Category Archives: State Education Policy

Three Takeaways from the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium

Last week, I spent a day with hundreds of teachers who work in Arizona’s prisons, jails, and juvenile justice facilities talking about the ways they can best support their students and continue to improve the ways that their systems operate. After presenting at the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium, an annual convening and professional development event for teachers in secure schools from across the state, I found myself thinking about three key takeaways:

As in all education systems, needlessly complex bureaucracy interferes with effective teaching

Like conventional public education, most correctional education is managed by state agencies and sometimes delegated or contracted to other providers. Correctional education, however, has no consistent governance framework. Where most states have a state office of education that oversees local education agencies (LEAs), education in secure facilities is managed in nearly every conceivable way. For example, a state justice agency might have its own education division that is a complete system unto itself. Or the justice agency might have a state statutory obligation to delegate the education programming to an LEA. Or the state may determine that the geographic school district is obligated to provide education services to all secure facilities within its boundaries.

The most complicated systems to navigate are the ones in which kids cross agency lines as they move through the adjudication process. Arizona is one of those states. As kids move from arrest to confinement to reentry, they’ll likely attend several different schools managed by different agencies or offices. This means that education programming is often imperfectly aligned over the long term and that kids risk missing essential skills instruction or losing out on accrued credit hours. For teachers, they’re doing their best to meet the needs of the kids who show up each day in their classrooms, but they often don’t know who that will be (or how long they’ll stay).

The people who work in these schools are hungry for relevant professional development

I lost track of how many times a teacher told me how grateful they were to have the opportunity to get professional development from people who understand the constraints that they work within. These aren’t the kinds of restrictions that you might assume: teachers are far more frustrated by the loss of instructional time from frequent interruptions than they are about student misbehavior.

Today, most education training is focused on conventional community-based schools, and it doesn’t feel relevant for teachers in secure facilities. And most of the training that’s designed with them in mind is safety and compliance-focused; there’s very little offered to help them improve their practice as educators.

Teachers everywhere do the best they can in the circumstances that they’re in

I am always so incredibly impressed with the commitment and resilience of teachers who work in justice facilities. I spoke with a group over lunch who laughed that the response “But that doesn’t make sense!” should be the unofficial guiding theme of the policies that regulate their work. For example, Dante’s The Inferno is banned in school libraries, but the collective work of The Divine Comedy isn’t; Teachers hold statutory special education responsibilities under federal law for students disabilities but often only find out about a change in a student’s education program after a student has been moved out of their classroom; and teachers run their classrooms at the mercy of the secure care staff who have full discretion to pull students out of class or even to close school for the entire day.

But you know what I never heard at the symposium? I never heard a group of teachers complain about their students. Teachers that I talked to hold so much hope and optimism for the potential of their students, and despite many institutional incentives to become complacent, they still bring their best effort to their classrooms every day.

Relationships Matter: How States Can Include Teacher-Student Interaction in ECE and ESSA Plans

This blog post originally appeared at New America as part of the Early Learning and ESSA Blog Series

Pre-k class at the Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, photo by Jocelyn Biggs

Relationships and interactions between teachers and students make a big difference in the classroom. Teacher-child interactions form the cornerstone of children’s academic and social emotional development, especially in early learning classrooms. As states look for ways to measure and improve educational quality beyond test scores, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act provides an opportunity to consider data on teacher-child interactions. Washington, DC, and Louisiana provide two examples of states exploring this promising avenue, with some valuable lessons for their peers who might be considering teacher-child interaction measures, or other non-traditional quality measures that include or emphasize the early years.

So, what should other states take away from DC and Louisiana?

Pick a reliable tool and get to know it well

States, localities, and Head Start grantees are currently using tools designed to reliably measure teacher-child interactions in ECE settings. Both DC and Louisiana use the Classroom Observation Scoring System (CLASS), a well-researched observational tool widely used in early childhood and Pre-K settings, with versions available through high school. Both states took several years to pilot the implementation of this tool to learn more about teacher-child interactions before using it as a quality measure. DC has used CLASS for several years as a citywide Pre-K performance measure in a sample of 3- and 4-year-old classrooms. The DC Public Charter School Board also uses CLASS for Pre-K in its formal Performance Management Framework, the accountability tool for charter schools. Similarly, after the Louisiana Department of Education chose CLASS as a common statewide measure of early learning quality, the state piloted CLASS for several years, working with local early childhood networks to improve local implementation and understanding along the way. Continue reading

School Voucher Programs for Students with Disabilities Are Deeply Misguided

The Trump administration’s newly proposed education budget directs $400 million dollars to expanding school choice, including vouchers for private schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has repeatedly touted state voucher policies, including Florida’s McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities, as a way to increase parental choice and improve the U.S. education system. DeVos cited high parent satisfaction with the McKay program during her Senate confirmation hearing, leading to national press coverage of parents who were in fact unsatisfied with the program.

But the reality is parent satisfaction is an inappropriate metric for examining the effectiveness of programs like the McKay Scholarship. A voucher program for students with disabilities presumes that providing choice will ultimately result in helping students with disabilities receive an education that will best meet their needs. But this is unlikely because private schools do not have to abide by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law, and few private schools are well equipped to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

In a recent op-ed, Former Governor Jeb Bush writes: “Too many parents hit frustrating dead ends in trying to get the right services for their children in their assigned public schools.” While it is certainly true that parents struggle to make changes when they are unhappy with their child’s placement or his/her individualized education plan (IEP), there is little reason to believe school choice is the answer. Currently, many parents do not understand their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents also may feel uncomfortable bringing due process claims and/or lack access to legal assistance. Moreover, even for those with legal assistance, due process claims can be time consuming and costly. As a result, researchers have found that IDEA’s reliance on private enforcement leads to disparities in enforcement which ultimately favor the affluent.

Voucher programs do little to change this reality.

Currently, under the Florida program, parents receive an average of $8,000 for their child with a disability. This is not enough funding for students to attend private schools specifically designed to serve special needs students without extra outlays from parents. Instead, many students enroll in parochial schools, which make up the majority of private schools in Florida. There is little reason to believe these schools are a better placement for students with disabilities. Most do not employ school psychologists, related service providers, or teachers experienced with meeting the needs of students with disabilities. Since these schools are not required to comply with IDEA, they do not provide occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, or counseling. Moreover, these schools are not required to use any specialized curriculum to meet the unique needs of students with disabilities. So using a voucher means a student with a disability will still not receive the services they need to be successful in school. Continue reading

This Financing Model Could Make School Buses Cheaper and Greener, But No One Is Using It

Every day, nearly 500,000 school buses transport students to and from school in districts across the country. Many of these buses are older diesel models that release dangerous emissions, harming both the environment and student health. While cleaner and cheaper alternative fuels like propane, compressed natural gas (CNG), and electric exist, higher upfront costs prevent most districts from transitioning.

The good news: there’s an increasingly popular financial tool out there that could solve this problem.

Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) are typically used to finance programs that can generate both societal benefits and cost savings, particularly programs administered by nonprofit organizations and government entities. Under the SIB model, private investors provide initial capital in exchange for a return funded from eventual cost savings. Those investors, and not taxpayers, absorb the financial losses if these programs do not achieve projected savings. SIBs have been used to fund programs related to prisoner recidivism, high-quality preschool, and reducing common health hazards, with varying levels of success. As of 2016, nine SIBs operate in the United States, with 50 more in development, representing over $90 million in private investment.

As we describe in our recent report, “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century,” the benefits of switching to buses that run on alternative fuels are well-documented. And they cost less to run, benefiting district budgets. However, in contrast to the public transit sector, where more than one in three buses runs on alternative fuels or hybrid technology, uptake in the school transportation sector has been limited. Of all buses sold in the U.S. and Canada in 2014, only six percent were alternatively fueled. In 2012, that figure was less than three percent.

This is largely due to the additional costs associated with shifting away from diesel. Propane buses cost about five percent more than their diesel counterparts; that figure is 25 percent for buses run on compressed natural gas. Electric buses, which offer the most cost savings and environmental benefit, are more expensive still — often costing an additional $100,000 to $120,000 more than diesel buses.

Transitioning to these buses may also require infrastructure expenditures in the form of fueling and charging stations. For example, case studies from the Department of Energy estimate that installing a propane fueling station costs between $55,000 and $250,000, depending on the station’s size and equipment.

This is where SIBs can help. For SIBs to work, projects have to attract investors by demonstrating the potential for a return on investment. A number of case studies have provided evidence of the potential cost savings of switching to alternatively fueled buses, savings sufficient to offset the higher upfront cost. A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory found savings of between $400 and $3,000 per bus per year associated with replacing diesel with propane, with the incremental costs of the vehicles and related infrastructure being offset over a period of three to eight years. And researchers from the University of Delaware have shown that using an electric school bus instead of a diesel bus could save a district roughly $230,000 per bus over a 14-year lifespan, with the initial investment being recovered after five years.

Alternatively fueled buses are cheaper to fuel, operate, and maintain than diesel buses. Alternative fuels cost less than diesel, and their prices remain relatively stable compared to diesel, which varies with the fluctuation of crude oil prices. There are also a variety of savings from maintenance costs. These buses use less oil and cheaper filters, and unlike their diesel counterparts, they do not require additional treatment to meet federal vehicle emissions standards, potentially saving thousands of dollars in maintenance each year.

Electric buses that use vehicle-to-grid technology — which allows vehicles to communicate and interact with the overall power grid, rather than just draw a charge from it — can even become “prosumers,” meaning they return energy to the grid. The energy stored in the buses’ batteries can be tapped to lower a facility’s electricity bill.

A SIB model for bus replacement could work as follows:

Graphic by authors

SIBs are not without criticism: they may limit the savings that governments could reap from traditional means of public investment. This is the other side of the equation when privatizing potential risk: governments also privatize some of the reward.

However, to date, most districts have not been able to invest the initial capital needed to replace their diesel fleets. Implementing a SIB model could help speed up this process without further draining district budgets. Such a program would not only benefit the environment: districts could also reinvest the savings to improve other aspects of their school transportation systems, or funnel those dollars back into classrooms. It could be a win-win.

To learn more about the current state of the school transportation sector, including how it impacts the environment, read Bellwether’s new report: “Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century.”

California’s Revised Bid to Kill Income Tax for Teachers is Still a Bad Idea

A bill providing tax credits to teachers in California is making its way through the state’s legislature. Last month Andy Rotherham and I wrote that Senate Bill 807, the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Act, is a gimmicky way to pay teachers more and takes a one-size-fits-all approach to solving a targeted teacher shortage problem.

It looks like the authors of SB807 may have noticed our critique. Since its introduction, the legislation has been revised. Instead of exempting all teachers who remain in the profession for more than five years from paying state taxes, the revised legislation is focused on teachers in high-poverty communities. The new language gives teachers in high-poverty schools immediate state tax relief on half of their income in their sixth through tenth years of teaching.

Admittedly, the revised legislation is better than the original because it takes a more targeted approach to teacher shortage issues. But it’s still a bad idea. As Andy and I wrote, if California legislators want to pay teachers more, then they should just pay teachers more. Providing teachers with tax incentives is a confusing way to raise teacher compensation and doesn’t get at the foundational issues of under-resourced schools and misaligned, archaic state and district teacher compensation systems. This bill — in any form — tinkers at the edges of and distracts from larger issues in California.

This week the bill passed the California Senate Governance and Finance Committee with a unanimous vote, and it’s now headed to the Senate Education Committee. But California lawmakers would be better off if they stop trying to revive this bill and, instead, focus on the larger school finance problems in the state.