Higher-ed balloting brings funds and changes

Most attention was fixed on the presidential and congressional elections on Nov. 4, but issues closer to home also figured large in Tuesday’s voting. Fifteen higher education ballot measures were at stake, as the Democrats’ congressional majority grew and Sen. Barack Obama swept to victory pledging college-tuition reform.

Many states’ propositions would bring much-needed funds to higher education during the country’s economic downturn, and most passed with comfortable majorities. Other ballot initiatives had major social implications. A Nebraska measure that will prohibit public colleges and universities from using affirmative action programs was approved by 58 percent of voters. A similar affirmative action ban in Colorado was narrowly rejected, with 50.6 percent of voters saying no. 

In Missouri, voters approved a ballot measure that will raise the state’s gaming tax by 1 percent, bringing up to $7 million a year to public colleges and universities. The tax increase will also provide $130 million annually for K-12 schools.

In New Mexico, voters approved measures that will bulk up universities’ infrastructure. The ballot initiatives call for more than $130 million for college construction projects and $58 million for renovation and construction of research facilities, many that are on New Mexico’s college campuses.

Several state measures succeeded that are designed to fund education through increases in gambling revenue – including Maryland’s approved effort to establish 15,000 slot machines and bolster dwindling public school budgets. But other initiatives fell short on Election Day. Only 43 percent of Florida voters approved of a measure to increase the sales tax for up to five years to better fund community colleges. In Maine, 54 percent of voters were opposed to building a casino in Oxford County. About 10 percent of revenues from the project would have gone toward higher education programs such as assistance with student loan repayment and an expansion of courses and facilities for Maine’s community college system.

California’s ballot measure that would have brought $150 million to college programs that trained students in renewable energy and other environmentally friendly technology lost by a landslide: nearly 60 percent of voters disapproved it. On the other hand, children’s hospitals run by the University of California system will receive a portion of $980 million in state bonds approved by voters in another of the state’s ballot measures.

Colleges and universities in Massachusetts once again escaped a potentially drastic cut in state funds that would hurt campuses statewide. A ballot question would have decreased the state income tax in 2009 and eliminated it altogether in 2010, slashing the state budget by more than $12 billion – about 40 percent – according to the state’s estimates. The cuts in tax revenue would have required immediate reductions in Massachusetts’ higher education funding. About 70 percent of voters decided against the tax repeal. It is the second time this decade Massachusetts voters have struck down an effort to do away with the state’s income tax.

With the Democratic Party bolstering its majorities in the House and Senate Tuesday, Obama could push for higher education laws that he has touted throughout his nearly two-year run for president. Obama’s higher-education agenda includes a $4,000 refundable tuition tax credit for students who complete at least 100 hours of community service during their college careers. This measure could be difficult to pass early in his term, however, because Congress will continue to grapple with a financial crisis that has frozen credit markets and slowed job creation. Nonpartisan analysts say offering a tuition tax credit to American college students would cost billions.

Obama’s tuition-credit plan also calls for a more streamlined approach to applying for federal student aid. Under the plan, families would be able to apply for the tax credit-volunteer exchange by checking a box on their income tax forms.

Regardless of the feasibility or timing of specific education initiatives, the president-elect will want a top education advisor to help him implement desired change. This puts special pressure on Obama to pick an effective U.S. secretary of education.

Most presidents select educators with lengthy resumes in K-12 school system to fill the important education secretary position. Two candidates to fill the Obama Administration’s top education spot have higher education backgrounds. Lauro F. Cavazos Jr., who served as secretary of education under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1988-90, is considered a potential Obama pick. Cavazos, the first Hispanic to serve in the United States Cabinet, was president of Texas Tech University from 1980-88.

Obama campaign advisor Linda Darling-Hammond is another possible contender to become education secretary. Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University, is known for heading the School Redesign Network, an organization established in 2000 at Stanford that advocates for research and focuses on secondary public education.

Other candidates for education secretary include Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, whose gubernatorial platform has included a number of education reforms, and Arne Duncan, schools chief in Chicago and a longtime advocate for charter schools, an initiative unpopular with Democratic-supporting national and local teacher unions. Napolitano pushed for a law that offers voluntary full-day kindergarten classes throughout Arizona.


Voters approve Joint Technology Education District

The Joint Technology Education District kept its perfect election record Tuesday, according to The Daily Courier. From the beginning, school and state officials unanimously approved the district every step of the way. Voters in all seven JTED districts did the same thing. The district is now officially the Mountain Institute. Voters in the Ash Fork, Chino Valley, Humboldt, Mayer, Prescott and Seligman school districts approved the technology district two to one. In Bagdad, voters approved JTED three to one. Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter was a little nervous earlier in the afternoon. However, when the first results came in about 8:30 p.m., he relaxed. Cater said after the Board of Supervisors canvas and validate the election results, his office would start accepting letters of interest from people wanting to serve on the Mountain Institute Governing Board. "I would hope to conduct final interviews by the end of December or first of January, and make recommendations to the district governing boards," Carter said. With the governing board in place by February, Carter said it could start "doing everything it needs to do." Prescott Chamber of Commerce Executive Director David Maurer expects Mountain Institute to "lead to quality education in technical fields, which in turn will lead to great jobs."

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School board to discuss meeting by Internet

Sioux Falls School Board members will hear a report today on how they might be able to conduct a meeting by Internet in some cases instead of face to face in one location, the Argus Leader reports. "We’re just looking at some technology," board president Darin Daby said. "The technology is available. We’d like to see where it fits with the open-meetings law." The discussion will be part of the board’s monthly work session at 3 p.m. in the Instructional Planning Center, 201 E. 38th St. Meeting by Internet could help when a session would last only minutes, or if members otherwise would be absent, Daby said. "There was one meeting where possibly I was going to be in Rapid City. There have been situations where it’s come up," he said.

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Obama makes history; what’s next?

With the whole world watching, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama made history Nov. 4 by becoming the first African-American elected as president of the United States. Now, as he prepares to take office Jan. 20 amid a host of steep challenges, school leaders will be watching to see how education fits in with his priorities.

Facing all these challenges won’t be easy, Obama acknowledged in his victory speech. But it had to be encouraging for educators to hear him mention college affordability and new school construction as he listed some of these key hurdles.

"Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime–two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century," Obama said before a huge crowd of more than 100,000 supporters in Chicago. "Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor’s bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair."

Education was a key theme for Obama on the campaign trail, joining health care and energy independence as the centerpieces of his domestic agenda. He has called for better pay for teachers, more funding for early childhood education, and a $4,000 tax credit for college tuition, among other proposals.

Citing the need to meet rising global challenges, Obama also says he wants more investment in educational technology.

"While technology has transformed just about every aspect of our lives–from the way we travel, to the way we communicate, to the way we look after our health–one of the places where we’ve failed to seize its full potential is in the classroom," he said in a speech earlier this year. He has proposed creating a $500 million matching Technology Investment Fund that would build on existing federal ed-tech programs to help ensure that technology is fully integrated throughout U.S. schools. (See "Obama calls for ed-tech investment.")

But whether he’ll be able to meet these goals early on in his presidency, if at all, remains to be seen. The country faces a $10 trillion national debt, the worst economy since the Great Depression, and several other priorities to tackle.

Still, Obama will enter the White House with a solid mandate for change–and a Democratic Congress to support his agenda.

Obama won 52 percent of the popular vote, with his Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain, tallying 47 percent. The margin in the Electoral College wasn’t nearly as close; as of press time, Obama had 349 electoral votes and McCain had 162, with Missouri and North Carolina still in doubt.

By comparison, President Bush won the White House twice–and never tallied more than 286 electoral votes.

Although Democrats solidified their majority in both the House and the Senate, they fell a few seats short of the 60 required to make a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Ed-tech advocacy groups said they look forward to working with Obama to improve the nation’s schools and lead instruction into the 21st century.

"We thank President-elect Obama for supporting online learning, virtual schools, and educational technology during the campaign … and look forward to working with him on implementing them," said Susan Patrick, chief executive of the North American Council for Online Learning.

"CoSN congratulates President-elect Obama on his historic victory," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. "Over the past eight years, the United States has unfortunately had a very narrow perspective on the role technological tools can play in improving education and maximizing student achievement, and [federal officials] have foolishly slashed federal funding for education technology. Today, we welcome a new direction."

Krueger continued: "Throughout this campaign, candidate Obama has demonstrated a fundamental grasp of the importance of technology and 21st-century skills to transforming education. In addition, he has committed to supporting the e-Rate program, and particularly the importance of broadband connections in schools. We look forward to working with his incoming administration to develop U.S. education policies that will enhance teaching and learning and provide our children with the skills required for success in the 21st century."

"Everyone expects the new administration to focus on our economic crisis," said Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. "However, this cannot be adequately done without focusing on America’s competitiveness. Central to this important work is the ability of Americans to effectively compete in the new global economy. While the country’s education system must focus on infusing 21st-century skills into K-12 education, the new administration must help every American obtain the … skills they need to be successful 21st-century citizens."


North American Council for Online Learning

Consortium for School Networking

Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “ Creating the 21 st Century Classroom ”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom


Feds OK broadband over TV white spaces

In a move that could advance the spread of broadband internet service nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission voted Nov. 4 to open up unused, unlicensed portions of the television airwaves known as "white spaces" to deliver wireless broadband service to more Americans.

The vote is a big victory for public-interest groups and technology companies such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which say white spaces could be used to bring broadband internet access to rural America and other underserved parts of the country.

"White spaces are the blank pages on which we which we will write our broadband future," said Jonathan Adelstein, one of two Democrats on the five-member commission. Adelstein added that white spaces could become a "third channel" to reach consumers beyond the telephone and cable networks that represent the primary competition in today’s broadband market.

The vote came over the objections of the nation’s big TV broadcasters, which argue that using the fallow spectrum to deliver wireless internet access could disrupt their over-the-air signals. Manufacturers and users of wireless microphones–including sports leagues, church leaders, performers, and even some educators–have also raised concerns about interference.

The next step for the main opponent, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), could be a lawsuit to stop the FCC’s plan from taking effect. NAB had no immediate comment.

Four commissioners voted to approve the plan, with one commissioner–Republican Deborah Tate–dissenting in part. Among her concerns, Tate raised questions about how potential interference problems would be handled.

Last month, a technical report by FCC engineers concluded that interference could be eliminated with the use of wireless transmitter devices that rely on spectrum-sensing and "geolocation" technologies to detect nearby broadcast signals.

The FCC’s plan will allow the use of white spaces to provide broadband following the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting in February, which will free up additional wireless spectrum. That space also could be used for improved communications networks to connect police officers, firefighters, and other emergency responders.

Supporters of the plan say the vacant spaces between TV channels–which would be available for free, unlicensed use, as Wi-Fi now is–are particularly well-suited to providing broadband service, because they can penetrate walls, carry a great deal of data, and reach a wide geographic area. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, one of three Republicans on the commission, called white spaces "a very valuable national asset."

Opening up this spectrum to high-speed wireless connections has been a high priority for internet companies, which stand to benefit as more Americans get online. Technology and equipment makers, meanwhile, are counting on a multibillion-dollar market for advanced wireless devices to transmit and receive signals–including laptops, personal digital assistants, and TV set-top boxes.

Microsoft said the FCC’s vote "ushers in a new era of wireless broadband innovation."

With partial dissents by the two Democrats on the five-member panel, the FCC also voted to approve Verizon Wireless’ planned $28 billion purchase of Alltel Corp. in a deal that will create the nation’s largest wireless carrier.

Verizon Wireless, a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group PLC, plans to buy Alltel of Little Rock, Ark., for $5.9 billion, plus the assumption of $22.2 billion in debt.

The Justice Department approved the deal last week after Verizon agreed to sell assets in 22 states to address government concerns about reduced competition. The FCC is requiring the company to sell assets in five additional markets and to honor Alltel’s existing roaming agreements with other wireless carriers for four years.

In addition, the FCC voted unanimously to allow Sprint Nextel Corp. to spin off and merge its new WiMax wireless broadband network with that of Clearwire Corp., which already has a WiMax-like network in parts of the country. Google, Intel Corp., and a group of cable companies are investing billions into the $14.6 billion venture, which will carry Clearwire’s name.

The FCC was expected to vote on another plan to overhaul the way it collects fees from telecommunications carriers, but Martin pulled this item from the agenda amid mounting opposition from many corners of the industry, as well as consumer groups, Congress–and even his fellow FCC commissioners.

Martin had been seeking to reform the multibillion-dollar "intercarrier compensation" system, the byzantine menu of charges that telecom carriers pay to access each other’s networks and connect calls. Martin wanted to move toward uniform, lower rates.

His plan also included major changes to the $7 billion Universal Service Fund, the federal program that subsidizes telecom service in rural and poor communities through a surcharge on long-distance bills. (The fund also supports the $2.25 billion-a-year e-Rate, the federal program that provides discounts on telecom services to eligible schools and libraries.) Among other things, Martin would have required carriers to use Universal Service money to invest in broadband networks in parts of the country that lack high-speed internet connections.

The proposed overhaul of telecom access fees had the support of the biggest phone companies, including Verizon and AT&T Inc., which have argued that the existing rules are outdated. In a statement issued Nov. 3, AT&T said that without changing the system, "our regulatory regime will remain broken and stuck with a 20th-century economic model designed for the black rotary phone."

But a coalition of competing carriers and rural phone companies feared Martin’s plan would diminish the money they get for completing phone calls to their subscribers. Consumer advocates also warned that the proposal could lead to higher phone bills–particularly for rural customers–as phone companies sought to recover lost access revenue from other sources.

And Martin’s four fellow FCC commissioners objected to addressing his proposal before seeking public comments on the issues that it raises.

In an interview, Martin lamented being unable to vote on his proposal Nov. 4, saying the ideas it raises already have been debated in Washington for years. He said the canceled vote represented "a real missed opportunity" to reform outdated regulations and extend broadband services throughout the country.


Federal Communications Commission

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Online Learning for High School Success resource center. Preventing high school dropouts has become a key focus of education stakeholders and government officials across the country, as the skills taught in high school are imperative to students’ success. But with online credit recovery programs and virtual learning becoming more accessible to more students, many are able to regain momentum and graduate with high school diplomas. Go to: Online Learning for High School Success


Worldwide study community helps students master math and science

Cramster, a global math and science study community that launched in 2003, is a place where students can interact online with teachers and their peers to help solve problems based on subjects such as physics, calculus, and chemistry. The mostly-free online community features a number of study materials, such as textbook solutions and practice exams, as well as an interactive question-and-answer board that is monitored by Cramster "Subject Matter Experts." Students can post questions, and registered teachers post guidance in response. Earlier this year, Cramster launched a Facebook application called Courses 2.0, where Facebook members can find and communicate with one another on the Cramster web site outside of the classroom. Cramster is based in Pasadena, Calif.



Memphis schools developing plan to ensure laptop security

By the end of the month, Memphis City Schools intends to have security bugs worked out on the laptop computers it loans students, after nearly 1,800 laptops — about one in five — were stolen or lost in less than three months during the last school year, reports the Commercial Appeal of Memphis, Tenn. "We will have to design safety and an asset security plan, which likely will cost some additional money," deputy superintendent Irving Hamer told the Memphis Board of Education Nov. 3. "We will have to come back to the board for approval." Over two years, the district paid Dallas-based EPIC Learning $5.8 million to provide 7,759 leased computers and software to help high school students do better on state achievement and college entrance exams. Last year, the laptops were used less than a semester before the district collected them and locked them away when teachers noticed many were not returning to class the next day. District staff said the cost of the lost computers was covered by the vendor’s insurance. But there is no reimbursement for the 12-month software contract, which runs whether or not students are using the laptops. Last month, the board renewed the $2.4 million contract that includes leases on 7,759 laptops and license fees for 10,000 students, about one third of the high school population in the district. Then, last week, district administrators pulled the plug, saying security was still a problem. "We’re looking at all the alternatives to make them safe," said Supt. Kriner Cash. One is embedding each laptop with identification that cannot be peeled off or defaced. Last year, laptops were sent home with students with identification on adhesive strips that were easily peeled off…

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Start-up teaches math to Americans, Indian-style

A recent study found, once again, that the United States is failing to develop the math skills of its students, especially compared with other countries where math education is more highly valued. Now, a new start-up called Indian Math Online aims to take on that disparity by teaching math to American kids using techniques from Indian schools, reports the New York Times. Bob Compton, an Indianapolis-based venture capitalist and entrepreneur who co-founded Indian Math Online, hatched the idea when he was producing Two Million Minutes, a documentary comparing high school education in India, China, and the United States (to view a report on this documentary, see here). Compton realized that Indian teenagers who were the same age as his daughters were three years ahead of them in math. "If you don’t get mathematics to the highest level you possibly can in high school, your career options shrink dramatically in the 21st century," he said. "Our society basically tells girls they’re not good at math. I was determined that was not going to happen to my daughters." Compton and Indian Math Online’s co-founder, Suresh Murthy, hired a team of math teachers and software developers in India to build the site and its curriculum. At first, the site was meant for their daughters, but soon friends started asking if they could use it and word gradually spread. It has lessons for students in grades one through 12 and offers several packages for $12.50 to $20 a month. The site’s curriculum is based on some key differences between math education in India and the United States, Compton said…

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School leaders: Focus on new-age skills

Finding ways to assess 21st-century learning skills should be at the forefront of the educational technology agenda for the next president and Congress, according to a new survey from the National School Boards Association (NSBA). The survey also suggests that the economic downturn has dramatically affected the technology purchasing plans of the nation’s school districts, with two-thirds of districts saying they’ve put off buying hardware as a result.

More than 500 school and district leaders responded to NSBA’s annual ed-tech survey, which the organization released at its Technology + Learning (T+L) Conference in Seattle last week.

More than half of those surveyed agreed that their top educational technology priority for the new administration and Congress should be assessing students’ 21st-century skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Forty-three percent of respondents called for supporting more professional development on the use of technology in schools, while 38 percent wanted greater focus on the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subject areas.

"It is time for federal leadership to invest in the research and development of new tools that will help educators assess [21st-century] skills," said Anne L. Bryant, NSBA’s executive director. "It’s also important to note that more than 80 percent of educators indicated that technology has supported their ability to deliver increased 21st-century learning opportunities to their students."

School district leaders noted that their biggest ed-tech challenge is securing funding for technology (50 percent), followed by integrating technology into the classroom (40 percent). The struggling economy is also affecting school districts’ technology programs: Sixty-four percent of districts said they’ve delayed hardware purchases or upgrades this year.

While the flagging economy has had a negative affect on school technology programs, two positive trends have emerged, the survey suggests: 29 percent of responding districts have explored or adopted open-source technologies, and 20 percent have explored "green" IT initiatives as ways to offset costs and save money.

Survey respondents listed a variety of ways their districts are trying to meet 21st-century learning goals, such as using new assessment tools to measure 21st-century skills (43 percent); raising math, science, and technology standards (38 percent); focusing on career technology readiness programs (34 percent); and offering more Advanced Placement courses and tests (33 percent).

A new survey question addressed the use of data to drive educational decisions. Respondents indicated that this was happening in a variety of ways–and nearly two-thirds said they now offer professional development to ensure that data are interpreted accurately. Sixty-five percent of respondents use data to help allocate district resources; 49 percent use data to aid in staffing decisions; and 45 percent said their teachers use data to customize lessons based on students’ abilities. Fifty-six percent said they have student information systems that provide for easy analysis of data.

"It’s no surprise that our school districts are using data to drive their instructional decision-making," Bryant said. "It is essential for districts to use every possible resource at their disposal to improve student achievement–through central office operations, student placement, and classroom instruction."

Ninety-three percent of respondents said they believe technology increases educational opportunities for children, and 92 percent said it helps engage students in learning. Sixty percent agreed that technology can enhance the curriculum for students with special needs, 58 percent said it can help students develop critical thinking skills, and 55 percent said it can help students develop stronger communication skills.

When asked about devices that can best engage students, respondents said interactive whiteboards (51 percent) were most effective, followed by laptops (44 percent), overhead projectors (24 percent), and personal response systems (21 percent).

The digital divide continues to be an issue for school districts, with 70 percent of respondents saying that home internet access is a problem for low-income students. Districts are working to close this divide by providing internet access in before- or after-school programs (51 percent) and supporting access for students at community centers or libraries (40 percent).


National School Boards Association

Survey results


Community college has big-time tech

Richard F. Andersen doesn’t believe technology-laden campuses should be exclusive to the bigwigs of higher education.

For expansive universities with nine-digit budgets, lectures via webcast, state-of-the-art simulators, and wired classrooms have become the norm. But Andersen—vice president for information systems at Tidewater Community College in Virginia—has helped beef up his own campus’s technology infrastructure to give students a major university education on a community college campus.

"We’re aware that there probably aren’t a lot of community colleges that are getting into these things in a big way," said Andersen, a former naval officer and a Tidewater information systems official for 12 years.

Tidewater’s technology prowess earned a top-five ranking in the Center for Digital Education’s list of the most tech-savvy community colleges in the United States. The school, which has 40,000 students on four campuses across southeastern Virginia, finished fifth among the largest community colleges in the country, which have more than 7,500 students.

Among Tidewater’s tech accomplishments is an online library system that lets students conduct internet chats with librarians, who help students navigate the college’s vast book collection. Andersen said the system was ideal for adults returning to college who don’t have time to drive to campus and spend hours researching for class projects and papers.

"It’s just part of what students now expect," he said.

Tidewater also offers simulations for a host of professions. The college has a big rig simulator that puts students in the driver’s seat of an 18-wheel truck and allows them to practice negotiating tight turns and hilly terrains before they ever get on the road. It also has a nursing simulator that allows students to virtually participate in surgical procedures. These procedures are sometimes recorded for a webcast and shown to other nursing students as they prepare to use the simulator, Andersen said.

As college tuition has steadily risen over the last decade—and this year’s economic downturn has made it more difficult for students to secure private loans—Andersen said two-year institutions should strive to bolster technology on affordable campuses.

"[Students] are looking for an academically rigorous environment, and also one that’s as close to a four-year institution life as they can get," he said, adding that 38 percent of Tidewater students take at least one online course. "And we’re not your ho-hum community college from 20 years ago."

Michael Summers, vice president for academic and student affairs, said Tidewater’s computer capabilities have convinced students—especially recent high school graduates—to stay at the college more than just one semester or one year.

"I don’t think students come here based on how much technology we have," he said. "I think students stay here based on how much technology we have."


Center for Digital Education Survey

Tidewater Community College