Sunday, November 8, 2015

National Common Sense Week

For those of you wondering about my vote against our National Education Week proclamation at the last board meeting, I present this alternate proclamation.   So far I'm the only one to sign, but perhaps you can convince other elected officials to join me. 

Whereas: Public meetings which are accessible to all, achieve clear outcomes, and are conducted efficiently, are a cornerstone of our Republic, and

Whereas: It is the responsibility of elected officials to keep these meetings focused on topics which related to concrete actions by the board or its employees, and

Whereas: Actions that are purely symbolic, not affecting any policy or regulation, and not causing any actual activity, are a waste of public time and energy, and a cynical effort by politicians to say they "did something" while doing nothing, and

Whereas: "Proclamations" passed by elected bodies are in this purely symbolic category (with the exception of the one you are reading now), and

Whereas: Support of the causes described in proclamations, such as supporting Education, Teachers, Classified Employees, School Boards, etc., should be demonstrated by the continuous activities and policies of the board, rather than by empty rhetoric, and

Whereas: While the public resources wasted by any individual proclamation activity seem trivial, collectively they amount to thousands (or more) of employee hours and millions of dollars in expenses across the nation,

Now, therefore, be it resolved that this week, and all future weeks, shall be known as National Common Sense Week. All elected officials signing on to this proclamation pledge that this will be the last Proclamation of a Week that they ever vote on or spend time on in a public meeting.


Erik Seligman

Sunday, September 27, 2015

State Laws Preventing Responsible School Spending

At our 9/22 Hillsboro school board meeting, CFO Adam Stewart presented a plan to contract substitute teachers through an outside agency, rather than having our district employ them directly. We approved the plan, which will lead to a modest but real savings of around $1.3 million over the next three years. (See details in the meeting packet at page 16.)  But I was surprised by one hoop that Adam had to jump through due to state law: in Oregon, government agencies, including school districts, are not allowed to replace employees with contractors if the savings is solely in terms of salaries and benefits.

Huh?  This seemed strange to me. If we are overpaying an employee to provide a service that is offered in a more cost-effective way by the open market, shouldn't that be a great reason to make a change?  Don't we owe it to the children to avoid wasting money, so more can go where it is most sorely needed?  Our schools are an education program for children, not a jobs program for our employees.  But the state legislature seems to have a different idea: take a look at .  The language is somewhat obfuscated, but section 2a on that page really does require that for a service to be contracted, the savings cannot be solely in terms of wages and benefits.

Fortunately, Adam was able to identify some savings outside this category, based on freeing up staff time to be used on tasks other than supervising substitutes, so we will be able to contract out for the substitutes.   But I still find it very disturbing that we had to go through these convolutions.   How many government employees are we overpaying statewide to comply with this law?  How many millions of your tax dollars are going to waste ? Next time you hear anyone in state or local government talk about how we need to raise taxes to get more money for schools, think hard about laws like this.   Any Oregon politician who claims to need more money, but is not supporting reforms to ORS 279B.033, is intentionally encouraging the waste of state money, and prioritizing the needs of state employees over the public at large.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Opting Out of SBAC Tests

Recently there has been a major movement to opt out of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) testing, the new standardized test being used by schools in many states including Oregon.   Oregon recently passed a state law to ensure that parents have the right to opt out.  I think the major motivation for this effort is opposition to Common Core (CC), the new set of standards being implemented across many subjects.  As you've probably learned from reading my earlier blog entries, I'm not a big fan of CC:  it's a top-down effort masquerading as a grassroots initiative, and there are real questions about political motivations for many aspects of the standards.   Changing to a "more rigorous" standard while changing the tests at the same time also seems to provide a huge opportunity for trickery:  if the new teaching is so much more rigorous, why not first demonstrate that fact for a few years by watching scores rise on the old tests?   There are also serious concerns about data tracking in SBAC, and we cannot be totally sure about its guarantees of privacy to counter this.   Yet, even with these factors in mind, it still seems to me that opting your child out of the SBAC tests is not the right approach.  This is because of the critical role standardized tests play in being able to truly understand whether your child is learning what they need to at school.

My views on this are colored by an experience I had while teaching at a summer program at Phillips Academy at Andover back in the 1990s.  (Yes, that's the elite high school attended by the Bushes at one time!)  There was one student, who we'll call Chris (not his real name), who attended a rough inner-city school during the year, and was there on a scholarship.   He had a very high GPA at his school, and had been led to believe that he was a top academic achiever.   Yet it became apparent after a few weeks that he had simply never encountered a math program that even slightly challenged him:  at his school, the teachers were probably astonished that anybody was paying the slightest bit of attention.   So to be a top achiever, all he had to do was regurgitate facts and procedures from the teachers, with almost no actual understanding.   Chris was lucky that this issue was identified at this summer program; it could have easily been left stagnating until he was in his senior year & applying to colleges.   At Andover, we were able to help him a bit, but how many others are there like him across the country, who think they are doing great academically, but don't find out the true inadequacy of their education until it's too late?

That's why standardized tests are critical.  I know they are painful, and I'm sure they can always be improved, especially the SBAC with its known flaws of the CC basis, computer dependence, and exceptionally long testing time.   But having a method to compare knowledge and progress with others across the nation, independent from the judgment calls of your local teacher, is an absolutely critical part of your child's education.  At the last board meeting, we looked at some sample SBAC questions, and it looks like they are making a solid attempt at designing an academically challenging test to measure student knowledge, and its grading will be handled independently of any local school or district.   You can also see detailed examples at sites like this.   It's not perfect, and there are some questions about how truly objective the grading can be when the answers are free-form rather than multiple choice-- but scoring is independent of the local district.   We need this method available to flag cases where we are failing to educate some portion of the children, or our district is falling behind other districts, and this is not being detected due to grading curves or relaxed standards used by local teachers. 
I'm totally on board with continuing to protest the rush to CC and SBAC to your state legislators, and working to expose any issues with these new tests.  District officials have ensured me that there is an appeals process which you can use to review the actual SBAC questions and your child's answer, in case they spot something that seems unfair or politically biased:  be sure to take advantage of this if needed.   In addition, we need to be careful that "teaching to the test" doesn't become so dominant that it damages education, though I have already written about that topic, so won't belabor it here.    I believe the most legitimate objection to SBAC is the question of privacy and data tracking-- but this is really a more general issue; if you trust the government with your child 8 hours per day, this concern will always be there with or without SBAC.   Be sure to stay on top of such issues, and contact your legislators regularly with your concerns.  Overall, due to the critical nature of standardized tests for detecting and correcting possible major flaws in our children's education, it seems to me that opting out of SBAC tests is not the right decision.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Should Public Schools Advertise?

Should public schools be spending our tax money on advertising and marketing? At the 8/17 board meeting, our Communications Director accounced the launch of a new phase of the "Proud to Be HSD" campaign, which is to include billboard and bus bench advertisements. Based on the discussion at the meeting, many seem to consider this a great idea and a standard, expected expenditure. I'm not so sure though.

The main rationale seems to be the oft-repeated statement that "We should run the public schools like I business". I've said this numerous times, so perhaps it's appropriate that my own words are being thrown back at me! But using this statement to justify public school marketing is a clever bit of sophistry, rather than a serious argument. The "like a business" statement is a shorthand for numerous positive attributes of private businesses that we would like to see in schools: accountability for results, constant drives to control spending, measuring and improving return on investment, etc. It does not mean that 100% of things a private business does must also be done by schools. Since public schools have a captive audience of automatic customers, who have to go through significant time and/or expense if they desire to choose alternative options or opt out, the schools simply do not have the same need to advertise as private businesses do. We do have a need for some communications budget, to inform students and parents of necessary school-related information, but I don't think HSD needs the same kind of marketing department as Intel or Nike.

The other rationale that seemed to have some sympathy was "Charter schools advertise, so it's only fair if our regular schools do it too." But charter schools are specifically designed so that they do NOT have the automatic customer base of standard public schools, and need to attract students to actively apply-- so in their case, advertising makes a lot more sense. In addition, charters are an experiment in (mostly) independent management: intentionally divorced from the direct control of school boards, they make their own decisions on local expenditures. Whether they spend their money wisely or foolishly is an internal matter: they are purely accountable for results. Charters are directly punished, and can even fail and shut down, if they fail to deliver solid performance and continually attract students.

Ultimately, as I mentioned in my post on the OSBA last year, my biggest concern here is the use of tax money to lobby for more tax money. It's no secret that a key goal of the "Proud to Be HSD" campaign is to lay the groundwork for future bonds and levies to pass. But the money that has currently been entrusted to HSD by the hard-working taxpayers of Hillsboro was specifically intended to advance our children's education, not to persuade the public to give more tax money. Once we allow our money to be diverted for this purpose, where does it stop? It's the natural inclination of government bureaucracies to launch this endless snowball, using existing funding to generate more funding, and we need to work hard to keep this tendency under control.

There is nothing stopping a local volunteer group, possibly with aid from the (independent) Hillsboro Schools Foundation or other charities, from putting on an advertising campaign in favor of public education. A pro-HSD campaign organized through this mechanism is likely to get wide approval and public support. However, if I see my tax money being spent on billboards and advertisements instead of reaching the classroom, it will make me less, not more, inclined to vote in favor of future bonds and levies-- regardless of the actual quality or content of the ads. And I believe a large proportion of our local population is likely to feel the same way.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Environmental Fanatics Robbing Oregon's Children (+ OSBA15 wrap-up)

I've just returned from the Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA) 2015 Summer Conference .   There were several excellent talks there, as well as the typical sprinkling of leftward-tinged politics and advocacy of infinite education spending.   The best talk was the opening session by Margaret Bird, from an organization known as CLASS, Children's Land Alliance Supporting Schools.   We learned some surprising things about the concept of "School Trust Lands", of which I previously had a rather vague awareness.   These are lands set aside in every state, upon their founding, to provide a permanent source of funds for the public schools.   Oregon has some of the richest School Trust Lands in the nation-- but over the past two years, due to environmental complications, we have realized a negative financial return on them, spending money to manage them but not realizing any profit.  This is a unique situation in the 200+ year history of school trust lands across the U.S.   Some of the key points that came out in this discussion were:
  •  School Trust Lands are actually a core element of state government, and using them for school funding has legal priority over the state constitution.   This is because these lands were provided for this purpose in the statehood acts, passed by the U.S. Congress, that formed each state.  These lands are specifically designated to fund schools.   Sadly, many states totally lost these lands by the end of the 20th century due to corruption and nepotism.   Some of this happened in Oregon, but we are one of the better-off states in this regard, as we only lost 2/3 (!) of the trust lands.
  • The bulk of Oregon's School Trust Lands are in the Elliott State Forest,   which was valued at $10 billion ten years ago, due to the ability to sustainably harvest $20-40 million in lumber annually-- but this value has been nearly destroyed by environmentalism.   An endless barrage of lawsuits began by environmental groups opposed to lumber harvesting in general, followed by the discovery of several endangered species living there.  In other states, it's usually possible to do some level of land use despite the existence of endangered species.  However, the OSBA lawyer said that due to Oregon's stricter environmental interpretations, these basically freeze all productive uses of the forest.   We might be able to get this loosened if the federal government agrees to a conservation plan, but so far the feds have not been in a hurry to do this, as any approved plan would anger the environmental lobby.
  • As a result, the state is looking to sell the Elliot State Forest for a bargain-basement price, something in the $400-800 million range, just to get some economic value.  It's kind of sad that we have this formerly $10 billion asset there to fund the schools, but need to sell it to someone better able to handle the legal entanglements.   However, since currently all these complications result in an annual net loss, we don't have a lot of options.
 Not a very uplifting story-- keep this in mind next time you hear about our underfunded schools.   And before you support or send donations to any Oregon environmental group, think hard about the fact that you may be helping directly to drain hundreds of millions of dollars from Oregon's schools.  

Anyway, that was a great opening session for the OSBA conference.   Some highlights from the other talks:
  • Parliamentary Procedure at the Jurassic Parliament.   This was another excellent speaker, a session taught by "Roberts Rules Queen" Ann Macfarlane.   I had dreaded attending this session- how could a talk on parliamentary procedure not be incredibly boring?- but this was actually quite fun.   The session was modeled as a meeting of the "Jurassic Parliament", a school board for a dinosaur school, with various audience members making scripted motions to discuss issues such as the harassment of mammals, benefits of dinosaur yoga in PE class, and whether carnivorous students can eat their classmates.    I also learned some tidbits that might improve our HSD school board meetings:
    • In Robert's Rules, each member can make two speeches supporting or opposing any motion, you can't go in circles forever.  (Which HSD seems to do sometimes!)  This also rules out "back-and-forth" discussions in a meeting.
    • If a speech is not germane to the current motion, you can interrupt with a point of order.
    • Seconding a motion doesn't mean you favor it, just that you agree it's worth discussing.
  • Breaking the Unwritten Rules, and Filtering the Static:   Day 2 keynote & session by consultant Mike Weber.  Entertaining speaker with lots of fun little demos, such as telling audience to grasp hands and pin each other's thumbs, and watching them incorrectly infer that the full rules of thumb wrestling apply.    Not very information-dense or deep though:  key points are to recognize, rewrite, and reinforce (when needed) unwritten rules, and to recognize the filters that everyone puts up when communicating.
  • The TELL Oregon Survey, a presentation of the results of a statewide survey of educatorsThe results are generally available at this link.  Probably the most surprising findings were that most teachers disagreed that professional development is regularly followed up and measured; principals and teachers disagreed on whether paperwork was reasonable (85.1% vs 44.4%); and principals thought they were addressing teacher concerns way more than teachers did (97.8% vs 68.7%).
  • Education Reform and You.   Somewhat disappointing that this session was just advocating the "reform" currently being worked on by our state government, which seems mainly to relate to more local control over assessments.  There are some good ideas there, but when I hear "reform", I hope for something more radical or different.
  • Collective Bargaining.   Useful but rather dry session on the nuts and bolts of this process.   Key piece of advice-- NEVER be the first one to leave a negotiating session, even if it's 3am and you just want to go to sleep.   Apparently any time you leave, even if it's on friendly terms with an offer to schedule a continuation later, the union can try to use it as evidence of bad faith.  So if you're on the district negotiating team, bring some snacks, a blanket, and a pillow!
  • Educational Equity:  As expected, a session of nonstop left-wing politics.  Some of the biggest whoppers:  "Equity" is explicitly defined as equality of results across groups, not equality of opportunity; "Microagressions" are given a specifically one-way definition, only commitable against People of Color; and schools requiring a particular test score or other academic standard for admission are an example of an unfair "entrance barrier" against people of color.
  • Up in Smoke:  Marijuana in Schools and Other Current Issues.   Useful session on the current confusing legal state of several topics.
    • Under federal law, if a teacher tests positive for marijuana, they must be disciplined, even if it was for an off-campus medical use.   (I pointed out that federal law still makes marijuana illegal across the state anyway-- should our schools really be forced to opt out of our state's decision to nullify the feds in this area?   The OSBA employees insisted on the federal rules.)
    • Transgender issues:  there is currently a confusing and contradictory set of rulings here.  For example, some say we can accomodate transgender students in a separate restroom, while at least one court has ruled that such students need to be using the "regular" restrooms.   In athletics, OSAA rules allow a transgender boy to play on the girls' team, IF they have had a year of hormone treatments.  (Will that stand up in court?)
    • SBAC Testing Opt-outs:  If we fall below 95% participation, some federal funds may be endangered.
  • Random Conversations:   Of course an important part of the conference is meeting other school board members from around the state, and hearing about what's been going on in their districts.   Probably the most surprising discussion was with an Umatilla board member, who told me about their strategy after a bond failed by a small margin:  they provided a financial incentive for district employees to live in the district, helping to increase their pro-school-funding voter base.   Interesting idea, but seems to me that it might cross an ethical line somewhere.
Anyway,  I think that just about covers it.   Overall, an interesting and informative conference-- I will probably go again next year, especially if they continue to recruit speakers on the level of Margaret Bird and Ann Macfarlane.   As always, be sure to email me if you want to further discuss any of the issues mentioned here.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Critical Race Theory In the Schools: An Update

It's been a while since I discussed the schools' teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its core doctrine of While Privilege in this blog. But this topic has made the national news lately , due to Gresham school board member Dan Christenson uncovering use of this extreme radical theory in their district, so it's probably time for an update. I won't bother detailing my specific objections to CRT again, since in my previous blog entries I have thoroughly discussed its historical illiteracy, anti-white racism, attacks on American legitimacy, reliance on ad hominem arguments, and encouragement of anti-Semitism.   But our district has reviewed its Equity training materials in the past year, and we have made some progress on this topic.
First, the good news: our district is planning its future trainings using a different seminar that is not based on CRT. As you may recall, the Hillsboro School District has, over the past five years, been training its teachers with the "Uniting to Understand Racism" (UUR) materials, based on the theory that racial equity will be improved by indoctrinating everyone in CRT. A district committee was formed this year to review the program, and the end result is that the next round of training will be based on a program called Stir Fry Seminars. This program is based on encouraging each individual to examine their own communication styles, and their website does not contain the words White Privilege. There are a few areas for caution though, as I do see some left-wing buzzwords such as "power" used repeatedly on their site. Naturally, it's always possible that CRT is there under the hood: if you've attended a Stir Fry Seminar and have any comments or concerns, please send me an email.

However, the past years of CRT instruction have leaked into Hillsboro classrooms, and this will require all our continuing vigilance to fix. It's probably not much of a surprise that, after many years of being led to believe that the White Privilege doctrine is the official view of the district, some teachers have incorporated it into their lesson plans for the children. We received a complaint at a board meeting a few months ago, and independently a local student showed up at one of my Constituent Coffees to complain about such a lesson in another class. Even worse, in one of these classes, when a student asked the teacher when they were going to discuss alternative views on race in America, he was told by his teacher that there is no other legitimate view! Such one-sided teaching is clearly a violation of our policy on controversial issues in the classroom.  (I do not object if CRT is discussed in a context of many views on race, including conservative ones, but that is not what was happening here.)  I believe Superintendent Scott has met with the principals involved and told them that these types of lessons are politically polarizing as well as being potential deviations from policy, and do not belong in our K12 classrooms. But I'm not sure if this is enough to undo our years of indoctrination-- we need to remain vigilant. If you find your child being taught Critical Race Theory and White Privilege in their class, please send me a copy of the materials so I can follow up. (I can relay them anonymously if your child is worried about facing accusations of racism or disciplinary action for reporting this.)

Also, if you're not in Hillsboro or Gresham, there is probably a 99% chance that Critical Race Theory and White Privilege are quietly being taught in YOUR district. The most challenging aspect of dealing with the district Equity committee has been their thorough training in CRT-- many staff members seem to find it difficult to even conceive that another view could exist. As I researched the literature, I found that at a national level, this radical doctrine has totally taken over schools of education, academic ethnic studies departments, and academic "diversity" specialists. Thus anyone wishing to be formally certified as any type of educator these days has no choice but to study, accept, and internalize this theory. So if you're in another district, be sure to ask to see their Diveristy or Equity training materials, and examine them for yourself. Chances are that you are in for an unpleasant surprise.   It's best to review the actual materials, but also be on the lookout for mention of, or materials provided by, large organizations known to promote CRT:  UUR, Resolutions Northwest, the Pacific Education Group (PEG), or the Coalition for Educational Equity (CFEE).

So, in short, we have made some improvement to the Equity training program in the Hillsboro School District, but need to remain vigilant. Be sure to pay attention to what your child is learning in school, and review any materials related to racism, diversity, or similar topics. And if in another district, watch this issue closely, and ask your local school or district office for the relevant materials in this area.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

School Budgeting For The Future

Recently our budget committee met to approve the Hillsboro School District budget proposal for the next school year. I provided the sole vote against the budget proposal, believing it irresponsible in light of our current financial situation. As it turns out, my concerns may be moot, since in the past week an amended forecast came out that will leave our schools with significantly more money than we thought. But I think there are some important principles here we still need to think about.

Some background: the original budget proposal calculated that we would have enough money to essentially provide the current service level, expand (as the state has mandated) kindergarten to all-day, and provide an additional $720K in targeted investments in areas such as athletics and activities.  But then the state Supreme Court threw in a monkey wrench, by ruling that recent PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) reforms were unconstitutional, creating a major new expense for the schools. Due to the oddities of Oregon's PERS accounting process, HSD would not be charged any money this year or next year, but two years from now would be facing a shortfall of around $3.5 million. The amount isn't exact-- there are a lot of other factors involved, including market performance and potential changes to the law-- but that was our CFO's best estimate.

It seemed to me that in light of this new informaton, we should be banking some money every year to prepare against this expected shortfall. Sure, it would be disappointing to have to cancel the majority of this $720K investment. But shouldn't we plan prudently for the long-term health of the district by preparing for the upcoming financial cliff, instead of just spending as originally planned in the hopes that luck or the state legislature will bail us out?

One argument in favor of the spending was that HSD needs it in order to be a top-tier district. Of course I'm not unsympathetic to this claim: surely with all other things being equal, spending more money wisely should allow improvements vs not spending the money. However, if you've been reading my blog, you know that I don't believe this dependence is absolute: many private and charter schools are successful with much smaller budgets than our traditional schools. I also believe we have put way too much effort into finding ways to spend money on new programs, rather than finding ways to improve our district's cost-effectiveness in educational delivery.  In any case, we need to face the fact that we may not have the money in the long term. Spending for today without regard for the future will just make it more painful a few years from now, when we have to face a massive cut to fill in the shortfall. I think many members of our community are growing cynical of the district for creating these kinds of situations on purpose-- that's one major reason the recent bond initiative failed. The best way for HSD to gain the public's confidence in its financial management is to refuse to particpate in the bureaucratic government tradition of continually increasing spending, to maximize the size of the "shortfall" caused by future expenses or general losses, and then demanding more money to compensate.

The other major argument  was that this year's money is there for this year's kids, and we are somehow cheating them if we don't spend it directly on them. If we had a pay-as-you-go system where every student was specifically paying their own tuition each year, this argument might hold water. But the entire public education system is based on redistribution: retirees, childless singles, local businesses, and others all pay tax money that is used to educate the majority of children, in theory serving the common good.  If we can redistribute across populations for the common good, why can't we distribute across time for the common good as well? If we can provide the best education to the most children in the long term by saving money this year, how can that be considered immoral? Aside from that basic observation, the truth is that we already are dealing with plenty of expenditures whose costs and benefits are unevenly distributed across time: long-term planning, investing in new equipment, building mainenance, and of course the notorious PERS, an insanely expensive burden foisted on us by our predecessors. So the argument that we are somehow morally bound to fully expend each year's budget, rather than prudently banking money when we see a huge expense looming, simply doesn't make sense.

So, in short, it seemed to me that our budget should include direct consideration of how we will cover for the looming PERS shortfall created by the Supreme Court decision, even though we technically are not forced to pay for it yet. As I mentioned above, it looks like we will have more money than expected, so perhaps this will become less of a concern. But be sure to watch how HSD is planning its spending, and pay close attention to how much (or how little) is being done to reduce long-term costs. When tax debates or ballot initiatives come up, do not reward the school district for overspending to maximize future "shortfalls": reward it for prudent actions taken to save money and reduce long-term expenses. Remember a fundamental rule of economics: we will almost always get more of the behaviors we reward.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Vote Clift, Rask, Honl for Hillsboro School Board

Hopefully, you are getting ready to fill out your ballots for school board.   If you are in our district, I strongly urge you to vote for Wayne Clift, Bart Rask, and Christian Honl.

I've known Wayne Clift, our current vice-chair, for over 15 years now, first as a colleague at Intel, then on the school board.  He has been a soft-spoken but consistent voice for common sense and careful consideration of all viewpoints, and deserves re-election.   His patience and excellent skills at listening and mediation have led to endorsements from members of both the liberal and conservative wings of the board.   However, if you look at the contested votes the board has had over the past two years on various issues,  you will find that Wayne and I are almost always on the same page.

Bart Rask is a newcomer with a truly impressive resume.   His successful orthopedic practice and background including a Harvard fellowship would alone put him among the leaders of our community. But on top of that he has served on the state level board of athletic trainers, appointed and reappointed by two previous governors.  Aside from his exceptional personal qualifications, his experience dealing with government regulations and tightening insurance budgets, while running his medical practice, are excellent preparation to manage the Hillsboro schools in these challenging times.   I believe he is by far the most deserving candidate for our open seat.

Christian Honl is an Intel manager with a strong track record overseeing large teams during periods of financial stress.    Christian has the insight to know what needs to be done, the vision to develop realistic goals, and the work ethic to make good and necessary changes happen without backing down under pressure.  This is the kind of experience we need more of on the school board, and is a key reason why we should elect him to replace our current chair.

As a parting note, I want to remind you that all the candidates and members of the board are generous, dedicated people who truly care about Hillsboro's kids.    But where your choice of members becomes critical is in the cases where there are disagreements, and conflicting visions of how to run our district.    So please do not vote based on personal connections or friendship, but on who you really want making these hard choices.   If you like the outlook on school issues that you have been reading in my blog, the candidates most likely to have similar views on many issues are the ones I recommend.

So please remember to turn in your ballot, and cast your votes for Wayne Clift, Bart Rask, and Christian Honl for the Hillsboro school board.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sex Ed: Opt Out or Opt In?

At last Tuesday's board meeting, Hillsboro resident Kathy Mikitka proposed a change in how we notify parents about the sex ed curriculum. Currently we have an opt-out policy: parents are informed about what the curriculum contains, and they have the option to contact the school if they want their child excused from that class. Kathy proposed changing it to an opt-in policy, where the default would be for children to be excused, and parents would have to officially approve their child's inclusion in the sex ed class. While this proposal would involve a bit more paperwork for the teachers, Kathy made some convincing arguments for why it would be an improvement:
  • Sex ed is fundamentally different from other curriculum areas. I think we can all agree that this topic touches on morality, religion, and personal privacy in a unique way. So the argument "if we do it for this, we need to do it for everything" doesn't carry much weight, as I see it.
  • Parents may miss or overlook the opt-out opportunity. Many parents are buried in various forms of paperwork and junk mail these days. And of course, there is a big peer pressure factor here: kids may fear the stigma of being opted out of sex ed, and thus intentionally hide information or fail to inform their parents. Since opt-out does not require any feedback from parents back to the school, the teacher will never know if they really received and were able to act upon the information.
  • Young children may be upset or disturbed by aspects of the sex ed curriculum. With various theorists promoting detailed information to be given at younger and younger ages, this seems like a legitimate concern. There also may be times when highly inappropriate information sneaks in unexpectedly: while the coastal conference that encouraged illegal activities was an extreme case, the same state bodies and officials that oversaw that conference have been in charge of developing K-12 curricula.

It looks to me like these are pretty good arguments, and I am inclined to believe we should seriously consider Kathy's proposal. What do you think? Please email me, or the whole board, if you have an opinion in this area. And of course, remember to carefully fill out your May school board election ballot, if you want board members who are likely to support such a proposal. (My next blog post will discuss who I endorse).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Real Equity Through School Choice

In our April work session, I proposed that we officially make our district an Open Enrollment District, allowing and encouraging any student in the district to choose any in-district school to attend if they are dissatisfied with their local school.   (This is separate from the inter-district Open Enrollment policy, controlled by the state, where students can freely transfer out of our district.)    Currently we do allow in-district transfers if people apply through a district-defined process, and a surprisingly large number of students do jump through these hoops.   However, I see this as a fundamental equity issue for several reasons, most notably that high-poverty minority students concentrated in our lowest performing schools do not seem to be taking advantage.   Is it really the case that they and their parents are happy with their schools, or are requirements such as the cumbersome transfer process , communication problems, or transportation issues forming a major obstacle?   Equity should not be just about staff trainings-- it should be about actually providing the same opportunities to all students in the district.

We need to keep in mind that every school will not be right for every student.   Some schools will have different programs, such as STEM, STEAM, or dual/non-dual language, that may work better for some kids than others.   In the discussion it was suggested that all schools should offer all options.   But do we really believe one-size-fits-all is the best way to deliver education?   Every school has a finite amount of resources, and cannot focus on everything-- why not let each concentrate on certain programs, enabling us to better reach students with different personalities, interests, and learning styles?   And even if we could get precise parity of options, there will always be issues of some students simply not meshing with particular teachers or teaching styles, or problems such as bullying issues motivating a student to seek another school.    Parents should always have the option to seek a different education for their child, and not have to convince a bureaucrat of the validity of their reason (as required by the current policy) in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

I was surprised at the vehemence of the objections to this proposal, which was informally (not an official vote, since just a work session) voted down 4-3.   I saw two main objections come up in the discussion:
  • Cost.   This is the one that did actually have some validity, since providing transportation to a potentially unknown additional number of students outside their neighborhood could be a cost issue, especially in these times of tight finances.   I don't see this as insurmountable though:  for example, perhaps we could charge transportation fees that are waiveable based on need, using the better-off students to subsidize the poorer ones.  And maybe we should compare this to the cost of the thousands of staff hours spent in (and paying an Equity Director to organize) politically correct employee trainings of marginal benefit, which I will not flog further (for now) in this blog.    Wouldn't providing alternative options to our poorest students do a lot more for Equity in the long run than staff trainings?
  • "People should be invested in their neighborhood schools".   This is a nice ideal, and there would be nothing stopping anyone from continuing to attend their local school.   I suspect that even under full Open Enrollment, the majority would make this choice.   But should we be forcing people who want to leave to remain in the local school, just to improve the neighborhood?   This makes me very uncomfortable-- in effect, we are saying that certain students (the ones who want to leave) should be conscripted by the government to remain in their local school in order to improve neighborhood investment.    How would you feel if your child were forced to remain in a school that wasn't working for them, just so their presence could "benefit the neighborhood"?
Anyway, ultimately the conclusion of the discussion was that parents who really want to transfer can avail themselves of the current process, and there was no need to change anything right now.   Superintendent Scott also stated that transfer procedures have been liberalized in recent years, and internal transfers are almost never denied in our district, except due to a school being at its capacity.     As a community, we need to make sure we are holding the district to this promise-- the written policy  still leaves the ultimate decision to the district staff.     I'll be interested to hear about your experiences, good and bad, with the transfer process-- please send me an email if you have dealt with this recently, and tell me how it went!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Boundary Adjustment Sense and Nonsense

At Tuesday's school board meeting, board member Glenn Miller presented the case for exchanging some land with the Beaverton School District. This was based on the recognition that through oddities of historical chance, our district serves land that is adjacent to highly developed areas of Beaverton, but miles away from major population concentrations in Hillsboro. In contrast, another area near the Beaverton/Hillsboro border is owned by BSD but adjacent to land we just purchased for a new school. It seemed to me like a sensible and reasoned proposal that could save us significant money in the long run.   But due to the fact that Glenn discussed it outside the meeting with a local developer, Ed Bartholemy, and with the county commission chair, Andy Duyck, fellow school board member Janeen Sollman accused Glenn of some kind of ethics violation. This charge was unwarrented, ridiculous, and utterly offensive.  Why do I say this?

First, anyone can meet with Glenn, and he has been continually accessible to everyone in the community.  You know what it takes to get a meeting with Glenn? One email or phone call. If you have substantial information that invalidates the argument for the land exchange, talk to him yourself! Janeen tried to paint this as some kind of secret backdoor access for Mr. Bartholemy, when in fact any concerned citizen can bring this up with Glenn. (By the way, her implication that Mr Bartholemy gave Glenn a campaign donation was incorrect: Glenn's campaign was primarily financed by several thousand dollars out of his own pocket .)

Second, as a member of the Long Range Planning subcommittee, Glenn is directly responsible for researching and discussing district planning issues between regular board meetings. The mere existence of this subcommittee indicates that such discussions are expected. And personally, with the regular meeting agendas being fully packed, I am very grateful to Glenn for taking so much of his personal time to research these issues offline before bringing concrete proposals to the main meetings.

Third, in cases where other districts or government bodies are impacted, it makes perfect sense to have offline discussions with members of those bodies.  Sure, when it comes time for details of a concrete proposal, each body will have its formal discussions and votes. But without such preliminary chats to feel out the feasibility, it is possible that lots of public meeting time will be wasted on one board when the issue is a non-starter on another.

In short, Glenn has sacrificed many hours of his own time to do preliminary research on an important planning issue, one which is controversial but, if carefully handled, could result in millions of long-term dollars ending up in our classrooms instead of in transportation expenses. Yes, a particular developer might have an interest here, but he has been given no more access to board members than every citizen in the community has. Rather than slinging mud at Glenn, we should be praising his diligence and personal sacrifice, which may very well result in significant gains for the education of Hillsboro's children.

P.S. In the interests of full disclosure: the Washington County Business Council, of which Mr Bartholemy is a member, did donate to my 2013 campaign. However, I was on record supporting the boundary change long before thar.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Increase Funding for City View Charter School

One of the major topics at January's board meeting was the proposal for expansion of City View Charter School, the only public charter school in the Hillsboro School District.   In case you don't recall, a charter school is an alternative public school, which any student can choose to attend instead of their traditional school, without having to spend additional money.   Charter schools are independently run and thus can potentially offer a very different style of education from the traditional district schools.  Because they tend to demonstrate significant academic success while spending less money than traditional schools, they are also not very popular among the unions and the traditional education establishment.   City View has gained a reputation in our district for delivering a successful alternative form of education, and now has a triple-digit waiting list for children who want to attend.    (When more children apply than the "enrollment cap" provided by the district, they are admitted by lottery.)

Based on its success, City View requested a doubling of its enrollment cap, a 10-year extension of their charter contract, and an increase in their funding.    There wasn't any serious opposition to extending their charter or doubling their enrollment cap, based on their current success and the excessively large size of their waiting list.   The one sticking point was the request for a funding increase.   Right now City View receives 80% of the state per-student funding for each student that attends, the minimum required by law, and they want this increased to 90%.   I think there are two important principles we need to keep in mind as we make this decision.

First, we need to look at City View funding in comparison to overall district spending, which is about $11K per student.    The discussion is often incorrectly framed by limiting it to parceling out the state "per student" funding-- which is what the charter funding law is based on-- but this is not actually what we spend per student.  The nominal per-student funding, amounting to about $7000 per student, only represents a portion of district spending.   There are some categories, such as special ed services (which the district supplies to City View) and transportation (which City View doesn't provide) that it makes sense to subtract off the top.  But our all-funds budget also includes some other categories that I don't think it is fair to deprive City View of.  For example:
  • Gain Share and other miscellaneous funding that isn't bucketed in the "per student" category, but is spent on the district's non-charter schools.
  • Construction Loan payments:  This is basically the mortgage on the district's buildings.  City View has to pay rent or mortgage on their own location, which seems directly comparable.  
  • ESD (Education Service District) Services and Funding:  Our district receives state credits for ESD services, plus $4.2 million in opt-out money from state ESD funding that we have decided to spend elsewhere.   Yet City View shares in none of this, and needs to pay directly out of it's "80%" for any ESD services it uses.
When we had this conversation in 2013, the board asked district staff to do a quick calculation, and they determined that when you subtract the appropriate non-comparable areas, the district spends the equivalent of about $8900 per student.   This can vary somewhat depending on judgement calls of what to include, but I think it's pretty clear that the real total is significantly higher than the nominal per-student spending.
Second, a City View student is just as much a part of our district as any other HSD student, and has just as much of a right to our education dollars.   They are public school students in our district, and any student in HSD is eligible to attend.   City View provides a critical alternative option for families who are not wealthy enough to choose a private school or homeschooling, but whose children are not experiencing success in a traditional school.  Thus, we should be aiming for the spending on a City View student to match what we spend on other students in the district, perhaps with a small proportion subtracted for overhead.   And to enforce fundamental fairness, this should be calculated based on each student's proportion of the all-funds budget, not just the nominal "per student" funding.

With these principles in mind, it seems to me that the 90% of the per-student funding that City View has requested is, if anything, less than they rightfully deserve.   As fellow board member Monte Akers mentioned at the meeting, we should ideally have a more specific calculation.   It would be best to see a detailed spreadsheet of actual overhead expenses incurred by supporting City View and subtract that from the district's real comparable per-student spending, to get a precise reasoning for what we spend on this program.   But just based on the core principles above, it seems to me that such a calculation would almost certainly yield a result more than the 90% of nominal state per-student funding that has been requested.   Thus, I am strongly inclined to vote in favor of City View's request, and provide the opportunity for hundreds of HSD students to benefit from the continued success of this innovative program.

Right now we are in the feedback period before the board makes its final decision.   If you agree with me, be sure to send constituent feedback to the board secretary, to help demonstrate public support for City View.