Sunday, October 25, 2009

Duncan Scolds Hawaii on School Furloughs

State uses stimulus money to REDUCE education spending. Paying bureaucrats comes first

Hawaii schools drew a stern rebuke from Washington on Friday, the first of 17 furlough days planned for the school year, amid concerns that billions of dollars in federal aid won't be enough to prevent further classroom cuts across the U.S.

As the state awoke to "furlough Friday," Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in an opinion piece in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper that Hawaii had taken "a step in the wrong direction." "All states are under financial pressure, but none are cutting this much learning time from their school year," Mr. Duncan wrote. "It's inconceivable to me that this is the best solution for Hawaii."

Mr. Duncan pointed out that Hawaii had already received $105 million in aid from a $40 billion fund in the economic-stimulus plan designed to prop up states' education budgets, and that it was due to get another $52 million later this year. Hawaii is using its $157 million in federal aid to reduce state funding for education by the same amount. The U.S. Department of Education allows states to use stimulus money to do that as long as they don't cut education spending below 2006 levels.

Falling tax revenue has contributed to a $3 billion shortfall in Hawaii's overall state budget through June 2011. The state has laid off employees and cut spending on prisons and such programs as adult dental services, said Linda Smith, a senior policy adviser to Hawaii's Republican governor, Linda Lingle. Ms. Smith said the state increased spending on education by 15% between 2006 and 2009, and that its funding plans complied with federal rules.

School administrators say that cash-strapped states across the country have taken advantage of federal money to keep education spending at the minimum level allowed. Stimulus funds meant for schools were "basically hijacked by many states. It's a shell game," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, a nonpartisan professional association.

Hawaii is the only state in the country that has a single school district, which is run by the state. School districts in almost every state have laid off teachers. Some 20,000 teachers in California had lost their jobs through August, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. School districts in Florida and Georgia are furloughing teachers, but not on days when students would be in the classroom.

Mr. Domenech said school districts were being forced to "pick your poison." He noted that furloughs save jobs, often at the expense of educational time for students, but that teacher layoffs increase class sizes. School districts are already bracing for even tougher choices as local and state revenue continues to drop. The stimulus funds will only last for another two years.

"We're not out of the woods yet," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a teachers union, in a statement earlier this week. He called for more stimulus money if the states' economies don't improve "significantly."


AZ: Private-school tax credits save $8.3 million

Arizona taxpayers likely saved no more than $8.3 million in 2007 from private-school tax-credit programs, a higher figure than originally estimated in an Arizona Republic article last week. The original estimate of $3 million resulted from incorrect figures provided by the Arizona Department of Education.

Revised figures indicate that in 2007, the tuition tax-credit programs likely cost the state's General Fund about $19.3 million and saved local property taxpayers nearly $27.7 million, according to The Republic's analysis.

A Republic article last Wednesday examined the effects on taxpayers of programs that allow people to donate up to $1,000 for private-school tuition scholarships and reduce their income-tax bill dollar for dollar. For years, supporters of the tax credits have argued the programs have provided substantial savings to the state.

The Republic's estimates were based on an assumption that all the growth in private-school enrollment since the first tax-credit program began in 1998 was due to the tax-credit incentive. The state saves money when a public-school student shifts to a private school, but it loses money when a student who would have attended private school anyway receives a tax-credit scholarship.

To calculate the savings and costs, The Republic requested from the Education Department the amounts of per-pupil expenditures made by the state and by local taxpayers.

Yousef Awwad, the department's finance director, said an error in a computer formula led to a miscount of per-pupil expenditures. The correct per-pupil amounts were $4,868 paid by the state and $3,674 paid by local taxpayers. The amounts include capital building expenses and are weighted to reflect charter-school expenses; they exclude federal funding.

Several economists and other experts reviewed The Republic's analysis and methodology. Justin Olson, a senior research analyst at the Arizona Tax Research Association, called it "logical," although adding that the most meaningful figure is the net effect on state and local taxes combined.

He pointed out that because of the state's byzantine school-funding rules, few school districts would likely see property-tax savings even if they lost students to private schools. That's because in most districts the state has to cover an education-funding shortfall from local property taxes. Any savings would effectively mean the state has less of a shortfall to cover, Olson said.


One British school takes a stand against medieval ignorance

Muslim student, 18, banned from college because she refuses to remove her burkha

A Muslim student has been banned from enrolling at a college because she refused to remove her burkha. Shawana Bilqes, 18, wanted to wear the garment - which covers her body and face, leaving only her eyes visible - during lessons. But staff at Burnley College refused to enrol her, claiming the burkha was a barrier to 'safety and communication'. In a strongly worded statement, the college said 'unimpeded' face to face contact between teachers and students was vital.

Miss Bilqes, who wanted to study an access course for a diploma, has now been forced to abandon her plans and is looking elsewhere to complete her studies. Yesterday she said: 'It is my choice to wear the veil. 'I live around the corner from the college in an area where there are so many practising Muslims. 'I tried to compromise but they wouldn't. The college sent me a letter to say I could continue with my course if I stopped wearing the veil. 'We are in the 21st century and we get people from all walks of life. I'm in the police cadets as well and yet it's not a problem wearing the veil there.'

John Smith, principal of the college, in Burnley, defended the actions of his staff. He said that a student's face must be fully visible to maintain high standards of teaching between staff and pupils, adding that it was crucial to wear photo ID around the campus for security reasons. 'We do require all students of Burnley College to have their faces visible when at the college,' he said.

'We are determined to maintain the highest standards of teaching and learning. To do this effectively requires unimpeded communication from the teacher to all students, from the students to the teacher and between student and student. 'It is not possible to maintain this essential full communication if the face of any student is not fully visible.

'We are also determined to provide a safe environment for all our students. Central to this is that all members of the college community should be identifiable at all times. 'To this end we require students and staff to wear a security card which displays their photograph. 'Where individuals decline to comply, then I am afraid we cannot accommodate them.'

Controversy over the burkha was highlighted by Justice Secretary Jack Straw in 2006, when he suggested that Muslim women should abandon wearing it because it was a 'visible statement of separation and difference'. Mr Straw, then the Leader of the House of Commons, faced criticism from Muslim groups after disclosing that he asked women to remove their veils at meetings in his constituency office in Blackburn.

In March 2005, Shabina Begum, 16, controversially won the right to wear head-to-toe Islamic dress in the classroom. She argued that Denbigh High School in Luton breached her human rights by sending her home when she arrived wearing a burkha. After a case costing taxpayers £70,000, three Appeal Court judges ruled the teenager's school had acted unlawfully.

Earlier this year French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out, claiming the burkha reduced women to servitude and undermined their dignity. 'It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic,' he said. Islamic headscarves have been banned in French state schools since 2004.


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