Tuesday, February 16, 2010

U.S. public schools face cash crunch as “stimulus” scam winds down

Since many private schools get by on half as much money per pupil, a way out of the problem is in principle available

The nation's public schools are falling under severe financial stress as states slash education spending and drain federal stimulus money that staved off deep classroom cuts and widespread job losses. School districts have already suffered big budget cuts since the recession began two years ago, but experts say the cash crunch will get a lot worse as states run out of stimulus dollars.

The result in many hard-hit districts: more teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, smaller paychecks, fewer electives and extracurricular activities, and decimated summer school programs.

The situation is particularly ugly in California, where school districts are preparing for mass layoffs and swelling class sizes as the state grapples with another massive budget shortfall.

The crisis concerns parents like Michelle Parker in San Francisco, where the school district is preparing to lay off hundreds of school employees and raise class sizes because it faces a $113 million budget deficit over next two years. "I'm worried they're not going to have the quality education that's going to make them competitive in a global society," said Parker, who has three kids in district elementary schools.

Around the country, state governments are cutting money for schools as they grapple with huge budget gaps triggered by high unemployment, sluggish retail sales and falling real estate prices. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 41 states face midyear budget shortfalls totaling $35 billion. "The states are facing a dismal financial picture," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy.

The Obama administration's $787 billion federal stimulus package provided roughly $100 billion for education, including $54 billion to stabilize state budgets. In October the White House said the stimulus created or saved 250,000 education jobs.

But many states have used most of their stimulus money, leaving little to cushion budget cuts in the coming fiscal year. Experts say the looming cuts could weaken the nation's public schools, worsen unemployment, undermine President Obama's education goals and widen the achievement gap between students in rich and poor districts.

Wealthier communities are filling school budget gaps with local tax increases and aggressive fundraising, but could worsen inequality and undermine the larger system for paying for public schools, said John Rogers, who heads the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

In Michigan, which has the nation's highest unemployment rate, school districts lost 2 percent of their state money this year and could lose another 4 percent next year because of a projected government shortfall of $1.6 billion. Most of more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money is gone. Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed an incentive program to entice about 39,000 public school employees to retire, but that plan has been criticized by the state's largest teachers union.

In Washington state, school districts that lost $1.7 billion in state money over the past two years are bracing for another round of cuts as lawmakers try to plug a $2.8 billion state deficit. Seattle Public Schools, the state's largest district, plans to lay off nonunion staff, freeze hiring, create more efficient bus routes and increase class sizes further to close an expected budget shortfall of $24 million.

In Florida, public schools are being squeezed by state budget cuts and an unexpected increase in student enrollment, including an influx of Haitian students in the aftermath of Haiti's devastating earthquake. Districts have been coping by closing schools during breaks, cutting energy costs and changing transportation routes, but the next round of cuts is expected to hit classrooms. "We're at a point now where you just can't stretch that rubber band any further," said Bill Montford, CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

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British High School league tables 'skewed by vocational courses'

Secondary schools are dramatically inflating their positions in league tables by entering more pupils for practical courses, despite fears they lack quality, it has been claimed. New figures show that results for 16-year-olds taking vocational qualifications has improved twice as fast as those for pupils only studying GCSEs. The disclosure – in data published following a Parliamentary question by the Liberal Democrats – prompted claims that pupils were taking “easier” courses just to boost rankings.

Some vocational qualifications in subjects such as computing and travel and tourism are worth the same as four GCSEs, despite taking half the time to teach. Last month, it emerged that the number of pupils taking a course in information and communication technology (ICT) had soared six-fold in just two years, despite being branded of “doubtful value” by Ofsted. The watchdog found that qualifications – such as the OCR National in ICT – were “often less demanding” than other mainstream exams.

David Laws, the Lib Dem schools spokesman, said: “These new figures raise some serious concerns about the real causes of the increase in take-up of some qualifications. “The Lib Dems are passionate about enabling more students to access vocational courses, but we should not be encouraging schools to push pupils towards certain qualifications simply to improve their school’s league table position.”

The Tories have pledged to remove vocational qualifications from GCSE league tables to stop schools attempting to manipulate official rankings. Mr Laws rejected the move, but added: “It must now be time for a fundamental review of the equivalence of different qualifications to remove the present perverse incentives.”

Official league tables show the number of pupils gaining five GCSEs graded A* to C. It also counts “equivalent” qualifications – such as BTECs and GNVQs – which are converted into GCSE points to give a comparable score. According to figures, some 45.1 per cent of pupils who took GCSEs in 1997 gained five good grades – the same as the number taking GCSEs and equivalent courses. A year later, 46.2 per cent of GCSE pupils gained five good grades, but when equivalents were added the score increased to 46.3 per cent.

According to official data, the gap between raw GCSE results and those including other qualifications has widened ever since. By 2009, some 57.5 per cent of GCSE pupils gained five A* to C grades, but it jumped to 69.7 per cent when equivalents were added. It means the pass rate with practical courses has increased twice as fast as the score without.

Last month, the headmaster of Harrow warned that poor children were being deceived into taking “worthless qualifications” that failed to prepare them for the world of work. Allowing teenagers to apply for jobs armed with “soft” GCSEs and A-levels was the same as allowing an X-Factor contestant to believe she could be the next Britney Spears when she could not sing, it was claimed. Barnaby Lenon warned that the drive to arm pupils will growing numbers of specially-tailored qualifications was simply “dumbing down” the education system.


Australia: Failed trainee teachers 'allowed to graduate'

It shows how desperate the system is to get warm bodies into failing government schools

TRAINEE teachers who fail their teaching rounds in schools are being allowed to graduate and take charge of classrooms, according to the Victorian Principals Association. Primary school principals have accused universities responsible for teacher training of ignoring their advice that some trainee teachers are unfit to graduate.

University students studying to become school teachers must complete part of their coursework in teaching rounds at schools to gain practical experience and put theory into practice. But Gabrielle Leigh, president of the VPA, which represents principals from private and public primary schools, has told The Age school leaders are angry about the incidence of universities rejecting their school's assessment of a trainee teacher's performance.

"If there's a situation where the school feels the student teacher is not ready to teach, a lot of the time the university tutor will overturn the school's recommendation," said Ms Leigh. "The institution says the person is fit to teach, they graduate and then they come into schools. There are enough instances of this happening for us to be concerned about it."

The association has written a position paper on teacher quality, prompted by a groundswell of concern from its members about the training system's flaws.

Ms Leigh said previous federal government funding cuts to universities had also weakened education faculty tutors' ability to oversee the teaching rounds of trainees. "We get a very limited service from most universities," she said. "In the past a tutor might have come out twice to see how a trainee was going. Now you might get one flying visit, if that."

Victorian Institute of Teaching chief executive officer Andrew Ius urged the association to give him details of cases where school reports on unfit trainees had been rejected. The institute is responsible for accrediting teacher-training courses and registering teachers. "I'm disappointed we have not heard from the VPA because the issue is something we would be very concerned about," he said.

The Victorian Council of Deans of Education, which represents universities that provide teacher training, rejected the principals' criticisms. Its president, Annette Gough, said she did not know of any cases where school decisions had been overturned without a university consulting the school. Under university protocols, students who fail a teaching round are given a second chance to repeat the round at another school. Those who fail two rounds are liable to be suspended for a year and have to reapply to finish their course. "We greatly value supervising teachers' opinions," Professor Gough said.

"A student could fail one round but end up graduating because they've passed other rounds at other schools." However, she said the teaching-round component of teacher training was in crisis because successive federal governments had failed to provide enough funds to universities to cover the cost. Universities were battling to find classroom teachers to supervise trainees. Only 25 per cent of teachers in government schools, 12 per cent in Catholic and 10 per cent in independent schools were willing to do the job, according to the council's research.


1 comment:

Robert said...

Enterprising Americans in states facing cash crunches for their schools might take the idea I thought of: offer to take over operation of the school with the state providing 75% of what it sent to that school in the prior year, with the provisions that you have full control of hiring, firing, and discipline, will teach all comers from the district, and your compensation is whatever is left over at the end of the year. After you have figured out how to truly educate kids efficiently, you could even reduce the state's cost further, or even completely privatize the school, with the parents paying the costs, and relieve the state of its burden altogether.