What public school administrators want from policy makers

School systems should not be required to spend local and state funds to implement federal mandates.

Learning Leadership column, March 2012 edition of eSchool News—Last month, the American Association of School Administrators’ Executive Committee and Governing Board came together at our national conference in Houston to approve our legislative agenda. The year ahead looms as a politically charged period, leading up to the presidential and congressional elections. Much of what ordinarily might happen on Capitol Hill won’t happen because of political posturing. Consequently, we have little hope that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will be reauthorized prior to the elections. And that’s a shame, because there is substantial agreement between the two parties on key points.

Our governing body numbers more than 150 superintendents from around the country. They represent large and small districts, rural and suburban, wealthy and poor. They are, in fact, representative of every school district in America. You can be certain that the positions emerging from that group represent what our public school districts want in legislation coming out of Washington.

First and foremost, we want regulatory relief from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The waiver process that the Obama administration has implemented is a replacement for the stimulus dollars that became the carrot originally used to get states and school districts to adhere to the administration’s policy directives. If you want regulatory relief, then you must exchange the old regulations for these new ones. Those states and districts that go along and win approval will get regulatory relief. But the vast majority of children in our schools still will be subject to regulations that both the president and the education secretary have admitted are inadequate and in need of revision.

Schools will be forced to use much-needed dollars to offer supplementary educational services and choice, two NCLB strategies that are recognized as failures. In addition, thousands of schools will continue to be identified as not meeting Adequate Yearly Progress and subject to the resulting penalties.

We also continue to object to the use of ESEA dollars for competitive grants. The intent of ESEA is to level the playing field relative to poverty, and the allocation of funds should be via formulas based on the percentage of students living in poverty, not the ability of a school district to have outstanding grant writers. Since the beginning of the current recession, school systems have seen dramatic increases in the number of children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. All eligible children should benefit from all available funds, not just those in “winner” states and districts.

We are also concerned about the growing intrusion of the federal government into state and local education issues. Whatever happened to the rules and regulations applying only to those schools that received federal funds? Today, every public school in the land is subject to the rules and regulations, whether they receive federal funds or not. The role of the federal government should be to supplement, not dictate, local policies. Accordingly, any reduction in federal funds should be accompanied by a similar reduction in federal mandates. School systems should not be required to spend local and state funds to implement federal mandates.

We support the Common Core and state-developed standards. In a globally competitive world, we cannot go against countries that have a set of national standards while we have 50 sets of standards. It is also difficult to assess our progress as a nation with 50 sets of tests whose results do not align well with the closest instrument we have to a national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

We continue to suggest that we separate assessment for accountability purposes from assessment for the purpose of informing instruction. A random sampling of the nation’s students from the NAEP results would suffice for accountability purposes, with reduced costs and less intrusion on instruction and the number of children and subjects tested. We certainly support accountability and the continued disaggregation of data for subgroups of students. This is one of the few positive contributions of NCLB.

We strongly support improving the 5 percent of lowest achieving schools, but at the same time we believe we must acknowledge the accomplishments of the remaining 95 percent, the vast majority of schools in America. We must stop the negative rhetoric that blankets all public schools and focus on the schools that need fixing. In that regard, state interventions should concentrate on building capacity and should focus on a broad range of evidence- and practice-based turnaround models, not the current requirements that take judgment out of the hands of local administrators and force them to engage in the whole-scale removal of teachers and principals.

Accountability for effectiveness is a state and local responsibility, as are compensation decisions. The required use of the very standardized tests that have been labeled as not valid and reliable by the administration in order to evaluate teachers and principals is creating chaos in states and school systems throughout the country. Yes, student performance must be a key factor in the evaluation of teachers and administrators—but it must be left up to the states and localities to determine how, not forced upon them as a requirement for obtaining competitive federal dollars.

AASA played a pivotal role in the original adoption of the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). We support fully funding and reauthorizing this program to maintain direct-to-district funding. The needs of our rural schools are often overlooked and, owing to a lack of capacity and staffing, they tend to fare poorly in a competitive grant environment. REAP is a dedicated source of funds that they sorely need.

We continue to advocate for the full federal funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at 40 percent of the national average per-pupil expenditure and for allowing school districts to reduce local efforts by up to 100 percent of federal funding decreases.

Wraparound programs continue to be essential to the education of the total child, and we support federal funding to address non-school barriers to student achievement, such as high-quality child care programs and tax incentives for employers to provide support for child care and after-school care. The Children’s Health Insurance Program should be continued, and schools should be permitted to claim reimbursement from Medicaid.

The funding cap for the federal eRate program should be raised to meet demand. We oppose vouchers and federal funding for non-public schools.

We will continue to be strong advocates on behalf of our public schools and work with both houses of Congress. We like much of what is contained in the reauthorization bills that have emerged in the House and Senate and hope that much of it will remain when ESEA finally is reauthorized.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

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