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58th Annual Meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference

Education Committee Chair's Report

Little Rock, Arkansas

August 14 to August 18, 2004

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October 12, 2004


TO:      Members of the Executive Committee

FR:      Senator Alice Harden Mississippi
           Chair, Education Committee

RE:      Report of Activities of the Education Committee at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Southern
           Legislative Conference in Little Rock, August 14-18, 2004          

     The Education Committee convened on Sunday, August 15, for a program session and on Monday, August 16, for a business session during the 58th SLC Annual Meeting.  The following is a summary of the speaker presentation and Committee activities.


Sunday, August 15

I.         Closing the Achievement Gap:  50 Years after Brown v. Board of Education

            Robert Johnston, Ph.D. - Southern Education Foundation, Arkansas

            Henry L. Johnson, Ph.D. - State Superintendent of Education, Mississippi           

            Katherine Mitchell, Ph.D. - Director, Alabama Reading Initiative, Alabama Department of Education


      A pivotal event in American history, the Brown decision has been hailed as among the most significant U.S. Supreme Court rulings of the 20th Century.  Yet half a century later, there remain serious achievement gaps between white and minority students.  States have tackled this gap with a variety of programs to help all students reach their potential, with varying degrees of success.

Dr. Johnston’s Presentation

      Dr. Johnston began his remarks by noting that policymakers focus on closing the achievement gap for economic reasons and for moral reasons.  Education leads to income, he continued, and income is a function of education.  For individuals, the difference in income between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree is about $20,000 annually, which adds up to about $1 million over a lifetime.  Those states with higher percentages of college graduates have higher per capita incomes as well.  Unfortunately, Southern states are clustered around the lower end of the scale on both measurements.  Increasing the number of college graduates would not just improve the income of the residents of the state, but it would increase the state’s revenues as well. 

      Southern states also have a high percentage of low income and minority students with low achievement and high need, Dr. Johnston noted.  This, and the low percentage of individuals with college degrees, correlates to lower per pupil expenditures, availability of early childhood education, quality and motivation of teachers in “needy” schools, quality of curriculum, and the amount and type of college scholarships. 

      The number one goal of every state, and particularly the South, Dr. Johnston said, should be to increase the number of college graduates.  Most Southern states are doing a decent job of getting students to graduate high school and into college, but the South falls behind at retaining freshmen into their second year, and does an even worse job at getting college students to graduate. 

      Turning to the achievement gap, there are actually gaps in achievement defined by ethnicity, economics and geography.  The gap is most profound between white students and black and Latino students.  In addition to the ethnic and racial gap, there is an economic achievement gap within ethnic and racial groups, with lower income students of all backgrounds doing less well than their wealthier peers.  Due to the multiplicity of achievement gaps, roughly half of all students in the South fall under the category of a “gap” student. 

      Dr. Johnston observed that graduation rates from college vary, with some institutions doing better than others.  Among similar institutions serving similar students, graduation rates can differ widely.  Among those outperforming their peers are Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, the University of Northern Iowa, East Carolina University in North Carolina, Louisiana Tech University, and the University of Florida. 

      There are two reasons most often given for the achievement gap, Dr. Johnston noted.  The first is a variation on “it’s their fault,” laying responsibility at the feet of the children or the family.  The second, most often given by young people themselves, is a variation on “it’s the school’s fault.”  The answer may be a bit of both, he continued.  Poverty and parents matter in education, but when students who have less show up at school, they often are given fewer resources that are known to have a positive impact on achievement, such as qualified staff and instructional technology. 

       A report from the Education Testing Service called Parsing the Achievement Gap identified 14 variables that affect student achievement.  Among these are eight that relate to family and home life, including reading to young children, the amount of television children watched, the availability of parents to the child, student mobility and parent participation in the child’s life and education.  These factors are hard for schools and policymakers to solve.  But there remain six factors relating to schools that are more easily handled, including curriculum, teacher preparation, teacher experience and attendance, class size, appropriate classroom technology, and school safety.

      The most important focus for closing the achievement gap, Dr. Johnston said, was early childhood education.  Providing quality pre-K at ages 3 and 4, and perhaps as early as 2 years old, with professional caregivers and low child-to-adult ratios to children who fall into categories for whom there is an achievement gap, is a good first step.  Effective teaching also is very important.  What teachers and schools do can have a huge impact on student achievement, although getting these quality teachers can be expensive.  Most states have met or are on the way to meeting 75 percent of No Child Left Behind requirements, Dr. Johnston noted, but no state is on pace to ensure highly qualified teachers in all core classes.  Almost all states are ready to report achievement data for all major student groups, but just over one in five states are on track to make teachers of core subjects demonstrate competency in their subjects.  Other recommendations for closing the achievement gap include providing tutoring to students who need help, smaller classrooms, and more rigorous course content.  Furthermore, there is a need for targeted college scholarships for those who are most in need. 

      Finally, there are strong suggestions from a number of people, Dr. Johnston concluded, that the way higher education is funded and supervised needs to be changed.  This would include accountability on graduation rates, improving affordability, and changing funding formulas to reward institutions based on student progress toward graduation. 

Dr. Johnson’s Presentation

      Dr. Johnson acknowledged that there has been progress on fulfilling the promise of the Brown decision, but that there is much progress yet to me made.  We know how to educate children, but it is a matter of will for it to be done.  He noted that there are four types of factors that affect achievement.  First among these are schooling factors, over which the schools have control and can use to affect achievement.  The remaining three factors the schools can only hope to influence.

      There are family factors that can be influenced by school, but not as much.  Schools can help parents understand these things, such as television viewing or the value of a print-rich environment, but they cannot be controlled by the schools.  There are community factors that also are outside the control of the school, although the schools can inform the members of the community and its institutions about how they can help the schools.

      There are also individual factors, Dr. Johnson added.  Children must bring something to the table, a willingness and ability to bring forth the effort required.  He noted that children who do not see a chance of success can find ways to opt out of learning.  For this very reason, it is important to build in success, since past success prepares people for future success. 

      To close the achievement gap, there are macro and micro policy strategies that can be adopted, Dr. Johnson noted.  At the macro level (i.e., the state level), research and experience point to an alignment of certain factors that can affect outcomes.  Children exposed to rich curriculum, appropriate assessments and small settings do well.  The rigor of the curriculum can be statutorily required, as it has been in North Carolina.  There, statute stipulates that the curriculum be based upon the best available curriculum from available sources. 

      Rigorous curriculum standards must be aligned with state assessments, something else that the state of North Carolina has done by statute.  When curriculum standards are aligned with assessments, children learn the curriculum, he observed, and student learning improves for all children. 

      Tied in to this must be a strong accountability system, Dr. Johnson said.  Schools mostly cooperate with this now, although early on they were often quite resistant.  The reason for this resistance was an uncertainty of how much schools and teachers could affect student learning.  It is now well known that teachers and schools can and do make a difference.  A component of the accountability system in North Carolina was extra money for teachers and staff if the school performs well an option which requires funding.  Rewarding teachers for schoolwide performance encouraged cooperation and collaboration.  Paying for performance is a successful strategy, he cautioned, only when other components are in place.  Otherwise, it can amplify inequities. 

      At the micro policy level (i.e., the school level), expectations matter, Dr. Johnson explained.  Research has demonstrated that teachers often treat children differently based on their perception of that child’s ability.  The difference comes down to what kinds of questions children are asked.  Children perceived as less capable were asked convergent questions which restrict thinking and reasoning; children perceived as more capable were asked divergent questions that lead to inquiry and analysis.  Also, when children are exposed to a rigorous curriculum experience, they learn more and fail less.   Finally, Dr. Johnson noted, recent research reinforces something that has long been promoted in education:  good teaching matters.  Improving the quality of instruction, he concluded, can have a profound affect on student performance. 

Dr. Mitchell’s Presentation

      Dr. Mitchell explained that Alabama has taken a significant step toward closing the achievement gap with the Alabama Reading Initiative.  The initiative is a statewide movement anchored by reading research that is aimed at ultimately achieving grade-level reading for all of Alabama’s public school students.  The heart and soul of the initiative is intensive teacher development, putting into teachers’ hands the tools they need to teach a cohort of children who are poorer and more handicapped than they were in the past. 

      The program is voluntary for schools, which are selected from a pool of applicants that agree to make seven commitments, Dr. Mitchell said.  These commitments are: having 100 percent literacy as a goal; achieving the commitment of at least 85 percent of the school’s faculty; attending the 10-day training program; having the effort led by the principal; adjusting reading instruction based on the program; modeling research-based reading instruction for other schools; and being evaluated by someone from outside the school.

      The Alabama Reading Initiative is a story of successful partnerships, she added.  The Alabama Reading Panel, a team of 24 individuals from a variety of backgrounds, the majority of whom were teachers, developed the first plan in 1997.  Funding for the Initiative comes in part from business and professional groups, 36 of which raised the initial $1.5 million in 1998 for pilot programs in 16 schools.  For four year in a row, initiative schools have outperformed non-initiative schools, Dr. Mitchell noted.  An important measure of the success for schools is a decrease in special education referrals for initiative schools, which is in large part due to the fact that these referrals were for children who simply could not read.  Reading initiative schools often are outperforming the state as a whole in the critical K-3 years in terms of reading achievement.  Alabama was one of the first states to receive federal Reading First funds because the state already had the reading initiative in place.  This has allowed the state to channel more funds into the program. 

      Among the key findings of the Initiative upon evaluating their successes, Dr. Mitchell observed, were the critical importance of principal leadership and reading specialists, both of whom play key roles in making these programs work.  Sustained professional development for staff was also important, in part due to high turnover rates among staff and administrators at the schools.

      Over the years, the Initiative has had a number of partners, including state institutions of higher education which provided reading coaches when the program could not afford them, and the state’s regional in-service centers which helped with the logistics of training more than 21,000 teachers.  The state training model has been refined over time to its current arrangement, which is a summer reading workshop lead by master teachers and coaches working with struggling readers and observed by teachers and principals. 

      Since it takes funding to accomplish the goals of the Initiative, the state has been fortunate to have several strong partners in securing funding, including the state board of education, the Legislature, two state superintendents, three governors and the teachers, principals, administrators and students who have talked about the program’s benefits.  The funding has grown from the initial $1.5 million for 16 schools in 1998-1999 to $40 million in 2004-2005 to expand to all schools, after stalling for two years at $12.5 million serving over 500 schools.  By 2006-2007, the Initiative hopes to cover all 923 schools with grades K-3.  This large expansion in funding will be spent primarily for reading coaches and regionally based support specialists, as well as continued professional development and after school and summer school programs, Dr. Mitchell noted, along with other items such as summer training for schools new to the Initiative and funds for evaluation and monitoring. 


Monday, August 16

I.             No Child Left Behind Update 

Ray Simon  -  Assistant Secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.


      The No Child Left Behind Act represents a major shift in federal education policy.  As states have implemented components of the Act, numerous questions have been raised, and changes in the interpretation of the legislation have been put forth.


      Mr. Simon began his remarks by noting that the U.S. Department of Education is completing a series of direct interactions with teachers through seven workshops held around the country this summer featuring teachers discussing their success in achieving the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act.  These workshops developed from a series of roundtables held with teachers around the country that asked what the department could do to help them do their jobs.  The teachers at these roundtables supported the mission of the Act, but were afraid that they could not meet its expectations.  In an effort to stay out of “improvement,” these teachers would say, principals would do things like narrowing the curriculum, cutting music and art instruction, eliminating recess, and spending inordinate time on drill, which run contrary to the idea of good teaching. 

      The workshops brought strong teachers to lead them on how to apply No Child Left Behind without constraining educational activities, Mr. Simon said.  The teachers leading these workshops are meeting achievement goals and getting children who are disadvantaged to proficiency without narrowing the curriculum.  Among the lessons learned is to make teachers feel professional and these professionals will take care of achievement.  Great teachers know how to use data to guide instruction, using information in a way that directs the process. 

      He noted that the structure and the form of the Act have garnered all the attention in recent years taking attention away from the mission.  Discussions as to whether the Act is fully funded, the rigor of state accountability plans, or the reasonableness of annual yearly progress goals and state standards have become the core of the debate.  The form is important, and states need to ensure that standards reflect expectations for students at every level, but they also must line up with the state assessments and measure what the students are expected to know.  Otherwise, using test results to guide instruction is nearly impossible. 

      When the structure is in place and everything is aligned, then teachers have confidence in what they need to do.  Every child should have the confidence of his or her teacher, Mr. Simon said, that they can meet state standards, so that when the assessment comes around, it takes care of itself.  In order to ensure that the structure of the system cannot be blamed for accountability lapses, he recommended having the assessments and curriculum checked by individuals outside the system, a process that takes away the weight to any argument that the assessments are too rigorous, are poorly aligned, or the curriculum is too hard.

      Mr. Simon underscored the importance of a good teacher, which is why the highly-qualified teacher requirement is so important.  But not all children, especially poor children, have access to these teachers.  Investments in teacher quality are key to meeting the mission of the No Child Left Behind Act, he concluded.  The mission is for every child to have an excellent teacher in a school that is committed to excellence. 

II.          Legislative Roundtable Discussion

      Mississippi, Arkansas, and Maryland were spotlighted during the session, with other states in the region also providing information.

Mississippi—Mississippi is the only state in the region that has not been sued over its school finance system.  The state crafted a new school finance system, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), in 1994, fully funding it in 1997.  Mississippi determines the cost of delivering educational services to students using a successful school model.  The base student cost for the 2002-2003 school year was determined as $3,427, with this figure adjusted with add-ons for items such as transportation, vocational education, gifted and talented education, and alternative education.  Local districts are required to levy a property tax of 28 mills of effort or 27 percent of the costs, whichever is less, although they can levy above this amount.  The amount local districts are required to levy is subtracted from their aggregate base student cost, with the state providing the balance not covered by the required levy.  Add-on program costs do not require local contributions.  The state faces a challenge in maintaining a commitment to fully funding the formula when revenues are down.  The state was unable to fully fund the program this year, largely because the plan promises a pay raise for teachers.  Mississippi has given a 22 percent pay raise over the past four years, with an 8 percent raise scheduled for this year.  The question for Mississippi now is the adequacy of the formula, which is certain to be reviewed soon.  The state also has a $700 million bond issue for facilities. 

Arkansas—The state has been party to a 10-year lawsuit, known as the Lakeview case, which was both an equity and adequacy case.  The court determined that the state did not have either equity or adequacy in school funding.  Arkansas, like many other states, provided to education the amount of state funds it could afford to spend, with schools competing with other state agencies and activities for money.  Courts ask not how much can you afford to spend, but how much money will it take for all schools to be able to provide all children in the state with an adequate education.  As the state was dealing with this, the governor interjected school consolidation into the discussion.  As the state went through the process of rewriting the finance system, the General Assembly hired a consultant to conduct an adequacy study, something the court recommended, the recommendations of which helped to guide the legislation that emerged from the special session.

      An innovation in the Arkansas law is that the base funding figures are determined by statute.  Additional funding for certain categories also is statutory, including funding for children in alternative learning environments and English as a second language, with poverty funding indexed.  The General Assembly also passed legislation that mandated education as the first priority for state funding, requiring all other areas of the state budget to be reduced equally until education is fully funded.  This clause, in addition to protecting the gains made in the education funding program, encouraged a sufficient number of previously disengaged parties to come to the table and begin discussions on how to protect the revenue being raised for education.  In doing so, Arkansas became the first state to recognize that education is the first priority of the state.  Another program included in the new school finance system is a pre-K program for 3- and 4-year olds who are in households at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.  

      The state is changing some of the accountability and finance systems at the district level to confirm that money goes where it is supposed to.  A significant challenge ahead is implementation.  There is a need to deal with continual adequacy and oversight.  There is also a facilities study underway to determine how schools in the state fare.  Each of Arkansas’ 5,700 school buildings will be reviewed, with the state writing new standards for school facilities. 

Maryland—The General Assembly passed legislation in 2002 to provide $1.3 billion in funding  above the 2000 base budget for education when the plan is fully implemented in 2008.  The plan operates in a manner similar to that in Mississippi, with the exception of the inclusion of transportation, nutritional programs, and school construction, which are not part of the base funding.  There is a state-targeted average of approximately $9,000 per student. 

      The legislation was difficult for the General Assembly to pass, with disputes holding it up until the final days of the session.  Wealthier counties most often do a better job of providing an adequate education, so when the system as a whole begins to be considered, the statewide adequacy amount is likely below what per pupil expenditures are in wealthier counties.  These districts do not get a significant amount of money from the state under the new plan, even though these areas are the greatest contributors to the state’s coffers.  In Maryland, three counties were resistant to the plan being considered by the General Assembly because they were going to see a smaller share of state funds.  The resolution was to include categorical funding for students with disabilities and English for speakers of other languages, two categories of students in which these wealthy counties were experiencing tremendous growth.

      The program has been put in place without a source of funding.  The new governor is looking to fund the plan through slot machines, which still have not been approved by the General Assembly.  The state is cutting the budget elsewhere to meet the mandates of the school finance plan.  The state’s revenue’s have rebounded this year and the school finance plan was able to be funded without major reductions elsewhere.  Without an identified source of revenue, there is a discussion of placing the burden of paying for the state teachers’ retirement system on the local systems, which would be a great financial challenge for them. 

      The plan is showing benefits already.  Because local jurisdictions have more flexibility in how they spend state funds, the programs funded with this money are much more targeted at local problems.  The plan eliminates 27 categorical programs and made the formula considerably simpler.  One of the greatest signs of success is the advances participants in the free and reduced-price lunch program are making in reading.  This is due in part to the counties having the ability to identify and participate in programs that are appropriate for their students’ needs, again, as a result of the flexibility in the funding program. 

      Maryland was not forced into a rewrite of the school finance system by a court order.  The state was in court in 1990 over the adequacy of special education funding.  This case raised the issue of adequacy, and the state took it upon itself to conduct an adequacy study.  A commission (the Thornton Commission) was pulled together to study the school finance situation in the state and make recommendations.  The finance model recommended by the panel was tested by public hearing and received strong support.  Most of the panel’s recommendations then became part of the final legislation.  With the new finance system, Maryland became one of only a handful of states to have a school finance system based on the amount of funding necessary to meet the state’s standards.  Not surprisingly, because of the increased funding, there are new accountability requirements for districts, with each district required to send a comprehensive master plan to the state for review beginning in October.

Alabama—The state collected more sales tax than expected this year.  Alabama fully funded the Alabama Reading Initiative for grades K-3, and hopes to fund math and science initiatives.  The major challenge the state is facing is finding sufficient funds to cover the increasing costs of providing healthcare coverage for teachers and staff. 

Florida—No Report

Georgia—The greatest challenge has been a reduction in the funding available for schools.  The state has responded with increased flexibility in how districts spend the money they do get from the state.  Georgia is facing the threat of a lawsuit from a number of small, mostly rural school districts over the state school finance system.  

Kentucky—No Report

Louisiana—The state was able to increase funding for education across the state, thanks largely to the rise in oil and gas prices which increases the state’s tax revenues.  Education is the top priority for the Legislature but there remain serious challenges to providing adequate funding to the education system. 

Missouri—No Report

North Carolina—No Report

Oklahoma—The state was able to appropriate $2 billion for education.  A big issue this year was 100 percent funding of healthcare for educators.  This is something that the Legislature has worked on for three or four years and this year the state had the funding to enact it.  Also with the large tribal presence in Oklahoma, gaming is a big issue.  The state receives no funding from tribal gaming, however.  The Legislature passed a proposal which must be approved by voters in November for state regulation of tribal casinos, with the state earning revenue from them.  These funds would be dedicated to education.  Also on the ballot will be a statewide lottery to raise funds for education.  Last year, legislation was passed requiring education be funded first, which was an issue for the first time in this session.  Finally, the Legislature set in place a salary increase for teachers, with the hope being that Oklahoma can stop the flow of teachers to other states. 

South Carolina—No Report

Tennessee—No Report

Texas—Last regular session the state had a $9.9 billion shortfall.  The state has a “Robin Hood” component of its school funding system whereby about 100 property-rich districts share the wealth with 1,000 property-poor districts.  There was a special session to do away with the system, but there was no consensus on what to do with the funding system.  The state is in court over the school funding system as well, which places the system in a state of limbo.  A major focus of the debate has been on property tax relief, which would require revenue from other sources to compensate for lost property tax revenue.  In an environment in which the state has a budget shortfall and a legislative leadership that has pledged not to raise taxes, this is understood to be a very tall order. 

Virginia—No Report

West Virginia—No Report

III.       Nominating Committee Report

      Senator Harden called upon the Nominating Committee, chaired by Representative Priscilla Dunn, Alabama, to make recommendations for the position of chair and vice chair of the Committee.  It was the recommendation of the Nominating Committee that Representative Terry Spicer, Alabama, be elected to serve as chair and Senator Gerald Theunissen, Louisiana, be elected to serve as vice chair.  With no candidates introduced from the floor, Representative Spicer and Senator Theunissen were elected by acclamation.

SLC Staff Contact:    Jonathan R. Watts Hull, phone: (404) 633-1866; e-mail:

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