We’re Building Schools After All

When we first started off the debate on economic stimulus many months ago, well before ARRA was an acronym that held any real meaning (particularly in the education community), there was an initial thinking that stimulus dollars would be poured into school construction projects.  After all, such projects were “shovel ready” (hard to believe how quickly we’ve forgotten that adjective) and they were viewed as the best example of projects that could benefit from the immediate influx of funding, but wouldn’t require continued care and feeding over the years.

Then SC Gov. Mark Sanford threatened to use stimulus money to pay down state construction bonds, or not take money at all.  We shifted to talks about using dollars to pay for teacher salaries.  And soon we launched into our current discussion of “one-time” money, dollars going to student achievement-centric projects, no second round of ARRA funding coming, and many at ED scratching their heads asking why so many states are slow to get in their applications and receive part two of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund money.  Surely, they are not content with the no-strings Title I and IDEA dollars they’ve gotten, and they’re not just sharpening their pencils waiting for the Innovation grants to be released.
It is a bit of an understatement to say there has been continued confusion as to how SFSF dollars are intended to be spent.  Despite the good intentions of Judy Wurtzel and others at ED, technical assistance and current guidance is still not providing the complete answers (or at least the answers the boots on the ground want to hear) as to what and how to spend the new federal dollars.  So last night, EdSec Arne Duncan released a letter to all chief state school officers explaining the current thinking on school construction and ARRA.
The highlights?  There’s $6 billion in school construction bonds to be allocated this year.  The feds are staying in the school construction biz.  Energy efficiency and “green” buildings are important.  Charter schools are treated as equals with traditional public schools.  There has been and will continue to be school construction and rehab money available from the feds.  The average layman or policy wonk isn’t necessarily supposed to understand the finer points of all this.  We have a bunch of new acronyms we have to learn, at least if we are going to talk about school building.
The full text of the letter follows below, courtesy of Fritzwire:

May 29, 2009

 

Dear Chief State School Officers:

 

I am pleased to inform you about the authorization of Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCBs) and Build America Bonds (BABs) and the extension of Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZABs).  The authorizations provide Federal subsidies for public school improvement and modernization activities.  TheAmerican Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) makes QSCBs and BABs available for the first time, while extending and expanding the authority for QZABs.  QZABs provide funding for school repairs and renovation and certain other activities for eligible schools and may not be used for new construction, while QSCBs and BABs provide funding for new construction as well as renovation. 

 

Charter schools as well as traditional public schools may benefit from all of these types of bonds.  I encourage you to consider serving charter schools through these programs.

 

You may use all three of these types of bonds to modernize buildings and convert obsolete non-school buildings into modern school facilities.  I encourage you to design energy-efficient school facilities that meet widely recognized rating systems for green buildings.  Please also consider ways these bonds can improve communities in general.  For instance, some local educational agencies (LEAs) have designed school facilities in a manner intended to facilitate their serving as centers of their communities that are available for non-school purposes outside of regular school hours.  Particularly in a time of economic difficulty, making school facilities go further by designing and providing them for multiple uses makes eminent sense.

 

The benefit of all of these programs is that they help LEAs save money and make their repair, renovation, or construction dollars go further.  Purchasers of QSCBs and QZABs receive a Federal income tax credit.  The U.S. Treasury Department establishes State allocation limits and sets a tax-credit rate for the QSCB and QZAB bond programs that, on average
, equals the amount of interest schools would ordinarily pay on debt.  With the Federal Government covering most or all of the interest on the bonds, LEAs receive a substantial benefit as interest payments typically equal approximately 50 percent of the economic cost of a bond. 

 

The ARRA makes available, to States and certain large LEAs, $11 billion for 2009 and $11 billion for 2010 in QSCB bonding authority for construction, rehabilitation, or repair of a public school facility and for the acquisition of land on which the school facility is to be constructed with QSCB funds.  (An additional $200 million in each of those years goes to the Department of the Interior for assistance to schools operated or supported by the Bureau of Indian Education.)  The QSCB bond allocation authority generally goes to States (not necessarily State educational agencies) based on their shares of Title I Basic Grant funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  The District of Columbia and possessions of

the United States also receive these allocations.  Possessions other than Puerto Rico, however, receive their shares of the QSCB bonding authority based on their share of the population below the poverty line.  Forty percent of the national QSCBs bonding authority goes directly to the 100 LEAs with the largest number of school-aged children living below the poverty line.  The designated LEAs receive this bond allocation in proportion to their share of ESEA Title I Basic Grant funds.  States with LEAs that receive bond allocations directly from the Federal Government receive a reduced direct allocation. 

 

BABs are bonds that can be used to finance a wide range of projects, including construction and modernization of school facilities.  The BABs program allows municipal bond issuers in 2009 and 2010 to offer an unlimited amount of taxable debt and to elect either to receive a cash subsidy from the Federal Government or to provide bondholders with a tax credit.  Both the payment and the tax credit would be equal to 35 percent of the interest paid on the bonds.  BABs can assist public postsecondary institutions in addition to LEAs.

 

QZABs are another important tool that States and LEAs can use to provide additional resources for improving school facilities and instruction.  The ARRA extends QZABs through 2010.  As you may know, QZABs were first authorized in 1997 and are bonds the Federal Government subsidizes by allowing bondholders to receive tax credits that are approximately equal to the interest that States and communities would pay holders of taxable bonds.  As a result, issuers are generally responsible for repayment of just the principal.  QZABs may now be purchased by any individual or private business.

 

States and LEAs have considerable flexibility in the use of QZABs.  They may be used for rehabilitating or repairing school facilities, purchasing equipment, developing curricula, and training school personnel, but not for new construction.  To meet QZAB eligibility criteria, a public school must be located in either an Empowerment Zone or an Enterprise Community or have at least 35 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch under the Federal lunch program (National School Lunch Act).  The school must also have an education program designed in cooperation with business; receive a private contribution (which may be in-kind), the net present value of which is not less than 10 percent of the proceeds of the bond; and have an education plan that is approved by its LEA; and its students must be subject to the same standards and assessments as other students in the LEA.

 

As the following chart shows, previously authorized QZABs are still available.  However, unused funds from the 2007 allocations will expire at the end of this year and, to make use of these allocations, States or municipalities must issue the bonds by December 31, 2009.  If a State does not issue the amount of QZABs allocated by the Federal Government between the calendar year the funds are first made available and the date by which they must be issued, the unused QZAB allocation expires and cannot be used. 

 

QZABs Amount

Calendar year first available

Bonds must be issued by December 31 of the year

$400 million

2007

2009

$400 million

2008

2010

$1.4 billion

2009

2011

$1.4 billion

2010

2012

 

On April 3, 2009, the Treasury Department issued 2008 and 2009 State allocations of QZABs bonding authority and 2009 allocations of QSCBs bonding authority for the States and the 100 large LEAs.  I am enclosing those tables for your information.  I am also enclosing a Fact Sheet prepared by our Department on these bond programs. 

 

If you have questions about this information or these programs, please contact Branch 5 of the Internal Revenue Service, Office of Associate Chief Counsel/Financial Institutions and Products, at 202-622-3980 or Jane Hess of the U.S. Department of Education at 202-401-8292.  I am confident that these bonds can help your communities meet some of their facility needs.

 

Sincerely,

 

/s/

 

Arne Duncan

 

2 Attachments Follow

 

AMERICAN RECOVERY AND REINVESTMENT ACT OF 2009

Qualified School Construction Bonds and

Qualified Zone Academy Bonds

 

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) authorized tax-credit bonds for school construction by expanding Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZABs) from $400 million annually to $1.4 billion for each of calendar years 2009 and 2010 and authorizing $11.2 billion in Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCBs) for the first time.  QZABs provide tax credits primarily for school renovation and may not be used for new construction, but QSCBs provide tax credits for new construction as well as renovation. 

 

The U.S. Treasury Department establishes State allocation limits and sets a tax-credit rate for both of these bond programs that, on average, equals the amount of interest schools would ordinarily pay on debt.  Since the Federal Government covers most or all of the interest on these bonds, local educational agencies (LEAs) receive a substantial benefit, as interest payments may typically equal up to 50 percent of the economic cost of a bond. 

 

In addition to QZABs and QSCBs, the ARRA contains other provisions regarding tax-exempt debt and tax-credit programs that entities may use to finance construction of school facilities as well as other types of facilities.  Build America Bonds (BABs), for example, are taxable bonds that can be used to finance a wide range of projects for governmental purposes.  This BABs program allows municipal bond issuers in 2009 and 2010 to offer an unlimited amount of taxable debt and to elect either to receive a cash subsidy from the Federal Government or have it provide bondholders with a tax credit.  Either the payment or the tax credit would be equal to 35 percent of the interest paid on the bonds.  BABs can assist public postsecondary institutions in addition to LEAs.  The Treasury Department’s recent guidance on this new program can be found at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-09-26.pdf.

The benefit of all of these school construction financing tools is that they can help State and local governments save money and make their repair, renovation, modernization, or construction funds go further. 

Basic Facts about Qualified School Construction Bonds

 

Under this new category of tax-credit bonds, the Treasury Department distributes $11 billion of the bond allocation in both 2009 and 2010 among the States and certain large LEAs.  QSCBs are bonds the Federal Government subsidizes by allowing bondholders to receive tax credits that are approximately equal to the interest that States and communities would pay holders of taxable bonds.  As a result, issuers are generally responsible for repayment of just the principal.  States may directly issue the bonds on behalf of eligible schools or they may suballocate authority to issue the bonds within the State. 

 

  • QSCB allocations go to States (not necessarily State educational agencies) based on their share of Title I Basic Grant funds.  The District of Columbia and possessions of the United States also receive these allocations.  Possessions other than Puerto Rico, however, receive their shares of the QSCB bonding authority based on their share of the population below the poverty line.  States with LEAs that receive bond allocations directly from the Federal Government receive a reduced allocation as a result of the allocations described in more detail below. 

 

  • 40 percent of the national QSCB bonding authority goes directly to the 100 LEAs with the largest number of school-aged children living below the poverty line.[1]  The designated LEAs receive this bond allocation in proportion to their shares of Title I Basic Grant funds.  An LEA in this category that receives a direct allocation may reallocate any of its unused QSCB allocations to its State.

 

  • If an allocation to a State is unused for a calendar year, the State may carry it forward to the next calendar year.  In other words, States have up until the end of 2010 to use their 2009 allocation and until the end of 2011 to use their 2010 allocation.

 

  • In addition to the amounts described above, the Department of the Interior/Bureau of Indian Affairs receives $200 million annually in QSCB authority for its school facilities in 2009 and 2010.  Indian tribal governments are qualified issuers.

 

QSCBs are less restrictive in their uses than QZABs.  For a QSCB bond that is issued by a State or local government where a public school is located, 100 percent of available project proceeds must be used for the construction, rehabilitation, or repair of the public school facility.  In addition, a portion of the proceeds of such a bond may be used for the acquisition of land on which a public school facility is to be constructed. 

QSCBs may be purchased by any individual or private business, and used to generate a tax credit against the individual’s or entity’s Federal income taxes.  The Department of the Treasury recently issued initial guidance for the program, which is posted at:  www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-09-35.pdf, that reports the allocation of the annual bond volume among the States and the 100 largest LEAs.

Basic Facts about Qualified Zone Academy Bonds

 

QZABs were first authorized in 1997 and are bonds the Federal Government subsidizes by allowing bondholders to receive tax credits that are approximately equal to the interest that States and communities would pay holders of taxable bonds.  As a result, issuers are generally responsible for repayment of just the principal.  The Treasury Department allocates the authority to issue these bonds to States based on their proportion of the U.S. population living below the poverty line.  States may directly issue the bonds on behalf of eligible schools or they may suballocate authority to issue the bonds within the State.  These bonds may be used only on behalf of schools or programs that:

 

  • are located in an Empowerment Zone or an Enterprise Community; or
  • have a reasonable expectation (as of the date of the bond issuance) that at least 35 percent of their students will be eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches under the National School Lunch Act. 

 

To benefit from a QZAB, an eligible school must also:

  • have an education program designed in cooperation with business;
  • receive a private contribution (which may be in-kind), the net present value of which is not less than 10 percent of the proceeds of the bond;
  • have an education plan that is approved by its LEA; and
  • subject its students to the same s
    tandards and assessments as other students in the LEA.

 

QZABs  may not be used for new construction but may be used for the following activities:

  • renovating and repairing buildings;
  • investing in equipment and up-to-date technology;
  • developing challenging curricula; and
  • training quality teachers.

In past years, QZABs could be purchased only by banks, insurance companies, and other companies engaged in the business of lending money.  Effective October 2008, however, QZABs may be purchased by any individual or private business.  The Department of the Treasury has issued recent guidance for the extended program available at:  http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-drop/n-09-30.pdf.  Existing ED guidance on QZABs is available at:   www.ed.gov/programs/
qualifiedzone/faq.html
.

TABLES FOR STATE ALLOCATIONS OF QUALIFIED SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION BONDS:

 

2009 Allocations to States of Volume Cap for

Qualified School Construction Bonds

 

(Net of Allocations to Large Local Educational Agencies)

 

State/Territory

Total Allocation by State/Territory

Alabama

118,776,000

Alaska

29,784,000

Arizona

186,292,000

Arkansas

113,443,000

California

773,525,000

Colorado

87,147,000

Connecticut

105,092,000

Delaware

29,784,000

District of Columbia

0

Florida

106,806,000

Georgia

201,062,000

Hawaii

0

Idaho

37,665,000

Illinois

244,435,000

Indiana

177,861,000

Iowa

64,252,000

Kansas

79,589,000

Kentucky

135,132,000

Louisiana

131,622,000

Maine

42,074,000

Maryland

50,354,000

Massachusetts

144,783,000

Michigan

296,860,000

Minnesota

75,850,000

Mississippi

132,443,000

Missouri

141,441,000

Montana

31,623,000

Nebraska

32,343,000

Nevada

6,767,000

New Hampshire

29,784,000

New Jersey

223,279,000

New Mexico

64,602,000

New York

192,049,000

North Carolina

187,167,000

North Dakota

25,740,000

Ohio

267,112,000

Oklahoma

87,018,000

Oregon

112,886,000

State/Territory

Total Allocation by State/Territory

Pennsylvania

315,737,000

Rhode Island

22,062,000

South Carolina

131,364,000

South Dakota

29,784,000

Tennessee

121,738,000

Texas

538,585,000

Utah

50,962,000

Vermont

24,845,000

Virginia

191,077,000

Washington

164,111,000

West Virginia

78,219,000

Wisconsin

98,589,000

Wyoming

24,080,000

 

 

American Samoa

10,748,000

Guam

10,980,000

Northern Marianas

10,703,000

Puerto Rico

0

Virgin Islands

9,974,000

 

 

Total

6,600,000,000

 



[1] The law also permits the Secretary of Education to select up to 25 additional LEAs to receive allocations from this 40 percent share, based on such factors as a low level of resources for school construction and enrollment growth.  For 2009 the Secretary has decided not to select additional LEAs.

Inside the Mind of Arne Duncan

The popular parlor game these days is trying to figure our the inner psyche of our EdSec, Arne Duncan.  Anyone who is anyone is trying to read nuanced meanings into everything he says or does.  We scour over this internal emails to ED staff, his stump speeches, the groups he speaks to (and those he doesn’t), where is going on his listening tour (and who he will listen to), and just about every stop in between.

Today, though, we are provided with two interesting insights into what makes the good ole EdSec tick.  The first are his words themselves.  For those who missed it, Duncan spoke at the National Press Club today, riffing on a whole host of issues.  The “buzz” coming out of the event is that the EdSec is pro-charter schools, seeking to lift the caps on the number of such schools.  At least that is what has been filling up Eduflack’s Tweet deck this afternoon.   The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools is also making the full clip of the “pro-charter” remarks available here.  
The leading ladies over at Politics K-12 have a more detailed description of the high points of Duncan’s NPC remarks here.
Perhaps more interesting is Eddy Ramirez’ piece over at US News & World Report today, which takes a closer look at what Duncan did as head of Chicago Public Schools to help turn around the city’s true problem-child buildings.  We’re talking closures, firing entire staffs, and bringing in third-party organizations to run the schools.  In the piece, Ramirez reflects on Duncan’s recent remarks to turn around the 1,000 lowest-performing schools in the United States — just 1 percent of our total schools — we can “move the needle” and “change the lives of tens of millions of underserved children.”
The CPS experience is interesting, particularly when one factors in the large contingent of Gates Foundation and NewSchool Venture Fund alums currently running around the seventh floor of 400 Maryland Avenue.  But like most good pieces, the USNWR piece, along with Politics K-12 provides most parties their own view on the future.  Some see the future of charter schools.  Some see school management companies.  Some are even going to see the opportunity for the teachers unions to re-inject themselves into the process and demonstrate their relevance in school improvement efforts. 
Insight is in the eye of the reader.  But no matter how you look at it, it is safe to say that Duncan is not looking to defend the status quo.  Big changes are a comin’.  If not through economic stimulus, then through the policies and programs that are soon to follow.  Duncan’s built a great deal of capital these past four-plus months defending the economic stimulus package and serving as an Administration all-around go-to guy.  Those chits are going to come due soon.  And the EdSec is laying the groundwork for some new ideas and for some legitimate rockin’ of the ed policy boat.
     

Changing the Game on College Funding

We have all heard the stories (and jokes) about college students who are on the five-, six-, or even seven-year plan.  Those students who love their college years so much, that they simply never want to leave those glory days.  Some maximize the financial aid packages available to them, some have generous families, and others just find a way to stick around their hopeful alma mater.

What few tend to talk about is, for most public colleges and universities, these professional students are big business.  Most state institutions of higher education receive public support based on enrollment numbers.  So while a typical student who graduates in the expected four years would could for four “credits” when it comes to state dollars, that student on the six-year plan counts for six.  Assuming new student enrollment numbers (both freshmen and transfers) remain steady, or increase, every year, those who stick around for an extra year or three can become a financial boon to the institution at which they are camping out.  For some institutions, there is little incentive to see students actually graduate.  As long as they remain enrolled, they are cherished.
But how do such “long-term” learning plans meet with our current calls for educational return on investment, plans to boost the number of U.S. postsecondary degreeholders, or expectations that today’s college students will fill the workforce needs of tomorrow?  Unfortunately, they often don’t.  Many students who extend their stays don’t graduate, leaving with more than a half-decade of experience and memories, but no degree to show for it.  As the nation looks to measure the effectiveness of states and their high schools based on our ability to graduate students from secondary school in four years (those who gain a diploma four years after starting ninth grade), we have few rubrics to really measure the effectiveness of postsecondary education.
Until now.
Over at USA Today, Mary Beth Marklein reports on a growing trend to link college graduation to college funding.  It seems like a simple idea long overdue.  Higher education spending coming from state government would be tied to the number of students graduating (or at least the number completing courses).  The desire is results.  If states are going to support public colleges and universities, they want their own ROI.  They want assurances that those taxpayer dollars are resulting in degree holders prepared to hold the jobs and contribute to the economy of the state that has been subsidizing their education for the past four or more years.
USA Today spotlights a couple of states that are looking to break new ground on college funding ROI, including:
* Ohio, which seeks to tie 100 percent of funding to “course and degree completion”
* Indiana, which is traveling a similar path to Ohio
* Louisiana, looking to tie 25 percent of funding to “student success”
* Missouri, basing finance for allied health and other programs on how students do on licensing exams
* Washington, funding community and technical colleges based on specific student performance hurdles
This is not a new trend, but it is taking on greater intensity.  More than half of states have tried such ROI measures over the last three decades.  Nearly half of those who have tried it have abandoned it.  Some of the best results can be seen in states such as Florida, where tough ROI measures have actually resulted in a 43 percent increase in graduation rates and an 18 percent increase in enrollment for the Sunshine State’s community colleges over the last decade.
In the coming years, we are likely to see more states looking to go down the path of the Buckeye State, particularly if Ohio successfully implements it 100-percent funding plan.  Just a few months ago, President Obama set a national goal that the United States would have the highest percentage of postsecondary degree holders in the world by the year 2020.  And the feds are looking to invest $2.5 billion into efforts to boost college completion rates.  If we are going to hit those goals, we need to turn out significantly more college graduates.  To do so, we need to transform college goers into college completers.  And to do that, we need to hold our institutions of higher education accountable (particularly since placing responsibility solely with the students has so far done us little good).
These are bold moves by state legislatures and state higher education boards.  Accountability is a tough issue, particularly when there are so many “reasons” why one fails to complete a degree path.  ROI is a tough issue, particularly with so many that believe the simple pursuit of higher education is the reward itself.  College graduation rates are a tough issue, particularly when we so struggle nationally with our ability to improve high school graduation and college-going rates, particularly with historically disadvantaged students.
But the current times call for bold moves.  There is no question that postsecondary education is quickly becoming a non-negotiable for economic success in the 21st century.  We also know that employers value the degree, and not simply the attendance record, when it comes to evaluating a potential job candidate’s educational background.  If we view state investment in higher education as an investment in strengthening the state’s economy and the state’s future, such linkages between funding and completion make sense.  Taxpayers are subsidizing these education experiences.  They have a right to demand some return on that investment.  And we all should have the expectation that when our sibling or child or spouse enrolls in postsecondary education (be it a two- or four-year institution) the ultimate goal is securing a diploma.  That’s the goal.  We should measure against it.

Answerin’ to Mr. Miller

Sometimes, what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say.  Case in point, EdSec Arne Duncan’s testimony yesterday before the House Education and Labor Committee.  Emphasizing current efforts to effectively use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars, Duncan focused on a number of issues in the free-form part of the discussion, including topics such as restraint and student loans.

The full rundown can be found over at the Committee’s website, complete with video links to testimony and key questions.  Some of the highlights from Duncan’s testimony:
Many of you have heard me say that I believe education is the civil rights issue of our time. I truly believe every child is entitled to a high-quality education. I will work closely with the Office of Civil Rights to make sure that we properly review compliance in all programs and policymaking.”
If we are going to be successful in rebuilding our economy, our early childhood programs need to prepare our youngest children for kindergarten so they’re ready to start reading and learning, our K-12 schools need to make sure our students have all of the academic knowledge and skills that they need to enter college or the workforce, and our higher education system needs to offer whatever advanced learning students need to be successful in a career, whether they will become a plumber, a teacher, or a business executive. As federal policymakers, we need to improve preparation for college and expand college access and completion by increasing financial aid so that students of all income levels can pay for college without taking on a mountain of debt.”
States must build data systems that can track student performance from one year to the next, from one school to another, so that those students and their parents know when they are making progress and when they need extra attention. This information must also be put in the hands of educators so they can use it to improve instruction. Right now, according to the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, and Utah are the only states that are reporting to have comprehensive data systems meeting the basic elements of a good system.”

“I don’t want to invest in the status quo. I want states and districts to take bold actions that will lead directly to the improvement in student learning. I want local leaders to find change agents who can fix these schools. I want them to provide incentives for their best teachers to take on the challenge of

teaching in these schools. And where appropriate, I want them to create partnerships with charter school operators with a track record of success. I want superintendents to be aggressive in taking the difficult step of shutting down a failing school and replacing it with one they know will work.”

“Our agenda from early childhood through 12th grade is focused on helping states do the right thing. And that’s appropriate because States are responsible for establishing systems of education through the 12th grade. It’s our role to make it a national priority to reform schools and help states and districts do that.”

Eduflack bookended the two quotes in particular because I find them the most intriguing of what was said.  The first is Duncan’s continued commitment to the notion that a high-quality public education is an American civil right.  Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has disagreed, determining that education is a topic best left to the states and the localities (at least according to the U.S. Constitution).  We’ve seen school equity fights in states like California and New York recently, but with limited results.  SCOTUS hasn’t really heard the issue since the Rodriguez decision in 1973.  Perhaps the EdSec is daring a forward-looking advocacy or policy organization to bring the issue before the Supreme Court yet again.  The time may be ripe.
Duncan also focused on the issue of “helping states do the right thing.”  Eduflack couldn’t agree more, but can’t help but notice Duncan’s team seems to be a little light in the state understanding department, as highlighted in our post yesterday. 
What was noticeably absent from Duncan’s testimony, though, was any mention of No Child Left Behind reauthorization.  Certainly, it is an issue that both he and Chairman Miller are all too aware of.  Maybe they’ve already had deep and intimate conversations on the topic, and thus didn’t need to talk for the sake of the public record.  Maybe Duncan believes his four pillars of the Duncan Education Department suffices as the blueprint for where we are headed.  Maybe we believe that ARRA and the President’s budget are all that we need to know when it comes to the plan for Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization this fall or next spring.
Also missing from the general love-fest over at Chairman Miller’s committee was discussion of two specific policy matters.  There was no talk of the Reading First successor bill circulating around town (which Eduflack has dubbed, Yes I Can Read), though plans to expand the Striving Readers program ten-fold did warrant a mention.  And there was no talk at all about the national education standards drafts that Achieve is rumored to be delivering to the EdSec in the coming weeks for review, discussion, and debate.
All in all, Duncan’s performance was just a regularly scheduled check-up with the Committee, a chance to show that ARRA plans are moving forward, key concerns are being addressed, and no additional attention or worry needs to be paid to the U.S. Department of Education.  The trains are running fine.  There is nothing to see here.
Me, I’m waiting for the questions that have yet to be asked.  What’s in store for our federal accountability measures?  What improvements will be made to NCLB?  What’s next for federal reading investment?  Are we really heading to national standards?  What are our expectations from these new data systems?  Are we really going to turn back the regs on four-year high school graduation rates?  And how do we ensure that every low-performing and hard-to-staff school has effective teachers leading the classroom when the feds are only contributing eight cents of every educational dollar spent?  Lots of questions.  Hopefully, the answers aren’t too far in the offing.
On a related note, I have to give kudos to Chairman Miller’s staff and the way that they make information accessible to the average parent and the average blogger.  Almost immediately, the Committee has transcripts of the prepared testimony, along with video segments of the hearing, up on the Web.  For us former Hill rats, it may not be a big deal to watch a congressional hearing, but the Committee’s use of technology really throws the sunshine on the process and improves understanding and access.  Congressman McKeon and his staff were always terrific about getting information out to interested parties, and it is good to see Chairman Miller has taken it several steps further.

Who’s Speaking for the States at ED?

In what seems like a little-publicized announcement of a major appointment, EdSec Arne Duncan has selected Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, superintendent of Pomona (CA) Unified School District to be the U.S. Department of Education’s new assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.  The choice seems to be a solid one for ED, the good doctor is a former bilingual classroom teacher, middle school assistant principal, elementary school principal, and former school district director of instruction of elementary and middle schools.  She is also a Broad Superintendents Academy alum.

Her focus on middle schools, in particular, gives Eduflack a great deal of hope.  Often, OESE focuses exclusively on elementary instruction.  To date, we’ve seen a great number of appointments at ED focused on secondary issues such as STEM and college readiness.  So an assistant secretary with a strong background in the middle grades offers some real hope to those of us who realize that improving high school graduation rates and college-going rates is a task best completed in middle school.  (In fact, once a student gets to high school, the die is usually already cast.)
But the announcement, in the context of other ED appointments, does cause Eduflack (and I’m sure many others) a great deal of pause.  As we’ve hashed and rehashed many times over, the economic stimulus package placed a great deal of responsibility and influence with our states and our state education agencies.  The State Fiscal Stabilization Fund is dispersed entirely through the SEAs.  The same will be true of the soon-to-be-rolled-out Race to the Top Fund.  In fact, much of the EdSec’s plans to improve chronically underperforming schools rests in SEAs doing new things through the Race to the Top.
And then we get into issues like state data systems, increased accountability measures, continued AYP focus, and a stronger reliance on Title I and IDEA distribution streams to drive school improvement.  All run through the states.  All require a keen understanding of how to effectively use the power of the SEA (and how to avoid the pitfalls and roadblocks that often stymie states from exactly real, lasting improvements in our schools).
No question about it.  The future of public education in the United States rests, in large part, with state decisionmakers.  Collectively, governors, state legislators, and chief state school officers will be the drivers of improvement or the obstacles to it, serving as the defenders of the status quo.  Regardless, states will be driving, navigating, and even filling the tank.
Despite this realization, there seems to be few, if any, experienced voices for the states in the U.S. Department of Education.  We have a number of superintendents and those who have worked for the LEAs.  We have higher education pros, particularly those representing the community colleges.  We have strong players who have come from Capitol Hill, think tanks and advocacy organizations, and leading philanthropies.  But who is speaking for the states, at least as a voice of experience?
Currently, that responsibility seems to be a one-woman-band of sorts.  Judy Wurtzel, formerly of the Aspen Institute and the Learning First Alliance, has been running point, providing technical assistance to the states on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (and has recently announced she is remaining at ED).  But where is the breadth and depth when it comes to those who understand the complexities of state education policy or those who are familiar with how states effectively disperse federal dollars (particularly Title I dollars) to local districts?
In recent months, we have heard a great deal about those external organizations who hold significant influence with the EdSec and leaders at ED.  Tops among them seem to the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.  Both orgs understand the challenges of the SEAs and how federal policy gets translated by the states and implemented by the localities.  They know how to hold those in the education chain accountable, both for how money is spent and how students perform.  Yet we have no former chief state school officers working out of ED.  We have no governors or top education aides to the governors.  The closest we have seem to be state legislators who are working as deputy assistant secretaries or special assistants.
Hopefully, CCSSO and NGA will remain close behind the throne, ensuring that the states have strong advocates, both in terms of the stimulus and upcoming ESEA reauthorization.  Without a strong advocate for the states, and a strong understanding for how those SEAs operate, the transition from federal policy to local implementation can be a difficult one.  We need strong hands at the state level, setting policy, building budgets, and driving change.  But we also need strong voices at ED ensuring those hands are getting the resources necessary to do what we are demanding.
We can’t make lasting student achievement gains and school transformations on a school-by-school, district-by-district basis only.  Real improvement happens at the state level, with best practice rippling across the state quickly and efficiently.  Someone needs to make sure that voice is heard as federal education policy debates move forward.  As we address accountability, data systems, Title I, and other such issues, state buy-in and state support is key.  We need to ensure that voice is heard, and heard clearly, at the federal table.  If that isn’t going to happen from the inside, it falls to those outside groups to speak loudly for their members.  Not to put added pressure on Gene Wilhoit and Dane Linn, but it really is game on now.

Measuring Opportunities to Learn

If the white smoke coming out of the U.S. Department is any indication, we have decided that the core tenets of No Child Left Behind will continue to drive policy.  In recent months, EdSec Duncan and his team have constructed the four pillars of their education platform, the cornerstones that we can expect to see at the heart of any NCLB reauthorization coming this year or next.  For those choosing not to pay attention, those pillars are (according to the folks on Maryland Avenue):

* Implementing college and career-ready standards and assessments
* Creating comprehensive data systems that track students throughout their education career and track teachers back to schools of education so we can better understand which programs are producing teachers that make a difference
* Recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers — paying more to teachers who work in tough schools
* Turning around chronically underperforming schools
Essentially, Duncan and company are calling for every student to have an equal opportunity to learn.  Every child should have an outstanding teacher.  We need to collect better data, establish better standards, and continue our vigilant assessment efforts to ensure a high-quality education is had by all.  And we need to identify those schools where it is not happening, and take the immediate steps to turn it around.
You’ll get no argument from Eduflack on any of that.  All are important.  All should be priorities.  All are essential if we are to continue our forward momentum on student achievement gains and begin to address the persistent problem evidenced by unmovable achievement gap.  But it is as essential as the ED talking points make it seem?
According to a new report issued by the Schott Foundation for Public Education today, the answer is no.  In its Lost Opportunity study, the Schott Foundation looked at all 50 states and their ability to provide a public education system that is both moderately proficient and high access.  To measure proficiency, they looked at 8th grade NAEP reading scores.  For access, the looked at NCES data on the likelihood that a historically disadvantaged student would attend a top quartile high school in the state. 
The results will surprise a great number of people.  Only 16 percent of states — just eight of them — are providing a moderately proficient, high-access public education to all students.  Vermont is tops in the nation, followed by Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Virginia.
Sixteen states provided a moderately proficient education, but provided low access; 17 states provided low proficiency, but high access.  And at the bottom of the list, Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, Rhode Island, Texas, West Virginia, and District of Columbia are providing both low proficiency and low access, with DC scoring lowest in both categories to be the big “winner” in this competition.
What is most surprising about the data is what we have to settle for when it comes to our definition of proficiency and access.  The rankings are comparative.  We have obviously have no states where we have 100-percent student proficiency or true equal access to a high-quality public education.  In fact, on proficiency, the top score is 43 percent (held by Massachusetts), meaning that nearly 60 percent of students are below proficient in 8th grade reading.  Yet that is the gold standard in the country.  By comparison, states are providing a moderately proficient education if they can get less than a third (32 percent) of their 8th graders at proficient or better in reading.
Same is true on the access side.  High-access states are those that essentially provide a 50-percent chance at equal access.  Because of some very real and tangible struggles many states have in providing true equity to all students, getting it right half the time is now the measure of success, by comparison.
What does it all mean?  To paraphrase from Robert Frost, we have many, many miles to go before we sleep.  There are no states that are truly doing it right, not when 40 percent is the gold standard.  Every state in the union has work to do when it comes to providing a high-quality, high-equity education to all students.  Every state has work to do when it comes to ensuring that historically disadvantaged students have the same access to the American educational dream as their white, non-Hispanic counterparts.  Every state has work to do when it comes to ensuring every student is on the path to success, regardless or race, socioeconomic status, or zip code.  Every state just has work to do.
We cannot close the achievement gap in this country without first addressing the opportunity gap.  Students can’t succeed if they aren’t afforded access to the schools, teachers, and resources that put them on the path to success.  That’s why information like that found in Lost Opportunity is so important.  By taking a new cut at data we have seen before (NAEP and NCES data), Schott is providing us a new perspective of our progress in education reform and the hard road ahead for continued improvement.  (As I’ve noted previously, Eduflack has worked with the Schott Foundation on its Opportunity to Learn efforts.)
The Lost Opportunity report is definitely worth a look, particularly when you get under the hood and look at the individual states and how they fare when it comes to quality, equity, and access to resources.  The data isn’t pretty, but it is fascinating.  All of the information, including the individual state reports, can be found at www.otlstatereport.org.  
Why this study?  Why now?  The answer to that is best left to Dr. John Jackson, the President and CEO of the Schott Foundation.  In releasing the report now, two days after the 55th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, he said:
“This serves as a wake-up call to every governor, legislature, state education commissioner, and schools superintendent that falsely believes we are getting the job done in our classrooms.  According to their own data, only eight states are providing a moderately proficient, high-access public education to all.  After a decade of leaving no child behind, we are finding that an entire generation of students is again all but forgotten.”
Here’s hoping we are listening to the call, and ready to act on it.

Presidential Commencement in the Desert

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about President Obama’s decision to speak at graduation festivities at the University of Notre Dame.  But little had been said about yesterday’s presidential commencement address at Arizona State University.  Yes, there was some initial discussion about ASU’s decision not to award Obama the traditional honorary degree (apparently, ASU’s policy is that one is recognized for their full lifetime body of work, and the President of the United States still has to prove himself and still has other career chapters ahead of him), but that’s been about it.  But few are discussing what’s behind the curtain on last night’s address in Tempe.

As to be expected, the President did a fine rhetorical job in the desert.  He used the moment to inspire, urging students to pursue their passions and make a difference.  He made light of the honorary degree scuffle.  And he did what one would expect from a President in what will become the core of a relatively standard graduation address he will deliver two to three times a year, for the next four to eight years.  USA Today has a good article on the graduation here,  The Arizona Republic provides us the local view here.
We expect such speeches to be motivational, and not wake-up calls.  We want to applaud achievements, inspiring graduates to make a difference in their communities, not dwell on the fact that so few of those ASU grads are now leaving campus with actual jobs in hand.  We don’t want to talk about the economic realities around us, particularly with so many people leaving the last four, five, or six years of college with five or sic figures of debt to worry about in a time where job prospects for new college grads are at some of their weakest levels.
But one does have to wonder how Arizona State University was selected as Obama’s only address to a public university this spring, and the first time a sitting president has ever participated in ASU’s commencement ceremony.  The decision is particularly vexing when we look at the Administration’s rhetoric on student achievement and performance, and take a second look at the Grand Canyon State and the Sun Devils in particular.
The general consensus among educators is the eighth grade NAEP reading score is the best harbinger of student success.  It provides a better longitudinal view that the fourth grade scores, and it provides a more complete picture than the scores of 17-year-olds, particularly recognizing that so many students have dropped out of high school before taking those 11th grade NAEP reading exams.  Knowing that the vast majority of ASU students are coming from the state of Arizona, how do Arizonans do on 8th grade NAEP reading?  Only 24 percent of Arizona 8th graders score proficient or better on our Nation’s Report Card when it comes to reading.  That’s good enough to rank 42nd out of 50 states.  Hardly the beacon of college preparatory hope we would want to honor with the merriment of commencement commencing.  
But the numbers are even more startling when one looks at the success of ASU students, at least in terms of their ability to earn that sheepskin in the first place.  We often talk about the high school graduation rates, the need to measure success based on a four-year yardstick (one’s ability to graduate high school four years after starting ninth grade).  We then joke about the five- or six-year plan that many postsecondary students choose to employ during their college years.  Surely, just about anyone can earn that diploma after spending six years in search of 120 credits, right?
Actually, no.  The folks over at Education Trust has spent a lot of time and effort taking a look the postsecondary numbers through their College Results initiative.  They even break down the numbers so one can compare a school like ASU with other peer institutions (as, to be fair, not everyone is competing with Princeton or Stanford).  What did EdTrust find?  In its peer group, Arizona State is the largest institution, in terms of enrollment, yet it has the lowest six-year graduation rate.  Only 56 percent of ASU students graduate six years after enrolling.  Even more disturbing, only 46 percent of minority students end up leaving ASU with that diploma.
When you disaggregate the numbers even further, you see that half of Hispanic students who enroll at ASU graduate within six years.  For African Americans, that number drops to 42 percent.  For Native Americans, an important population in Arizona, the figure is a disappointing 25 percent.  
So when Eduflack looks at these numbers, one has to ask, from a purely spotlight perspective, why ASU and not Louisiana State University (57% grad overall and 51% minority grad), or University of Central Florida (58% and 53%, respectively), or Michigan State (with a 74% overall grad rate and 54% African American and Native American grad rates and 58% Hispanic)?  It is even more puzzling when you see Florida and Michigan, at least, also outperforming Arizona on that important NAEP measure.
I don’t doubt there were good reasons to head to Tempe this week.  Nor do I want to deny the more than half of students who have persevered for the last four to six years and earned their degree from hearing the President and reflecting and rejoicing in their accomplishment.  They earned a college degree, and that should be applauded, regardless of the circumstances around them.
But in this era of economic worry and global competitiveness, this time of student achievement and school innovation, the President missed a golden opportunity to talk about those who were not let into the party.  He missed the chance to talk about the 76 percent of Arizonans who are not provided an equal chance to graduate from high school or attend institutions like Arizona State because they cannot read at a proficient level.  He missed the opportunity to call on the state and the institution to do something about the 44 percent of students, and the 54 percent of minority students, who don’t make it to the final ceremony.  He missed the chance to celebrate those who have achieved, but remind all of those who were left behind and urge us all to redouble our commitment to reducing the pool of close but no cigars.
Earlier this year, President Obama pledged that, by 2020, the United States would have the highest percentage of college graduates on the planet.  We don’t get there when only six in 10 college freshmen are holding a degree six years later.  And we certainly can’t get there when only four in 10 of historically disadvantaged students are earning the honor.
No, we don’t want to use these commencement addresses to bum out the graduates or bring the crowds down.  It should be a time for optimism, recognition, and congratulation.  But such presidential addresses must be delivered in the context of the world around us.  Let Obama applaud the students at Arizona State and Notre Dame.  But let’s have EdSec Duncan and the team on Maryland Avenue point out the miles we have to go on the issue of postsecondary degree attainment.  Use these addresses to issue a call to arms among both our secondary and postsecondary institutions that they can, should, and must do a better job.  
Fifty-six percent grad rate is a starting point, not an end point.  Schools like ASU should be our reclamation projects, nor our exemplars of best practice.  No offense to Arizo
na State, you just get the spotlight because you won the White House lottery this year.  Next year, such concerns can be raised about future institutions.  But when you get the President speaking about hope and opportunity for your graduates, one has to take a close took at those who failed to don the cap and gown, why they weren’t in the stadium last evening, and what that means for ASU, Arizona, and the nation.  
We know our 21st century economy is going to be driven largely by those holding postsecondary credentials.  Seems we need to hold those postsecondary institutions accountable.  After years of taking student tuition and indulging students on the five- or six-year plan, what are they doing to get all students — particularly those from minority, low-income, or first-generation college going families — across the finish line?  What are institutions like ASU doing to help meet the President’s 2020 degree goal?  And what are we doing if they don’t, or can’t, provide real answers to the question?