Sunday, March 29, 2009

Devil in the Details, Part II

Here's what the Superintendent of Hardin-Houston Local Schools had to say after analyzing the Governor's proposal:

Letter to Superintendents of All 613 Ohio Public School Districts

I must admit, after realizing that our school district is to receive a 0% increase in FY2010 and 2% increase in FY 2011, as per the governor's proposed education funding plan, I became concerned. I certainly don't begrudge other school districts receiving double digit increases, but fail to understand the logic or fairness in the governor's plan. If you haven't done so, I urge you to read the 43 page special analysis report clarifying the governor's education reform plan. When I asked the governor during one of his statewide stops (Piqua) how these reforms were going to be funded, his response was "I am committing to you , if my plan is passed, that whatever your cost is beyond the 20 mills collected, the state will provide for the nurse, nurse's aides, all day kindergarten, and other costs in my education reform plan." I went back to my district and added up the amount of money (figures verified by our treasurer and county auditor) we receive from increased property values in a typical year from being at the 20 mill floor, and it is less than $20,000.

After studying the governor's analysis of his executive budget proposal, I estimated the additional personnel costs of what these reforms would be for our school district (which does not address everything- like adding a life and readiness course at the middle school grades, and providing resources for extended learning opportunites before or after the school day). Our ADM is 903 students. Here is our cost estimate (including fringe benefits) of what this plan, if enacted, would cost us in just the first year's time:

4 extra school days, eventually up to 20 extra days - figured by per daily personnel costs x 4:

All-Day Kindergarten:District already locally pays for this:

1 full-time registered nurse:

3 nurse's aides, 1 for each grade-band: K-5, 6-8, 9-12:

8 additional teachers and classrooms to achieve 15:1 ratio for grades K-3:

4-year teacher residency similar to what is required to medical doctors:
(Who pays for this?)

3 Family and Community Engagement Coordinators, 1 for each grade-band: K-5, 6-8, 9-12:

1 Social Worker, 1 social worker needed per every 200 economically disadvantaged students:

3 lead teachers to provide mentoring and professional development, 1 for each grade-band: K-5, 6-8, 9-12:

3 special education aides, 1 special education aide for every 2 special education teachers:

1 principal and 1 secretary, 1 for each grade-band: K-5, 6-8, 9-12:

7 non-instructional aides, 2 per elementary and middle grades, 3 per high school:

3 building managers, 1 for each grade-band: K-5, 6-8, 9-12, each assigned to non-academic duties that will allow principal to devote more time to educational leadership:

2 specialist teachers to achieve a ratio of 5:1 core teachers in grades K-8:

1 career technical specialist to achieve ratio of 1:10 of core teachers in grades 9-12:

Total: $3,485,000

If you would like to voice your opinion on this proposed education/funding reform plan, please contact your state representatives.

Then, in a letter to the Dayton Daily News, Mr. Scheu went on to say:

In our small school district of 903 students (K-12), Gov. Ted Strickland's proposed budget for the next two years indicates we will receive a 0 percent and 2 percent increase. Nearly 50 percent of school districts are projected to receive these minimal increases (or decreases), while the remaining 50 percent receive significantly more percentage increases; many are double-digit increases.

Is this what fixing the school funding formula and equity funding is all about?

Based on the governor's proposed educational reforms, next year's estimated cost alone for us will be $3.5 million. Nobody at any level of government has yet to indicate where this funding is coming from.

Much of this $3.5 million needs to be budgeted to pay for hiring additional staff to comply with the reform mandates. The vast majority of these required hires have little or no impact on student learning in the classrooms, such as adding nurses, nurse's aides, social workers, building managers, family and community engagement teams, etc.

All-day kindergarten and extended school year sound great. Now be responsible and show us where the money is coming from.

I am one superintendent tired of dealing with unfunded mandates.

John Scheu

So far, it seems only the large urban districts like the Governor's plan. In the past, it has been the urban and rural legislative districts which have been able to join forces to outvote the suburbs on school funding matters. It looks like so far the suburban and rural districts are apt to be allies vs the urban districts on the Governor's plan. That just means that there's a lot more politics to go, and we don't really know how it's going to work out for districts like Hilliard.

My bet remains as it has always been – that the plan will be tweaked to get enough support from the rural districts so that the rural+urban coalition once again emerges and sticks it to the suburbs.

Thanks to both the Columbus Dispatch Education Blog and the State of Ohio Education blog for

Sunday, March 22, 2009

City of Hilliard Planning Underway

When you have a few minutes, please take this online survey presented by the City of Hilliard.

As a 20 year resident of Brown Township, neither I nor my neighbors have much influence over how the incorporated municipalities we border decide to do business. Yet the actions of those municipalities are a primary determinant of the economic sustainability of Hilliard City Schools, the government entity the people of our patchwork community says they value the most.

The future is very much in jeopardy for our school district. For the 30 years we have made this community our home, folks have been generous with their support of our schools district. That generosity is most visible in the number and quality of the school buildings, but by far the greatest investment we've made is in the compensation and benefits of a large and talented corps of educators and supporting staff.

For the last decade or so, the key economic issue has been population growth. As more and more houses, condominiums and apartments have been built, the student population of our school district has exploded. Just ten years ago, in 1999, our student population was 12,005. At the end of 2008, it was 15,150 – an increase of more than 3,000 kids (26%).

The increase in operating costs has been even more dramatic. The school district calculates a statistic called "Cost to Graduate" which estimates the total cost of sending a kid through our school system from the first day of kindergarten to graduation. In 1999 that number was $60,387. By 2008, it had grown to $100,773, an increase of 67%. This is driven by two things: a) the growth in compensation and benefits for the teachers, administrators and staff; and, b) the total number of employees on the team. This is a significant problem, but not one related to municipal politics – the subject of this note.

The cost of growth and costs has shown up in the taxes collected from the residents and businesses of our community. In 1999, the school district levied $62 million in property taxes. By 2008, that number had grown to $112 million, which works out to an 80% increase.

Some of that increase was paid by new residents and businesses that have found a home in our school district since 1999. But the property taxes paid by those of us who have lived here all that time have grown significantly - by 60%.

The back-of-the-envelope analysis works out like this: if property taxes have increased 60% on homeowners who have been here for the past ten years, the baseline of $62 million of property taxes levied in 1999 grew to $100 million per year solely because of the increase in taxes on residents and businesses who were already here in 1999. Therefore only $12 million/year in new tax revenue has been paid by all the new folks who have moved here since 1999 – the folks who brought with them 3,000 more kids - while residents who were here prior to 1999 pay $38 million/yr to fund the growth. Doesn't seem fair, right?

The way that can be countered is with commercial development. New commercial properties generate property taxes, but no additional kids. We need much more of that. Mayor Schonhardt likes to say it's the City of Columbus that's screwing things up, but my research suggests that $2.4 million in new annual school revenue has been generated by the businesses in the Columbus part of the Rome-Hilliard corridor alone.

Meanwhile, most of the new houses have been built in the City of Hilliard in order to preserve access to the Hilliard schools (and avoid being assigned to Columbus school by the terms of the Win-Win Agreement). I suspect that the numbers would show that residential development in the Columbus part of the school district has been better balanced by commercial development than is the case in the City of Hilliard.

Nonetheless, Mayor Schonhardt has just annexed another 1,000 acres for residential development into the City of Hilliard. Granted, his administration has also opened up a lot of land for commercial development along the new Trueman Blvd and Britton Parkway.

But he could have opened up that commercial land without annexing all this residential land in Brown Twp – it's not like one requires the other.

I suspect that if we had not slammed into this global economic mess, we would right now be watching houses springing up west of Alton-Darby Rd. More houses means more kids means more expense which means more taxes.

The only way to break out of that cycle is to demand that the City of Hilliard not allow one more house to be built until many new commercial properties are built and occupied on Trueman Blvd, Britton Pkwy and the other commercial tracts already established.

I encourage you to take this survey, and tell the Mayor exactly that.

Encourage your friends to do the same.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Learning the Basics

We often hear that our education system is falling behind those of the rest of the developed world, and that if America wants to continue to be a powerful and wealthy nation, we need to pour zillions more dollars into our education system to ensure that our graduates are prepared to compete in the global economy.

Per the comment from 'Anonymous' below - let me make this clear - I do not agree with this assertion! In fact, I believe just the opposite - that we're well past the point of diminishing returns, where more money doesn't fix the problem.

I'm no expert on education, but I have had a chance to work with people from all over the world, and the pleasure of traveling to many places. One of my best friends is an Indian gentleman who grew up in a working class home, the son of a postal worker.

Once he completed elementary school, the competition began. If his eventual goal was college (and it was), then he had to compete for one of the limited number of seats in the college preparatory high schools (which he did successfully). Then to get into college, the competition was even more intense. My friend was one of literally a handful of students admitted to the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world, where he graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Unlike the case with American colleges, nearly 100% of his freshman classmates graduated with him. Those unable to do the work had been weeded out long beforehand.

India is perhaps the extreme. With so many people and so much poverty, their government cannot afford to expend resources without the expectation of results. So they don't force kids who have neither the interest nor the competence to sit in the classrooms taking courses yet gaining little benefit for themselves or their society.

But my observation is that India is not so unique in the world in its approach of being more selective about which kids are offered the college prep curriculum in high school.

I once hosted a Japanese gentleman who is a teacher of English in a high school near Tokyo. He told me the Japanese system is somewhat like the one in India, in that students must demonstrate ability via tough exams in order to be admitted to the college prep high schools. The competition is so fierce that most of the kids attend tutoring sessions after school in order to increase their chances of being accepted into a college prep high school, for failure to do so risks disgracing themselves and their family.

In 2001, I had the privilege of serving as a chaperone for a group of Darby kids, including my youngest daughter, who traveled to Germany to visit and attend classes with students of the Vitzthum Gymnasium in Dresden. In Germany, a gymnasium is not a physical education facility, but rather their word for a college prep high school. As is the case in India and Japan, the college prep track is not just a course of study within a common public school, it is a completely separate facility. When we were there, in early June, the graduating seniors were having their oral graduation examination.

That's right – oral examinations. One by one, the kids had to appear before a panel of teachers sitting in a room dressed up especially for the occasion - behind a table with white linen tablecloths, candelabras, and vases of flowers – and be grilled on any subject.

So what happens to the kids in India, Japan and Germany who don't qualify for the college prep high schools?

They are certainly not cast aside. They are given high quality education in skills and trades which prepare them for immediate employment in the workforce. We call this vocation education in our country, but tend to say it with a sneer, like only 'dumb' kids would make this choice. Not so in other countries – they recognize the need for skilled workers, and are not about to waste resources forcing a kid to sit through a high school curriculum that prepares them for failure in college and leaves them without a trade.

This article was prompted by an editorial that appeared in the March 14, 2009 edition of The Columbus Dispatch entitled "Education too centered on college prep," written by Thomas M. Stephens. Stephens is a professor emeritus of the College of Education of The Ohio State University. Here is some of what he had to say:

"The current consensus is that simply raising the bar will improve public schools. This is group-think and it's wrong. It tries to turn high schools into mini-academies. Yet only about half of Ohio's high-schoolers enroll in college, and only about half of them finish. That could be interpreted as having 75% of Ohio's high-school students getting an education that isn't best suited for them"

"Regardless of aptitudes and motivation, all students are to be respected and treated with dignity – not forced to pass tests for which they lack sufficient aptitude. Force students to achieve beyond their thresholds and they feel stupid and will turn away from schooling. Give them options, open up the curriculum, and let them know that those who don't go to college are just as worthy as those who do."

"In the long run, more of our students will have skills for employment and more will be prepared to be productive citizens."

Readers of this blog know that I make no attempt to claim any special knowledge about the field of education. So the purpose of this article is not to argue the validity of Professor Stephens' views, but to point out that if he is right, we seem to be wasting a lot of resources trying to force all kids through a curriculum that benefits neither the kid nor society.

In 2006, the new Ohio Core Curriculum was made law via Ohio Revised Code 3313.603, requiring all kids beginning with those who enter 9th grade in 2010 to complete four years of math, through Algebra II, as well as advanced study of chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, geology or other earth or space science.

Further reading of ORC 3313.603 yields what may be the driving force behind this law:

"Whereas teacher quality is essential for student success in completing the Ohio core curriculum, the General Assembly shall appropriate funds for strategic initiatives designed to strengthen schools' capacities to hire and retain highly qualified teachers in the subject areas required by the curriculum. Such initiatives are expected to require an investment of $120 million over five years."

I sense the fingerprints of the Ohio Education Association all over this legislation. The punchline of this law isn't that it will create the so-called "21st Century Workforce," but rather that it earmarks $120 million of the state budget to go towards teacher compensation. To be sure, an argument can be made that some of this money could be spent on better classroom equipment and technology, and perhaps more training opportunities for teachers in these subject areas. In fact one way that this provision could be enacted is to provide a special scholarship programs to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers to allow them to add to their college credentials. Of course, the teacher pay structure in Ohio rewards gaining such credentials with higher pay, regardless of whether or not more credentials actually improves teacher performance.

It looks like the Federal Government is going to be passing out money by the truckload to try to prevent another Great Depression, and a fair chunk of that money is most likely going to end up in Ohio's education system, just because of the political power of the school employee unions. If we're not careful, this (hopefully) one-time influx of money will permanently raise the cost of running our public schools through the creation of all kinds of good and not-so-good initiatives that morph into 'must-have' components of our education system – just like air-conditioned buildings and football stadiums.

By the way, the Vitzthum Gymnasium we visited in Germany had neither air-conditioning nor elaborate facilities for athletic competition or performance arts. I sat in a class one day and listened to my friend Uwe Fleck teach his students about the element of English grammar called the 'gerund,' a concept not present in German. When he asked the American kids visiting his class to explain the usage of the gerund in English, they all sat there with blank stares.

Seems the German kids learn more about English grammar than do our own.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New Teacher Performance Policies: Does Obama Mean It?

As reported in the Washington Post today:

The president signaled a willingness to take on some traditional Democratic constituencies, including teachers unions, which in the past have been skeptical of some merit pay proposals. Senior administration officials, who declined to be named because they were describing the speech before it was delivered, said Obama would include the unions in discussions about any incentive plans.

He said he intends to treat "teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable." Good teachers will be given pay raises, he said, and "be asked to accept more responsibility for lifting up their schools."

But Obama also said stated that schools districts must be "taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom."

"Let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching," Obama said. "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."
These are astounding words from a Democratic President, especially one who was supported so vigorously by the teachers' unions.

And he said exactly what I believe, as you can read from an article I wrote in 2006 called "Sacred Cows."

So now the question is: Does he mean it? Will he spend valuable political capital to actually make it happen? Or will it get watered down into some compromise that fails to achieve the goal and ultimately costs us even more?

I remember when JFK said we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. While lots of bad stuff happened in the 60s, the space program kept driving toward JFK's goal, and in July 1969 I, like the rest of the world, was glued to the TV watching live pictures of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon. I wish JFK had been alive to see it as well. One could argue that the space program was one of the key threads that kept our nation together at a time when it seemed everything else was blowing apart.

You might accuse me of being overly dramatic comparing JFK's goal to this one President Obama has put before us. But I think in doing so you would be underestimating the enormity of the task of changing the way teachers are employed. I suspect that in aggregate, the teachers' unions are the largest labor union in the country, in terms of active members. Few initiatives have been fought against more vigorously than the implementation of merit pay and the abolition of tenure. Ask Michelle Rhee, the innovative Chancellor of public schools in Washington DC.

This will be a very interesting story to follow...

Friday, March 6, 2009

Not Worth Mentioning

Hilliard Mayor Don Schonhardt gave his annual State of the City Address this week, summarizing the current situation for the City, and his plan for going forward (full text of his speech available here).

Readers of this blog know that I am no fan of Mayor Schonhardt, because even when he says: "I'm proud of the record of this administration, where we genuinely live the theme of placing our citizens first," the evidence seems to be otherwise.

To be sure, a number of positive things have taken place during his administration, and he spells out many of them in his Address. Clearly the creation of Trueman Boulevard, the extension of Britton Parkway, and the widening of Rome-Hilliard Rd have all significantly enhanced traffic flows and opened up new areas for commercial development.

My criticism is, and has been, statements like this: "We have managed residential growth and increased the commercial tax based in the city." As I have said before, the Mayor seems to want to take responsibility for the nationwide collapse of the residential housing market – because that is what has limited development, not his actions. He knows this is the real truth - later in his speech he laments that "fees will be flat to negative because we won't have the demand for building permits," and in doing so he admits that the low volume of residential development is the result of a lack of demand, not his leadership.

Note that the Mayor made no mention – none whatsoever – of the nearly 1,000 acres that has, in the last couple of months, been annexed by the City of Hilliard for the purpose of residential development. For a Mayor who is not at all shy about tooting his own horn, why wouldn't this get a mention in his annual State of the City Address?

Perhaps it is because he knows it isn't a good thing, he can't defend it as being a good thing, and so would rather not bring this truth into the light. When the housing market recovers, this 1,000 acres will get covered with who knows how many new homes, creating costs for both the City and the School District which far exceeds the tax revenue necessary to support the requirements of those homeowners. That shortfall will be borne by all of us now living in, and operating businesses in the community, including those of us who live within the school district but outside the Hilliard city limits. We all suffer the consequences of the Mayor's ambitions whether or not his name was ever on our ballot.

So I don't believe the Mayor when he says: "I do care about what kind of community we leave for our children." His actions suggest that he has some other agenda which is the primary driver of his administration. I've long been interested in understanding what that is.