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Big Education Appointment In The Works?

Joy Resmovits   |   June 20, 2013    1:09 PM ET

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will likely soon tap a new chief of staff, sources say.

Sources close to the administration, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, told The Huffington Post that Joanne Weiss, Duncan's longtime right-hand woman, will depart the U.S. Education Department this summer, likely in July. She is expected to be replaced by Emma Vadehra, who works as the chief of staff for a charter school management organization known as Uncommon Schools, the sources said.

Duncan's press secretary Daren Briscoe declined to comment. Vadehra did not respond to voice messages and emails.

Weiss first joined Duncan in 2009 as a senior adviser before becoming his chief of staff. She took the job fresh off a stint as the chief operating officer at the NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy group that invests in educational technology and charter school organizations. Before that, she worked in the education technology industry. Weiss is often credited with being a major driver of the Obama administration's signature program, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition that used cash incentives to get states to do things like adopt higher learning standards and create teacher evaluations that take students' test scores into account.

For Vadehra, the move would be a return to the Education Department, where she worked as deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development until leaving for Uncommon in 2011. In that job, she developed a reputation for being a policy whiz kid. Before that, she worked as the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) chief education adviser on the Senate's Education Committee. She has a law degree from Yale Law School and graduated from Brown in 2002.

More than one source described Vadehra as fairly straightforward. "She's the person that can take good policy and try to make it the good political thing to do," one Hill education advocate said.

Vadehra's former Education Department boss, Carmel Martin, oversaw major federal education policy initiatives for the agency, including the administration's blueprint for a rewrite of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, the law that tied federal funding for schools to their results on annual accountability goals based on standardized tests. She is also credited with devising a waiver system that offered states a way out of some of NCLB's strictest edicts if they agreed to abide by certain specific Obama administration policy preferences. But she left after Duncan started his second term, leaving what some saw as a major gap.

"The chief of staff generally works closely with the White House, OMB, and other federal bodies, so having someone with Beltway chops in that role can be valuable," said Andy Smarick, a former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Education Department who now works as a partner at Bellwether Education. "But her selection also suggests that the department is going to be focused on Capitol Hill in the next few years. Either this means she's going to help fill the void left by Carmel Martin's departure, the administration is serious about ESEA [the original name of the No Child Left Behind Act] reauthorization and other federal legislation, or both."

GOP Education Fix Goes Too Far

Joy Resmovits   |   June 19, 2013    7:32 AM ET

John Kline is frustrated.

The Republican representative from Minnesota and chair of the House Education Committee says his constituents have been telling him for years of the federal government's intrusion into their classrooms.

"I've been hearing ... for years now that the current system does not give them the ability to move money where they need it," he told The Huffington Post in an interview Tuesday. "You've got money for these 80-something federal programs, but you need it someplace else. We want to make sure they have the flexibility to do that."

That's why Kline's committee will hold a hearing Wednesday and likely vote on the Student Success Act, his rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush-era education law that Republicans and Democrats are looking to leave behind. Where NCLB increased the federal footprint in America's schools, Kline's bill reduces it dramatically.

Under the legislation, schools would not have to meet federally prescribed performance goals -- a proposal markedly different from current law, the Obama administration's waiver system and a competing bill offered up by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Kline's bill also consolidates a slew of programs specifically devoted to things like English language learners and neglected children into Title I, a program devoted to helping schools with poor students.

Kline's bill is expected to pass through his Republican-dominated committee, and he says House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told him to expect a floor vote in the middle of July. But even if it passes the full House, it's hard to see a situation in which a conference committee could knit together the House's and Senate's wildly different visions of NCLB reform.

"There's very little common ground between Harkin and Kline. It's difficult for me to see how they would be reconciled," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a member of the House committee.

When asked whether it's possible to reconcile the bills, Kline said, "I certainly hope so." He said he expects to "move into conference and start sorting out the differences."

No Child Left Behind is the bipartisan, 2001 reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It expired in 2007. The law required that schools with low-income students meet annual goals, as determined by standardized tests, in order to qualify for federal money. Since its implementation, NCLB has been criticized for creating a culture of "teaching to the test" and for meting out harsh consequences based on blunt metrics that rely on those same tests.

Congress has failed to rewrite the bill, so the Obama administration has offered states waivers from the law's most stringent parts in exchange for agreeing to specific portions of the Obama education agenda. Thirty-seven states have received waivers.

Kline's bill explicitly restricts the education secretary's waiver authority. "This secretary has decided to go beyond what the law allows in my view and grant these temporary conditional waivers," Kline said. However, like the waivers, Kline's bill also mandates teacher evaluations that include some degree of student standardized test scores.

Civil rights advocates and Democrats say Kline's bill goes too far in letting states off the accountability leash. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), an architect of NCLB and the committee's ranking member, has said the bill is lax on standards and undermines poor and minority students by removing the federal government's role as a state watchdog.

Polis, the Colorado representative, agrees. "It's a non-starter for anyone who's serious about education reform," he said. "Kline's bill is a major retreat on accountability -- states would no longer have to have systems that measure student growth. It's a major step backwards."

In response to concerns that states would backslide without the Education Department's heavy hand, Kline said his bill keeps a key NCLB rule: requiring states to report student test scores by ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language ability and special education designations. "We maintain the disaggregated data so all parents involved in the system can look and see where there's a problem and take action," he said.

He also added that continuing to restrict Title I money primarily for the use of poor students is a good backstop. "We don't let [school administrators] spend it for other things, but we let them move it around so they can get what they need," he said.

A coalition of civil rights and business groups, including the Education Trust, La Raza and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, circulated a statement that lashes into Kline's bill. "We believe the legislation falls short of the lessons learned" from NCLB's shortcomings, the groups wrote. "We are disappointed that the legislation does not demand targeted support and real improvement for students stuck in low-performing schools."

Democrats on the House committee plan to release a substitute amendment that would likely reinstitute annual goals and learning standards approved by higher education institutions. "If it's anything like last year's [amendment] schools would have to have performance targets," said Anne Hyslop, an education analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

But the amendment is unlikely to pass, leaving no clear end game for the bill. "I'm not sure what the purpose is," Polis said.

The reauthorization process, Hyslop says, allows House Republicans to air their views against the Obama administration's education policies. "The administration has been really active in terms of setting the K-12 agenda," she said. "Congress really hasn't been stepping up. This is their counter-shot."

During Wednesday's hearing, Kline says Republicans could introduce amendments that allow Title I money to follow poor students to private schools, essentially a federal school-voucher program. While Kline says he personally backs such a policy, he left it out of his bill because it's controversial, and he didn't think potentially blowing the chances of the broader bill was worth it.

"I'm in favor of giving parents as much choice as we can," he said. "It's also incumbent upon us to get legislation passed. ... I don't want that debate to derail progress toward meeting those objectives. If it's the will of the House it's the will of the House but ... we still need to move this legislation forward."

Has The Last Bastion Of Bipartisanship Fallen?

Joy Resmovits   |   June 6, 2013    7:40 AM ET

Once upon a time, education was a bipartisan issue, even in Washington.

When it came to America's schools -- a point of bombastic rhetoric on the campaign trail -- Democrats and Republicans have historically been willing to set aside their differences and hug it out. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, a law that dramatically increased the federal government's reach into America's schools, illustrated this situation: Republicans, like President George W. Bush, Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) and Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), and Democrats, like Rep. George Miller (Calif.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.), were equally enthusiastic cosponsors.

Over the last few years, even when signs of partisan rancor interfered, education held onto its unique status as an across-the-aisle, hand-shaking issue. Its position was bolstered especially as more and more Democratic politicians, once entirely swayed by teachers' unions on school policy, joined the "education reform movement," a group that is often at odds with labor on how to improve schools and whether to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. Even in the lead-up to the presidential election, the House of Representatives managed to pass a bipartisan charter school bill.

But the politics around the No Child Left Behind reauthorization bill unveiled by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) Tuesday and the rancorous fight over student loans have made one thing clear: Those days are over.

"The time for bipartisan deals around reauthorization has probably ended," said Justin Hamilton, who worked as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's press secretary until November. "After the midterm elections, the composition of the Congress grew increasingly more polarized, and it became almost impossible for the bipartisan group of folks in the middle trying to hammer something out to get a deal they could sell to their caucuses."

On Tuesday, Harkin unveiled the Strengthening America's Schools Act, a rewrite of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law that became NCLB. All 11 Democrats on Harkin's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), signed on as cosponsors. The bill quickly garnered somewhat supportive statements from groups such as the American Federation of Teachers, the Center for American Progress and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

While the process started off as bipartisan, negotiations with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), now the ranking member on the HELP committee, ended a few weeks ago, sources say, when Harkin insisted on requiring annual, measurable performance goals for public schools. A senior Republican Senate aide called the bill a "mishmash of everybody's craziest ideas thrown together." The aide added that, "If this were to become law, this is when we look back and say, 'Oh, this is where the national school board started.'"

Now, Alexander is introducing his own NCLB rewrite, and he is expected to bring Republicans along with him. The Republican aide said he expects no Republicans on the HELP committee to support Harkin's bill, for which the committee has scheduled a markup next Tuesday.

One and a half years ago, though, Harkin's big NCLB bill had some bipartisan support from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and two other Republicans, Alexander included, in the final committee vote. The bill would likely have come to the floor had it not been for Harkin's commitment to bipartisanship: He said that unless the House education committee could produce a bipartisan bill, he would not seek to bring NCLB to a Senate vote.

A HELP committee staffer said that this year is different, that Harkin's bill is clearly partisan, and he would bring it to the floor regardless of what happens on the House side. And the Republican aide agreed that bipartisanship is lacking: "There's no Enzi-Harkin process, there's no Kirk or Alexander on board -- it is clearly partisan. Republicans aren't going to spend time defending a Democratic bill ... You can't make this bill better unless you shred it and use it for compost."

This break from political history illustrates the broader issues plaguing a Congress that governs from crisis to crisis, from government shutdown threats to sequestration. Education, as the last bastion of bipartisanship in the federal government, is done.

Some might consider this to be a positive development. After all, the product of that earlier bipartisanship was NCLB, a sweeping bill that even its creators have called imperfect. Indeed, many criticize NCLB for using too rote a measure to grade schools and for relying on an overly punitive approach that inspires "teaching to the test." But the loss of bipartisanship means that, save President Barack Obama's executive orders, schools are stuck with this problematic solution enshrined as law for the foreseeable future.

From the administration's perspective, the issue is moot. When Duncan and Obama saw that Congress would not overhaul NCLB -- one of the president's campaign promises -- by fall 2011, they enabled states to apply for waivers from the law's most stringent components in exchange for agreeing to implement parts of the administration's education agenda.

While 37 states have had their waivers approved, others, such as Iowa and California, don't have waivers. The 13 states without waivers stand to lose federal money if they don't have nearly 100 percent of their schools proficient in reading and math by 2014 -- a goal Duncan has called "utopian." That potential loss of funding spurred Harkin to push a partisan rewrite now, the HELP staffer said.

The partisan squabbling has extended to higher education. Last year during the presidential campaign, the expiration of a 2007 law threatened to double interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford loans. President Barack Obama slow-jammed to the news on "Jimmy Fallon," and Mitt Romney supported extending the lower rates, forcing the Hill to arrive at a last-minute, if temporary, solution.

Now, as Obama renews the effort to maintain the lower rates, advocates say the chances of success have dwindled. On Friday, Obama urged college students to call their representatives to keep the rates down. But even as he spoke, GOP staffers tweeted that the engagement was only a ploy to divert attention from the administration's second-term scandals. In a TV appearance, Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) said the speech was a distraction from Benghazi, and Boehner issued a statement calling the speech "misguided."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that the president slow-jammed to the news on "Jimmy Kimmel." Obama rocked that particular jam on "Jimmy Fallon."

Signature Bush Law Rewritten By Tom Harkin

Joy Resmovits   |   June 4, 2013   10:31 AM ET

After more than a year of near-dormancy in the Senate, the rocky process of rewriting No Child Left Behind is getting a new start.

On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the retiring chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, released a new 1,150-page bill to update the law.

The initial, sweeping education law was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and an expansive 2001 reauthorization under George W. Bush took the name "No Child Left Behind." NCLB was the first law to tie federal school funding and sanctions to annual performance goals for public schools. Under the law, schools are supposed to have achieved 100 percent proficiency in math and English for their students by 2014 -- a daunting goal that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called "utopian."

NCLB has been up for reauthorization since 2007.

Harkin's bill, known as the "Strengthening America's Schools Act of 2013," contains a softer version of those annual goals, with a focus on "continuous improvement" and "college and career academic content." States can choose between three models of accountability to accomplish that improvement. It would also require states to implement teacher and principal evaluations that rely in part on student achievement, as defined by states. According to a bill summary, it aims to "ensur[e] ... disadvantaged students get the supports they need to succeed" and establishes a more balanced state-federal partnership to make sure that happens.

A fact sheet circulated with the bill outlines common complaints regarding NCLB, such its "inflexible benchmarks" for school performance, its "pressure to 'teach to the test'" and "prescriptive, Washington-generated accountability models." The release asserts that the new measure would alleviate these issues.

While Harkin's bill is sure to be a welcome sign to teachers and administrators who are sick of what they call the punitive nature of the old law, the political prospects of the new version are unclear. Congress is still toxically polarized. While the negotiations on the bill began in bipartisan fashion, sources say that Republicans such as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the committee's ranking member, pulled out a few weeks ago when the annual goals were added.

Moreover, the Obama administration has gutted NCLB's most hated provisions by issuing waivers to states that agree to certain parts of the fed's education agenda: rigorous learning standards, specific models for turning around underperforming schools and teacher evaluations tied in part to student test scores. To date, 37 states have applied for and received the waivers, which have likely reduced the political pressure to overhaul the long-expired bill.

The Harkin bill would allow any state to continue using accountability systems that have been approved by the secretary of education. (States would, however, have to adopt a provision that imposes consequences on schools with students in poverty that didn't improve.) "If not, a state will adopt an accountability system that is equally ambitious and holds all students to high expectations of student achievement," according to the summary. These systems must include criteria for student achievement and growth, high school graduation rates and English language proficiency. States would also each identify their lowest-performing 5 percent of schools with poor students as "priority schools," and "focus schools" would consist of the 10 percent of schools with poor students and the largest achievement gaps.

In fall 2011, Harkin released a bipartisan version of a reauthorization bill. (While the bill made it through committee markup, Harkin said he did not want it brought to the floor until the House produced a bipartisan NCLB, which never happened.) That version mandated teacher evaluations tied in part to students' test scores, but that provision that was struck to increase common ground with Republicans, who argued that the measure handed too much control to the federal government.

It also did away with annual goals altogether, a move that caused a coalition of civil rights, education and business groups to object. The coalition, which included NAACP, La Raza, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Democrats for Education Reform, issued a statement last year saying they could "not support the bill at this time" because of its "weak accountability system" that "excludes the vast majority of children we represent."

Harkin's staff, says Barone, DFER's policy director, seems to have taken those complaints into consideration when writing the new bill. "It would appear they heard the criticism they heard from business groups and civil rights groups that they need to have something stronger on accountability," Barone said. But it was unclear to him exactly how accountability would work under the new bill. "It's weaker than most of us would have wanted on that score, but it's an improvement over where they were last year."

Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an education lobbying group that criticized last year's bill, lauded the current bill for closing what's known as the "comparability loophole," a longstanding problem that has allowed states to use money set aside for poor students on wealthier students within the same district. Kate Tromble, EdTrust's legislative director, lauded the bill for "its attempts to attend for the need to the transition between where states are now and new assessments."

Still, Barone said, there are some loopholes. After a seven-year push to define graduation rates narrowly -- in an effort to make sure schools don't try to finesse their data -- the new bill, Barone said, would let states off easy by allowing them to count students with GEDs among those who have graduated. "For a bill that starts out emphasizing college and career ready, it gets undone somewhat by creating a standard for high school graduation that's anything goes," he said.

Harkin's rewrite contains a new focus on children's years before kindergarten, requiring states to develop guidelines for student abilities prior to that point; to provide "greater access to high-quality literacy instruction" in early childhood education; and encourages full-day kindergarten programs. Under the law, states' lowest-performing schools would be required to expand their early childhood education programs.

The bill would also create an "equity score card" to inform parents of schools' climate, opportunities, assessments and funding.

Jeb Bush Attacks Public Schools: 'They Dumb Down Standards'

Joy Resmovits   |   May 29, 2013    5:01 PM ET

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. -- Jeb Bush praised charter schools and slammed traditional public schools and teachers unions in a speech here Wednesday, saying that public education “dumbs down standards to make adults look better," a phrase often used by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

"We must expand [school] choice," said Bush, delivering a keynote speech at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference in northern Michigan. "Our governance model includes over 13,000 government-run monopolies run by unions."

Since he left office, the former Florida governor has become an evangelist for a certain strand of education reform; through his $19 million Foundation for Excellence in Education, he advocates for online education, grading schools based on test scores and forcing students to repeat grades if they don't pass standardized exams.

At Mackinac Wednesday, Bush championed the growth of charter schools, the fastest-growing sector of public education across the country.

There are 274 such schools in Michigan, and Bush argued that the state leads others in charter school performance, with those schools also outperforming traditional public schools.

But it is difficult to concisely characterize charter school quality nationwide, and the study on Michigan's schools Bush touted is less definitive than he made it sound.

That study, released in January by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that while students in Michigan's charter schools are raising their test scores more quickly than their peers in public schools, they are still performing at much lower levels. Charter school students in the state gain about two months of reading and math knowledge over their peers each year -- but 80 percent of charter schools perform below the 50th percentile of achievement in reading, and 84 percent perform below that threshold in math.

Another study -- this one by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers -- found that about a quarter of Michigan's charters fell into the bottom 15 percent of the state's schools on eighth grade math and the bottom 21 percent in eighth grade reading.

That poor performance has disappointed education advocates like Amber Arellano, who directs the nonpartisan advocacy group EdTrust Midwest.

"A lot of people here ... had hoped that charters were really going to be the solution to urban children's lack of quality options," Arellano told The Huffington Post in a January interview. "They're not. There are not enough high-performing charters here [in Michigan] to really address the educational inequities that we have here in the state. Just letting the market decide isn't the answer."

According to an EdTrust Midwest study, the operators of new schools that opened up after Michigan lifted its cap on charters in 2011 have below-average academic track records.

But on Wednesday, Bush explicitly praised fellow Republicans state Sen. Phil Pavlov and Gov. Rick Snyder for their courage in working to lift the cap, even though the deregulating move has sometimes been credited with letting school quality lag.

Bush begged Michigan Republicans not to abandon support for Common Core, the standards for math, reading and science already adopted by 45 states and approved by Michigan’s Board of Education in 2010.

"What we have is not good," Bush said of current standards. "What we could have is a lot better."

But he may have been a day too late: On Tuesday, Michigan’s House of Representatives approved a budget-containing a measure that blocks any funding for Common Core.

Bush told reporters after his speech that education spending should not be the only metric used to measure school quality.

"We spend more per student than any other country in the world," he said. "What's important is where it's spent --where's the focus. Are you funding the beast, or are you funding classroom education? Are you funding your priorities as it relates to early childhood education or are you just sending money down without any reform at all?"

He went on to call for an overall gutting of the current public school system. "We can't just outsource public education to bureaucracies and public education unions and hope for the best," he said.

Schools Shut Down A Month Early

Joy Resmovits   |   May 13, 2013    7:05 PM ET

It's official.

For the 400 or so students in Buena Vista, Mich., school is over, even though the academic year isn't supposed to end until the middle of June.

Instead, they will likely attend "skills camp." If the school board approves the advancement of students -- despite not finishing out the year -- students will be able to attend "skills camp," a voluntary substitute for school, the district announced Monday at a press conference with Superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Saginaw Intermediate School District Superintendent Richard Syrek, and Michigan Department of Education chief Michael Flanagan.

Last week, the Buena Vista School District fired all of its teachers and closed its schools because it had run out of money. Because the district accepted money from the state for a program it was no longer providing, the state is withholding the district's school aid for at least three months.

Skills camp would be paid for by federal Title I and Title 31 A grants, although Syrek told The Huffington Post it is unclear how much money is available. Teachers will have to interview for positions, and camp will last six hours per day. Syrek didn't know whether the program could provide for students with special needs.

Beatrice Avery's son, Miquel, was supposed to start in Buena Vista High School in the fall. Miquel has special needs, and benefited from the district's special education program, Avery said. But she's not sure skills camp is a good enough substitute -- especially since it might not cater to her son's needs. "I think they just gave up on Buena Vista," she said. "I don't think the camp is going to be geared toward my child. I don't know what to do. I'm tired of fighting."

One-third of her friends are transferring their children into surrounding district or charter schools. "They're worried about school next year ..., " Avery said.

While the case in Buena Vista is confined to a tiny township, school districts across Michigan -- and the country -- might have cause for concern. Mounting pension costs and cuts to state aid have forced school districts to make cuts in recent years. The Michigan Department of Education found that as of February, 49 schools were running deficits described in a report as "almost insurmountable," as MSNBC noted. One such district, Pontiac, came close to missing its payroll -- but over the weekend, the state approved its deficit reduction plan, and said it would advance the district money so that its schools could finish the school year.

The difference between how the problems in Buena Vista and Pontiac were resolved caused some to ask whether tax-paying families are having their constitutional right to an education fulfilled.

“The students of Buena Vista have a constitutional right to an education and deserve the same educational opportunities as other Michigan children, and that means being in a classroom full-time to complete their school year," said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democratic congressman who represents Buena Vista, on Monday. "I do not believe that a voluntary camp amounts to a proper education for the children of Buena Vista."

He called the solution a "dangerous precedent."
 
Joe Ann Nash, a third-grade teacher and president of the Buena Vista Education Association, expressed similar doubts. "This is [the district's] fault, but they tell us we have to reinterview for our own jobs?" she asked. "How are they going to explain to parents that this is what they're doing to provide an education? Our superintendent talks about education as a civil right, but now we're going to have camp?"

Syrek thinks the camp will satisfy the constitutional requirement. "Whether they've met the educational requirements, that's a local decision. In all probability, they're going to get more education than they would have otherwise gotten," he said, because skills camp is slated to last for up to six weeks.

Flanagan, Hunter-Harvill and local superintendents developed the plan. "The goal was always to keep the youngsters in their own building," Syrek said. "I don't know how much money it will cost."

Rep. Stacey Erwin Oakes (D), a state legislator who represents Buena Vista, is incensed. "I just don't understand why anyone would suggest anything other than open the doors of the schools for the last few weeks," she said. "We know from past history that students have been treated differently, going back to Brown v. Board of Education."

She said she thought the state should tap into rainy day or school aid funds to just make sure the students can finish the year in school. "But they're choosing not to make that loan based on the superficial reason that a deficit elimination is not in place, but it can be in the next week or so," she said.

"The path of least resistance would be to put them back in school," she said. "This leaves more questions than answers."

Students in Buena Vista said they are used to being treated differently. Lorenzo Caldwell is graduating from Buena Vista High School this year, after the school board last week voted to approve the seniors' graduation despite not finishing school.

Over the last few months, memes on Facebook have popped up, making fun of Buena Vista for its poverty, he said. He remembers a picture of a homeless man captioned with the name of his district. More recently, there was a picture of his school, with the phrase "ride up to the scene and my teacher's missing," a spoof of popular song lyrics.

After he graduates, Caldwell says he doesn't think he'll have a school to return to. "I feel like I got cheated on by someone I really love," he said. "It hurts."

Because of the recent problems, Cassandra Frazier's daughter is starting at a local charter school on Tuesday. "I just don't have time for public schools anymore," she said. "They have too much money problems. I was raised here. I wanted at least one of my daughters to graduate from my high school. But I don't think it will exist next year."

UPDATE: At a Tuesday morning meeting, Flanagan said Buena Vista schools could actually reopen and avoid skills camp -- if the school board approves a deficit reduction plan Tuesday night. Flanagan said late Monday, following the skills camp announcement, that the school district submitted an acceptable plan for the first time. "We think we can approve that tomorrow," Flanagan said, according to the Detroit News.

The Death Of A School District?

Joy Resmovits   |   May 8, 2013    7:14 PM ET

The deathwatch over a tiny school district in Michigan continues as its schools remain closed.

Despite teachers' offers to work for free for at least a week, schools in the Buena Vista School District will remain closed for the third consecutive day Thursday because the district has run out of money. On Monday, the first day of Teacher Appreciation Week, the district laid off everyone except for three staffers, and has stopped paying health benefit claims.

On Wednesday, chaos continued to envelop Buena Vista, a 432-student impoverished, mostly black school district. The school board said it plans to declare a financial emergency. The state and county remained in contact, but still had no plans to help the district.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democratic U.S. House of Representatives member whose district includes Buena Vista, begged the state to step in.

After a school board meeting Tuesday night left parents with more questions than answers, the district posted a series of questions and answers on its website. The district explained that it chose to lay off the teachers because it is illegal to employ people without paying them. "We must follow the law," the notice states.

Buena Vista can't assure parents that there will be classes before the year ends -- or in the 2013-2014 school year. "Under the current circumstances, there is no plan to rehire staff to complete the current school year," the district wrote. "It is impossible for us to predict whether the District will be in a position to enroll students next year."

While the Buena Vista district is visibly bleeding, its problems mirror those of struggling districts across the state and country. Buena Vista is located in Saginaw County, a generally rural area, where residents previously worked for big auto companies, such as General Motors. But during the Recession, as these companies imploded, parents became unemployed and families moved away. Student enrollment shrunk from 4,000 to 400 in Buena Vista and from 15,000 to 8,000 countywide.

School districts in the United States have been consolidating. The mobility that diminishes populations in places like Buena Vista makes it hard for school districts to be staffed at proper capacity -- administrators at Chicago Public Schools cite this as one justification for shuttering more than 50 schools, a move that has evoked uproar.

Popular rhetoric about the state of education tends to lay blame on teachers and their unions. But in Buena Vista's case, the union tried to fix the school district's extensive problems. While unions usually argue to keep schools open, in Buena Vista the union has pushed for the opposite. For two years, the Buena Vista Education Association union has called for a consolidation of the district, according to its president and third-grade teacher Joe Ann Nash.

"We've been trying to get them to look at closing buildings," said Sue Rutherford, who works for the Michigan Education Association union. "It's too small of a district to have as many schools as we do."

Buena Vista's financial problems have been longstanding, sources say. Within one year, its deficit grew from $55,000 to $1 million. Its latest financial crisis was sparked by an accounting issue: For years, Buena Vista ran the Wolverine Secure Treatment Center, an alternative school that brought in extra state revenue. This summer, Wolverine severed its contract with Buena Vista, but the district did not report this to the state and continued collecting state money for the program. State representatives learned in February that it was no longer running Wolverine and that the district had spent the money the state provided for the program. The state says because it has a legal obligation to recoup the $401,000 that the district owes, it will freeze state aid for at least three months.

Wolverine's president said the reason the program pulled out of Buena Vista was the district's financial strife. "We sought an alternative because we were dissatisfied," Wolverine Vice President Derrick McCree told The Huffington Post.

Wolverine has been working with Buena Vista for 15 years, but in 2009, McCree said the school district stopped paying for things like summer school, psychological evaluations and computer lab upgrades. The funding stream for the program, Title I, is legally supposed to follow the students it serves, but according to McCree that wasn't happening. Representatives from the district did not return requests for comment on Wolverine.

There was also a leadership vacuum. "There were nine new superintendents in a 10-year stretch," he said. "Every time we addressed an issue we had a new superintendent. It was difficult to get our needs met, and they threatened to take everything away."

As a result of the district's saga, some teachers are filing for unemployment, according to MI NBC News. “The reason why I came back to teach in my district was because I wanted the children of Buena Vista to be educated,” teacher Alexis Ervin told the station.

Saginaw County Intermediate School District, the municipal body that serves school districts within the county, is figuring out ways to continue the school year so seniors can graduate and students can be promoted.

"We're trying to come up with a plan to get them in school," Saginaw superintendent Richard Syrek told HuffPost. "We don't have a plan as yet. We've got lots of things out there. We're hoping that within the next two days, we'll have something."

Some don't want to wait that long. Kildee wrote a letter to Gov. Rick Snyder (R) demanding a solution for at least the remainder of the school year. Snyder's office did not immediately return requests for comment.

"I implore you to use any means necessary to work with the local school district to swiftly reopen the Buena Vista schools,” Kildee wrote. “If the local school district is unable to reopen its schools on its own, the state of Michigan must act to ensure that the students in Buena Vista can finish out the remaining days of the school year.”

Teacher Appreciation Day Surprise: We're Shutting Down Your School

Joy Resmovits   |   May 7, 2013    2:37 PM ET

The teachers agreed to work for free, but apparently that wasn't enough -- so school's out.

That's the latest in Buena Vista, Mich., a school district of less than 500 students that closed its schools Tuesday because it is broke. At an emergency meeting Monday evening, hours after teachers voted to work for free for at least a week since the district determined it could not pay them, the school board opted to shut down schools.

Although the school year doesn't officially end until June 23, on Tuesday morning, the school district posted a notice on its website: "School will be closed Tuesday."

Tuesday also happens to be Teacher Appreciation Day. There will be a meeting for parents that evening.

Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Buena Vista in the U.S. House of Representatives, told The Huffington Post Tuesday that he's been hearing from furious constituents. "They're frustrated and they're angry. Having served on a school board, I understand. When parents are advocating for their own children it's the most … meaningful interaction with government they'll have."

If schools stay shuttered for the remainder of the year, some seniors might be prevented from graduating. "The solution there ought not include simply calling it a year and ending the school year at this point," Kildee said. "I can't understand it."

In the long run, he said, the school district should be consolidated -- but in the meantime the state and district should ensure students have a school.

"Every Michigan resident who pays their taxes ... has a right to have their kids go to school and not be subject to mismanagement such as this," he said. "There's a month left in school. They just need to make sure that the school district can operate and finish the school year … and use whatever authority the state has to rectify the situation."

Kildee said the teachers' offer to work for free was a "gesture of professionalism," and that he didn't understand why the district didn't take them up on their offer.

Sources say Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) is working with the Michigan Department of Education to find a solution, but Snyder's representatives did not immediately return request for comment.

While teachers voted to teach for free before the layoff notice, Joe Ann Nash, the Buena Vista Education Assoc. president, told MLive that "everything's uncertain" and that there's no plan for Wednesday.

Buena Vista has been operating on a $1 million deficit, but the most immediate cause of its financial desperation is an accounting problem. Buena Vista accepted money for running the Wolverine Secure Treatment Center even though the district was no longer working with the center -- then spent it. Now, the state is freezing school funding for at least three months to recoup about $402,000. Buena Vista also owes the state treasury and pension funds.

The state maintains that recouping the money is a legal obligation. "This is a district-created financial situation that has resulted in a hardship for students and teachers, and the community," said Jan Ellis, a spokesperson for the MDOE. "Buena Vista needs to operate under the same laws and rules of every other school district."

Ellis said that two things are preventing the state from paying Buena Vista: its lack of a viable deficit reduction plan and the advance money it spent for services it wasn't providing. "There's no way legally for us to provide funding," Ellis said.

It is unclear whether there is any way for the state legislature to fill in the gap.

The Michigan Education Association union is still considering legal action. "Last night, we yet again saw proof that politicians, administrators and other so-called 'leaders' consistently put money first and our kids last," Steve Cook, president of the MEA, said in a statement.

"Faced with a selfless offer of help from their employees to continue working, without the guarantee of a paycheck next payday, Buena Vista's school board and administration gave up on their students and employees and laid everyone off."

Representatives from the school district did not return request for comment on Tuesday. On Monday afternoon, before the emergency meeting, Superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill told HuffPost she urged everyone to "pray for our children" as the district seeks a solution.

UPDATE: 8:35 p.m. -- According to reports from local media, the school board told community members at Tuesday night's meeting that schools will remain closed until further notice. School board members indicated that Monday's vote for the closures was unanimous.

Emotions ran high at the meeting. The superintendent said she was "95 percent sure" the high school would still hold its prom and graduation, reported NBC 25's Walter Smith-Randolph. But she added that the dates of those events might change, saying she would have more information Thursday.

One valedictorian burst into tears, reports ABC12's Jennifer Profitt. The top student added, "something needs to be done."

Worst Teacher Appreciation Week Ever?

Joy Resmovits   |   May 6, 2013    6:51 PM ET

A small school district in Michigan has run out of money to pay its teachers. But the school year isn't over until June 23.

The Buena Vista Education Association convened most of its 27 teachers on Monday for what some described as an emotional meeting. They voted to continue teaching, despite learning on Friday that the school district would be unable to pay their salaries starting in mid-May -- because it had run out of money.

What a way to ring in Teacher Appreciation Week.

The teachers voted to continue teaching because, as Joe Ann Nash, president of the teachers' union, put it: "We stick together." Nash teaches third grade. On Friday, her students asked her if she'd been fired. "I told them, look, the district doesn't have any money to pay us," she recalled. "They told me, wherever we go, they're going to go with me. They're sweet."

Like other teachers losing their pay, Nash has her own financial concerns: her 17-year-old son is supposed to go off to college, but she's worried she won't be able to pay for it.

Since the start of the recession, school districts across the country have been cut to the bone. Class sizes are rising, teachers are fired, extracurriculars are slashed and school security guards laid off.

So how did the Buena Vista school district get to this point?

Michael Podgursky, an economics professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who specializes in school finance, said Buena Vista is a particularly nasty example of the consolidation of small school districts, aggravated by the recession and burgeoning teacher pension costs.

"They're down to 471 students. They're at least not harming too many," Podgursky said. "It's a solvable problem."

Solvable, he said, by consolidation. "We've been consolidating districts for the past 100 years," Podgursky said. "It's going on constantly," especially in states like Wyoming, with many rural districts. American had 117,108 school districts in the 1939-1940 school year, according to federal data. By 2010-2011, that number was down to 13,588 (though federal researchers said survey changes may account for some of that difference).

School districts across the country are feeling the squeeze. Last year, the Chester Upland School District in suburban Philadelphia stopped paying its teachers. As in Buena Vista, teachers continued working for free. In November, the state proposed that the district close three schools and sell buildings to get out of the hole. York, Pa., was in such financial desperation that it considered converting to full charter school district before ultimately choosing a state-mandated financial recovery process last week, according to the York Dispatch.

This process is likely accelerated by the recession. "There were a lot of teacher layoffs. state and local governments got hit badly on the revenue side," Podgursky said. "It got postponed by the stimulus, but now it's letting loose."

Buena Vista is a tiny, mostly black township located within Saginaw County, Mich. By most measures, the Buena Vista school district is failing. Over the last few years, the district has lost about 600 students, according to a Michigan Department of Education representative, and half of its teaching staff. As MLive reports, none of its students were deemed proficient on eight iterations of state standardized tests, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program.

Even its own teachers know this. "We've said for two years now that we need to consolidate," Nash said. "We have less than 500 students and two of our buildings can hold more. It's a tough decision, but it should have been made long before now. We've been cut to the bone."

In June 2011, the district went into deficit for about $55,000. By last summer, that deficit had grown to $1 million. The district has submitted a deficit elimination plan to the state, but the state didn't approve it.

The most immediate cause of Buena Vista's financial strife is an accounting problem. For years, Buena Vista ran the Wolverine Secure Treatment Center, an alternative school that brought in extra state revenue. The district is supposed to report any program changes to the state, but failed to say until February that Wolverine left the district last summer. The state had paid Buena Vista for running the program, and the district spent the money. According to state records, the district now owes the state nearly $402,000 To recoup those funds, the state froze the district's funding for at least three months.

"The department believes this is a very difficult situation for everyone, especially the students and the teachers," Jan Ellis, a Michigan Department of Education spokeswoman, told The Huffington Post. "We have a legal obligation to recover funds allocated for a program that wasn't being serviced out of a district. We are trying to fulfill our financial obligation. The overall responsibility, financial health and educational responsibility for the children lies within that local district. They ultimately have to be held responsible."

The Buena Vista School Board will hold an emergency meeting Monday night. Consolidation, massive layoffs and a request for an emergency manager -- as the district previously indicated -- are on the table. The Michigan Education Association is considering legal action against the district, MLive reported.

Superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill told HuffPost she is going to wait until after the meeting before answering specific questions. "The board of education will continue its deliberations and discussions regarding the future of our district," she said. "I don't know what our configuration will look like, but .. when I arrived here in August of 2012, I came to ensure a quality education for all students. The board will advise the public of its progress as soon as that's possible." For the time being, she said, "pray for our children."

UPDATE: May 7 -- At the emergency meeting Monday night, Buena Vista's school board voted to lay off all its employees by the end of the month, despite the teachers' vote to work for at least this week without pay. On Tuesday morning, the school district posted an update to its website with a notice in big letters: "school will be closed Tuesday." There will be a meeting for parents this evening.

"Last night, we yet again saw proof that politicians, administrators and other so-called 'leaders' consistently put money first and our kids last," Steve Cook, president of the Michigan Education Association, said in a statement. "Faced with a selfless offer of help from their employees to continue working, without the guarantee of a paycheck next payday, Buena Vista's school board and administration gave up on their students and employees and laid everyone off."

Teachers Unions Pull Back From National Learning Standards?

Joy Resmovits   |   April 30, 2013    4:30 PM ET

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, came out in favor of a two-year moratorium on adverse consequences for schools and teachers that have been proposed in connection with the Common Core State Standards in an interview with The Huffington Post Tuesday.

"If I had a magic wand, I would make a moratorium for two years," he said, referring to the stakes associated with the new Common Core tests, primarily linking teacher evaluations to student performance. "It's a steep learning curve -- the more you take off the onus of the measures, the better off you are. Seventy percent of teachers aren't covered by this and yet they'll be impacted right away ... We've got to have some temporary flexibility so that we can get this right."

The Common Core State Standards is a set of learning standards in mathematics and reading that has been adopted by about 45 states and Washington, D.C. The standards have come in response to what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan often calls "dummied-down standards" that states set in order to show high pass rates on standardized tests.

The Common Core standards focus on depth rather than breadth and are billed as a way to get students "college and career ready" in a global economy. The standards have been in development for over a decade by governors from both parties, with support from the federal government, the National Governors Association and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The rubber will hit the road in 2014, when most states will begin taking tests aligned with the core -- which sets higher standards, for the most part, than previous tests -- developed by two testing consortia sponsored by the federal government. At that point, states are expected to see huge declines in test scores, because the exams will generally test on tougher material.

The unions are objecting primarily to proposals by state and federal governments to link teacher evaluations to student performance on the new tests, and to the prospect of underperforming local districts losing funding.

In a speech delivered Tuesday to the Association for a Better New York, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, publicly called for at least a year-long moratorium on such accountability "until the standards are properly implemented and field-tested," according to an AFT statement.

In an impassioned call with reporters, Weingarten derided states like New York that have moved ahead with teacher evaluations based on Common Core-based assessments during the standards' early phases. "Give the test. We just want to decouple the stakes," she said. "The tests right now are disconnected to teaching ... I don't want [the standards] abandoned to the dustbin of history." She blasted out a message about the moratorium to supporters and members, urging them to flood Duncan's inbox with their concerns.

The NEA has been preparing its own plan, according to documents provided to HuffPost, that emphasizes the importance of Common Core implementation while expressing disdain for multiple choice tests.

"Randi's exactly right," Van Roekel said.

The call for a moratorium places both unions, which together represent a majority of the nation's public school teachers, in a precarious position at a pivotal point in the implementation of the standards. While both union leaders say they support the core, they also argue that more time and resources are needed to implement it with integrity.

Yet some see the moratorium effort as a retrenchment.

"It's a walking back from support for the standards. If this is what support looks like, I'd hate to see what opposition looks like," said Tim Daly, president of TNTP, the organization formerly known as The New Teacher Project, a research group that favors reforms such as linking teacher evaluations to student test scores. "It's eroding public confidence in [the core] and eroding the support of the public officials. It's hanging them out to dry. It suggests that the support for the standards is fair weather and not durable since it appears to be conditional."

The announcements come as the Common Core faces major backlash from some teachers and critics on the far right and the left, such as New York University historian Diane Ravitch. Last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote a letter asking the federal government to defund the core standards. This week, eight other senators, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) joined him. Though the core has had support from prominent Republicans such as Jeb Bush and Idaho schools chief Tom Luna, the Republican National Committee recently passed a resolution in opposition to the standards, calling them an overreach.

At the state level, Indiana's legislature recently passed a measure that would "pause" the Common Core -- that bill awaits signature from Republican Gov. Mike Pence. In Alabama, an anti-Common Core bill died after discussion surfaced spurious claims about the standards, such as an alleged plan to "indoctrinate" children and use facial recognition on exams -- but another bill was recently introduced. And last Wednesday, Michigan's legislature passed a measure that prohibits funding the Common Core.

In New York State, teachers are protesting after only one year of teaching the standards, because students were administered a core-aligned test developed by Pearson -- while the consortia exams are still in development. Administrators throughout the state have described cases of their brightest students crying during the test because the questions were too hard, and there wasn't enough time to finish. Last year, a passage on a Pearson-generated test about a pineapple was derided for not having a clear answer; this year, critics have pointed to what they see as "corporate" influences on the test material and the repetition of study questions on the exam.

In a statement responding to Weingarten's moratorium proposal, John King, New York state's education commissioner, said that she is right about the need for additional resources but argued that New York is already providing them.

Van Roekel said he intends to prioritize collaboration with Weingarten to advocate for "increased flexibility" while educating members about the Core. The NEA's Common Core Working Group is planning to help affiliates educate teachers on the core and to develop tests, and is planning to develop criteria to evaluate tools and products designed around the core. It will also create "Standard Institutes" and "Teacher Leadership Institutes" to engage teachers on the standards and evaluations.

"You can't put something this big in front of teachers and say, 'We're not going to give you any time, resources and possibilities to help you prepare how to use these,'" he said.

Civil Rights Groups Say 'Not So Fast' On NCLB Waivers

Joy Resmovits   |   April 29, 2013    7:20 PM ET

As droves of states wiggle out from some of the toughest components of the much-maligned federal No Child Left Behind Act, school districts in states that were denied waivers from the law's strictures want a piece of the action. Not so fast, says a coalition of eight civil rights groups.

In a letter these groups wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan -- and forwarded to The Huffington Post Monday morning -- they argue that the price of giving school districts that kind of flexibility is too high, espeically when it comes to student achievement.

"We're asking you to hold the line now," the groups wrote. "Moving away from a system of statewide accountability ... will result in different expectations for students from one district to the next. Considerable experience tells us that ... [for minority groups], different expectations far too often means lowered expectations."

The letter was signed by the Education Trust, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Democrats for Education Reform, the National Indian Education Association, the National Women' Law Center, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Easter Seals and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc.

"We are very very worried about the precedent that this waiver would send," EdTrust's Daria Hall said in a phone interview. "We'd be in this new era [where] every district can define their own accountability systems, their own expectations for what ... improvement and gap-closing is."

Hall is concerned that having districts set their own accountability systems would leave "expectations blurred across district lines," making it hard for parents and students to move between districts.

President Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 on the idea of overturning NCLB, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that mandated annual standardized testing for students across the country. The law also required schools to make "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) on these exams. While many lauded NCLB for exposing score gaps among different groups of students, even its initial cheerleaders now agree that it was meant to be refreshed. Some critics say it was too punitive in punishing schools that failed to make AYP, a measure often deemed arbitrary.

Obama gave Congress a Fall 2011 deadline to rewrite the then long-since-expired law, but that didn't happen. So he and Duncan moved ahead with a plan to help states move out from under NCLB's strictures without legislative action: The U.S. Education Department gave states waivers from AYP if they agreed to adopt elements of the administration's education agenda, such as teacher evaluations based, in part, on student test scores.

California didn't exactly comply with everything the administration asked for, so its NCLB waiver request was denied. Now, a group of school districts in the state -- known as the California Office to Reform Education, or CORE -- wants to go over the state's head to get its own waiver. CORE includes school districts in San Francisco, Sanger, Oakland, Sacramento, Long Beach, Clovis, Fresno, Los Angeles, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. Their waiver request is now under peer review at the Education Department.

But some disabilities advocates are worried about the precedent the CORE waiver could set if approved, since it doesn't address testing for students with disabilities.

Until now, states have created modified assessments for students with disabilities -- and in some states, these exams rely on different standards, cutting students off from obtaining a diploma. California is one such state.

"They're putting too many students off track to get a regular diploma to make it look like most students are passing tests," explained Laura Kaloi, the policy director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

The state NCLB waivers only allow students with the most severe disabilities to take modified exams. But since California was denied that waiver, and since the CORE waiver application doesn't address the issue, Kaloi remains concerned that some students with disabilities in both CORE and other California districts will continue to be denied diplomas.

"By virtue of the CORE application being silent, and the Education Department not answering the question of whether the district [that receives a waiver] would follow the state waiver guidelines or state policy ... you're creating two standards within the same state," she said.

Representatives for the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Department of Education did not return requests for comment on the letter.

'State Of Emergency' For Programs For Littlest Learners

Joy Resmovits   |   April 29, 2013   12:03 AM ET

States are drastically underfunding programs for their youngest learners now more than ever, according to a report released Monday, even as researchers and policymakers increasingly point to pre-school as a ladder to the middle class.

Funding per student for state pre-school programs has reached its lowest point in a decade, according to "The State of Preschool 2012," the annual yearbook released by Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research. "The 2011-2012 school year was the worst in a decade for progress in access to high-quality pre-K for America’s children," the authors wrote. After a decade of increasing enrollment, that growth stalled, according to the report. Though the 2011-2012 school year marks the first time pre-K enrollment didn't increase along with the rate of population change.

"The state of preschool was a state of emergency" in 2012, said Steve Barnett, NIEER's director. Between the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, pre-K spending on state programs dropped by more than $548 million overall, and $442 per student (to $3,841) when adjusted for inflation, according to the report.

This means state pre-K funding per child has fallen more than $1,100 in real dollars from 2001-2002. "That's the lowest since we've been tracking pre-K," Barnett said. He called the cuts "severe" and "unprecedented." This is the first time NIEER has seen average, per-student spending slip below $4,000.

The data shows a situation so dire that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten are expected to discuss NIEER's findings at a Monday event. "Our youngest learners will not be college- and career-ready if we slash preschool dollars," Duncan has said of the cuts.

Early childhood education has been tied to better life outcomes. In 2012, several police chiefs highlighted the need for more and better preschool as a tool for long-term crime reduction. University of Chicago professor James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, has demonstrated that every dollar spent on quality early childhood education yields a 7 to 10 percent return on investment as students graduate and begin contributing to the economy.

And the NIEER report comes as President Barack Obama tries his hand at a dramatic expansion of preschool programs, as first reported by HuffPost in January. In Obama's 2014 budget, the administration proposed "Preschool for All," a plan that would incentivize state spending on "high-quality" pre-K slots for 4-year-olds living below 200 percent of the poverty line by providing matching federal funds, paid for in part by an increase in the tobacco tax.

But insiders expect the proposal to have little political momentum: Already, the tobacco industry is rebelling against the proposed tax hike. And the program comes with a hefty price tag of $75 billion over 10 years -- without the tobacco money, it's unlikely that a snip-happy and polarized Congress would fund it.

While some governors, both Democrats and Republicans, have expressed support for raising pre-school dollars, the NIEER numbers show that it will take a big boost to dig out of the current funding gap.

"States need to right the balance in terms of the tradeoffs they make between enrollment and providing enough money to make a preschool experience really meaningful," Barnett said.

In 2012, according to the report, state preschool programs served 1.1 million children at age 4, or just 28 percent of all 4-year-olds. Enrollment did not keep up with population growth, and 16 states reduced pre-K enrollment.

Meanwhile, funding declined in 27 of the 40 states with pre-K programs; in 13 states, it fell by 10 percent or more. States that cut the most money per student between 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 include Rhode Island, which cut $2,419 per pupil; Connecticut, which cut $1,268; California, which cut $1,009; and Maryland and Georgia, which both cut around $945. In Florida, funding levels have "fallen so low as to bring into question the effectiveness of their programs by any reasonable standard," the report's authors wrote. "While much of the economy is now recovering from the Great Recession, the nation’s youngest learners are still bearing the brunt of budget cuts."

Only 12 states and Washington, D.C. increased pre-K funding per child, and only 15 states and Washington, D.C. met NIEER's preschool quality standards. Low funding, Barnett said, affects quality since states have been shown to skimp on things like visits to monitor preschool programs.

"Five states lost out in site visits, which is important," Barnett said. "That really puts quality in jeopardy."

Less Than Half Of High School Seniors 'Proficient' In Economics On National Exam

Joy Resmovits   |   April 24, 2013   11:00 AM ET

Fewer than half of high school seniors are proficient in economics, according to the results of the 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress exam released Wednesday. This statistic is causing alarm among educators and advocates, especially in an era marked by economic crisis.

"I was shocked," said Edward Alvarez, an assistant principal at Thomas A. Edison Technical Education High School in Queens, in New York City. "We're not even proficient in some areas. The breakdown between ethnic groups, between urban and suburban, I was shocked."

Last year marked the second administration of the NAEP economics test, following the first one in 2006, and average performance stagnated. Between 2006 and 2012, the average score increased by two points from 150 to 152 out of 300 -- a change that is not statistically significant, according to the test's administrators. The test was administered by the research arm of the U.S. Education Department, and assessed 11,000 students in 480 public and private schools.

Forty-two percent of students performed at or above proficient, 3 percent performed at advanced, 82 percent performed between basic and proficient, and 18 percent performed below basic. The only real movement was at the tail end: fewer students performed in the lowest category in 2012 than they did in 2006.

"It illustrates that we are barely adequate in our overall understanding," said Terry Mazany, who heads the Chicago Community Trust and sits on the National Assessment Governing Board. "Of particular concern is the gap between races because we know that the majority of the workforce in decades to come will be African American and Latino."

Mazany spoke to The Huffington Post by phone from a conference about pensions, and said that context in particular worries him in light of the scores. "In Illinois, a state that has an underfunded pension, there's a tendency to point the finger: is it the greedy employees … or irresponsible elected officials?" he said. "That's the world that most young people are going to grow up in … with very real economic consequences."

The release of the test results coincides with a Wednesday Senate hearing on financial literacy on financial literacy held by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). Annamaria Lusardi, global director for financial literacy at George Washington University, will testify there. Men outscored women by an average of six points on the NAEP in 2012, revealing a significant gender gap in economics. "Women answer in the same way to financial literacy questions," she said, referring to her own research. "And their answer is usually, 'I don't know.' Women aren't confident. ... Men might be more likely to guess, but if you force women to give you an answer, they are pretty much similar to the men."

While gaps in performance on the NAEP in economics remained stagnant from 2006 to 2012 between most ethnic groups, Hispanic students' scores increased from 133 to 138, a statistically significant difference that decreases the gap in scores between white and Hispanic students from 25 to 22. Jack Buckley, commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, guessed that's because "these students are arriving in 12th grade better equipped to comprehend this area through their reading." Students whose parents did not graduate from high school also saw a score increase from 129 in 2006 to 134 in 2012.

(Of course, the results are not longitudinal -- NAEP tests different groups of students, so it could possibly be measuring changes in population between then and now, since there are only two data points available.)

Students were expected to answer questions about markets and the national and international economies. One question included: "Suppose the price of green grapes increases by a large amount. What will happen in the short term to the quantity of grapes demanded? Explain why." Only nine percent of students answered the question entirely correct, but 70 percent got it partially correct.

Nan Morrison, who leads the Council for Economic Education, said her group has found more states are educating students in economics, but fewer are testing them in the subject. "There's been a flattening or watering down to make sure it gets taken," she said. "But enrollment is up."

After Tough Week Of Vacation, Boston Teachers Ease Students Back To School

Joy Resmovits   |   April 22, 2013    9:14 AM ET

After a week of April vacation bookended by a tragic marathon bombing and a manhunt that killed one suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and brought the other, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, into custody, Monday marks a return to class for students of Boston Public Schools.

While the district is focused on helping students cope and carry on, some teachers wonder if and how students in Boston's tougher neighborhoods will distinguish the bombing from what they see as the regular thrum of gun violence in their neighborhoods.

Across the 55,000-student school district, BPS spokesperson Lee McGuire said, schools are prepared to help students cope. "We have 60 … staff who are school psychologists and social workers," he said in an email. "Additionally we will have the support of 250 community mental health clinicians." Schools were entirely shut down Friday as law enforcement searched for the second suspect and Boston remained on lockdown.

Superintendent Carol Johnson told families on a conference call Sunday evening that some schools might mark the one-week anniversary with a moment of silence. "We are all proud of the Boston Police and the so many others who worked to keep us safe," she said. "We look forward to seeing you back in school tomorrow."

But at the classroom level, teachers have been anticipating different reactions to the violence, and struggling to find solutions to get children engaged in their classwork after such a harsh week. "They're just going to have a million questions for me, and anxiety and curiosity," said Ted Chambers, a sociology teacher at Edwards Middle School in Charlestown. "I'm going to reassure them they're safe in school, that they're not targets … The challenge is going to be getting them focused and keeping them on task, getting their minds off of the trauma of the last 10 days."

One tactic is getting away. Audrey Jackson teaches fifth grade at Manning Elementary School, which is specifically designed for students who have faced trauma, violence and instability. As of Friday, the school planned to proceed with a scheduled five-day trip to live and work on a farm. "I think it will be good," she said. "They'll be away from the city, away from the media, and they'll have time to process." She plans to talk to her students about how courage doesn't mean the absence of fear.

Boston students were already shaken this year by the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Irischa Valentin, a third grade Spanish teacher in Dorchester, had her students do yoga and visual meditation after the event. Andrew Vega, an English language arts teacher in Orchard Gardens K-8 school, remembers having kids write down their thoughts and share them. Kids had "what if" questions, he remembers, as if they were inventing the worst case scenarios and pushing him to say they were not ultimately 100 percent safe. "A lot of it is assuring them that they are safe, then assuring them that these incidents are all very isolated and the good outweighs the bad," he said.

But that's getting harder. "It's exhausting," Vega said. "Things keep adding up." Now, the city is recovering from an explosion that injured many and killed three people, including 8-year-old student Martin Richard, and a manhunt that turned its streets into a virtual war zone with tanks and rifles.

While these two violent events made international news, some teachers said students in Boston's less tony neighborhoods -- particularly Roxbury and Dorchester -- are accustomed to the background noise of gunshots. Gene Roundtree, a sociology and biology teacher at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, spent the week teaching at an acceleration academy at Higginson/Lewis K-8 School, a special tutoring program that went on during break for about 1,500 BPS students. The students, he said, didn't seem particularly affected by the bombing after they observed a moment of silence. Then, on Wednesday, there was a shooting at a park across the street from the school, Higginson/Lewis K-8 School, in Roxbury. The school went on lockdown for three hours, and teachers just continued class -- a drill, Roundtree said, that felt all too familiar to the students there.

"One thing in Boston that isn't well discussed is that there is a pretty big divide between what goes on downtown and what goes on in Roxbury and Dorchester. It's almost two different worlds," Roundtree said. "There's a reality of violence in one community and rarely acts of shooting violence in the downtown areas of Boston."

Roundtree said one of his former students was murdered in the beginning of the school year. The case remains unsolved. "I'd love to say she's my only former student who's been murdered, but she's not," he said. "I have another who sustained gun wounds and not fatally. The perception of violence in Roxbury and Dorchester is different from the perception of violence on Boylston Street."

While Roundtree plans to facilitate discussion about the bombings, he says he feels "our kids are extremely resilient, largely because the idea of random violence unfortunately is not novel to them. So they come into the school with a lot of coping mechanisms."

The manhunt, said Ethna Riley, who teaches social studies at Dorchester's Dever-McCormack Middle School, sent a confusing message about the value of human life. She said that while many of her students have been directly affected by violence, it's generally familiar to the entire school. "They feel it and they know it and they're hurting," she said. "[This] is certainly a heartbreaking tragedy particularly with a little boy involved, and yet every single one of these students has experienced a similar loss in their own life. The response to that loss is utter silence."

Riley expects her students to ask where the response was when their relatives were killed. "I don't have a good answer to that, as to why a murder is a run-of-the-mill, day-to-day event in their communities," she said. "When people die in a different way, in a different part of town, it's this event where the eyes of the world are upon them. This is the challenge. We're living in a society that is struggling with empathy."