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Proposed Billion Dollar Law For Excellent Teachers

There was such a love fest when Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced the Teacher Excellence for All Children Act this spring that something may actually come of the ambitious legislation.

"Nothing is more important to a student's academic success than a highly qualified teacher," Miller says. "By recruiting and retaining excellent teachers ... the TEACH Act will boost student achievement and will help cut the achievement gap between poor students and their more advantaged peers."

Miller's $3.4 billion-plus proposal, co-sponsored by 50 Democrats, takes direct aim at the issue of retaining quality teachers.

"Overall we're really happy with the major portions of the bill," says Denise Cardinal, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association. This sentiment is echoed by the Alliance for Excellent Education, American Federation of Teachers, Business Roundtable, Teach for America and many others.

The problem with the TEACH Act is likely to be that it has too much.

"This bill is designed to be comprehensive, to show how important teaching is and how much it will take to turn teaching around," says Jeremy Ayers, a research associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education. "But the budget on it is high, and unfortunately [that] will make it hard to pass."

The more likely scenario is that pieces of the legislation will be tacked on to some other bill that has legs, such as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. As written now, funding is scheduled to begin in FY 2006. The act was expected to pass the House in July. --Rebecca Sausner

Teacher Salaries Stagnant

Despite several six-digit salary teachers in classrooms across the U.S., the National Education Association reveals in a report that teacher salary levels have barely budged in the past decade. The report, Rankings and Estimates: Rankings of the States 2004 and Estimates of School Statistics 2005, shows the average salary of a public school teacher for the 2003-04 year increased only slightly over the previous year and teacher salaries have remained flat, growing just 2.9 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The average teacher salary last year was $46,752

School Enrollment Sets New Record

With immigration rising and children of the baby boomers playing a role, 49.5 million students are sitting in America's classrooms. It surpasses the all-time high of 48.7 million students in 1970. The figure is expected to peak at 50 million in 2014, according to 2003 reports from the U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Education.

Of those, 42 percent are minorities, up from 22 percent in 1972, and of that, 19 percent are Hispanic, up from 6 percent in 1972, outnumbering black students for the first time in 2002. Overall minority enrollment in the western U.S. exceeded white enrollment in 2003. The annual National Center for Education Statistics report, The Condition of Education 2005, claims the swelling enrollment is due in part to a boom in Hispanic enrollment. It calls for the need for schools to close the achievement gap, according to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Alternate Teaching Gains Popularity

Nearly 33 percent of all certified teachers who taught for the first time this year were licensed through alternate routes, according to a report by the National Center for Education Information.

About 35,000 new teachers this year are former professionals or military personnel, according to Profile of Alternate Route Teachers, by C. Emily Feistritzer, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for Alternative Certification. About half of survey respondents said they would not have pursued teaching without the alternate route.

Alternate preparation and licensing are available in 47 states and Washington, D.C., due to a nationwide shortage and the need to recruit an estimated 2.2 million new teachers in the next decade as others retire or leaves.

Teacher Shortage Still Alive and Kickin'

Foreign teachers are still a big source for school districts that are faced with a short supply of American teachers.

For example, in Virginia and Maryland, school officials are hiring teachers from more than a dozen countries. Fairfax County, for example, is using educators mainly from Japan as foreign-language and culture-immersion teachers, according to The Washington Times.

Officials say the teacher shortage is still so big that schools can hire every graduate from local or state teachers' colleges and still need to hire worldwide.

Is The Fourth "R" Spreading Too Far?

All schools have reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic. But Larry Kvamme, a zookeeper from Tacoma, Wash., wants a fourth "R" that trumps all the rest: relationships. "If you are not successful in relationships, you are not going to be successful in life," Kvamme says.

Thanks to Kvamme's lobbying efforts, Washington state has a new law requiring the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to create model family curriculum guidelines. The law prescribes that instruction on developing conflict management skills, communication skills, domestic and dating violence, financial responsibility and parental responsibility be created. "But we do not as an agency mandate curriculum for local districts," says Shirley Skidmore, a spokeswoman for the public instruction superintendent's office. "All local districts have complete authority to make curriculum decisions on all subjects."

Kvamme says he took the idea from Florida, which passed similar legislation, and New Jersey. "We should work with other districts who already have something like this." But Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy for Public Education Network, says the idea, which other states are mulling, is part of a conservative effort to push their particular moral agenda. His concern is that the law could be divisive. "The next step is for superintendents to go back to the community and educate people about the law and develop consensus to defeat the law or alter it," Fege says.

--Steven Scarpa

Big Voucher Testing Grounds Find Pros and Cons

Fifteen years after the first state-supported voucher program was established in Milwaukee, education officials across the country are still vehemently debating whether giving students money to go to private schools actually increases academic achievement.

In Milwaukee, 14,000 students received vouchers this year, costing $83 million. Seventy percent of them enrolled in religious schools. In Washington D.C., where the federal government started providing grants in 2004-2005, about 1,600 students will receive vouchers this fall at a cost of more than $13 million. Voucher programs also exist in New York, Cleveland, Florida and Denver.

But whether the programs are helping is the million dollar question. Opponents say a major problem is that private and religious schools are not required to release any data.

"The voucher program has set up 117 schools without accountability,'' says Bob Peterson, an editor of Rethinking Schools, which has monitored Milwaukee's program since its inception. "Schools don't have to administer any standardized test, don't have to report out basic data like expulsions. Teachers don't have to even have to have a high school degree.''

A Princeton researcher studying Milwaukee data found that black students using vouchers increased their math scores. But in 1995, the state legislature dropped required voucher evaluations.

In D.C, test scores for blacks declined in one year. In Cleveland, public school students who started behind voucher students caught up and overtook voucher students in math and almost closed the gap in reading and language, studies show.

Gerald Bracey, an associate of High/Scope, an educational research foundation, who reviewed the various voucher studies, says, "When you put all the data together, there's no real effect.''

Ted Rebarber, CEO of the Education Leaders Council, says evidence is scant because not enough states are providing vouchers. But he adds the research that has been done shows that programs are not harming students. "I wouldn't say the research has been definitive,'' he says. "But if the research isn't negative we believe in erring on the side of allowing low- income families a choice to get the best education.''

--Fran Silverman

California's Real Child Star

California's First 5 Initiative is helping children prepare for the rest of their lives. A first-of-its-kind Preschool For All program opened its doors in April.

First 5 California, a preschool initiative that took hold in 1998, takes this idea and runs with it by funding county commissions in the 58 California counties, each working independently and in conjunction with the state to provide school readiness programs for all state children, regardless of income or location.

"To help kids be ready for school we have to address more than just academics," says Kris Perry, executive director of First 5 California. "We have to take the organic approach to the whole child" by providing services that create an environment where children can thrive, Perry says.

The first PFA program in the state opened at Roosevelt Elementary School, San Mateo County. Head teacher Mary Yung believes that First 5 helps promote awareness of the importance of early childhood education. "Kids this age [4] really need the education early childhood educators provide. PFA is a quality program. We prove we are meeting the needs of the kids."

First 5 California gets its money from a 50-cent cigarette tax voted into law as Proposition 10 in 1998. To fund one 4-year-old for a year of preschool (three hours per day) costs just under $6,000. With half a million 4-year-olds in the state, it will cost nearly $2.3 billion to fund Preschool For All, money that cannot be met by Prop 10 funds for long.

Actor and activist Rob Reiner is pushing for better and more affordable preschool options for California. In his role as chair of First 5 California, Reiner emphasizes the importance of early education as a necessary step toward building a better education system in California.

Counties like San Mateo are ramping up their free preschool programs, while legislators are being asked to adopt Preschool For All under the same kind of funding umbrella K-12 education enjoys. By the time the Prop 10 money runs out, the hope is that there will be funds, again voted in by the residents of California, to keep PFA afloat, educators say.

--Elizabeth Crane

New College Prep Work Mandated

Los Angeles high school students will have to complete a set of college prep courses starting with the class of 2008.

The Los Angeles Board of Education recently approved the academic reform plan which some opposed due to already high demands on students. Others worry that vocational education will be wrung dry, according to The Los Angeles Times.

The plan requires students to complete 15 courses needed to go to the University of California or California State University systems. The courses include four years of English, three years of math, two years of history, science and foreign language, and a year of visual and performing arts and advanced electives.

Garden State Bans Soda, Candy and Fatty Foods

In the most comprehensive junk food ban in the nation, sugary beverages and high-fat foods are going to be a thing of the past in New Jersey school cafeteria lines and vending machines. The Garden State is requiring by September 2007 that schools ban the sale of snack foods and beverages with minimal nutritional value, including soda, candy and any item that contains more than 8 grams of trans fats and 2 grams of saturated fats per serving.

Kathy F. Kuser, director of the food and nutrition division of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, says the new policy grew out of concern over the rapid rise in childhood obesity rates. A 2002 survey by the state's health found an obesity rate of 20 percent among sixth graders, which was five percentage points higher than the national average of 15 percent.

"It was all too obvious some changes had to be made,'' says Kuser. School officials say that despite some concerns about loss of vending machine revenues, the regulations make sense. They also add that other foods, like baked chips, will take the place of the more unhealthy choices.

"With 15 percent of a child's meals eaten in a school setting, it is clear that schools have the obligation not only to teach, but to exemplify principles of good nutrition,'' says Edwina M. Lee, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says that when given a choice of healthier foods, students do buy them. "If you offer children a choice of brownies or grapes they will pick brownies, but if you offer grapes or oranges, they will pick one of them,'' says Wootan.

--Fran Silverman

States Ban Together

New Jersey is one of a dozen states that enacted school nutrition policies this year. The states include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Texas enacted a school nutrition policy in 2004 through state regulation and Utah passed a resolution supporting better nutrition. Twenty-eight other states are considering nutrition policies. Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell recently vetoed a school nutrition bill that would have been the strictest in the nation saying it was up to local districts and parents to decide what students should eat.

Potential Recruits For Military

The Department of Defense recently started working with a private marketing firm to create a database of high school students, ages 16-18, and college students to help the military target potential recruits.

The new database, which privacy advocates say violates of the Privacy Act to reduce government collection of personal information on Americans, will include personal information like Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages, ethnicity and what subjects the students are studying.

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