Your Local School District and NCLB

Harold Kwalwasser, February 6, 2012

The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to be renewed five years ago. For all sorts of good reasons, it should have been. For all sorts of bad reasons, it wasn’t.

If you live far enough beyond the Beltway, you might attribute the inaction to the partisan gridlock that has been driving everyone in the country crazy. But, for once, that is probably a wrong diagnosis.

There are genuine differences in policy here. All sides in the debate (and in this case there are really three or possibly four) are right about some things. The problem comes from everyone’s steadfast refusal to see anything else, like their own visions’ weaknesses or the merits of their opponents’ ideas.

But that is a lot better than the usual Washington mindset these days, which seems to be: “If he’s for it, then I’m against it.”

In other words, there is the possibility, however faint, that the members of Congress and the Administration might actually be able to cut a useful deal – at least if they are willing to park the rhetoric at the door.

And here is the crux of what they have to sort out: What is the proper role of your local school district and school board? Schools turn out to be the oddest ducks in American politics, and we just don’t know what we want to do about them.

There are lots of special districts in the United States. There are road districts, water districts, park districts, and the list goes on. A few have elected boards or commissions, but not many. And, while there are differences between one district and another, we generally don’t perceive the distinctions as profound.

Then there are school districts. Fourteen thousand in this country, to be exact. They are unquestionably the largest special districts in most places, spending the most money, and having the most profound effect on people’s lives. Families do not move based on the local road district, but they certainly do when it comes to the schools.

How profound are the differences? Just stand on Alder Road, which parallels the border of down-at-the-heels Detroit and chic Grosse Pointe Park. Or walk one of the overpasses on the Bayshore Freeway that separates impoverished East Palo Alto and its struggling Ravenswood School District from high-flying Palo Alto itself. In a distance of fifty feet, the world turns upside down when it comes to education.

We have no other special purpose kind of district that spends so much money, elects its own leaders, and has such a profound impact – for better or worse – on the people it serves. The schools have always been “creatures of the states” because state law created them and ostensibly governed them. But, in reality, they were largely independent, and, for many decades that seemed to work.

They school board has had the authority to set its own rules, raised its own money, and it was held accountable (or at least could be held accountable) by local taxpayers at the time of the next school board election. So long as we thought the school boards were serving us properly, all of that made sense. Any management or government administration guru will tell you that placing authority, funding, and responsibility in the same set of hands is the right way to construct a coherent, high-functioning operation.

But then the wheels started to come off the cart. First, there was the civil rights revolution. That was followed by the special education revolution and the explosion of kids who did not speak English as a first language. And that, in turn, was followed by the collapse of American manufacturing, which dried up people’s ability to earn good money without much of an education.

Suddenly, many school districts did not look so functional. They had been spending almost nothing on minority schools, but the country’s new sensitivity to racial matters made that untenable. And the states had been just as uncaring. School districts with a weak tax base that could not raise adequate funds from the property levies struggled but got little help, often because they were heavily minority and had no clout in the state capital.

Nor were the districts proactive about special education kids. They continued to be shunted to sheltered classrooms or special schools. Not much was expected of them – and they rarely exceeded expectation. English language learners were not treated as badly, but not by much.

The federal government felt compelled to step in. While the courts were ordering desegregation, the Congress in 1965 passed the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the forerunner of No Child Left Behind. It committed the federal government to supplementing local and state spending on low-income students. A few years later, the forerunner of today’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) demanded that special needs students be “mainstreamed” wherever possible, and Congress promised money to meet the districts’ new burdens (although it has never given as much as promised). And the courts and the Congress added rules about how to deal with those who did not speak English.

That was not the end of the federal government’s demands on school districts. In 1994’s revision of ESEA, the government decreed that “every child can learn,” which meant that schools were suddenly accountable for the academic performance of every child in their care. That was not the way it had always been. Dropouts, or those who barely got by were of no consequence for schools. So long as the kids who wanted to go to college got there, there had not been much concern about what happened to the rest.

Faced with the challenge of improving their performance, the school districts were largely out of their depth. They had bumped along for the better part of a century with mass production style education. One curriculum, taught one way, by one teacher, in one classroom. With luck, the system conveyed at least a basic education to a majority of students. As to the rest, the really smart kids would peel off to a private school or one of the specialized schools that could keep them interested, and the stragglers would just disappear. Teachers might try to deal with individual children who needed special help or stimulation, but the system did not support them.

Districts were struggling. The first problem was that they did not know what to do to reach every child. The old mass production style system was out, but what should be there instead? On top of that, even when districts had a glimmer about how to improve, they were regularly blocked from moving forward. Sometimes it was money, but often it was the teacher culture.

Teachers liked things the way they were. They may have been in the buggy whip business in the era of the automobile, but they were going to do their damnedest to keep making those buggy whips. And parents and others often were no help. Even if a teacher or principal really had no idea how to educate kids, if he or she were a nice person, too many parents supported him or her regardless of competence.

Faced with the seeming gridlock, ineptitude, insensitivity, and racism, the federal government and the states (sometimes voluntarily and sometimes forced by a court decision) moved in. They exercised their option to write more and more rules that dictated exactly what districts had to do. On top of that, special interest groups, especially the teachers unions, saw this intervention as a god send. Now, rather than negotiating district by district, they could get their way through legislation at the state and federal level.

These rules were often tied to state aid. Between the 1970s and 1990s, a combination of lawsuits and state legislation shifted much of local district funding from the property tax to the state treasury. At least for poor districts that did not have the resources themselves. But those benefits came at a price. Not only did the money often come with strings attached, but also it was subject to the vagaries of state tax collection. One year a district might get a big boost in funding, only to see it all dry up the next. That demoralized teachers and administrators and frustrated efforts to create an alternative to mass production.

And what made it worse was that affluent districts were not held hostage. They continued to rely largely on local funds, which, until the current recession, were more stable than state money. It also often meant they escaped some of the micro-management that the states had imposed as a condition of all that support. The net result was that the poor districts, which were most in need of innovation and flexibility, were further disadvantaged in trying out new ideas and in their competition with wealthier peers for good teachers.

Mediocrity was often the norm. Yet there were almost no taxpayer revolts. The people the districts served rarely threw the old regime out by replacing it with a better bunch who could really do something to improve the schools. Turnout in school board elections in recent years has rarely topped 20% of those registered. So, the old order often remained. Schools got poor test results, teachers left, and kids dropped out. And no one seemed to care – or pay a price.

How come? Weren’t parents outraged at how badly their schools were serving their kids? There have been a variety of explanations offered for people’s seeming indifference to bad schools, but there are three that likely account for much of the problem.

First is the general decline in political participation that this country has witnessed over the past fifty years. In 1959, almost 50% of voters in Los Angeles took part in school board elections. In the 2000s, turnout was often below 20% and sometimes fell below 10%. It was easy for the unions or other special interest groups to capture school boards if so few people had to be organized to create a majority.

Second, the decline in voter participation has likely been accelerated by the widespread acceptance of excuses for non-performance. Schools don’t have enough money. Low-income students do not have enough parental support or live in situations that make learning difficult. And the list goes on. But the message in all cases, at least at the local level, is that parents and taxpayers can’t do anything about what causes failure. So why bother.

Finally, lest anyone think those helping hands coming from the state and federal level are an unalloyed benefit, they aren’t. What parents now believe is that the action is everywhere but at their local school board meeting. Want more money? Go to the state – or the feds. Want a new rule?  Same thing. The last place to go to get anything done that is likely important to ensuring high performance is your local school district. So parents don’t.

Here is a prime example of what that means: One can envision – at least in theory – that parents and other voters would on their own demand that districts have plans to fix failing schools. After all, when most other enterprises have a unit that is losing money or customers, the leadership adopts a strategy to make things right. Not so with the schools. No Child Left Behind demands that failing districts and states adopt one of several specific plans to overhaul the failures. The Bush and Obama administrations have both claimed they had to act because no one else was going to force the issue.

But there is a problem. Neither the federal government nor your state government wants to run your local school district. They certainly don’t want the responsibility. It isn’t good politics any more than it is good policy. Better to be able to point fingers at some poor soul who is the president of the local school board than take the blame for a disastrous set of test scores.

But their reluctance makes good sense at the same time. They have no way of knowing the circumstances in any given district. Do the schools need more capable principals? Should teachers have more time to collaborate? Given the students and the teachers, should the schools have this – or that – specific reading program?

So we get to a stand off. In the best of all possible worlds, the districts should be able to largely run themselves. They would have secure and adequate funding. The state and federal rules would be limited to fundamental issues. Parents and taxpayers would be the enforcers of accountability, not some distant bureaucrat.

But we are not in that world – yet. There are districts that fit the description, but too many remain irresponsible, insensitive, inert, and not even the representative of a majority of voters in their district. When looking at local performance, outsiders can rightly wonder how it can go on for years on end. No one is paying a price except the kids who are subjected to this misery for 12-13 years.

Sorting out this muddle of pros and cons has left us with a variety of contending camps in Washington.

There are the “top downers” who want Washington to set tough accountability standards and write stringent rules about how much of the federal money can be spent.  No Child Left Behind is their monument. Not only does it tell people how to fix schools, it prescribes all sorts of other actions when schools fail – which its rules also determine.

But then there are the “local control” folks.  Some of them are Republicans who simply have a visceral dislike for the Department of Education and want to get the federal government out of public education. They are ideologically committed and not likely open to compromise.

But there are others whose belief in local control comes from an appreciation that Washington, or even a state, cannot hope to manage a local school district from a distance.  Their intellectual challenge is figuring out where that leaves them.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is one of them – at least at times. On one hand, he has repeatedly talked about freeing up districts that are doing well from federal rules. But he is not entirely consistent. His current offer to excuse states from key provisions of No Child Left Behind and programs like Race to the Top require that states and districts take specific actions to change their ways, like adopting standards for college and career readiness or teacher evaluations – regardless of how well their students might be doing on standardized test scores.

The best that can be said of Secretary Duncan’s conditions is that he considers them fundamental to good schools. And many of them are genuinely good ideas – at least with this secretary in this political climate. But that simply leaves us with the rather unpredictable formulation that if the Secretary thinks something is really important, he gets to require it even if it undermines locally based accountability and destroys any incentive for parents to become more involved in districts’ governance.

And, just so we make clear how confusing this discussion can be, there is a fourth group, often associated with the teachers unions, whose principal focus is opposition to standardized testing. In their eyes, the tests are often inaccurate and distort the education process. Their problem is that they know what they oppose far more clearly than they can identify what they favor. In a debate about whether things should happen “top down” or “ground up,” it is hard to discern where they fit.

So, how do we sort through all this history and management theory?

One possible framework:  It has two pieces. First, write into any new federal law even greater transparency requirements than what is currently required, which is the publication of No Child Left Behind results. Then, provide incentives for increased local participation. The fundamental idea would be that a district with parents who are active and armed with enough information to make sense of what is going on can do a better job than distant federal or state officials in driving high performance. And, consistent with that thought, reward districts that are doing a good job with substantial freedom from federal rules so that they can innovate and adapt as they best see fit.

However, there are some caveats. The federal government has to lay down rules to make sure those things happen, and it has to take a different attitude in places where this virtuous circle has not taken root. And it has an obligation where, virtuous circle or not, some things are simply beyond local control.

In terms of what is already on the table in the debate about how to reform No Child Left Behind, there has to be some clear measure of accountability. Those who distrust testing have not come up with an alternative, so some form of standardized testing with results broken down by race, income, special needs, and English language learner status remains an absolute must.

However, current testing only covers math and reading in grades 3-8, plus once more in high school. Other grades and subjects are not covered (with the exception of a one time science test that has no consequences under current law). Given the centrality of accountability to rebuilding districts, that is probably not enough.

Virtually none of the major education organizations in Washington is lobbying for “more” testing. But without some measures of performance on other aspects of a child’s education, parents and others are left in the dark about important aspects of the school experience.

On top of that, education insiders recognize that there are important benchmarks that give great insight into how well a district is being managed. For example, it is important if a district can finish hiring new teachers by June. If it does, it can get its pick of the best prospects and have enough time to train them before school starts. However, if it is still hiring in October, the only people left to choose come from the bottom of the barrel, and the district has no choice but to throw these sorry souls into the classroom with no more guidance than handing them an attendance book and the directions to the bathroom.

The disclosure of such benchmarks, particularly where they can be compared with other schools and other districts, may not be as powerful as the results of more test data, but they can give a good indication of how well the district or school is functioning.

If all of that accountability works the way it should, then participation in school district governance should go up and the results on those standardized tests (and possibly other measures) should improve. If both those things happen, then a new law can reward those districts by freeing them from most of the rules – other than those that require that federal aid, to the extent it exists, supports the students for whom it is intended.

To push the process along, the law might, for example, allow a district to engage with its parents and taxpayers to come up with policies before requiring some course specified in statute. Take the issue of how to fix failing schools or failing districts. Consistent with the federal government’s obligation to the poor, the new law should make clear what failure is. No district (or state) should be able to deny the existence of under-performance by defining success at some inexcusable level of mediocrity.

But, once the federal government has made sure that a district is forced to act, it might try stepping back and allow the locals, which means voters as well as the school board, to determine what works best for them. So long as the plan is state approved and is then adopted by a public vote where more than a certain percentage of voters participated, it will be the blueprint for fixing the underperforming. At least until it turned out not to be working. The threshold vote might be 30-35%, well higher than most current turnouts, but no so high as to be impossible for a district to achieve. In other words, local voters would have their voices heard, and so long as it worked, that would be the favored outcome. But the federal government and the states would not abandon minority or special needs kids if it did not.

An offer in the law of removing most of the strings on federal money is a real incentive to districts. Much federal aid now comes broken down into small pots, where use is restricted for this or that specific purpose. It drives administrators nuts and turns them into bean counters rather than innovators. It is a lawyers’ and accountants’ dream of perpetual self-preservation. But if participation in school board elections is high and performance is good, the limitations make no sense. On the contrary, the message should be “do what you are doing, and have the freedom to do more.”

Which brings us to the subject of money. Should the federal government continue to spend approximately $35 billion per year on K-12 public schools (which excludes things like the multi-billion dollar one-time supports to prevent teacher layoffs in 2009 and 2010)?

In 1965, supporting minority schools made sense. They were seriously underfunded. In districts with white school boards and white schools, the minority schools regularly got shortchanged. And the states were willing to let some districts, that is, those with weak tax bases, struggle. There was no source other than federal aid to bail them out.

In the intervening forty-six years, things have changed. Many urban districts with large minority populations now spend more than their whiter, suburban counterparts. Of course, part of that is attributable to federal aid, but much of it is the result of states providing more funds to supplement the local tax base. However, the fights over state funding continue, and there are still many local school boards that find ways to put fewer dollars into minority schools.

The most salient fact in all of this is that it takes more on average to provide the same educational opportunity to a school with a large number of minorities versus one that is filled with middle class kids. In Montgomery County, Maryland, which won the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Malcolm Baldrige Award in 2010 for excellence in education, the district designed a program to give majority minority schools enough support to afford each child the same opportunity as those in its other schools.

What does that mean? The district regularly assesses students’ learning, for example, and provides an immediate intervention for those it identifies as struggling. Every student in every school is treated similarly. But there are simply more low-income kids who need the help. Which means there are more interventions in low-income schools. The result has been that the district winds up spending about 20% more per capita in those schools. That number is generally reflective of what the difference has to be out to be in other districts as well.

Here is another litmus test for whether a district should be able to operate without all those strings that confound current federal law. Districts should not let federal funds be the sole special support for low-income kids. The federal money (at least at current spending levels) cannot guarantee equal treatment for students in majority minority schools. The amount, roughly $14 billion annually, is simply not enough. Therefore, a district’s spending equally at each of its schools (even though that might be an improvement from current practice) is not good enough. The districts have the option: weight the spending of your local or state dollars to ensure equal opportunity for low-income kids. If you don’t, you are tied up with all the federal rules. If you do, then so long as all the federal money is spent in direct support of low income students, the districts shall continue to be free of all the limits that otherwise bind up federal funds.

(The federal funding for IDEA, alluded to earlier, represents a far more complicated set of problems best left for another essay. Luckily, the issue is not addressed in ESEA reauthorization.)

There is a larger philosophical question surrounding federal funding to help low income students. If we want coherent, vibrant local districts, why not put the burden entirely on them (and on the states)? The candid answer is that most districts and states are not likely to step up to the obligation. That is the lesson of the last 46 years. One could try to substitute a law requiring such funding as a condition of other federal aid, but even if we could figure out how to write such a law in a way that would make it enforceable, there is no political will to pass it.

Instead we labor on with the federal government regularly appropriating money to meet a different need than the one for which it was originally intended and likely bearing little relationship to the amount actually needed to accomplish its purpose. However, no one who supports the funding wants to open up this can of worms for fear that the Tea Party members of Congress will use the occasion to simply end the spending completely.

There is only one other area to consider before settling on a plan of action. No local district can deal individually with research. The federal government is the best place to oversee the testing the new ideas. Currently, the Department of Education is spending $300-400 million per year on the Teacher Incentive Fund, which gives grants to districts to test out whether new pay plans that focus on training and performance yield better results than traditional salary schedules. It is, in essence, a large research project. Similarly, a smaller federal program, called Investing in Innovation, provides money for districts and states to test out new ideas. While it is too new to tell if the grants will yield great insight into a range of education problems, it is at least one prime motivator behind the program.

The one place where this “scale” argument gets complicated is when Washington demands that states and local districts change behavior in order to receive grants or other benefits. The 2009-10 $4 billion in Race to the Top was arguably about the federal government’s attempt, at least in part, to promote large scale investments in information technology that were beyond the scale of individual districts – and were certainly beyond the reach of cash strapped states. However, a condition for a receipt of a grant was that a state had to eliminate any laws barring the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. Eliminating the laws was widely seen as the right thing to do. The tough question was whether the federal government should have been the one to push states to do it. It is the ends justifying the means.

If the Department of Education never exercised that leverage again, it would be more consistent with local control. If there are rare instances of such leverage again, and in support of a widely accepted idea, probably little damage. But doing it often just returns us to where this article began – figuring out the right balance between the federal government and local school districts.

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