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Voters Send Mixed Messages On Funding Education

Voters who went to the polls in November sent mixed messages on referendums designed to increase education funding in several states.

In Washington, residents voted down a measure creating charter schools.

Residents in Washington, Nevada, Arkansas and Missouri also defeated initiatives that would have channeled more money to school districts. But Oklahoma residents approved a state lottery that sends revenue to schools, and Maine voters defeated a property-tax cap that critics said would result in cuts in school aid.

Education advocates say the funding defeats are not a signal that voters aren't in favor of school spending, just that they are cautious about how money is raised.

"I think they are saying education should be a top priority, but they don't necessarily feel the capacity to pay for it out of their pocket,'' says National Education Association spokesman Dan Kaufman.

In Nevada, for example, voters rejected a ballot question that would have required the state to finance K-12 schools at the national per-pupil rate by 2012. The state ranks 46th in its per-pupil spending of $6,000, which is about $1,500 less than the national average. But voters approved a measure that would require the legislature to pass an education appropriations bill before any other department budgets.

Washington education officials say the defeat of a measure to raise education spending by $1 billion a year by increasing the state sales tax by 1 percent will mean renewed pressure on state legislators for funding.

The defeat of the charter school initiative shows that residents don't want attention diverted from the needs of public schools, say some educators there.

In Missouri, which is being sued by several districts within the state for failing to fund schools adequately, voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring money from motor vehicles sales and fuel taxes to be spent on transportation infrastructure.

"We have a great need for the improvement of highways in Missouri, and this was a way to get more money without having to rely on a tax increase," says Associate Education Commissioner Gerri Ogle. "But it shrinks the pot of money available for education."

Ogle says state legislators are now discussing ways to change the education aid formula, which has been under-funded by about $600 million.

David Shreve, senior education committee director for education at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says many measures were defeated because taxpayers and state officials are hesitant to pass more funding mandates.

"Most elected officials like to retain some degree of flexibility when they are doing their budget,'' Shreve says. "Some of those ballot initiatives can tie their hands.''

--Fran Silverman

No Cash to Repair Technology in L.A.

At least $1 million in computer equipment at Los Angeles Unified School District is unsalvageable because the district did not have enough money or expertise to maintain it, officials stated, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

Several campuses in the San Fernando Valley and other areas have been forced to close Applied Math and Science Academy labs because of budget cuts, greater stress on standardized tests, and a teacher shortage in industrial arts.

Hot Technologies

Don't touch that, it's hot," is a familiar warning, but the Consortium for School Networking says the adage doesn't apply to educational technology. The group's new report, Hot Technologies for K-12 Schools, lists 12 emerging technologies with potential to transform schools.

"Not all of these will become the 'must haves,' but probably some of them will," says Karen Greenwood Henke, project manager of the report.

1. Active Highly Portable Large Storage Devices: This is a complex name for things like Apple's iPod. New versions will be able to create digital recordings and files. Imagine students using them to record lectures or listen to language lab files. Some cost less than $300 each.

2. Datacasting: Digital content such as streaming video, software and activities delivered via satellite or TV stations to a district's servers. Teachers access lessons via the Internet, creating a media-rich environment. Setup is less than $10,000, but adoption will depend on private sector content development.

3. & 4. Digital assessments and intelligent essay graders: Both help meet the demand for data-driven instruction. The increasingly reliable technology behind intelligent essay graders coordinates with the returning writing requirement on SATs. Adoption of these tools ranges from a few dollars to nearly $50 per student per year.

5. Sound field amplification: Created hearing disabled students, this technology that improves the quality and amplification of the teacher's voice and has led to gains for all students. Costs vary.

6. Multi-sensory, customized learning tools: Software programs that rely on research-based strategies to give practice in critical subjects. Often involving audio, video, computer prompts.

7. - 11. Community-building technologies: Programmable phone systems, student information systems, Web-based learning management systems (like Blackboard) and Web logs (blogs). Many districts have limited forms of these, but they're likely to become a more central part of home-school communication continuum.

12. Radio Frequency Identification Data: Use of these chips is likely to spur privacy debates, but they can help keep track of kids, library books or computer equipment.

Initial reluctance is high with many of these technologies, but fades if they prove their value.

"It is a paradigm shift, people aren't use to having these kinds of technologies," says Harry N. Barfoot III, of Vantage Learning, which offers intelligent essay grading and writing instruction applications. "This applies not just to our technology, but technology in education in general. People want to know, "Does it work and is it effective?' "

--Rebecca Sausner

Rebuilding Book Nooks in NYC

Twenty-five elementary school libraries will be built or rebuilt in New York City schools by September. The Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit organization fighting poverty in New York, has already refurbished or built 31 elementary school libraries citywide. The new libraries include thousands of new books as well as new computers.

School Using Watermarks on Report Cards

Students in a Maryland High School will have a tough time if they try to doctor their report cards. River Hill High School in Howard County became one of a growing number of schools to use paper with a watermark to prevent students from altering their social studies, math or English marks on report cards.

"In this day of high technology, we as educators always have to stay ahead of students' ability to manipulate documents, plagiarism and those types of things,'' says Principal William Ryan.

A 2001 study by the Center for Academic Integrity found 74 percent of high school students said they cheated at least once on a test. Karen Clifford, an executive board member of the center, says the issue has not been given enough attention at the secondary level.

"Until there is some sort of scandal that wakes people up to see how much this is a problem for public schools, it just is not a priority,'' says Clifford.

Ryan says use of the paper wasn't prompted by any particular incident at the school, but is part of an overall focus on academic honesty.

--Fran Silverman

Colorado Schools Deal Online Learning Trend

Rather than combat what Colorado Chancellor of Education William J. Moloney feels is inevitable, the state has embraced online learning. In the 2000-01 school year, just more than $1 million was used for 166 cyberstudents. In three years, about $24 million has been allocated for more than 4,000 online students statewide, says Moloney. "The advantage for us is that we don't have to build a building, we don't have to transport them, and we don't have to feed them," Moloney says.

Moloney says online education is becoming increasingly more popular in the remote areas of the state, where some courses simply can't be offered because low enrollment doesn't warrant it.

There is a drawback for some small communities. Students who physically attend school generate revenues from the state for their districts, based on a formula. If a child opts to study online, the district receives a flat rate of $6,500--a figure usually far less than a brick-and-mortar student receives.

Moloney adds there is no discernable advantage in having a child go to a brick-and-mortar school. Many make the argument, he points out, that students who attend school are more socialized. "Kids [who study at home] often have a richer society than kids in school who suffer from the downside of cliques and violence," he says.

"Like it or not, it is not going to go away. It is only going to get bigger," Moloney says. "Why should people have narrower choices when they can have wider ones?"

--Steve Scarpa

Detroit Voters Take Power Back

In November, city residents took back the right to elect the members of the Detroit Public Schools' board of education. The state had taken control of the district in 1999, according to The Detroit News.

So next November, the city will hold its first school board elections in more than five years. New board members will take office in January 2006.

Report Cards for Tykes

For the first time, Boston Public Schools are issuing report cards three times a year for kindergartners to ensure they can write, count and follow directions.

Children will be scored on a scale of 1 to 4 in 36 categories including if they can recognize rhyme and rhythms in poems, chants, songs and nursery rhymes as well as determine how well they put together two-dimensional shapes to make other shapes.

E-rate Weathers Change

E-rate, the federal telecommunications program that was on hold for four months, finally resumed spending in November. Cash problems had bogged it down and put off more than $400 million in projects from 2003 and 2004.

Since 1996, E-rate has helped connect 92 percent of classrooms to the Internet at discounts that are funded by fees on telecommunications services.

Last summer, the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that oversees E-rate, decided the program should adopt Treasury Fund accounting practices.

With such accounting, the program couldn't promise money before it was received. So the Universal Service Administrative Company, which administers the program for FCC, could not write commitment letters telling districts how much they would receive until the money was collected.

But the FCC recently changed that. The federal program has approved $24.2 million in new funding for projects and services.

The Schools and Libraries Division of USAC promised funding in 194 commitment letters to schools and libraries in late November, FCC states. And USAC and FCC are to work together to ensure that funding commitments are made as money is available.

Other letters will be sent for additional funding year 2004 commitments for which cash is available. Additional funding year 2004 commitments will be issued in the future as money is available, the FCC says.

Although the moratorium is over, it will take time to clean up the backlog of more than 4,000 school and library requests.

A force that contributed to a drop in E-rate coffers was a new cap on USAC collections from telecommunications companies from August to November 2004. In the past, USAC had no cap and calculated a rate sufficient to generate $2.25 billion in annual discounts to help schools and libraries nationwide.

Mickey Revenaugh, vice president at Connections Academy, helped run E-rate at the onset and says the program has succeeded in its initial mission. Now, she says, USAC needs to sustain gains and determine future needs, such as infrastructure improvements and new technology, that can be met with E-rate funds.

Mary Kusler, senior legislative specialist with American Association of School Administrators, says, "There are connectivity issues that E-rate can meet." For example, E-rate funds can be applied toward wireless networks.

-Lisa Fratt and Angela Pascopella

Schools Get More Rights Under Revised IDEA Law

Educators got an early holiday present when the lame-duck House and Senate reconciled differences and re-authorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in late 2004.

The revision aims to reduce paperwork and court cases, increase cooperation between schools and parents, address discipline concerns, and cut the percentage of students labeled as disabled.

Legal rights Parents must now submit to mediation before filing a suit against a district, a process that has been used with great success in Long Beach, Calif. If a filed lawsuit is later deemed frivolous parents might have to pay the district's legal costs.

Cutting paperwork Mid-year adjustments can now be made to Individualized Education Plans without formal meeting procedures. Also, 15 states will be allowed to experiment with multi-year IEPs for some students.

Funding Education lobbyists lost the funding battle. They were hoping to make mandatory the provision in the original law that requires the federal government to pay 40 percent of special ed costs. Instead, the federal contribution must reach 40 percent by 2011.

"We're going to come back and force that vote again and again until we [make it mandatory]," says Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

The bulk of the bill seems to directly affect parents and administrators. Some provision that will have a direct effect on students:

Parental rights Districts cannot require that students take medication like Ritalin to control behavior problems in order to attend class.

Identification The federal government will look at over-identification and investigate racial disparities. Schools can now use a percentage of their IDEA grants for early intervention efforts.

Discipline Schools can now discipline disabled students by the same standards as typically developing students, unless parents prove a direct link between the behavior and the disability.

Blind students A central repository of instructional materials for blind students will be created, and publishers must deliver these materials in the mandated file format.

In all, the new law hopes to further shift the focus from procedures to outcomes, says Nancy Reder, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. "Now this reauthorization has strengthened within IDEA the need to focus on outcomes."

--Rebecca Sausner

Reforming Schools

A former Houston Independent School District administrator opened a new center to help reform school systems. The Center for School District Effectiveness, founded by Cathy Mincberg, former HISD chief business officer, is set to assist reform-minded superintendents, staffs and board members to make public education more effective and efficient, in part by building a performance-based culture to support student achievement.

Mexico Muy Caliente with Spanish Teachers

While Spain was the hot spot to recruit Spanish-speaking teachers for American schools, Mexico is now muy caliente.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has signed an agreement with government officials in Mexico to encourage teachers to teach in New Mexico for up to three years under the Bilingual Teachers Exchange program. California also has a similar agreement with Mexico.

Debate over NAEP: Too Easy?

A study of the nation's report card, or National Assessment of Educational Progress, contends that math problems for fourth- and eighth-graders in 2003 were just too easy, in part because they only tested student skills using whole numbers and not enough fractions and decimals.

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, reveals that while fourth- and eighth-graders show progress in math over the same grades 10 years ago, the questions for both grades, including algebraic questions, test skills taught in lower grades.

Problem solving on NAEP is also not very challenging, at least not in the arithmetic required, the study states. More than 43 percent of problem solving items on NAEP's fourth-grade test are on par with first or second grade levels. And most fourth-graders miss the average item pitched at this level, the study states.

Eighth-grade items are only slightly more difficult than those on the fourth-grade test, the study reveals. Almost four out of 10 items require arithmetic taught in first and second grade, or six years below the grade level of the test-takers. And the percentage of eighth graders answering problem solving correctly is only 41 percent.

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics staunchly disagrees, claiming the report is "extremely misleading," according to President Cathy Seeley. The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, recognizes students need to know more than just arithmetic, but also geometry, statistics, data analysis, algebra and problem solving, for example, she says.

The point of NAEP is to keep arithmetic at a "lower level" than the question to reveal if a student "knows the math" behind the target of the question.

"It's important to recognize that NAEP is an extremely comprehensive test," she says. "In general, it's fair to say NAEP assesses an appropriate range of math at an appropriate level. We should feel good that the scores are improving while also recognizing that we are no where near where we need to be. We have a long way to go."

--Angela Pascopella

Judging a Book by its Uniform

On the outside, students that don uniforms look good and supposedly do better academically, as well as act more peaceful in school. But a new book claims uniforms are not effective in curbing school violence or raising achievement.

The School Uniform Movement and What it Tells Us About American Education: A Symbolic Crusade, was written by David Brunsma, assistant sociology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He says experimental factors may contribute to or contradict the idea that uniforms make students more motivated to succeed, including parental involvement and educational climates.

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