Thursday, August 16, 2018

Public Schools Exist for All Children

The Hudson School Board believes that expanded educational opportunities should be made available in order to meet the learning needs of all our students. Indeed, our core purpose states as much: We create effective learning environments that result in success for ALL students. However, this idea of expanded educational opportunities come with one very important caveat: any legislation that seeks to expand school choice programs needs to remain under the authority of the local school board. Your local school board, and all public school boards around the state represent the taxpayer when it comes to the education of youth in Iowa. This governance structure ensures your public school provides a free and appropriate education to all students, regardless of socio-economic status, disability, or any other protected class of citizenry. For these primary reasons, we resist any attempts to expand choice programs through the introduction of voucher programs.  

School voucher programs that were proposed during the last legislative session were the antithesis of the ideals enshrined in our public school system. Not only do these programs take the 'public' out of public school accountability; they also create a caste system of education, allowing schools who would be the recipient of such a voucher the choice to deny enrollment to a student that may subscribe to a different value system, religion, or even more sinister: they may choose to deny students with disabilities under the pretense they can't meet the needs of a particular group of students.

First consider this idea of accountability. Every school district in Iowa is required by law to have an annual audit of their financial records. This gives transparency to the general public in order to ensure the public dollar is wisely invested. Furthermore, we publish an accounting of the checks we write each month. The public is able to see with their own eyes to whom bills are being paid. And I know my readers out there look at the bills! From time to time I'll get a phone call or see someone at a game that will wonder why we spent $1,012.50 with A-Line Striping and Sweeping (by the way that was annual parking lot maintenance that included painting new lines in the high school parking lot). The meetings of our public school are in fact public meetings. That means anyone who wants to attend a school board meeting can do so. If the school board wants to go into closed session there is a very narrow range of topics that permit the board to do so, and that can only happen by giving advance notice and the reason the board is taking such action. Those schools who would benefit from vouchers have no such requirements because they are not subject to the Open Meetings Law. Perhaps to some this is a minor nuisance. But consider a world where decisions made with the public dollar are done so behind closed doors without public accountability. What if you didn't know, or if we wouldn't tell you why we spent $26 with the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation? (employee background check)

Now envision a scenario where your child is denied enrollment at a school because they have a learning disability or exhibit behaviors that don't fit within the mold of the average child. What if you subscribe to a different religion than the one aligned with the school that accepts the voucher? In the examples described here, the school choice legislation previously proposed would give those institutions the authority to do exactly that, and exclude even more students than those examples given here. In fact, page 6 of HSB 651, which was a real bill from last year that actually passed out of a subcommittee stated the following beginning on line 9:
This section shall not be construed to authorize the state or any political subdivision of the state to exercise any authority over any nonpublic school or construed to require a nonpublic school to modify its academic standards for admission or educational program in order to receive payment from a parent or guardian using the funds from a pupil's account in the educational savings fund. 
And here is the real kicker, beginning on line 18 of the same section:
Rules adopted by the department to implement this section that impose an undue burden on the nonpublic school are invalid.
Public schools exist to educate all students regardless of where they come from, whatever learning challenges they may or may not have, whoever their parents are, and no matter what they believe. 

Friday, August 10, 2018

All Day Preschool?

When I began my career as an educator, kindergarten that was all day long, five days a week was a bit of an anomaly. In fact, my first teaching position was in a school where kindergarten students attended on alternating days, with the exception of Friday when they all came together (in one room mind you). If you are ever interested, sometime ask me about my experience teaching music to thirty-five five year old[s] on Friday afternoons! Nonetheless, what was once a rarity is now commonplace across the state. But here is another interesting fact: were you aware that students are not even required to attend kindergarten? By law, kindergarten remains the one 'grade level' that is exempt according to Iowa's compulsory attendance law. But in spite of that, almost all students who are five years old by September 15th attend kindergarten in Iowa.

The statewide voluntary preschool program that began in the fall of 2007 was set up as a competitive grant program. With a limited number of dollars available, school districts wishing to start preschool programs had to compete for the funds, and as such preschool in Iowa began in what I like to refer to as a 'slow roll'. But in the intervening decade, preschool is now about as common as every other day kindergarten was when I began my career. During those early years, just over 5,000 children were served statewide. Now, the statewide voluntary preschool program has grown exponentially and is expected to serve more than 25,000 students in 2018-2019. Beginning this school year, of the 330 school districts in Iowa, there are only seven remaining who do not have a statewide voluntary preschool program.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, the statewide voluntary preschool program has been a huge success. Coupled with what scholarly research tells us about the impact of early intervention, schools can leverage these benefits in a way that pays dividends later in the child's academic development. Because of the fact a child's brain is 90% developed by the age of five (Iowa Department of Education Fact Sheet), it makes clear that early intervention makes tremendous difference. Prior to preschool programming, struggling students were typically identified in need of special education services and planned educational interventions toward the end of kindergarten. This was done only after following a rigorous process of problem solving, intervention, and finally implementation. On the other hand, what happens if we are able to identify and intervene before the student enters kindergarten? The intervention could then act as a preventative measure, minimizing or mitigating services needed. The fact is that at Hudson, students who are identified early in their academic careers are more likely to be 'aged out' of special education programming. Quite simply stated, that means a student who is in a special education program during their primary years may very well not be in a special education program by the time they get to junior high.

But the benefits of preschool programming aren't limited to just those students who may be eligible for special education. According to a 2017 study by the Brooking Institute and the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, (Phillips, D. A., Lipsey, M. W., Dodge, K. A., Haskins, R., Bassok, D., Burchinal, M. R., Duncan, G. J., Dynarski, M., Magnuson, K. A., & Weiland, C.) for every dollar invested in early learning programs, there is a return on investment between $7-$10.

So the decisions the Iowa Legislature have made since 2007 are wise investments. Further, the decisions made by this body that streamlined the process for schools to begin programs were very well done. Yet work remains. Currently, the law requires schools implementing the program to provide ten hours of developmentally appropriate instruction. That works out to a half day program, four days a week. Our school board would advocate all day everyday preschool. Of course this would require a greater infusion of capital since currently preschool students are weighted at .5. We believe a full day program would require a weighting of 1.0. A heavy lift indeed! Yet if we remember the research: for every dollar spent....