By T.J. GILLES - For The Outpost
Education leaders meeting in Billings last weekend praised the signing of President Obama’s health-care law but remained skeptical of approaches to education improvement and funding.
At the 10th annual union meeting of the Montana Education Association and Montana Teachers Federation, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said that of the 32 million more Americans who now will have access to quality, affordable health care, some 8 million are children.
“Now our 3.2 million (NEA) members have hope that their students will come to school more ready to learn and with a healthier outlook on life,” he said.
In testifying for the bill’s passage recently, Montana Sen. Jon Tester – a former teacher and school-board member - noted that several school districts in Montana are seeing insurance rates skyrocket.
“I was shocked when I heard about the bad news hitting teachers all across Montana,” Sen. Tester said.
Montana school employees, administrators and school-board members can take out insurance through a self-insurance pool, the Montana Unified School Trust.
But at Elysian School District west of Billings, employees were notified that premiums would rise by 69 percent. Rural Hi-Line schools including Saco, Hinsdale and Nashua will see increases of at least 70 percent on individual plans – and Nashua’s family plans will see an increase of 89 percent.
MEA-MFT Executive Vice President Eric Feaver said the health-care law may eventually benefit most but doesn’t change the organization’s position – advocating a single-payer program guaranteeing health care for everyone.
“We believe that health care is a human right, like public education - not a commodity,” Mr. Feaver said. “When you have a commodity, it’s hard to control the price,” which is causing insurers throughout the nation to raise premiums to cover unintentional escalation in health-care costs.
The health-care act’s immediate ban on denying insurance to babies and others with pre-existing conditions and another change allowing parents to keep children on their insurance until they reach the age of 26 also will be helpful to teachers and their students, he said.
The MEA pre-dates Montana statehood and both the NEA and MFT had long used collective bargaining of health-insurance benefits as a key recruiting tool. With some 18,000 members, it boasts of being the state’s largest labor union.
Mr. Van Roekel, an Arizona math teacher, described the president’s education budget as “a mixed bag.”
It does increase overall federal funding for education but the “those increases would not reach all students, districts and states.”
“I raise a real red flag regarding the administration’s trend toward more competitive grant programs,” he said, adding that – like one-time grants under the federal stimulus program - competitive grants do not provide long-term investments and stability to shore up and improve schools over the longer term.
Mr. Feaver said the Bush administration’s punitive nature of central control and denying funds to states or districts sought to “hammer you into submission” while the Obama administration’s approach is to “carrot you into submission” with incentives rather than penalties.
“Does that mean we educate some students better than others simply because they have better grants writers?”
Critics note that competitive grants tend to favor those schools and districts with money to employ grants writers and tweak the system.
At any rate, said Mr. Feaver, “federal money only pays for 10 percent of Montana schools’ freight anyway. Should they (the feds) be calling all of the plays?” Whatever the political affiliation or the time, he said, politicians seem to believe that Washington has some special answer or program that must be obeyed.
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau noted that Montana did not apply for the initial round of those “Race to the Top” grants this year among fears that the urban-oriented format could erode school boards and districts’ autonomy, which would be contrary to the Montana Constitution. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law signed nearly 10 years ago by then-President George W. Bush also contained punitive provisions such as state or national takeover of sub-par schools and districts. That’s also contrary to Montana law.
Jessica Rhodes, spokeswoman for the Montana Office of Public Instruction, said the state may apply for the second round of grants under that program, due in June.
Ms. Rhodes said the state would “personalize its application” to be eligible for $25 million to $75 million share of grants and emphasize “the rural, if not frontier, nature” of schools in Montana.
Innovations such as distance learning through Montana’s newly authorized Digital Academy, distance learning, and dual college-high school credit schemes could help Montana students in remote areas.
NEA President Van Roekel had harsh words for Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s new Blueprint for Education. His organization regards the blueprint as punitive and test-driven.
The NEA “would like nothing more than to see No Child Left Behind left behind,” Van Roekel said. “For nearly a decade this legislation has punished students and entire communities with do-or-die, high-stakes testing.”
Duncan’s plan “is still based on high-stakes, low-quality standardized tests where some kids win and some kids lose,” said Mr. Van Roekel. “President Obama promised we would fix this - and fix it for all students, not just some.”
Ms. Juneau noted that Montana students have consistently been among the top achievers in the National Education Assessment Program tests four fourth- and eighth-graders.
1. There must be a leader. “You can’t pursue multiple strategies” with different leaders giving mixed messages.
2. You must have a plan. Not just “work harder” or “break even” but with specifics.
3. You can’t save your way to health. “I believe that’s a very slippery slope … . Organizations get sicker and get smaller and are no longer relevant to their communities.”
4. Focus on today and tomorrow. “Don’t worry about the past. It’s a waste of time.”
5. Extend the planning calendar. He suggests five years of programming, education and marketing.
6. Marketing is more than brochures and news releases. Use emails, Facebook and Twitter. Bring artists into schools.
7. Have one spokesman with a positive message focusing on the future. At the Royal Opera House, Fleet Street journalists would station themselves across from the opera, waiting to grab quotes and whining after employees got off work. Mr. Kaiser got everyone to shut up and became the lead spokesman, talking about exciting things to come as he pursued its turnaround in 18 months.
8. When in trouble, don’t focus on the small donor or have unrealistic hopes of a Sugar Daddy. Small donors are OK, but don’t waste money on T-shirts and mugs. Donors big and small can be courted more cheaply by allowing them into rehearsals or other involvement.
9. The board has to be willing to restructure itself. Mr. Kaiser said boards cannot be stagnant. Those who began sewing costumes or sweeping floors in the early years may have to be asked to leave. He said 90 percent of board members he asked to step down were relieved to have been relieved of duties they no longer had the time, resources – or youth – to fulfill.
In answer to a question, he said he doesn’t believe arts board members need to “buy” their seats with a donation of a certain amount, but must be able to provide expertise, in-kind services such as publicity, corporate or other fund-raising, or other measurable contributions.
10. Have the discipline to adhere to the first nine principles.