Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Educators praise voucher defeat (2011 edition)

Everybody's heard Einstein's famous quote about insanity: it's defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. To my knowledge, Einstein never came to South Carolina, where our legislature could have schooled the fella.

Hasn't it been the case for the past decade?

We have, in Columbia, a Legislative Homeowners Association. What most of the neighbors have in common is shared wariness and a shared commitment to maintaining some minimum standards -- by minimum, I certainly mean "minimally adequate."

And in our neighborhood, we have a small gang of elected malcontents who aren't satisfied that South Carolina is already trapped in the Wayback Machine with the controls broken off at "Eisenhower."

By the front entrance to our neighborhood is a monstrosity on cinderblocks: our rusty, antiquated system of funding our public schools. Everyone sees it, with its dented 1977 license plate, its yellowed diamond-in-the-back, surrounded by patchy poke salad. It's a blot that gives the whole neighborhood a bad name. People from other neighborhoods -- yonder in Georgia and North Carolina and beyond -- see it and feel smug, superior, better than us.

Our Legislative HOA could fix matters altogether, of course. Raise HOA dues a little, based on property value, and have the decayed monster removed and replaced with something nice and functional. But nobody wants their dues increased, especially not based on property value.

Yes, to some degree, the HOA majority is ashamed of the decayed and neglected school-funding structure in their front yard, but they take so much pride in their live-and-let-live by-laws and covenants that they're loathe to take action, to change the rules, to rewrite the budget, to replace that rusted monstrosity with a school-funding system that works for all kids and their parents.

So the HOA does what it normally does: It pays to have more cinderblocks propped up beneath the chassis, so it doesn't completely fall down.

This, of course, angers the little gang of malcontents, who introduce bills year after year to eliminate the cinderblocks and pay parents to send their children to private schools.

And how does the HOA leaders handle the gang and its bills? They wait until the last minute, give the malcontents time to air out their year's-worth of wingnut angst, then drop the boom on the plan -- usually without a lot of fanfare.

And what happened last week at the State House? Seanna Adcox of The State reports it:

The latest plan to use tax credits to help parents send their children to private school died by slim margins Wednesday in the South Carolina House.

With no debate, representatives voted 60-59 to reject the measure. In a subsequent vote of 61-59, the House refused to reconsider - officially killing the bill. It was a stunningly swift vote on the contentious issue that keeps popping up in the Legislature.

The same bill was rejected a month ago by the Senate Education Committee, also with very little discussion. Senate Education Chairman John Courson said then that lawmakers knew where they stood philosophically on the issue.

And what did the malcontents say to this -- yet one more -- defeat at the hands of the bipartisan majority?

Despite the rejection in both chambers, the group pushing the effort pledges to return for another round.

"We're excited it got that close. We've always seen this as a long-term pursuit," said Neil Mellen, spokesman for South Carolinians for Responsible Government.

See what I mean about schooling Einstein on insanity?

Educators roundly praised the move. Jackie Hicks, president of the state's largest association of education professionals, The SCEA, credited educators themselves with pressing their lawmakers with facts and figures:

These victories in both houses of the Legislature, are the culmination of months of work by the members, leadership, and staff calling the disastrous consequences of this legislation to the attention of lawmakers, policy makers, the media and voters. This is a victorious end to an historic campaign. We spared no effort.

The SCEA campaign began by developing and leading a statewide coalition of civic, educational, and religious groups that were committed to quality public education. The SCEA then commissioned an independent poll of SC residents and learned that a whopping 64% of residents opposed sending millions of dollars to private schools at taxpayer expense.

Armed with this support, The SCEA president, vice-president and other members testified before both houses of the legislature. The SCEA submitted letters to the editor and op-ed articles to the state’s newspapers, noting that the bill would be too expensive and that South Carolina schools need reforms that are proven to work and will prepare our students for the jobs of the future.

Likewise, leaders of the state's association of school boards pointed to the influence of citizens who pressured lawmakers to face facts.

"The bipartisan vote sends a very clear and resounding message that the citizens of South Carolina are not interested in abandoning our public school students," Paul Krohne, executive director of the state School Boards Association, said in a statement. "If nothing else, this issue has galvanized those of us in South Carolina - and there are thousands - who reject the abandonment philosophy."

"The abandonment philosophy." We've come a long way, haven't we, from the same Eisenhower era that malcontents among us recall so fondly, when neighbor cared for neighbor? Today, it's every man for himself, and the most successful among are the ones who collect the most toys -- and who abandon the rest.

The State rightly pointed out the influence of "out-of-state money" fueling this issue. If NCLB has proven anything to the business community, it's that there's billions of dollars to be made in education, if education can be yanked out of the public domain and planted squarely in private enterprise. Privatizing school buses? That's child's play, a piker's game. Wait until public education is shut down and parents are forced into the private market for their children's education -- and the profits begin to roll like mighty waters. Pay attention: There's a reason that Australian billionaire and Fox News Channel owner Rupert Murdoch just purchased 90 percent of an education software company -- and vowed to use his News Corporation to make public education a high-priority issue in the 2012 presidential election.

It's hard not to remain a little skeptical about the timing of this entire ordeal.

At the end of 2010, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp paid almost $400m in cash to purchase 90% of Wireless Generation, a company that bills itself as "the leading provider of innovative education software, data systems, and assessment tools for reading, writing and math,"

On Tuesday, News Corp announced "The Future of American Education: A Presidential Primary Forum."

And lest we forget, voucher bills have always been about money -- not education.

The basics of the latest plan were the same as previous ones: The bill would give tax breaks to parents who can afford to pay tuition up front, while parents could apply for scholarships. The people and businesses that donate money for those scholarships could take the tax break.

The key differences were that the amount of tax credit or scholarship would vary by district, and that parents with children already in private school would get no break for several years, and then a reduced amount. The tax credit or scholarship would be tied to half of whatever the state spends on a public school student there. Next school year, the statewide average would be $2,417.

Tuition at the state's elite private schools can top $18,000 per student. Opponents have said the proposal is geared to well-off parents, since tuition would remain out of reach for poor students, even with a scholarship. But advocates said the average cost of tuition across more than 300 private schools statewide is $4,400.

And so long as the Legislative Homeowners Association honors its laissez-faire by-laws and covenants more than its commitment to funding a good education for every child, the malcontents will keep coming back. After seven years of trying, they've gotten a taste for it now.

“We’re gaining ground every year,” said state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, a tax credit supporter. “This was the closest vote yet.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Congratulations to seven schools for Exemplary Writing Program Awards

While we're recognizing schools for great achievement, we should mention the seven who have just won an Exemplary Writing Program Award.

The winning schools were Nevitt Forest Community School of Innovation (Anderson District 5); Pate Elementary (Darlington County); Doby's Mill Elementary (Kershaw County); Heath Springs Elementary (Lancaster County); Irmo Elementary (Richland/Lexington District 5); Woodruff Primary (Spartanburg District 4); and Monarch Elementary (Union County).
The Exemplary Writing Program is sponsored by the South Carolina Department of Education and governed by the Writing Improvement Coordinating Council. The award is based on an extensive evaluation of the schools’ instructional programs, with a particular emphasis on the teaching of writing.

Last fall 25 schools submitted written applications responding to 10 criteria of excellence that comprise the Exemplary Writing Program.

The applications detailed how each school implements its writing program with reference to leadership, faculty knowledge of research and theory, curriculum, assessment and community partnership.

From this group, 12 schools were chosen for site visits.

Three separate reviewers scored applications, and site visits were conducted by at least two reviewers. The schools that met the rigorous criteria of the program were designated as Exemplary Writing Program Schools.

Caroline Savage, from the Education Department’s Unit of Literacy and Early Learning, said the Exemplary Writing Program provides tools for schools to self-assess their writing programs as well as a series of professional development sessions based on criteria for effective school writing programs.

Savage said schools that have gone through the three- to five-year process of developing an exemplary program credit EWP as the key to their success.

Congratulations to the classroom teachers and education support personnel to taught and supported learning this year in English classes, communications skills, language arts and particularly writing.

To ALL those who teach our children to read and write, thank you.

Beaufort County makes slow progress in funding public schools

On its surface, an item published in Bluffton's newspaper offers cause to celebrate on behalf of the public schoolchildren in that district. According to that paper, thanks to infusions of funding from federal sources, the district spent $10,606 per student in the last fiscal year (2009-2010).

I say it offers cause to celebrate because it has taken 341 years for Beaufort County's children to be afforded reasonable funding for their education.

Quick history: First permanent settlers arrived at Charles Towne in 1670; first law to establish statewide system of public education was passed in 1811; and the first state public-school funding law (the Education Finance Act) was adopted in 1977, though lawmakers have undercut that law and funded less than its formula required in far more years than it fully-funded the law.

So to see in a headline that Beaufort County's public schoolchildren are finally getting the benefit of $10,606 in educational opportunity each is heartening, and to see that the calculators aren't throwing in the kitchen sink to artificially inflate the figure is even better.

Funding came from not only the $171.4 general fund budget of that year, but also included state and federal dollars allocated for specific educational uses (from special revenue and Education Improvement Act), stimulus funds ($8.9 million), and monies generated through the food service fund for student nutrition and money generated by and used by students in the student activities funds.

While Beaufort County Council approves tax millage, thus controlling revenue for the school district’s general fund, the general fund funds part but not all of the school district’s total budget.

The $220 million the state department used for the cost per student in 2009-10 does not include $163.6 million in 2009-10 for “capital and out-of-district obligations,” including $112.1 million for capital projects, mostly due to building six new schools. (In 2008, the total was just $19 million.)

In 2009-10, the district also spent $49.1 million for debt payments and $2.4 million for Riverview Charter School. All told, the district spent $373.6 million last school year.

“It has been our practice not to include (capital and out-of-district) amounts because they are various from year to year and are not considered as operating expenditures,” said Mellanie Jinnette, a financial systems manager for the South Carolina Department of Education.

Phyllis White, chief operational services officer for the Beaufort County School District, said any special revenue or grant money received can inflate the cost per pupil, as stimulus funds did in 2009-10. In 2009-10 the district received $760,000 in energy grant money.

“Any grant (free money), including teacher grants, will be included in the per pupil amount,” White said. “That’s the danger in publishing this type of information: Unless you know all the details, it can be very misleading. It is also important for comparison purposes, rather than total cost per pupil, to look at the percentages in each of the categories. I usually compare us to other districts to see how we measure up.”

Congratulations to the public schoolchildren of Berkeley County

Berkeley County's public schools clearly are serving students well, as 36 of these have been recognized as Duke TIP Scholars and more than 150 others have been named South Carolina Junior Scholars -- a district record.

Every year, Duke University’s “Talent Identification Program” (TIP) identifies academically qualified seventh-graders and invites them to complete college entrance examinations (SAT or ACT) alongside high-school students. They are provided with detailed information about their test scores and abilities, and are introduced to a variety of academic resources, such as summer programs, field studies and scholar weekends.

“The purpose of the program is to recognize students with exceptionally high intellectual ability, and to provide opportunities for them to broaden that ability,” said Merrie Fisher, Coordinator of Academic Programs. “We are thrilled with the number of students who achieved Scholar status this year.”
The Berkeley County School District also named 156 students as Junior Scholars, a district record. Scholars are invited to participate in the district’s free Junior Scholar Institute, taking place July 11-21 at Westview Middle School. This rigorous summer program offers courses such as physics, world issues, language immersion, creative writing and technology. They also receive an ‘Award of Merit’ certificate from the South Carolina Department of Education, and may be invited to attend summer opportunities at participating South Carolina colleges and universities.

Here's to the fine classroom teachers and education support personnel who bring great educational opportunities to Berkeley County's public schoolchildren every day: Congratulations.

Congratulations to Indian Land Middle School

There's plenty of evidence that great things happen in South Carolina's public schools; it's our responsibility to bear witness and tell those stories. Today, Indian Land Middle School is an example. ILMS is one of 10 schools nationwide being recognized for its character-building program by the Red Robin Foundation.

And talk about a good community partner for public schools: the Red Robin restaurant chain has been recognizing schools this way for the past five years.

But Indian Land Middle School is no stranger to praise; for two years in a row, ILMS has been named a State School of Character by the state Department of Education -- the only middle school in South Carolina to collect this honor.

Here's the note from the Lancaster News:

Indian Land Middle School is one of 10 schools in the country honored as a 2011 U-ACT School by the Red Robin Foundation. The acronym “U-ACT” stands for “Unbridled Acts,” or random acts of kindness. Red Robin’s U-ACT program recognizes schools that demonstrate a commitment to promoting kindness and is dedicated to character-building in grades six through eight.

The honor of being designated a U-ACT Merit School entitles ILMS to a $1,200 grant and $250 for a party to reward students.

ILMS Principal David McDonald said the program reinforces the school’s motto: “What happens here will change the world.”

“Our school is not perfect, and that is exactly why it is important to have a focus on character-building efforts,” he said. “The support from the Red Robin Foundation has allowed us to ‘kick it up a notch’ and continue to provide creative ways to model, teach and expect positive character traits.

“We are so pleased to be recognized as one of the top 10 schools in the nation for our commitment to providing a program that helps us teach kindness toward others,” he said.

The U-ACT winning schools were selected based on the unique programs they implemented throughout the school year to reward students for their kind acts and the community service projects they implemented to make a difference in their communities, a Red Robin Foundation release said.

Among the programs implemented by ILMS that helped earn them this recognition were the Champions of Character Program, Character Counts Week, A-OK Week and Pasta for Pennies.

To lower dropout rates, teach young children to love reading

Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best ones.

A study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggests that we should start addressing the dropout problem well before children become teenagers. It turns out that reading to small children, and encouraging them to read, may be the most effective strategy to reduce the high school dropout rate.

It's a challenge, sure. South Carolina's lawmakers have never been keen on long-term strategies, as the business community measures its profits and losses in quarterly reports. But if we're serious about fixing the dropout rate, maybe we ought to pay attention to this one.

Children who aren't reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely not to graduate high school than their peers with higher reading skills, according to a report issued Friday.

Students in low-income families fared even worse in a longitudinal study of 3,975 children born between 1979 and 1989, according to Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, a report commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and presented during the Education Writers Association's national conference in New Orleans.

"We will never close the achievement gap, we will never solve our dropout crisis, we will never break the cycle of poverty that afflicts so many children if we don't make sure that all our students learn to read," said Ralph Smith, the foundation's executive vice president, in a statement. "This research confirms the compelling need to address the underlying issues that keep children from reading."

The Casey study finds that one-sixth of third-graders who don't read on a third-grade level don't graduate on time. Of those third-graders measured to have the lowest skills level -- "below basic" -- almost one-fourth drop out, compared with nine percent of children who demonstrate the "basic" skills level and four percent of those who demonstrate "proficient" reading skills.

A second large theme found by the Casey study is the role of childhood poverty.

Overall, 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate high school, compared with 6 percent who have never been poor. And 32 percent of students spending more than half their childhood in poverty do not finish high school on time.

For children who were in poverty at least one year and who were not reading proficiently in third grade, 26 percent didn't graduate on time -- more than six times the rate for all proficient readers.

It would seem to be self-evident, wouldn't it, that children lacking fundamental resources in the home -- clean water, good nutrition, a book here or there -- would have a harder time gaining the basic skills necessary to succeed in school. Yet despite study after study demonstrating these conclusions in clear, incontrovertible terms, South Carolina continues to leave large populations of its children in poverty. The 2010 census suggests that something approaching half of the state's children suffer there now.

The Casey study's full conclusions are outlined here, and the writers at the Augusta Chronicle suggest that "if those trends hold beyond the study group, Georgia and South Carolina have tougher challenges than many other states."

In Georgia, only 29 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level on National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests in 2009. In South Carolina, the rate was 28 percent; and nationally, it was 33.

Facing an even more difficult challenge, based on 2010 poverty levels, are Burke County (83.6 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty), Richmond County (74 percent), McDuffie County (71.6 percent), Edgefield County (58.3 percent) and Aiken County (56.7 percent).

So, what lessons should we take from the Casey study?

"These findings suggest we need to work in three arenas: improving the schools where these children are learning to read, helping the families weighed down by poverty and encouraging better federal, state and local policy to improve the lot of both schools and families," said Donald J. Hernandez, a sociology professor who conducted the study.

Sounds costly, which means the legislature will likely leave it to a future legislature to handle, when the economy improves. For now, we've got budget cuts to enact -- and drivers licenses to take away from teenagers missing school.