to keep track of where students get off the bus each day.

Carole Shetler, an area superintendent who oversees Don Estridge, says hand readers are being used along with other state-of-the-art technology. The newly built school, which opened in August, is a demonstration site for school security and safe school practices.

In Akron, Ohio, middle and high school students use hand scans instead of meal tickets in the cafeteria, and in Eagan, Minn., students check out library books with the scanners.

School security expert Ken Trump says biometrics technology can be helpful, but can be a costly part of financially squeezed school budgets. He also cautioned that the technology has been designed for other venues like corporations or military sites, not schools.

"School officials considering any type of technology, especially when it is offered for free, must step back and see if it is applicable to the day-to-day setting of a school,' Trump says.

While some privacy advocates have also voiced concerns over the technology, school officials say the scanners are helping them fulfill one of their key tasks, keeping track of students and keeping them safe.

"It's the same collection of information,' Johnson adds. "It's just a different method.'

--Fran Silverman

Tests Too Hard? Now Too Easy

A New York Math A Regents examination was criticized last year for being too hard. Now, the New York State Department of Education claims the test is too easy.

Some math teachers and administrators have complained that the department's scoring is overly forgiving and that students are passing who have not mastered the material, according to The New York Times. While schools are not forced to pass students who pass Regents tests, teachers say it is difficult convincing students who have passed a test that they need to repeat a class.

High-tech Tools For Free

Supported by the U.S. Department of Education, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an alliance of technology companies and nonprofit organizations, has distributed a series of free tools to help prepare students for the working world.

One such tool is a step-by-step guide online to help teachers integrate technology into core curriculum.

"Every day in the workplace, we see where our employees have gaps," says Michele Glaze, spokeswoman for Dell, a participant. "We're trying to partner with education and schools to help fill in those gaps." Members include the AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple Computer, Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Microsoft Corp., the National Education Assoc. and SAP.

www.21stcenturyskills.org

The Fine Line Of Sexual Misconduct

A newly released U.S. Department of Education study on sexual abuse in schools is drawing criticism from some educators who say it doesn't distinguish serious sexual abuse crimes from inappropriate remarks and may foster misperceptions about the extent of the problem.

Written by Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft, the report, Educator Sexual Misconduct, synthesizes material from past studies, reports, books and newspaper clippings. She concludes that 9.6 percent of students--about 4.5 million--are the targets of unwanted sexual attention by school employees sometime during their school years. The findings were based on nine previous studies, including the 1993 American Association of University Women report, Hostile Hallways.

Shakeshaft says her findings indicate that sexual misconduct and abuse in schools "is more prevalent than people think, no matter the exact numbers."

But some education officials say the report does not distinguish sexual misconduct from more serious crimes of physical sexual abuse.

"Unfortunately the numbers aren't broken out to see if we have a big problem of serious misbehavior or a lot of smaller items, such as a misunderstood joke by a teacher,' says John Mitchell, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers.

"The laws create a shield for students and the shield has become a sword." -Gregory Lawler, attorney, Colorado Education Association

Shakeshaft says she based her report on the definition of sexual harassment in Title IX, which includes anything from showing students pornography to rape. She says she was surprised by some of the comments about the report commissioned by the education department as part of its No Child Left Behind regulations.

Schools often don't sufficiently investigate allegations that do surface, she says.

"I studied 225 cases of teachers sexually abusing kids, and in the majority of cases, teachers didn't lose their jobs and most didn't get reprimanded,' Shakeshaft says.

But Gregory Lawler, attorney for Colorado Education Association who co-wrote Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Teachers and Accusations of Abuse, says the pendulum has actually swung the other way with mandatory reporting laws. "The laws create a shield for students and the shield has become a sword,' he says. "Anytime a student makes an allegation against a teacher, even the craziest of allegations, a teacher for the most part gets suspended from the classroom.'

--Fran Silverman

Private School Hopefuls Foot Their Own Bill

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that taxpayer-backed vouchers for students interested in private schools are unconstitutional. According to the Associated Press, the only way to give prospective private-school students state money would be to change the Colorado Constitution, which prohibits giving taxpayer money for educational purposes to any person or group not under complete control of the state.

Proponents include state Rep. Nancy Spence, who says she wants to "help low-income, mostly minority kids get a good foundation. . ." Spence sponsored the 2003 bill to create a school voucher program, but the state Supreme Court shot it down. She says she will fix the problems the court identified and hopes to reintroduce the legislation next year.

Decision: Diversity

A four-year-long lawsuit attacking Boston public school district's student assignment policy has come to an end with a federal appeals court rejecting claims that the policy discriminates against whites.

The policy allows half of a school's space to be filled by students within walking distance and the other half to be subject to a lottery for those wishing to be bused. Angry parents argue their children were banned from choice schools because they were white. The judges wrote that people "do disagree about the ultimate resolution of the difficult legal and social issues that surround ... student-assignment systems specifically. These continuing disagreements do not diminish all that has been accomplished."

Advanced Classes Give Edge

A recent Gallup Youth Survey shows that half of teenagers aged 13 to 17 take honors or advanced placement courses nationwide.

Many high school students look for advantages to attend good colleges, beyond getting good grades in traditional classes.

About 78 percent of teens who describe their academic level as "near the top" of the class or "above average" take honors or AP, compared with 15 percent of students who are "average" or "below average."


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