Education Funding

Teachers’ Unions Slam Obama K-12 Budget Proposals

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 17, 2010 6 min read
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Major education groups, including the heads of both national teachers’ unions, urged a House appropriations subcommittee Wednesday to reconsider the Obama administration’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal, which would put all new education funding into competitive grants rather than into aid formulas.

They also opposed attaching new requirements, such as mandating that states overhaul their teacher-evaluation systems, as a condition of accepting the formula dollars.

“Title I [aid for disadvantaged students] needs to be a formula-driven program,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers. “We believe that Title I funding should not be based on outcomes of political fights at the state level, ... and it also should not be based on how well a district can write a grant.”

For their part, lawmakers on the panel generally gave few clues about whether they were inclined to follow the administration’s proposal. They chose instead to focus most of their queries not on the upcoming budget cycle, but on the impact of the 2009 economic-stimulus legislation.

But subcommittee Chairman David R. Obey, D-Wis., in his sole reference to the 2011 budget cycle, expressed skepticism about moving ahead with reform proposals amid a battered economy.

“While the sailboat is sinking, I wouldn’t be concerned with putting another coat of varnish on it,” he said. “At a time when districts are in big trouble because of the economic situation in the country, to be focused as much as we are on the reform aspects of the administration’s budget is a mistake.”

Competitive Worries

The hearing took place even as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was receiving a generally positive bipartisan reception from members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, where he discussed the administration’s plans for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The administration’s budget proposal would essentially flat-fund Title I grants, transform several other formula streams into competitive programs, and cut the Title II teacher-quality state grants by $500 million. It would also consolidate 38 smaller programs into a number of new competitive programs.

The budget proposals correspond in large part to the administration’s newly released blueprint for the reauthorization of the ESEA, known in its most recent overhaul as the No Child Left Behind Act.

The teachers’-union concerns were echoed by the president of the American Association of School Administrators, Daniel A. Domenech.

“School districts and systems need a certain level of financial stability to undertake the ambitious innovation and reform proposed by the president’s budget, a level of reliability and consistency that cannot be achieved through competitive funding,” his testimony stated.

Funding for the Title I program should reflect any additional requirements a reauthorized ESEA might place on school districts, Mr. Domenech added.

“We see as we look at the blueprint that there are [provisions] in there, and I will point specifically to requirements for the development of new assessments and the collection of new data, the analysis of new data, and the reporting of that data, that would basically amount to an unfunded mandate,” he told the committee.

The blueprint also spells out several new conditions for states accepting Title I and Title II formula aid. States would have to commit to adopting “college- and career-ready standards,” linking individual teachers to performance data on their students, and incorporating student-achievement data into overhauled teacher-evaluation systems.

The president of the 3.2 million-member NEA, Dennis Van Roekel, characterized the requirements as an overreaching of federal authority.

Administration officials “say they don’t want to micromanage, and then they tell 15,000 school districts how to evaluate and pay teachers,” Mr. Van Roekel said in an interview. “That’s micromanaging.”

Of the panelists, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers was the sole witness to support the administration’s plan to consolidate the smaller programs.

Doing so “makes sense” and would reduce states’ burdens in juggling multiple programs, said the CCSSO’s Gene Wilhoit, though he added that the purposes of the new programs should be clearly spelled out.

That proposal won a favorable reception from the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas, but otherwise was not a topic of discussion.

In fact, Chairman Obey and his colleagues spent much of the morning’s hearing quizzing the panelists about the effects of the stimulus law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in school districts and about the need for an additional jobs bill.

“I would hope we’d pay more attention to just keeping local school district and taxpayers’ heads above water until the economy is more fully recovered,” he said.

Unions Oppose Blueprint

In addition to raising concerns about the administration’s education funding plans, the leaders of both teachers’ unions detailed their objections to its blueprint for the reauthorization of the ESEA.

Mr. Van Roekel argued that the blueprint would continue to rely too heavily on standardized tests to gauge student progress.

The plan unveiled this month by the U.S. Department of Education proposes expanding the subjects in which states could test students in making accountability determinations. But it does not say that they may use non-test-based measures in doing so. The NEA, in contrast, has long argued that such “multiple measures” should be used, including student-attendance rates, student work samples, and parent surveys.

“There ought to be multiple measures, and that doesn’t mean three or four tests instead of one—it means multiple ways of measuring,” Mr. Van Roekel said.

Ms. Weingarten of the AFT focused on the school improvement requirements in the ESEA plan, which are identical to those the administration put forward for the $3.5 billion in federally appropriated School Improvement Grant money.

To receive those federal funds, states would have to agree to reform the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, including high schools with low graduation rates, through one of four options: closing a school and enrolling its students elsewhere; adopting a “turnaround” model that entails firing the principal and rehiring no more than half the staff; reopening the school as a charter school or under new management; or making wholesale changes by revamping curricula, adding alternative pay systems, and introducing extended learning time.

An affiliate of the AFT in Central Falls, R.I., has been engaged in a nationally watched dispute with its district’s superintendent over teacher firings under the “turnaround” model.

The NCLB law currently allows districts with schools that have repeatedly missed testing targets to replace principals and staff members, but few have actually opted to do so. Instead, most districts have favored an option of implementing “any other major restructuring” of the school, such as by hiring an outside consultant or using a new curriculum.

In essence, Ms. Weingarten urged the federal lawmakers to preserve that option, allowing schools to draw on “research-based approaches” to customize interventions for students in struggling schools.

“We can’t fire our way to an improved education system, and we can’t wish our way to it,” she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week

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