SOQ Examination

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

There has been a lot of commentary in recent posts over the state Board of Education’s proposed changes in the Standards of Quality, with a $950 million price tag. Rather than focusing on the total price tag and one component of the proposal (equity fund), it seems to me a more productive approach would be to look at each component and evaluate it separately. (The detailed descriptions of the items can be found here, the first item under “Action/Discussion Items.)

Before delving into the details, there are several considerations to keep in mind:

  1. The Board of Education can only propose changes to the Standards of Quality. The General  Assembly has the last word.
  2. Any new funding associated with any changes in the SOQ will be in addition to the amount needed for “rebasing.” This is the biennial exercise in which the SOQ funding is adjusted for changes in student enrollment and general increased costs.
  3. Educational funding is not my field of expertise. I am endeavoring to summarize what is proposed, based on the BOE document, and add my two cents’ worth for certain issues.

The proposals, in the order of their estimated cost:

Recession-era Savings and Flexibility Strategies — $371.6 million state funding; $304 million local contribution. This proposal, by far, is the most expensive.  It would eliminate the cap on support positions that was implemented during the Great Recession. Also, during that period, language was included in the Appropriation Act that allowed localities to increase teacher-to- pupil staffing ratios in certain circumstances, waived certain other teacher-to-pupil teacher rations, and waived staffing ratios for instructional and support technology positions, librarians, and guidance counselors. It seems that this proposal would be restoring the staffing ratios to pre-recession levels.

Equity Fund –$131.9 million state funding; $79.5 million local contribution. This seems to be the most controversial proposal in the BR world.  This proposed funding would be in addition to $233.27 million currently appropriated to aid at-risk schools.

My two cents: As has been discussed extensively on this blog, simply throwing more money at the problem has not been shown to be the solution. There are some other proposals that would target additional funds for specific purposes and favor at-risk schools that would seem to have more promise, i.e. reading specialists.

Another concern I have is one of accountability. To best explain this concern, it would be best to quote the DOE presentation to the Board: “Currently, the Appropriation Act authorizes the Board of Education to withhold At-Risk Add On funds when a school board has not met state accountability standards and fails to implement corrective action plans. Because this proposal shifts these funds into the SOQ, the Board would no longer have authority to withhold these funds. [Emphasis added].

Finally, there is language in the proposal that should warm LarryG’s heart. Under that language, school divisions would be authorized to use up to all the funds for at-risk students to provide targeted compensation adjustments to assist with recruiting or retaining qualifying teachers in qualifying schools. It would be much better to require school divisions to use some portion of the funds for such purposes; they are generally loath to provide pay differentials.

Teacher Leader and Teacher Mentor Programs–$102.1 million state funding; $84.3 million in local contribution. Establishes a new Teacher Leader program and expands existing Teacher Mentor program. Currently, $1.0 million is appropriated for teacher mentors. This proposal would mandate staffing ratios for teacher leaders and mentors. “Teacher leaders” would “support their peers by coordinating mentorship programs and professional development, and consulting and observing teachers.”

My two cents: Mentors are probably a valuable for resource for new teachers, especially for the first year and should be compensated for the additional time spent on this assignment. “Teacher leaders” sounds like more educational bureaucracy. In another proposal, the BOE wants additional assistant principals. Couldn’t “coordinating mentorship programs and professional development and consulting and observing teachers” be a part of the job of those assistant principals?

Specialized Student Support Personnel — $100 million state funding; $81.8 million local contribution. Currently, school psychologists, school social workers, and school nurses are included in the SOQ support position category. This proposal would establish a new standard, “Specialized Student Support Personnel,” for these positions. The prescribed ratio per 1,000 students would cost an additional $100 million. The additional $371.6 million requested in the first proposal described above presumably would include funding to bring the staffing levels for support positions, including these three types of positions, back to pre-recession levels. If both these proposals were adopted, school divisions would be made whole by the first one, with the three specified positions enhanced by this one.

School counselors–$88.2 million state funding; $72.2 million local contribution. This proposal would require schools to require one full-time equivalent school counselor position per 250 students in grades kindergarten through 12. The 2019 General Assembly adopted legislation lowering the school counselor ratios. This proposal would dramatically lower them further.

My two cents: I am probably opening myself up here to a lot of criticism. But we have school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors. And the Board wants to increase the number of these positions in all school divisions. Isn’t there a lot of overlap in the functions of these positions? Do we really need the same ratios in every school, regardless of socioeconomic status of the student body?

Assistant principals–$83.9 million state funding; $6.4 million local contribution. This proposal would require one assistant principal for each 400 students. Currently, the Standards require an assistant principal for each 900 students in elementary schools; one for each 600 students in middle and high schools.

My two cents: This seems to be adding to the education bureaucracy. There may be a justification for this increase, but the BOE document does not provide it. The document only says that it is “reaffirming” its 2016 recommendation. As far as I am concerned, the students would be better served by putting this money into additional reading specialists.

Reading specialists–$36.6 million state funding; $29.1 million local contribution. This proposal would require one reading specialist per five students requiring reading specialist services. The number of student requiring such services would be based on the percent of students failing the third grade reading SOL test.

My two cents: As we have commented on this blog, learning to read in the first years of school is key to success later. To his credit, the Secretary of Education has pledged to put more effort into improving the performance of students in this area. This is probably the least controversial of the proposals. It will not be effective, however, if the reading specialists continue to teach reading as they have in recent years. More and more research has shown that the most effective way is the old-fashioned teaching of phonics (it probably has a more high-falutin’ name, now), but most Schools of Education do not teach that.

English Learner Teachers — $26.7 million state funding; $32.8 million local contribution. Currently, the staffing requirement for students having limited English proficiency is 17 instructional positions per 1,000 students. This proposal would revise the standard to reflect different staffing requirements based on student proficiency levels, e.g. one position per 25 students identified as proficiency level one, etc.

Work-Based Learning Coordinators — $1.1 million state funding; $0 local contribution. This would establish a unit within DOE to “facilitate the development of relationships between school divisions and business communities to ensure all high school students will have access to meaningful work experiences such as internships, externships, and other work-based learning experiences.”

My two cents:  More bureaucracy at the state level. The division superintendents should be doing this already; they are better attuned to their local business communities. In any event, this item does not belong in the Standards of Quality.

Principal Mentor Programs — $1.1 million state funding; $0 local contribution. This would establish a new unit within DOE to “develop and implement a statewide mentorship program to support all new principals and principals of schools not meeting the standards established by the Board.

My two cents: I am ambivalent on this one. I firmly believe the key to operating a “good” school is the principal. New principals and principals of struggling schools need help. However, I am not convinced that more bureaucracy at the state level is the answer. It seems that local school boards and superintendents’ offices would be better positioned to provide this mentoring. In any event, this item does not belong in the Standards of Quality. Furthermore, if the leadership of DOE truly thought this was important, I am sure that it could find the funding for it  in its current $121 million appropriation for the operation of its central office.

I want to point out a significant aspect of the BOE proposals that has been overlooked in the public media reports. A portion of the state funding for local education is provided in separate budget items outside the Standards of Quality. Because of this separation, the General  Assembly has greater flexibility in funding them. The BOE proposal would move the funding for many of these programs into the Standards of Quality, in effect, “baking” that funding into future SOQ funding calculations and insulating them more from the General Assembly. The following existing programs would be affected: At-Risk Add-On; Prevention, Intervention, Remediation; K-3 Class Size Reduction; Teacher Mentor; and Early Reading Intervention.

Finally, the proposed package includes a lot of complicated issues and concepts.  Dropping a $950 million annual request for complicated proposals into the General Assembly’s lap at the beginning of the Session does not lead to good policy. The Board of Education should have adopted these proposed changes last spring, which would have given the appropriate committees of the General Assembly time to digest them, ask questions, and come up with reasoned final amendments. But, I repeat myself;  in this area as in many others, the legislature is neglecting its duty to fully review big issues before it.