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Bush's Budget: Taking From Peter to Pay Paul?

This time of year, education lobbyists work hardest for their paychecks, and President Bush's proposed $56 billion education budget for fiscal year 2006 will mean plenty of overtime as advocates work toward restoring $4.3 billion in programs proposed for elimination.

The proposed budget, down .9 percent or $530 million from last year's $56.6 billion budget, is the first overall reduction in education spending in more than 10 years.

"We're disappointed that 48 of the 150 programs that were zeroed out in the president's budget were education programs," says Denise Cardinal, spokeswoman for the National Education Association. "We're working with members of Congress to restore funding to some of these, which we consider to be a fairly likely scenario given recent history."

The biggest news for educators in the president's budget is the proposed High School Initiative. It would extend many of the provisions of No Child Left Behind into high school, supported by $1.5 million in redirected funding. But the high school initiative is paired with the proposed elimination of $1.3 billion in state grants for vocational education. (The new high school money could be used to maintain support for vocational education at the state's discretion.)

This jockeying between Peter and Paul is a result of the politics of the budget deficit.

Other large ticket items that would be eliminated include Safe and Drug Free Schools initiative, Education Technology State Grants, and Upward Bound, a college prep program. (For the full list see In many ways the program cuts may be a political statement as 33 of the same programs were targeted for elimination last year but still received funding from Congress, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based non-profit.

"The problem here is that the cuts proposed, in some cases, are congressional priorities," says Mary Kusler, senior legislative specialist with the American Association of School Administrators. "But if [Congress] starts putting back some of those eliminated programs, without adding more money for education, we're just fighting among ourselves" to see which area has to take cuts, she says.

Though many have lauded the president's proposed new focus on high school achievement, Washington insiders are calling it 'dead on arrival' because it would be funded through the elimination of other programs. The initiative would have two major components: $1.24 billion for "high school intervention," aimed at increasing achievement and reducing racial and economic performance gaps; and $250 million to help states create annual assessments in language arts and math in two additional grades in high school by 2009-10. (NCLB already requires one assessment in grades 10-12.)

Title I and IDEA would be net beneficiaries under the president's budget; Title I would receive an additional $600 million, and IDEA an additional $510 million. Also proposed is the creation of a $500 million teacher incentive fund, a state grant program to reward effective teachers and offer incentives for highly qualified teachers to teach in high-poverty schools. See related information below.

---Rebecca Sausner

Bush Resurrects Choice Fund

In President Bush's 2006 budget proposal, he asks for $50 million in the Choice Incentive Fund. The idea, which was resurrected from his first term, would allow groups across the U.S. to compete for federal money for programs that give parents more choices in education for their children.

The debate still roars on, as proponents say children that switched to private schools using vouchers are reading better and enjoying school more and opponents claim the top schools are still unreachable for many poor families given the high tuitions that are only partly funded by vouchers, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Georgia Targets Dropout Rate

A statewide effort to reduce high school dropouts in Georgia is depending on community organizations, churches, parents and child care providers. Education. Go Get It is a recent campaign that targets children from preschool through high school and encourages them to get their high school diplomas and continue with college or technical school.

It uses three strategies to reach its goals: multimedia engagement campaign; grassroots outreach; and an expansive partnership network. Georgia has the second-highest dropout rate in the country, according to a recent study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Graduation Exams Under the Microscope

Do high school graduation exams drive kids to drop out of school? Do the tests correlate with lower SAT scores? Yes, according to a new report in Education Policy Analysis Archives. Graduation tests may represent the final obstacle that causes struggling students to drop out of school, hypothesizes Monty Neill, executive director of The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. On the SAT side, the report suggests high stakes curricula may focus on test material and de-emphasize projects that can develop critical thinking skills measured on the SAT.

Tests are prone to scoring errors, adds Susan Allison, coordinator of Marylanders Against High Stakes Testing. For example, grading errors on the Minnesota high school graduation exam incorrectly failed 8,000 students in 2000.

But the new report may not reveal the full story. Maryland began graduation tests in 1993 and has the highest SAT scores in its region, says state Superintendent of Education Nancy Grasmick. Maryland, like a handful of other testing states, does not yet require a student pass the test to graduate.

In Massachusetts, where students must pass English and math tests to receive a diploma, SAT scores have risen and dropout rates have held steady over the last decade. Massachusetts provides students multiple opportunities to pass the exams. Students who fail on their first try may take the exam four more times. Districts can apply for state remediation grants to support failing students by developing before and after tutoring programs, school vacation 'boot camps' and computerized tutorials, says Department of Education spokeswoman Heidi Perlman.

Although such programs may help students pass the test, Neill contends high stakes tests place school leaders in a bind by forcing schools to focus on test results instead of programs that engage kids and keep borderline students in school. Smaller high schools, arts programs and technical education may improve the dropout rate, Neill says.

But Grasmick counters that graduation tests have helped transform high schools and led to aligned curriculum and higher-quality, focused teaching.

--Lisa Fratt

Bipartisan Review Of NCLB Reveals Change Is Necessary

A 10-month study by a special task force of the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that states need flexibility to meet the goals of No Child Left Behind despite the U.S. Department of Education's conviction that the three-year-old law is already working.

"Our bipartisan review shows that in order to reach the No Child Left Behind Act's lofty expectations, changes need to be made in the law's foundation," says NCSL President John Hurson, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Task force co-chairman Steve Saland, a New York state senator, says the federal government's role has become "excessively intrusive in the day-to-day operations of public education. States that were once pioneers are now captives of a one-size-fits-all educational accountability system."

The National Education Association is all for it, saying the report reinforces the growing concerns of teachers as well as administrators, school board members, chief state officers and parents. "Republican and Democratic elected officials all over the country have witnessed first hand how the law's rigid, unfunded mandates are interfering with ongoing state and local efforts to boost achievement for all students," says NEA President Reg Weaver. "In just four years, the federal government has broken its promise of adequate funding by $27 billion and the president's budget for the upcoming year would shortchange children and schools by another $12 billion, leaving millions of children behind."

The U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Ray Simon released a statement claiming the report could be viewed as wanting to "reverse the progress we've made."

States set annual goals to ensure children are reading and doing math at grade level, he says. "There have been improvements in states across the nation and the pernicious achievement gap that has existed for decades is finally starting to close," he states.

He adds that the department will continue working with every state to address concerns and make the law work. "Children must be challenged to reach their full potential, not told to settle for someone else's lowered expectations," Simon says. See "Recommendations" below.

A Shift in Middle School

The New York Board of Regents recently approved a plan that would revolutionize the way middle schools administer its curriculum with the ultimate goal of improving student performance. According to the regents' plan, a study determined that no one approach to middle school education would solve the state's woes.

Each school would present a plan, which would be drafted by parents, teachers and school officials, and would need to approval of the state Department of Education. "Many middle schools have students who aren't meeting the learning standards," Regents Chancellor Robert Bennett says. "Other schools are excelling. All of them should have some flexibility so long as they use it to help students and ensure they have high achievement."

Schools have three options: to abide by existing regulations and make no change; to strengthen core academic subjects like English, math, science, history and social studies and lessen the time for "exploratory courses"--technology education, health, library, extra foreign languages and the arts.

The final option, only available to a select group of 30 successful and high-scoring schools, would be to reconstitute the entire curriculum. They would do away with time requirements altogether and develop their own curriculum.

Thomas Donahue, president of the New York State Association for Career and Technical Education, believe the damage to career and technical education could have been worse had his organization not lobbied on their behalf. "We are strongly in favor of not changing the requirements."

While the changes might benefit some, Donahue says, many students need practical application to understand more esoteric ideas. "We have seen kids who can't do math in an academic setting, but get them into a career and technical path, give them another approach, and they can do it," Donahue says.

--Steven Scarpa

Florida Gov. Wants More Vouchers

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush recently proposed massive expansion of the use of vouchers for any student in Florida who fails the state reading test for three consecutive years, according to The Miami Herald.

It's part of a comprehensive package of K-12 education law changes that some say is the sequel to the A+ Plan that was Bush's key plan in his campaign for governor. Florida already offers vouchers to more students than any other state.

And the governor is proposing to allow schools to offer different levels of pay to teachers, such as those who are needed for science and math and other specific subjects.

Web Site Pulls School Merchandise After Complaints

The National Association of Independent Schools has issued an alert to members about a Seattle-based Internet company that is selling merchandise such as shirts and backpacks with public and private school names on them without their knowledge.

On its Web site,, the company, Prep Sportswear, says it will give 10 percent of its proceeds to registered schools. However, several schools have complained that the company did not contact them first before selling the merchandise and they've never received any profits.

Anne Richardson, spokeswoman for Kents Hill School in Maine, which is a private boarding school, says the company was selling clothing and backpacks with Kents Hill school colors and its mascot. Richardson says the school was baffled because the company never contacted them and their bookstore didn't have a contract with them. The company removed Kents Hill merchandise from its site after an attorney for the school sent a cease and desist letter. NAIS says schools need to be alert as to who is using their names for economic gain.

Prep Sportswear President Chad Hartvigson says the company is within its legal rights to sell the merchandise with school names and colors as long as it isn't using a school's registered logos. But he said the company recently removed 17,000 private schools from its Web site after receiving complaints.

Colorado Court: Vouchers are Unconstitutional

In Colorado, the Supreme Court recently ruled that the state's voucher program strips school boards of local control, which is unconstitutional, according to The Denver Post.

The decision upholds a district court ruling that claims local tax money can't be used to pay for private schooling.

It ends hope for the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot Program, which would have provided tuition vouchers for low-income students starting this fall. New legislation will likely be drafted now.

Charter School Leadership Council Kicks Off

At a time when charter schools are facing serious challenges, the newly formed Charter School Leadership Council is kicking off its first-year agenda, focusing on growth and quality.

The council started with appointing a high-level Task Force on Quality and Accountability to help raise the bar of charter school performance. It will develop an action plan for quality growth over the next six months. The charter school movement faces inequities in funding and arbitrary caps on growth, intensified opposition from defenders of traditional schooling and questions about academic performance.

Council chairman Howard Fuller says the council was formed to bring "our large and diverse movement together to find practical answers to those pressing challenges."

But a recent review of charter school achievement, covering 38 studies over the past five years, shows gains: Some studies found that overall gains in charter schools were larger than those in traditional schools and three studies found charter schools gains were higher in significant categories of schools, such as elementary schools or schools serving at risk students.

Virginia Offers Cash To Keep Teachers

The Virginia Department of Education is starting a program it hopes will be a national model for retaining successful teachers at schools that are chronically difficult to staff. The program, called the Commonwealth's Teacher Retention Initiative, was launched this past year in middle and high schools in Caroline County and Franklin City.

Gov. Mark Warner is spearheading the initiative as chairman of the National Partnership on Teaching in At-Risk Schools. Warner's group will review how state and federal policies impact staffing, retention and recruitment. "Research and common sense tell us that disadvantaged students won't catch up with their more affluent peers without effective instruction from highly qualified teachers," Warner said at a February press conference in Washington, D.C., to announce the initiative. "If the nation is to accomplish the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act, we must develop strategies for deploying our best teachers in the schools they are needed most."

Government and education officials have no predictions on how the new program will turn out. "The governor realizes that retaining teachers in hard-to-staff schools was the foremost thing on some policymakers' minds," says Ellen Qualls, a governor spokeswoman.

The key to the program is the payment of incentives for teachers to work in areas where the teacher retention rate is the lowest, mainly rural settings. A $15,000 relocation bonus is available for veteran teachers who agree to stay in hard-to-staff areas for at least three years. Teachers already in problem districts would receive a $3,000 annual bonus to stay. If those schools reduce the failure rate on Virginia's standardized tests by at least 10 percent during the second year of the program, they will receive grants of approximately $200 per student. "There is an understanding that student performance may suffer if we don't make an effort to help these school divisions," says Julie Grimes, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

While there has been no official adoption of the program in other states, the success of Warner's proposal will be gauged in how many follow Virginia's lead.

--Steven Scarpa

Wisconsin Brings in the Band

A first-of-its-kind arts facility is breaking ground in Waunakee, Wis.

The Wisconsin Center for Music Education, worth $1.9 million, is expected to open in late July to music teachers and students in public and private schools and others. The center, which the Wisconsin School Music Association is building, marks the importance of music and the arts in schools, according to Eric Runestad, the group's executive director, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The center will include:

A digital sound studio for teaching, rehearsing, recording and editing music;

An "innovation center" with regional and statewide video conferencing capabilities, distance and online learning, and rooms for workshops and classes;

A music technology center, including an electronic keyboard lab with computer interface, Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and sequencing abilities, as well as technology for music study, composing and arranging;

A music education hall of fame.

Higher Education Valued

A recent national survey of young adults shows that the majority of them value higher education, according to Public Agenda, the nonprofit, nonpartisan opinion research organization.

Most of the young adults, ages 18 to 25, surveyed in Life After High School: Young People Talk about Their Hopes and Prospects, report that their parents inspired them to go to college and most had a teacher in high school who took a strong interest in them and encouraged them.

Money plays a big role in the final decision for college and the shortage of high school counselors makes it difficult. About 53 percent of those surveyed said there were not enough counselors in high school. While money is not a factor for most young white Americans, it is for most young black and Hispanic students.

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