Bush FY 2006 cuts would irk educators

In the wake of reports that President Bush plans to cut spending on education and other domestic programs if he is reelected, education and ed-tech advocacy groups are calling on lawmakers to preserve federal dollars for schools regardless of the outcome of the November elections.

The Bush administration has told officials who oversee federal education, domestic security, veterans, and other programs to prepare preliminary 2006 budgets that would cut spending after the presidential election, according to White House documents.

An internal memorandum from the White House budget office directed federal agencies to assume the funding levels specified in a database first circulated in February. At that time, the White House denied plans to cut education and other domestic programs in fiscal year 2006.

But since then, the Associated Press (AP) obtained a May 19 White House memorandum along with portions of the internal database. The documents came from congressional officials who requested anonymity. The leaks were first reported by the Washington Post.

A spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said the documents AP obtained contained routine procedural guidelines that would enable federal officials to begin gathering data about their needs for 2006. The federal government’s 2006 fiscal year begins Oct. 1, 2005.

Decisions about spending levels “won’t be made for months,” said the OMB spokesman, J.T. Young. “It doesn’t mean we won’t adequately fund our priorities.”

The concern about funding levels in fiscal year 2006 “is nothing new to us,” said Mary Kusler, senior policy analyst for the American Association of School Administrators. The school administrators’ group has been questioning whether the Bush administration intends to cut education spending since the OMB printout first surfaced in February.

“We saw that education was going to take a major hit,” she said. But the administration sidestepped the issue at the time, engaging in what Kusler called “election-year politics.”

Kusler said it’s likely the White House intentionally downplayed the proposed cuts in an effort to shield the president from criticism during his reelection campaign.

“There really is a lot of double-speak going on,” she said. “We find it very disconcerting.”

Keith Krueger, executive director of the Consortium for School Networking, called the proposed reductions “deeply disappointing.”

Don Knezek, chief executive officer for the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE), called the proposed cuts “just another piece of evidence that indicates [education spending] is a diminishing priority for the federal government.”

Democrats said the papers showed the pressures that a string of tax cuts Bush has won from Congress have heaped onto the rest of the budget.

“The only way we can even begin to pay for these huge tax cuts is by imposing cuts on critical government services,” said Thomas Kahn, Democratic staff director of the House Budget Committee.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., in a teleconference set up by Democratic presidential contender John Kerry’s campaign, called it the end of a “hide the ball” budget strategy by the current administration.

“The ball is now out for everyone to see,” Graham said. “The only thing that’s left in place is the part of the ball that is labeled ‘tax cuts for my rich friends.'”

Congress is just beginning to consider the 2005 federal budget, which will total about $2.4 trillion. About two-thirds of it covers automatically paid benefits like Social Security, and the remainder–which Congress must approve annually–covers agency spending.

According to the database, that one-third of the budget would grow from the $821 billion Bush requested for 2005 to $843 billion in 2006, or about 2.7 percent.

But that includes defense and foreign aid spending, which are both slated for increases owing in part to wars and the battle against terrorism.

The remaining amount–for domestic spending–would drop from $368.7 billion in 2005 to $366.3 billion in 2006.

The documents show that Education Department spending would go from $57.3 billion in 2005 to $55.9 billion in 2006, a drop of 2.4 percent. The proposed cuts almost completely offset the $1.7 billion hike in education funding sought by the administration in 2005.

See these related links:

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

White House Office of Management and Budget
http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

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Online screening tool puts school candidates to the test

As school leaders struggle to find enough highly qualified educators to staff the nation’s classrooms, a growing number of districts are turning to the web in hopes of corralling new employees. Now, one North Carolina school system is among the first in the country to adopt a practice that already is catching on in the corporate world: using online exams to screen and assess potential candidates.

As of June 1, the Wake County Public School System–the second largest school district in North Carolina, serving more than 104,000 students–now requires anyone who applies for a job as a teacher or school principal to take a multiple-choice test online. The exam asks a series of questions intended to highlight certain personality traits and assess how candidates might respond in different situations.

Back in February, Wake County tapped Pennsylvania-based Kenexa, a provider of human-resources services and web-based hiring solutions to Fortune 500 companies, to lend a touch of corporate efficiency to the school system’s slow-moving hiring process.

The district, which has 127 schools and employs more than 7,500 teachers, approached Kenexa with two goals in mind: (1) implementing an automated system that would help hiring managers sift through the tremendous influx of paper-based and electronic resumes received from potential job applicants, and (2) creating a selection process that would enable administrators to identify the brightest, best-prepared, and most talented prospects in the application pool.

“With the ongoing shortage of teachers, it has become difficult to both hire and retain the right teachers,” said Toni Patterson, assistant superintendent for the district.

The challenge isn’t unique to Wake County. Nationwide, school systems are reeling from a worsening teacher crunch. Owing to a current crop of aging educators and a continually shrinking pool of college graduates interested in entering the teaching ranks, experts have estimated a need for more than 2 million additional teachers to staff the nation’s classrooms over the next 10 years–a problem that has recently been compounded by stricter high-quality teacher provisions ushered in under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law requires all states to retain certified teachers in every core subject area, from math and science to language arts, by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

But it isn’t just about recruiting good teachers. The real challenge these days lies in matching the right applicant with the right job, Patterson said. The more comfortable an employee is in his or her position, the more likely he or she is to stick around.

To improve system-wide retention, Wake County will administer two customized online assessments–one for prospective teachers and another for administrators–which should take job-seekers about 20 minutes to complete through a service hosted for the district on Kenexa’s web site.

In formulating the assessments, Kenexa human-resource consultants interviewed top district administrators to get a sense for what skills and personalities have elicited the most success among district employees.

“By matching the right applicant to the right job, we’ll increase the probability of [employee] success and increase retention in the school district,” Patterson said.

The list of questions used as examples during the test period included asking applicants how they would react if they suspected a student of being intoxicated at a school function, or what they would do if a school board member asked them to discuss the educational progress of someone else’s child. Applicants also were asked to describe what they enjoyed about working with children and to give their opinions on equal education.

In peak season, Wake County receives as many as 150 applications a day from job-seekers looking to join what has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing school systems.

“We spend a lot of time just wading through papers,” Patterson said. “The volume of work is significant.”

By bringing the system online, she hopes the district will have a better shot at acting quickly to nab top talent.

“This will allow us to recognize [highly qualified teachers] and follow up with them immediately,” she said.

See these related links:

Wake County Public School System
http://www.wcpss.net

Kenexa
http://www.kenexa.com

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Reinventing School IT Infrastructure

Mention Florida’s Broward County, and what comes to mind for most Americans is the unforgettable image of county election officials holding punch-card ballots up to the light and trying to decypher the meaning of “hanging chads” after the 2000 presidential election. But in this sprawling county of some 271,000 students, the nation’s fifth-largest school system deserves to be remembered for a whole lot more.

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