Many people view the coming of January 1 each year as an opportunity for a new beginning. But the conditions that are facing school and university administrators and educators make it difficult to approach the coming year with optimism.
The effects of the recession that crippled state and local budgets have yet to ease, and schools and universities are anticipating more job and program cuts as their funding is reduced. Federal stimulus money no longer will be available to soften the pain of the economic downturn.
But despite the spending cuts that seem to be inevitable for many education institutions, millions of students will continue to gather at bus stops and walk through school doors with the expectation that they will be entering a safe, well-maintained environment where well-qualified teachers provide valuable learning opportunities.
And older students will continue to make their way to college and university campuses with the expectation that they will have access to an affordable, high-quality post-secondary education on a secure and welcoming campus.
Meeting those expectations will be more difficult as education institutions have to lay off instructors, aides, custodians and other personnel; raise class sizes; eliminate programs no longer seen as affordable; delay or cancel needed facility expansions and equipment upgrades; and defer the upkeep that enables facilities and equipment to last longer and continue to perform effectively.
With these challenges in mind, following are some of the key issues poised to impact schools and universities in 2011 and beyond:
The overriding issue that touches every aspect of operating education institutions is money. Administrators have become accustomed to budgets that are not adequate to provide all of the services schools are expected to provide, but since economic conditions worsened in 2008, the financial picture for most schools and universities has become more dismal. Any given day, one can surf the Internet and find hundreds of articles detailing dire circumstances for school budgets and the expected consequences—program cuts, employee layoffs, larger class sizes, shuttered facilities.
Exacerbating the financial trouble facing schools is that the federal stimulus package that has propped up spending in states and education institutions during 2009 and 2010 is no longer available. A December 2010 report by the American Association of School Administrators, "Surviving a Thousand Cuts: America’s Public Schools and the Recession," found that 84 percent of school districts say they are inadequately funded. In addition, 48 percent of districts say they laid off personnel for the 2010-11 school year, and 66 percent anticipate doing so in the 2011-12 span.
Administrators are not optimistic that the financial outlook will improve in 2011-12; 82 percent of districts say they anticipate a cut in state and local revenues between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.
The association asserts that by the time school system budgets are restored to where they were before the recession, districts will have endured five consecutive years of spending cuts, and educators will have a hard time playing catch-up.
"The continued and increasing budget cuts threaten the capacity of schools to deliver essential services and threaten the gains schools have made in student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap," AASA warns.
As schools are forced to slash their budgets, increasing the number of students per class may be one way to save money. For years, states and school districts have embraced small class sizes, especially in primary grades, as a way to improve student performance. With fewer students, a teacher can give greater attention to each student and is better able to identify and give additional help to students that are struggling.
But smaller class sizes mean more teachers are needed, as well as additional classrooms. Budget cuts forced upon school systems have led administrators to look at larger class sizes as one way to make ends meet. The financial situation also has led reform advocates such as former Microsoft chairman Bill Gates to suggest a move away from reduced class sizes.
Gates, whose foundation has donated millions of dollars to education reform efforts, has recommended an end to the effort to reduce class size. He has suggested that schools should consider paying the most effective teachers more money to take on larger classes.
But the efforts to back away from class-size reduction may run into opposition from parents who have been convinced that small class sizes are critical to student success. An effort to ease strict class-size limits in Florida failed in 2010 when voters defeated a referendum that would have given school districts more flexibility in determining class sizes.
Even though the economy continues to struggle in most of the country, the facility needs of education institutions can’t be ignored or postponed indefinitely. Administrators can look to the not-so-distant past for evidence of what happens when schools aren’t diligent about pursuing the funding needed to maintain their facilities: The neglect of education facilities in the 1970s and 1980s led to hundreds of billions of dollars of deferred maintenance projects—a hole that schools and universities have never quite filled.
Many education institutions decided in 2010 that even in a flailing economy, they could make a viable case for capital improvements and were able to persuade voters to approve sizable bond proposals.
For districts that have seen their funding slashed by state legislatures, a bond election is one of the few avenues they have to address financial issues on the local level. The bond funds can’t be used in most cases for an institution’s operating budget, but having money to improve facilities may enable schools to manage facilities more efficiently and ease the burden on operating expenditures.
Among the bond requests approved last year were a $617 million bond and levy package in the Albuquerque (N.M.) school district; a $535 million package in the Northside (Texas) district; a $515 million proposal in the San Antonio district; a $459 million request in the Katy (Texas) district; and a $380 million package in the West Contra Costa (Calif.) district.
Already in 2011, the Portland (Ore.) district has scheduled a bond election in May that seeks approval for a $548 million plan to overhaul school facilities.
The stagnant economy has sent millions of people unable to find a job back to school for more training. Many of those new students choose their local community colleges because it is an option more affordable than four-year colleges and universities.
The good news is that this has caused an enrollment boom at two-year colleges across the nation. For instance, in Texas, the Higher Education Control Board reports that enrollment at two-year colleges jumped 12.2 percent from 2008 to 2009, compared with a 4.5 percent increase for the same period at the state’s public universities.
The bad news is that budget cuts have limited the ability of community colleges to maintain the programs they were offering, let alone handle the surge of additional students.
The paradox is spelled out in a policy brief from the American Association of Community Colleges, "Doing More With Less: The Inequitable Funding of Community Colleges."
"Surging enrollments at community colleges over the past two years have not been met with proportional increases in fiscal support, placing community colleges across the country in the position of doing more with less, or, in some cases, simply doing less," the report says. "Increasingly, these cuts are hitting core institutional activities; for example, many students are being denied access through course reductions and enrollment caps. Asking community colleges to graduate more students with less money will likely result in stunting the growth of the U.S. workforce at a time when projections indicate that 26.7 million new jobs need to be filled with college-educated workers by 2018."
Even before the economy-driven enrollment surge, community colleges were being asked to educate students with fewer resources. The report states that in 2007-08, community colleges served 43 percent of U.S. undergraduate students, yet received only 27 percent of the total federal, state and local revenues for public degree-granting institutions.
The report urges lawmakers to provide more resources to community colleges and to reconcile the inequities in funding between two-year colleges and public four-year institutions.
Whether resources are plentiful or scarce, schools and universities can’t afford to ease up on efforts to make sure that campuses are safe environments for students and staff. The U.S. Education Department’s Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2010 provides ample evidence that the nation’s elementary and secondary schools are not immune from the dangers that exist in the rest of society.
The statistics show that for 2008-09, there were 38 school-associated violent deaths (24 homicides and 14 suicides) among ages 5 to 18. Among students 12 to 18 years old, about 1.2 million were victims of nonfatal crimes at school (619,000 thefts and 629,800 violent crimes). Eight percent of students reported in 2009 that they were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.
In the first week of 2011, education administrators were given a grim example of the tragedies that are behind those statistics. Deadly violence again struck on a public school campus when a student who had been suspended from South Millard High School in Omaha, Neb., returned to school with a gun. He fatally shot an assistant principal and seriously wounded the principal before taking his own life.
Schools rely on prevention and preparedness programs, security personnel and school resource officers, and technology to help create a safe learning environment, but all those areas may suffer as decreased funding forces institutions to scale back their security efforts.
In the aftermath of some well-publicized incidents of bullying at schools and universities, many educators will be giving a higher priority in 2011 to preventing and combating this behavior.
Phoebe Prince, 15, a sophomore at South Hadley (Mass.) High School, hanged herself in January 2010 after enduring repeated incidents of bullying from other students. Six students are facing criminal charges related to the bullying. Phoebe’s family contended that school officials were told about the taunting and harassment directed at the girl, but failed to take action to stop the bullying behavior. Subsequently, Massachusetts lawmakers passed stricter anti-bullying legislation that mandates schools to train staff how to identify, stop and report bullying. The law required state school systems to file anti-bullying plans with the state by the end of 2010. Other states also have taken steps to toughen their stances against bullying in schools.
Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, took his own life in September 2010 by jumping from the George Washington Bridge in New York City after a roommate secretly filmed and posted on the Internet Clementi’s sexual encounter in his residence hall room with another man. The roommate and another Rutgers student face charges of invasion of privacy.
In December, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a memo to state officials highlighting the key components that should be included in new or updated anti-bullying laws and policies that may be under review in 2011.
For instance, the memo recommends that anti-bullying policies include a procedure for promptly investigating and responding to incidents of bullying, "including immediate intervention strategies for protecting the victim from additional bullying or retaliation, and includes notification to parents of the victim, or reported victim, of bullying and the parents of the alleged perpetrator, and, if appropriate, notification to law enforcement officials."
"We have all been told that bullying has been going on in our schools forever," says Duncan. "But we can stop it now. Strong anti-bullying policies instill a climate that this behavior will not be tolerated."
The Education Department also launched www.bullyinginfo.org, a website to help school systems find information and strategies for combating bullying.
Budget limitations have stymied many schools and universities from pursuing desired construction projects, but many institutions that have secured funds for capital projects are finding that because of a slowdown in construction activity, they are benefiting from lower project bids.
In New York City, many residential and office construction projects have stalled, and the city’s School Construction Authority has been able to step in and acquire some of the sites for school facilities at bargain prices.
The Authority reports that for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, it awarded construction contracts totaling $561 million for 18 new schools and additions; it also awarded contracts valued at $807 million for 663 improvement or renovation projects. The new construction created 17,656 new classroom seats for 2010-11, the Authority says.
The school system, the nation’s largest, continues to pursue construction of more classroom space. In November, it amended its 2010-14 capital-improvement plan and increased the projected number of additional classroom seats needed to 50,000 from 30,000. Meeting the revised projections would cost an additional $3.4 billion for the increased capacity and an additional $1 billion for technology needs. If the plan were fully funded, the school system would be on track to spend $16.18 billion to carry out the five-year capital-improvement plan.
High-profile, high-dollar, higher-education projects also are in the works in New York City. Columbia University got the go-ahead to move forward with a planned $6.3 billion expansion into the Harlem neighborhood when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to a take a case challenging the university’s plans.
New York University has a plan called "NYU 2031" that looks to carry out the largest expansion in the school’s history. It would add 6 million square feet of space to the university’s existing 15 million.
According to a New York Construction Outlook Update from 2010, the education sector of the construction market accounted for 56 percent of all construction starts in the city between May 2008 and 2010. The School Construction Authority’s public school projects accounted for $3.1 billion in projects over those two years; private elementary and secondary schools accounted for $174 million in starts. Private colleges and universities accounted for $744 million in starts, and public higher-education institutions accounted for $540 million.
Despite economic hardships, one trend that continues to gain momentum at schools and universities is a commitment to sustainable design, construction and operations. Education administrators have embraced the concept.
As of December 2010, the U.S. Green Building Council listed nearly 400 K-12 school projects in the United States and Canada that have received some level of LEED certification. That number will only grow in 2011 and beyond as another 1,750 projects that are seeking LEED certification have registered with the Green Building Council. Those numbers don’t reflect higher-education projects, nor do they include schools that use other programs for evaluating sustainability, such as those offered by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, or schools that incorporate green strategies and practices but choose not to seek formal recognition.
Several states have enacted legislation calling for schools to incorporate more sustainable methods of cleaning and maintaining facilities. Efforts such as the Healthy Schools Campaign’s Quick and Easy Guide to Green Cleaning in Schools and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Tools for Schools program provide administrators and maintenance staffs with information to help them keep facilities clean without adversely affecting indoor air quality or the safety of students and workers.
In higher education, 676 institutions as of January 2011 have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which calls for higher-education administrators to combat global warming, and take steps to reduce their institution’s carbon footprint and eventually create climate-neutral campuses.
Other efforts at improving campus sustainability are gaining in popularity. Many higher-education institutions have initiated bike-sharing programs to reduce pollution from motorized vehicles; elimination of trays in college dining halls has helped lessen the amount of water and energy needed for cleaning; many campus dining programs have begun "farm to school" programs that seek out more locally grown food for school meals, which saves on transportation costs and benefits local growers.
Labor costs are the largest portion of an education institution’s budget, but after that, the biggest expense is energy. So administrators who need to trim spending should make sure that their buildings are using energy as efficiently as possible.
Older school facilities can improve their energy performance by installing more energy-efficient windows, more efficient HVAC systems, better insulation and weatherstripping, and lighting with motion sensors or other automatic controls.
Energy education efforts that train staff members and students to embrace conservation efforts—some as simple as reminding people to turn off lights, computers and other power-using equipment—also can help schools and universities reduce energy costs.
Alternative energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, enable schools and universities to generate power without consuming fossil fuels and adding to air pollution.
Education institutions that don’t have the financial means to carry out beneficial energy upgrades may decide to enter into a performance contract to help pay for improvements. An energy service company will pay the initial costs of upgrading energy systems on a school campus, and schools take the money saved because of the improvements to pay back the company.
Maintenance and Operations
The recession and slow economic recovery threaten to wipe out much of the progress schools and universities have made in recent years addressing the problem of deferred maintenance. Budget cuts are likely to fall first on areas such as maintenance that many view as outside the core mission of educating students.
The report by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), "Surviving a Thousand Cuts: America’s Public Schools and the Recession," says maintenance cuts may be necessary in the short term, but if schools shortchange maintenance for the long term, it could lead to dangerous conditions that harm the learning environment.
"The state of the physical facilities of many schools has never been worse and promises to decline further," AASA says. "Poorly maintained school facilities invite difficult decision-making that promises to erode the quality of schooling."
The AASA survey found that 52 percent of districts deferred maintenance for the 2010-11 school year, and 60 percent anticipate doing so in 2011-12. A total of 17 percent of districts delayed a bond program for the 2010-11 school year, and 24 percent anticipate doing so in 2011-12. Custodial services were reduced for 2010-11 by 37 percent of districts, and 45 percent anticipate further reductions in 2011-12.
The advance of technology regularly brings new gadgets onto the market, and many of them eventually find their way into classrooms. In 2011, it won’t seem out of place for students to be tapping away on iPads or other tablet computers; reading textbooks and other assignments on Kindles or other e-readers; listening to lectures and interviews on mp3 devices; and communicating with their instructors or other students via voice or text using smart phones.
Technology will continue to make curricular material and other educational content more accessible to greater numbers of students; learners will be able to review a wider variety of sources and find them more quickly as they become more active participants in the pursuit of knowledge. A survey conducted for the Federal Communications Commission of institutions that receive funding for technology through the federal government’s E-rate subsidy program found that 56 percent of all E-rate survey respondents expect to begin or expand the use of digital textbooks in the next two to three years; 45 percent expect to begin or expand the use of handheld devices for educational purposes.
But here, as in other sectors of the education field, the increasing budget limitations placed on education institutions may stymie opportunities for progress. The same survey found that many schools and libraries do not have broadband connections sufficient to meet their needs.
Broadband access has become commonplace in schools—95 percent of institutions that get E-rate funding say they have broadband connections to the Internet in at least one facility. But 78 percent of survey respondents said that their broadband connections do not meet their current needs. The survey found that 55 percent reported slow connections made broadband connections inadequate; 39 percent said providing adequate broadband service would cost too much.
Long-range government projections show that the nation’s K-12 student enrollment will continue to rise gradually for the next several years. In areas such as Florida, where the economic collapse has adversely affected the housing market, many districts have experienced an abrupt end to what had been steady years of enrollment growth. The Pasco County (Fla.) district announced in late 2010 that it had experienced its first drop in student enrollment in at least 24 years.
Other districts across the nation are having to confront what to do with excess classroom capacity caused by stagnating or declining student numbers. The DeKalb County (Ga.) district in suburban Atlanta experienced steady enrollment throughout the 1990s as it became one of the nation’s largest school systems. But enrollment peaked at more than 102,000 in 2005-06 and in the last few years has fallen below 100,000, so the district has announced a plan that calls for closing 14 campuses.
Other school districts have seen their enrollment numbers decline because students have transferred to charter schools.
Four underperforming urban districts—New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Kansas City, Mo.—report that more than 30 percent of public school students attend charter schools, and in each of those districts, the percentage of charter students rose from 2008-09 to 2009-10.
The focus on education reform and the Obama administration’s embrace of charter schools as a desirable way to achieve reform is likely to result in continued growth of those schools. The National Alliance for Charter Schools says that in the 2009-10 school year, 450 new charter schools opened, and only four existing charter schools closed. Nationwide, 4,936 charter schools were operating. Nearly 1.7 million students were attending charter schools, and another 420,000 were on waiting lists to gain admittance.
As 2011 begins, 11 states did not allow charter schools, but charter advocates in some of those states are seeking legislation to change that. Some states that do allow charters have placed a cap on the number of such schools. In Texas, supporters of charter schools are trying to persuade lawmakers to raise the cap that has limited how many charters can be granted in the state.
The new year is bringing lots of changes in the top jobs at the nation’s largest school systems.
In New York City, publishing executive Cathleen Black has succeeded Joel Klein as chancellor of the nation’s largest school system. Like Klein, Black did not have the required academic credentials to lead a school system in New York state, but was granted a waiver that allowed her to take the job.
In the nation’s second-largest system, John Deasy has been selected to replace Ramon Cortines as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified District. Deasy, who is now the district’s deputy superintendent, came to the L.A. district from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he was deputy director of education. Prior to that, Deasy served as superintendent of the Prince George’s County (Md.) district.
Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school system, also has a new leader as 2011 begins. Ron Huberman, who has been CEO of Chicago Public Schools since Arne Duncan became U.S. education secretary in 2009, resigned at the end of November after Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced he would not seek re-election in 2011. Terry Mazany, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, a charitable organization, is serving as the interim leader of the school system and is expected to serve until a new mayor takes office in May.
In the Clark County (Nev.) district, Dwight Jones has taken the reins in 2011 as the new superintendent of the nation’s fifth-largest district. Jones, who had been commissioner of education in Colorado, succeeded Walt Rulffes.
Another high-profile administrative change occurred in Washington, D.C., where Michelle Rhee, who aggressively pursued education reforms, quit her job as schools chancellor after Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appointed her, lost his bid for re-election. The new mayor, Vincent Gray, has appointed Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy, as interim chancellor. Meanwhile, Rhee has become an education advisor to newly elected Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Leadership positions in school systems throughout New Jersey may be in flux in 2011 as Gov. Chris Christie’s efforts to rein in the salaries of district superintendents go into effect. The governor is seeking to control costs and has characterized some school administrators as "greedy" and "arrogant" for collecting what Christie believes is excessive compensation. But those who oppose Christie’s salary caps say the limits will put New Jersey at a disadvantage in attracting qualified superintendents and could erode the quality of education in those schools.
Educators and administrators have been waiting for Congress to tackle reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which under former President George W. Bush was redubbed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). With a new session of Congress convening this month, lawmakers may try to address some of the elements of NCLB that have made it a target of derision among many educators.
With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and Democrats maintaining a majority in the Senate, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sees an opportunity for bi-partisan cooperation in crafting revisions to the federal education law.
Writing in The Washington Post, Duncan says that the Obama administration is seeking changes in NCLB that would create a more flexible and fair accountability system, more investment in teachers and principals, and a greater attention for schools where students are most at risk.
"In the past two years, I have spoken with hundreds of Republican and Democratic mayors, governors and members of Congress," writes Duncan. "While we don’t agree on everything, our core goals are shared—and we all want to fix NCLB to better support reform at the state and local level."
Duncan cites several elements of NCLB that have proven unpopular among educators and lawmakers: one-size-fits-all mandates; goals that may create incentives for instructors to "teach to the test;" goals that have prompted some states to lower their education standards; and provisions that are inhibiting efforts to improve the quality of teachers.
Duncan points to signs of success that have occurred at the local level. He says schools and their local partners are trying to improve low-performing schools "by investing in teachers, rebuilding school staff, lengthening the school day and changing curricula."
Federal government initiatives are expected to bring about more successful reforms, the secretary says.
"With the incentive of the Race to the Top program, governors, states and districts across America are implementing comprehensive plans to reform education systems and boost student achievement," Duncan says.
Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].