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K-12 Education: Federal Involvement

March 23, 2012
Shepherdstown Chronicle

I hear a lot of complaints from constituents about our public schools. Some are valid, some are not. One aspect of K-12 public school policy that I think is particularly misunderstood by the general public is how much of what is decided is the result of the federal government's policies.

Indeed, it is not only the public that misunderstands much of K-12 education policy. Many legislators are in the dark as well. Today let's talk about the relationship between state government and the "feds" regarding K-12 public schools.

Our state is spending in the current fiscal year (which ends this coming June 30) just over $2.55 billion on K-12 education. Of that amount about $520 million (just over 20%) is money given to us by the federal government for various purposes.

This is the last year of the federal stimulus program, which has helped us keep hundreds of teachers on the job. Without it we would have had to increase class sizes significantly. The budget just adopted for the upcoming fiscal year reflects a drop in federal funds of about $60 million. The federal share of our K-12 budget will drop to the approximately 18% it was before the temporary boost the stimulus represented took effect three years ago.

West Virginia was one of only a few states that did not have to lay off teachers during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Fortunately the economy seems to be improving, so we can hope that teacher layoffs will be few, even after the stimulus funds dry up.

The approximately $460 million in federal funds West Virginia will spend this year on K-12 public education will be spent in about 20 categories. Four of those categories represent close to 90 percent of all of that federal money. The two categories that represent the controversial "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) program are just over $180 million, or about 40 percent of the total federal expenditures in our state. The other two topical areas that constitute significant federal spending are special education ($107.5 million, about 23 percent of all federal funds) and child nutrition ($116 million, which is 25.5 perent of the federal total).

With federal money comes a set of federal rules. Many of the rules governing special education are rules required by the federal government. And much of the consternation involving NCLB is about some of the rules that program requires states to obey. Federal rules cover a myriad of areas, including assessment of school performance and teacher evaluation.

The central purpose of NCLB was to eliminate the "learning gap" between certain minorities (particularly black and hispanic Americans) and the general population. It was a laudable goal of President George W. Bush which I fully supported and still support. But it had a few weaknesses. President Bush was right about much of the problem, but the chosen solution hasn't worked out well.

While the feds spend a lot of money on NCLB, the money from them does not fully cover the cost of compliance with the law. The failure of the federal government to fully fund its mandates on the states may be NCLBs greatest flaw.

There are some students not classed as "minorities" (including Appalachian whites) who lag behind the general population in educational attainment.

NCLB requires extensive testing of students, to the point that many schools all over the country are accused of requiring teachers to "teach to the test." All these tests are costly and time consuming. And these tests are only focused on a limited number of subject areas (primarily mathematics and reading). To me whatever testing is done should cover all of the basics in a curriculum. I think the word "basics" should include history, geography, biology, art and a number of other disciplines.

Another flaw in NCLB is the rule that a school that does not make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) is labeled in such a way that it is perceived as a "failing" school. If that school falls short of AYP for several years in a row funding is pulled and parents are subsidized to send their children to another school. This rule was meant to insert a measure of the concept called "school choice" into the mix.

School choice makes a lot more sense in urban areas than rural ones. There are areas of West Virginia where the closest elementary school is over a half hour from some homes. Should parents not desire for their children to attend that school the next one might be well over an hour away (one way, not round trip).

Last year the US Department of Education began allowing states to seek waivers from some of the rules of NCLB. Many states did so quite rapidly. Last month the West Virginia Department of Education finally asked for such a waiver.

Not all of the problems in West Virginia K-12 education are the result of the federal government. A recent audit uncovered some very serious "home-grown" problems. We need to fix them.

But I think the federal government's approach to public education should be more of "let's see how we can help you solve your problems" and less of "here's how you must go about solving your problems."

This coming week we'll have our two regular "town meetings" to discuss the results of this year's Regular Session of the Legislature. The first will be held on Tuesday, Mar. 27, at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University. The second will take place on Thursday, March 29, at the Bolivar Community Center (60 Panama Street in Bolivar). Both will start at 7p.m. and end by 8:30 p.m. At each I'll give a synopsis of the session and take questions.



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