Thursday, March 23, 2006

Editorial: Give us $10 million, then trust us; yeah, right

Editorial: Give us $10 million, then trust us; yeah, right


Bloomington Pantagraph

We've all heard that more individual attention will help children in their early learning years develop better in their later years.

So, smaller class sizes for kindergarten through third-grade classes sound ideal to address that problem - if you say it fast enough.

But, there is a problem. Make that two problems.

An Illinois House committee has approved $10 million to give $50,000 grants to hire teachers to reduce 200 kindergarten through third-grade classes in Illinois.

The Illinois State Board of Education said the grants would be evenly distributed within the state.

But there are no specifics of that plan, the No. 1 problem. Nor will there be until after the legislation becomes law, according to the state board.

The House committee didn't seem a bit concerned about where the $10 million, plus expected salary increases, will come from the following year. Hey, it's just money - money that we keep hearing the state can't afford.

That's problem No. 2. That's sufficient, we don't need to look for any more problems.

Any legislator who buys this pig-in-a-poke idea doesn't deserve to be representing us.

To view the rest of the article printed in the Bloomington Pantagraph click here.

Jim discusses why so many referenda failed with Kevin Craver of the Northwest Herald.

Bucking a trend

[published on Thu, Mar 23, 2006]

McHenry County school districts heard something from voters Tuesday evening that they do not hear often regarding referendums: Yes.

Voters approved four of five referendums, the first election since March 2002 that more than one passed. Referendums in Woodstock District 200 and McHenry District 15 passed by comfortable margins, according to preliminary vote totals. A bond referendum and an education fund tax rate increase referendum both passed in Carpentersville-based District 300, with the education fund increase winning by a narrow margin.

Pro-referendum groups in Woodstock and McHenry accustomed to defeat – District 15 passed on its sixth try – attributed their victories to aggressive community outreach.

"I think the difference this time was the entire package deal," said Kate Halma, co-chairman of the Citizens for District 200 Committee. "There wasn't a quick strategic planning session or an open house that not many people went to. This was a 2 1/2-year research effort. The answers weren't dictated to the residents of District 200. The answers were developed by the residents of District 200."

But referendum opponents who have organized over the years argue that the referendums passed because developers and vendors bought them with campaign contributions, and school boards threatened draconian cuts if the referendums failed.

"Why wouldn't the people resent the fact that developers who are putting a lot of homes in the community, certainly for their profit, are interested in promoting a tax on the community?" said Jack Roeser, founder of the Family Taxpayers Network, who spent about $18,000 of his own money for anti-referendum signs and mailings.

Halma rejected the notion that developers bought the election.

"The developers' contributions helped us print fliers," Halma said. "The developers' contributions did not help raise the passion of Woodstock citizens."

Tuesday's victories buck a years-long trend – three school referendums passed and 21 failed between 2003 and 2005. Seven of eight school referendums failed in the March 2004 election.

Districts 200 and 300 will embark on large-scale school construction programs to accommodate growth. District 15's vote will add more teachers and stave off program cuts. District 300 received some criticism for proposed activity cuts, which added up to 1 percent of the district's budget.

"There have been a lot of new threats lately, and the people charged with caring for the students and the citizens have instead been threatening them," said Jim Peschke, co-founder of Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes, an anti-referendum group in Harvard.

The sole referendum failure Tuesday was District 46 in Prairie Grove, where voters soundly defeated a building plan that school officials said would not increase the tax rate. Prominent village residents such as the village president, a school board member and the president of the district's Parent-Teacher Organization opposed the referendum.

Woodstock's and McHenry's victories snapped long-time losing streaks fueled in part by ethical issues that tarnished voter trust.

District 200 acquired land for a new high school in 1991, despite two advisory referendums against the idea, landing the district and the former superintendent in trouble several years later with then-State's Attorney Gary Pack. District 15 exploited a legal loophole in 1993 to raise taxes a year early following a successful referendum.

"Part of the education process was helping [voters] understand what happened that year," said Bonnie Simon, co-chairman of the District 15 group Our Children, Our Investment. "As much as it seemed like an under-handed decision, it really was the best decision at the time. And it was 13 years ago – we really have to move on and base the decisions on today, not what happened back then."

Peschke called Tuesday's vote a temporary setback because homeowners sooner or later will run out of money to pay teacher salaries.

"The reason I say so is because the system can't continue," Peschke said. "You can't raise taxes faster than inflation. When the people get burned by these districts, they will learn. I was hoping they'd learn the easy way."


To view the rest of the article go to the Northwest Herald.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A note from a Waterloo, Illinois parent and the reactions she received for speaking out.

Cathy Peschke,

Just wanted to let you know that the REPUBLIC TIMES in Waterloo printed our letter to the editor last week. We have received several phone calls and mail, mostly from residents in the community who strongly AGREE with our position. Unfortunately, those people have not had the guts to speak up for fear of repercussion to their children's education in the school or their participation in local groups like Scouts, or they'll be labeled an "uncooperative parent" by the school district. People have told us that they have learned to "keep their mouth shut" in this community or you'll suffer the consequences. What a shame! The local school district has wielded so much power and authority that it is no longer they that serve the public, but vice versa. The public exists to serve them . . . with their wallets, that is. It sounds like a form of terrorism to me! Not only do they hold the children's education hostage unless you're willing to fork over more dollars for whatever they want . . . but they also intimidate and harass your children if you have the gall to speak up and challenge their "authority" over you!

A couple people who agreed with us provided even more information about what is going on in the school that I don't have the time to verify. If what they said is true, I can't believe this community has tolerated so much for so long.

Apparently we have been the first to speak so boldly in this community against the government school monopoly. Even if the referendum and bond proposal are passed tomorrow, if nothing else maybe our letter to the editor will empower more people in the community to be bold and courageous in speaking the truth and make a difference for the better.

I feel very sad for a community who has VOICES (a public committee set up to push a school referendum) but NO VOICE (people against the referendum who are afraid to speak up).

Thanks again for your website, your educational information, links to other websites, advice, etc. You've been a real help.


P.S. The two people we heard from who STRONGLY DISAGREED with us were products of the school system who have lived here all their lives who were extremely sentimental to the school system, illogical regarding the facts, full of boasting about their personal level of education and high paid salaries, resorted to personally insulting us, giving us their ill-conceived reasons why we were against the referendum, and were just plain bitter and arrogant.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Clinging to the Status Quo on Education

The following article appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune but was posted on Real Clear

March 01, 2006
Clinging to the Status Quo on Education
By Ruben Navarrette
SAN DIEGO -- You have to hand it to critics of No Child Left Behind. In trying to preserve the status quo, they're wrong. But at least they're persistent. In fact, they're persistently wrong.

Made up of teachers, administrators, school board members and anyone who turns a blind eye to the mediocrity of public schools, the critics are relentless in their attempts to discredit the education reform law.

They'll get another chance to blast away over the next several months as a bipartisan commission holds public hearings across the country to get an earful on what works with the law, and what doesn't. The commission will send recommendations to Congress, which is expected to renew the law in 2007.

It's easy to see why those who prefer the status quo detest No Child Left Behind. Under the law, children in every racial and demographic group in every public school must improve their scores on standardized tests in math and science. No excuses. Schools that fall short of that goal can be shut down, and their students can transfer to another public school.

The critics hate requirements like that for one reason -- because good tests not only tell you if kids are learning but also if teachers and administrators are holding up their end. If the truth comes out, disgruntled parents might go from demanding accountability from schools to demanding it from the individuals who work in them.

The critics are nothing if not versatile. First they insisted that No Child Left Behind was unfair to schools because it was a one-size-fits-all approach with no flexibility. Then they said the law was unfair to teachers because it tied them to student performance when not all children learn at the same pace.

Now they're insisting the law is unfair to some students because it benefits middle-class white kids and hurts Latinos and African-Americans. At least that is the conclusion of a troubling new study by the deceptively named Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Troubling because the agenda it advances is dangerous and the thinking behind it is backward. Deceptively named because if this group cared about civil rights, it would push in the opposite direction.

It goes back to the flexibility the critics requested and eventually received. Now that 49 states have either amended the law or waived some of its provisions, the critics have the chutzpah to insist that the thing they wanted has produced a result they find unacceptable. They claim that schools that educate white and middle-class students are more likely to take advantage of loopholes and dodge accountability than those that teach poor kids and Latinos and African-Americans. As a result, they say, schools with poor and minority kids are more likely to report low scores on exams and are thus more likely to incur sanctions. That is, according to the critics, an education law intended to help black and brown kids is, in fact, racist.

That criticism is half-right. There is racism here, but not in the law. Rather, it is built into the educational system that the law seeks to reform.

It begins when a teaching corps that is three-fourths white approaches minority students with what President Bush calls the soft bigotry of low expectations. It continues as those teachers, at a loss to explain why these students don't do as well in school, cling to the racist assumption that minority parents don't value education. And, finally, it is compounded when those who want to preserve the status quo do everything they can to undermine testing -- not to protect black and brown children but to protect the adults who are disenfranchising them.

The No Child Left Behind law didn't create racism in education. But it just might be helpful in exposing it.

I suspect that the Harvard study is right about one thing -- that some schools, including those that educate white and middle-class children, have come up with creative ways to skirt the law by taking advantage of waivers and the like.

But so what? The schools that resort to such maneuvers are only hurting the kids they're supposed to be teaching. Minority students, far from being disenfranchised, are much better off for being held accountable with no exceptions and no excuses.

That can be messy. But whom are we kidding? It's nothing compared to the mess that the special interests have made of the educational system.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

SCHOOL REFERENDUMS - Residents' trust, votes are at issue

The following article appeared in the Chicago Tribune


Residents' trust, votes are at issue

By Grace Aduroja
Tribune staff reporter
Published March 17, 2006

Dan Denys supported the tax referendum measure four years ago in Naperville School District 203, and then his tax bill came.

Based on campaign estimates, he had calculated that his annual tax bill would increase about $1,200 over five years. Instead, it jumped by $1,800 within four years.

The unexpected increase led him to believe the school campaign had been deceptive, but district officials say their projections were accurate based on information that was available before the election. The higher amount was due to quirks in state law, they said.

"I think people are essentially victims of this process," said Denys, a financial adviser for school districts throughout the Chicago area. "It's not like these are some dictators pulling money out of us; these are our neighbors, these are people that we elect."

A growing number of suburban residents are expressing skepticism similar to Denys' during this tax referendum season. Districts from Hinsdale to Huntley have been accused of taking more money than promised during referendum campaigns.

And that has caused problems in other school systems where residents are apprehensive about approving tax increases that school officials say they need to close financial shortfalls and fund construction projects.

"I think people want to be sure that you're going to do what you say you're doing," said Stephen Berry, co-interim superintendent for Glenbard High School District 87, which is asking voters for a 5-cent tax rate increase.

One cause of the perceived dishonesty is a loophole in Illinois law that allows schools to approve a tax increase for one fund, such as education, but put some of the money into other accounts, such as transportation. But when it's time to figure the tax rate the next year, only the portion of the money in the fund for which it was approved counts toward that increase, so the district can raise the tax rate again to make up the difference.

For example, if a homeowner paying $1,000 in school taxes voted in favor of an increase that amounted to $30, he could pay $1,030 in taxes the next year. But if only $10 of that $30 increase went into the fund for which the increase was approved, the district could add on an additional $20 the following year, making that homeowner's bill $1,050. This process could be spread out over five years.

Also, taxpayers might unwittingly vote themselves out from under the protection of the state's tax-cap law, which is designed to keep taxes relatively steady even as home values soar. The law prohibits increases in a tax bill of more than the rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is lower, unless voters approve. Voters who approve a referendum measure increasing the tax rate could find themselves paying that total rate even on a home whose value has increased dramatically.

"Essentially ... you're suspending the operation of the tax cap for five years," said state Rep. Mike Tryon (R-Crystal Lake). "Some districts don't do that."

But others do. Such was the case in Huntley District 158, where taxpayers approved a 55-cent increase that could end up costing them more than double that amount. When the dust settled, the superintendent resigned, another administrator took an early retirement and three new board members were elected.

"What's happening is that parent groups go out and sell a referendum and then they look like idiots because they put their credibility on the line," Tryon said.

But education advocates stress that not every school system has accessed the additional money--even though it's not unlawful to do so.

"What's unfortunate is that we're all lumped into one size fits all," said Peg Agnos, executive director of LEND, the Legislative Education Network of DuPage, a group that represents county schools.

"This is all within the letter of the law. It's unfortunate that it's occurred because of the quirks in property tax law."

Still, residents hit with startling tax bills have been livid.

Some districts have gone so far as to halt the collection of surplus funds. In an emotional meeting last year, the Hinsdale Elementary School District 181 board voted to return to the spirit of the referendum campaign. Naperville District 203 agreed this year to abide by the tax-cap formula.

But the resulting strife can be detrimental elsewhere. Several opposition groups have been campaigning against referendum measures in Carpentersville District 300, which is near the Huntley school system.

"We help people defeat referenda," said Cathy Peschke, co-founder of Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes, a McHenry Country group that opposes the proposals in District 300. "[Districts] are not being honest with voters. I think it's really deceptive tactics."

The way that referendum requests are worded on ballots also has contributed to the confusion.

Tryon is sponsoring a bill that would make it difficult for districts to take the additional funds by making the ballot language more specific.

"You need a mechanism as a voter to go in that ballot box and know how this is going to affect you," he said. "We're talking about people's money and we're talking substantial dollars."

But not all residents doubt their districts. Robin Church supports a measure in Aurora-based Indian Prairie District 204--which is next door to Naperville District 203--because she's crunched the numbers.

"I've done far more research on my own," Church said. "I don't anticipate any surprises."