Friday, September 25, 2009

Education Finance

This week, I had the honor to meet with the Budget Review Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education, which is co-chaired by Sen. Vernie McGaha and Rep. Tommy Thompson. I was asked to present about three key issues, and this edition of my blog provides highlights of the meeting.

Issue 1 was impact of budget cuts on local school systems – For FY09, school districts saw significant reductions in Flexible Focus dollars. Flex Focus dollars provide monies for extended school services, preschool, professional development, textbooks and safe schools. In addition to budget cuts made through the enacted budget, there was a statewide 2 percent cut in late FY09 that impacted school districts. This budget cut amounted to about $6.1 million and was made to the textbook line item based on recommendations of superintendents. For FY10, the Flex Focus reductions and the textbook reduction were carried over, and, in July, we were asked to prepare an additional 4 percent budget reduction. This budget reduction also was made to the textbook line item, in the amount of $12.9 million. The bottom line to school districts is that Flex Focus dollars have been reduced by 36 percent, on average statewide. A document showing each district’s allocations for Flex Focus and other items is available here.

Issue 2 dealt with the funding streams from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) – The information provided to the subcommittee can be accessed here. The key concern for everyone is that the State Fiscal Stabilization Funds that were used to maintain FY10 SEEK base of $3,866 per student and also will hopefully be used to maintain SEEK funding for FY11 will not be available in FY12. The General Assembly and Governor Beshear will be dealing directly with this issue as they develop the biennial budget for FY11 and FY12.

Issue 3 dealt with fiscal stability of school systems – The Kentucky Department of Education does monitor the fund balance statements of local school districts. The general fund balance and child nutrition fund balance are tracked separately. School systems are having to deal with state budget cuts and numerous obligations (sick leave pay outs, construction, unfunded mandates, school-based council carryover funds and more), and they are having to prepare for the future when federal dollars may not be as available as they are currently. I would encourage all local boards to take the advice of the Kentucky School Boards Association and hold at least one meeting per year where the local community is informed about the need for a fund balance and projected use of the funds. Also, local superintendents should keep their legislative delegations informed about the same.

We are working very hard at KDE to review all expenditures. KDE has seen an overall 28 percent reduction in funds since FY08. We are looking carefully at all programs to ensure they are effective and efficient. We also are looking at outside funding through competitive programs such as Race to the Top and monies from foundations. There are signals of economic recovery; however, prudent planners will continue to work to ensure expenditures are focused on the core mission of schools, which is learning.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Communication and Customer Service

As I prepared for the transition to the Commissioner of Education position in Kentucky, I called numerous stakeholders in the state. I asked about the key issues around education in Kentucky, and I specifically asked about issues with the Kentucky Department of Education.

Over the course of a few weeks, I was able to talk with more than 30 superintendents and another 25 key leaders of organizations that interact with KDE. While there were many positive comments about education initiatives in Kentucky, there were many challenges listed. While there were many positive comments about staff at KDE, there were also some concerns about communication and customer service.

For the first few months on the job, I have attempted to get to many parts of the Commonwealth. I have enjoyed meeting with superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, business leaders, legislators and students. I have utilized technology through Twitter, Facebook and this blog to communicate with stakeholders. I will continue this approach of visibility, communication and listening. I also will begin to utilize other technology to communicate with key stakeholders.

Over the next few weeks KDE staff will assist me in developing webinars that will target superintendents, principals and teachers. These webinars will focus on key strategies that are a part of Senate Bill 1 and the numerous federal initiatives that are funding education reform. We will look for two-way communication. We will present some information; however, we are more interested in gathering feedback from these key stakeholder groups. Through surveys and open-ended response questions, we will gain feedback on reform strategies from these key stakeholders.

I recently learned that the Commissioner’s Teacher Advisory Council was no longer meeting. I asked KDE staff to revitalize this important group. I have Superintendent, Parent, and Principal Advisory Councils; however, I need to hear from one of the most important groups -- classroom teachers. Another important group that we will be listening to is the students. At the recent Graduate Kentucky Summit, First Lady Jane Beshear conducted a focus group with students. What our students said that they needed from adults to ensure success was very revealing. KDE will be working to develop channels for student communication that will include focus groups, surveys and technology methods.

Finally, we will be launching an initiative to document customer service standards at KDE. Our standards are similar to what many organizations have. Customers should expect a response, within 24 hours, that is accurate and delivered in a professional manner. We will be surveying those “customers” who call, e-mail or write the department. We will then analyze the data by office to determine how well we are meeting customer service requirements. While KDE will always have a regulatory nature, we also must have a service standard for citizens, parents and schools who contact the department.

Public education is everyone’s business. Communication and suggestions are always welcome. Thank you for reading this blog and caring about the children of Kentucky.

Friday, September 11, 2009

While Numbers Are Important, Children Matter Most

As I was reviewing materials for my first interview with the Kentucky Board of Education, one of the things to impress me about Kentucky was the state graduation rate. Graduation rate is the ultimate measure of our success as a state education system. The school board and community in my previous position had made graduation rate the key strategic goal. The graduation rate in my previous position had improved from one of the lowest in the state (below 60 percent) to one of the top ten in the state (81 percent). Also, the gaps between different student groups had been reduced to single digits.

While I was impressed with the Kentucky graduation rate of more than 83 percent, I did learn that Kentucky had not yet reported the NCLB four-year graduation rate due to technical issues. We are scheduled to report this data with this year’s entering freshman class when that group graduates in 2013.

Upon digging into the data, I learned that Kentucky had more than 6,500 students drop out of school in the 2007-08 school year. These numbers reflect real children and reflect a real concern for the economic, social, moral and civil rights impact that high school dropouts will have on our Commonwealth.

Thanks to First Lady Jane Beshear, we are going to focus on this issue in Kentucky. While we have made good progress in improving the number of high school graduates, we cannot accept 6,500 students dropping out of school. Beginning with the Graduation Summit this weekend and the Graduate Kentucky efforts that will follow, I am certain local communities and schools will rally around the goal of reducing dropout numbers and increasing graduation rates.

There are some that will focus on the numbers and debate the accuracy of those numbers. We do need to ensure we are reporting accurately; however, we need to focus on the children and what we as adults can do to help more children graduate from high school and be prepared for postsecondary work.

The biggest challenge to overcome is the excuse that some children cannot learn due to their economic and social conditions. We must raise our expectations for all children to be successful, and we must focus our schools and classrooms on what the children need rather than what the adults may prefer. This is difficult work; however, it is work we must do to ensure a future for our community, our state and our nation.

There are schools all over Kentucky that are defying the odds and helping more children learn. I recently visited Calloway County High School, where the principal and staff make student involvement and success the number-one priority. The dropout rate there is well below state and national averages.

There are many other schools that are doing this kind of great work. Let’s share our best practices with each other, work together to lower the dropout rates in all of our schools and send forward high school graduates who are ready to lead and solve the problems that we have left behind.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Best Practice in Kentucky Schools

This week, I’m focusing on an example of best practice in Kentucky schools.

Readers are reminded of Senate Bill 1, which requires school systems and colleges to better prepare students for career and postsecondary work and to reduce the remediation rates at the postsecondary level. All juniors in Kentucky take the ACT and receive college readiness predictions for mathematics, reading, science and social studies. All school districts are required to implement plans to address those students who do not score college-ready. The goal is to reduce the funds that are being spent by parents and colleges for remediation work when students enter college not ready for college-level credit work.

A great example of how school districts and colleges are working together to address the readiness issue comes from Madison County this week. Randy Peffer, chief academic officer for the Madison County school district, provided the following description of the work.

“The initial meeting was in early summer between members of the Madison County Achievement Team and representatives of Eastern Kentucky University to discuss the possibility of developing a course using the curriculum from the EKU developmental courses, namely Math 090, Math 095, and Math 098. The course was to be taught on the high school campus by the high school teacher using the syllabi, textbooks, and assessments from EKU. By working through consensus at both the school and university level, the course was developed.

“The course is designed to assist college-bound high school seniors who did not meet the benchmark on the mathematics portion of the ACT taken at the end of the junior year for state accountability These students would typically have to enroll and pay for “developmental/remedial” mathematics courses as college freshman for which they would receive no college credit. The transitional mathematics course was developed to help strengthen the basic mathematics skills needed to enable high school graduates to enroll and successfully complete credit bearing mathematics course(s) during their freshman year of college.

“Students were recruited for this course based upon their performance on the mathematics portion of the ACT and their intention of pursuing a college education. Once placed in the course, students will be assessed on the KYOTE (Kentucky Online Testing), which is used by almost all Kentucky universities and colleges as a placement assessment for all incoming freshmen for students who did not meet the ACT benchmark. Note – the KYOTE test is free to all students. Since the assessment results are immediate, teachers are able to determine the appropriate instructional levels of the students.

“The teachers at both Madison Central High School and Madison Southern High School will teach the students the content and skills taught in Math 090, Math 095, and Math 098 during the students’ senior year. The students will also take the KYOTE test at mid-year and at the end of the year to measure growth and progress. It is the intent that the student score well enough on the KYOTE test to be able to enroll in College Algebra during the fall semester of the freshman year.”

Thanks to Madison County and EKU for sharing. I am certain there are many more examples of great collaboration among schools and colleges. Let me know, so I can highlight your great work in future blog postings!