Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences updates general education requirements

For the first time in 35 years, general education requirements are changing in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

The Undergraduate Council, composed of 12 faculty members and five undergraduate students, recently announced it approved changes for the general education requirements — also known as GERs — during a three-hour-long open meeting in November.

Students entering the School of Arts and Sciences in the fall of 2018 will now be required to take at least one designated diversity course as part of the new GER changes. Current students will have the option to switch to the new GER track or continue on the current path.

The Undergraduate Council also approved amendments to the existing foreign culture and second course in literature, arts or creative expression GERs.

According to John Twyning, associate dean for undergraduate studies and Undergraduate Council chair, the council voted to change and amend the current requirements to better prepare students for future employment opportunities after graduation.

“We changed the general education requirements to make them more legible and mostly to provide students with curriculum that prepares them for their academic success [at] Pitt,” he said in an email.

Arts and Sciences students were previously required to take three foreign culture or international courses with at least one course in a non-Western culture. After a year and a half of reviewing GERs, the council decided that since “non-Western” is difficult to define — and puts emphasis on the Western world itself — students must take three global awareness and cultural understanding courses: one in global issues, one in a specific geographic region outside the United States and one in cross-cultural awareness.

Before the changes to GERs were approved, several faculty members within the School expressed their disagreements with the proposed changes. The amendments would have removed the exemption that allows students who took at least three years of a foreign language in high school to bypass foreign language courses if. Faculty in other departments, particularly the science departments, worried that the changes would funnel resources away from their programs and into the foreign language programs as more students took classes in German, Italian or other foreign tongues.

The school is usually wary about letting a class fill more than one requirement, but the diversity courses may fulfill other GERs and be within students’ majors. Twyning said this was done to keep students on track to graduate.

Sophie Shah, a first-year psychology major, said that while she’s already completed a few courses as part of her GERs, she would consider switching to the new track at her next advising appointment.

“I think this is a really good idea because it’s good to change a system that’s been in place for decades and decades,” she said. “And because they are being flexible about what GERs they can apply for, it’s like killing two birds with one stone.”

Twyning said the council also clarified existing GERs. He said the creative expression requirement will include existing courses, such as studio arts and theatre courses, and newer classes, such as game and app development and programming.

In addition, philosophy courses will focus more on the importance of ethics, and history courses will be altered to focus on historical investigation — analyzing history — instead of historical change — simply learning about a historical period.

Currently, the Dietrich School requires students to complete two courses — a year’s worth — in a second language with at least a C-minus. Students who complete three years of a high school language class with a B or above are exempt from this requirement.

The proposal, put forth by Randall Halle of the German department and Lina Insana of the French and Italian languages and literatures department, stated that students would be required to demonstrate foreign language proficiency by scoring a 4 or better on an Advanced Placement language test, like what the University does for any other GER.

David J. Birnbaum, chair of the department of Slavic languages and literature, said he lobbied to change the requirements for demonstrating secondary-language proficiency, but it did not go through.

“High school language education is dramatically different [from] school to school and class to class. There’s no guarantee it’s the same quality across the board,” he said in an email.

However, the proposal was sent back to the Dietrich School Undergraduate Council after a 67-62 faculty member vote on the matter at the open meeting in November.

The language faculty is meeting with the Council in the coming weeks to further discuss the issue. Before that meeting, Twyning says the Council will have to determine how the change would affect students who must take additional required courses since it impacts their schedule.

Despite the potential language requirement change, Twyning says he hasn’t seen any backlash about the new general education requirements. If someone does have a problem with them, they can send him a letter with their concerns.

“Focusing on the things that are more relevant to today’s world — it’s definitely better to have things that relate more to the field and career I want to pursue in the future,” Shah said.

Will Betsy DeVos change education as you know it? Probably not — but your state lawmakers could

The confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the federal education department made Betsy DeVos the new face of American education policy.

But the most important upcoming decisions about schools won’t come from the Trump administration, and they won’t be made by DeVos, who faces a confirmation vote Jan. 24. They’ll happen a lot closer to home, in the state legislatures that have long been the main drivers of education policy.

U.S. lawmakers already empowered states to control more of their school policies through the federal education law passed last year. And DeVos said she would stay the course, emphasizing that states should decide whether to take up even her favorite education policy, school vouchers.

Here’s where states still have the most influence, even if DeVos might have some sway.

School vouchers

DeVos has made a career out of pushing school choice legislation, especially laws that allow public money be used toward tuition at private or religious schools. But DeVos’s appointment doesn’t mean vouchers would sweep the nation — instead, state legislatures would have to create voucher programs.

That’s within the realm of possibility in some states, such as Tennessee, where voucher legislation has come close to passing in recent years. After spending the better part of a decade wrestling over the issue, Tennessee lawmakers who support vouchers are optimistic that they might finally push through a program for poor students this year. (DeVos has played a role in currying support through her foundation and advocacy group, American Federation for Children.)

But some states, like New York, would need more than money to adopt vouchers. They’d need a total change in political winds, and possibly even a change in the state constitution, to allow public money to be spent on religiously affiliated schools. Similarly, state supreme court decisions in Colorado make vouchers only a distant possibility.

How schools are judged

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002 under President George W. Bush, created uniformity in the way states evaluated whether schools and school districts were doing their jobs. Under President Obama, states were allowed waivers that freed them up, although some requirements — like requiring test data to be used in teacher evaluations — remained in place.

The new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, is supposed to go even farther. That means the country will have a quilt of different systems, as states arrive at different answers for what school quality means and how it should be measured.

So, for example, while ESSA requires states to report English language learners’ test scores, some states will wait to count their scores until they’ve been in the country for a few years, and others will start right away.

DeVos’ office would have the final say on these plans, but she’s not expected to be heavy-handed. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee and co-sponsored ESSA, said he is optimistic that she won’t interfere with states’ visions.

“As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it … restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities,” Alexander said in November.

Charter schools

DeVos has also been a proponent of charter schools. But the gatekeepers for charter schools operate at the state, or even local, level.

Massachusetts voters declined to lift a cap on charter schools when they voted down a ballot initiative in November. And state lawmakers in Colorado and New York are gearing up for perennial battles over state charter school funding, over which they — not the U.S. Department of Education — have the final say. Seven states still don’t allow charter schools at all.

States also take different approaches to how their charter sectors are regulated.

In DeVos’s home state of Michigan, about 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit companies. But for-profit charters only represent 13 percent of charter schools nationwide, in part because many other states, including Tennessee, New York, and Colorado, prohibit them.

And while DeVos aggressively opposed measures to increase oversight of Detroit’s charter schools, even ones with abysmal test scores, other states have tighter regulations on when charter schools must close.

ESSA does include grants for “high quality charter schools,” and stipulates that the Secretary of Education must prioritize giving them to states that do things like craft an ambitious plan for their charter sector and provide equitable funding for those schools. Some states might be tempted to pass laws to conform to DeVos’s ideas about what ambitious plans and equitable funding looks like. But final decisions about charter schools will still be made at a more local level.

Funding

States all face one common challenge: how to allocate scarce resources for public education.

Here, the next U.S. Secretary of Education might play a bigger role for some states than others. While federal funds only account for about 9 percent of the country’s total education spending, some states rely on it much more than others. Title I spending alone accounted for 4.6 percent of total education spending in North Carolina last year, and 4.3 percent in Mississippi, meaning that any cuts or changes to the federal pool of money devoted to poor students could have big ripple effects in those states.

Competitive grant programs, like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top or the charter school grants, can influence state policy, too. That’s what happened in Tennessee, which rushed to revamp its teacher evaluation system and implement a state-run school turnaround district in 2010 in order to win the money.

But federal grants come with end dates, and budgets remain the purview of states and local governments. Courts have consistently decided that it’s up to states to decide what constitutes adequate and equitable funding — and that means school resources will continue to vary widely across the country.

Spring enrichment course registration open; Kent Historical Society plans Sunday Series; ‘Animal Farm’ audition …



LITCHFIELD Horseback riding, computer software classes, and training for certifications in health care and other careers are among the enrichment courses now being offered through the Foothills Regional Adult Continuing Education Program.

The program’s spring 2017 brochure, recently mailed to over 80,000 households in western CT, provides details for nearly 400 different courses for adults over 18. The state and locally-funded program operated by EdAdvance delivers affordable enrichment learning opportunities for adults throughout the region.

“We are pleased to offer popular returning courses, such as Adobe InDesign and Food Handler’s certificate training, and are also very excited about our new courses, including art classes through Karen Rossi Studios in Torrington, and Saturday events through the Litchfield Historical Society,” said Anthony Sebastiano of EdAdvance, Regional Director for the Foothills program.

Foothills courses are held at eight school sites including Litchfield, Plymouth, Region 1 (Falls Village), Region 7 (Winsted), Region 14 (Woodbury), Region 15 (Southbury), Thomaston, Torrington, and at various program-specific locations. The Spring 2017 Foothills line-up includes more daytime classes at EdAdvance sites in both Litchfield and Danbury.

Trips and tours are extremely popular and fill up quickly. This spring, these include excursions to the Boston Flower Garden Show and the New York Botanical Gardens.

In addition to adult enrichment programs, Foothills provides free mandated adult education classes for students to successfully complete CT requirements for high school graduation including the High School Diploma (HSD) program, the National External Diploma Program (NEDP), and the General Education Development program (GED). Other mandated offerings include English as a Second Language (ESL), Adult Basic Education (ABE), and Citizenship.

According to Sebastiano, expanded courses made possible through Program Improvement Project (PIP) grants from the CT State Department of Education provide “unique and innovative learning experiences” for students attending Foothills mandated classes. One of these programs, specifically for high school diploma students, is STEM: Exploring 21st Century Careers. “This program enhances students’ abilities to respond to the needs of a rapidly changing labor market by exploring careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering math) and advancing students’ skills and competencies for success in the 21st century workplace,” he commented.

For more information on Foothills Adult Continuing Education, call 800-300-4781 or 860-567-0863. To view the new 52-page brochure, visit www.edadvance.org.

Sunday Series set in Kent

KENT Kent Historical Society Sunday Series on Jan. 22 will focus on “The Howling Wilderness: Western Connecticut in the 18th Century.”

Michael Everett, president of the Kent Historical Society and an Emeritus Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, will discuss conditions in Western Connecticut at the beginning of the 18th century. The Revolutionary period is often viewed as the starting point of Kent’s history, but the town was founded well before that. Through the entire period, the Puritan view of the countryside as a “howling wilderness” had theological and cultural consequences, which Everett will explore as he examines the natives and settlers, changing agricultural and ownership ideas, and more.

The lecture, as well as future Sunday Series events in 2017, helps give context to the Kent Historical Society’s upcoming exhibit in the summer of 2017, “The Founders of Kent,” on the emergence of one New England town in the 18th century.

The Kent Historical Society sponsors the Sunday Series every other month September through May. Free admission for members; $5 suggested donation for non-members.

For more information call 860-927-4587 or visit www.kenthistoricalsociety.org.

TheatreWorks New Milford sets audition dates

NEW MILFORD TheatreWorks New Milford is seeking a cast for George Orwell’s satirical drama, Animal Farm, adapted by Ian Wooldridge on Sunday Jan. 29 and Tuesday Jan. 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. Auditions will consist of reading from the script. All roles are available and both professionals and amateurs are welcome. TheatreWorks offers a stipend to all performers, technicians, and directors. For character breakdowns, auditions sides, and to get more info, visit theatreworks.us/actors.

Director Kevin Sosbe of New Milford is seeking about a dozen adventurous, creative people of all genders and ages 12 and up, although this will be a predominantly adult cast.

All physical types, genders, sizes, and ethnicities of people are encouraged to audition. In this production the director will be creating a barnyard of creatures that will commit to embodying the animal quality of their characters. There will be doubling or tripling of several roles.

Animal Farm is perhaps the most famous political novel of all time. George Orwell’s satire on Stalinism has proved magnificently long-lived as a parable about totalitarianism anywhere and has given the world at least one immortal phrase: “Some animals are more equal than others.” The animals on the farm drive out their master and take over and run the farm for themselves. The experiment is successful, except that someone has to take the deposed farmer’s place. Leadership devolves upon the pigs, which are cleverer than the rest of the animals. Unfortunately, their character is not equal to their intelligence.

This will be an open audition, however if you cannot make the dates listed, email director Kevin Sosbe at krs66@charter.net to arrange an appointment on an alternate date. Auditions will be held at TheatreWorks, 5 Brookside Ave., New Milford.

Rehearsals begin in March with performances running during the weekends in May 2017.

Special education teachers work to bridge gap for students

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) According to the National Institutes of Health fifteen percent of the U.S. population or one in seven Americans has some type of learning disability.

There are also various disabilities that aren’t noticeable to the naked eye, like autism, attention disorders and behavioral disorders or dyslexia.

Sometimes those needs require a special education plan.

“Providing physical therapy, occupational therapy speech and language therapy it can be any number of things depending on what the student needs,” said Michael Gemar, Director of Support Services. “The whole premise behind this is to break down those barriers and make sure a child can be successful in the educational setting.”

In the Twin Falls School District their occupational, speech, language and physical therapists all rotate among the schools.

But each school has their own special education services staff that stays on site.

The training they go through is different than that of a general education teacher.

“They’re taught a lot more about modifications and accommodations a lot more behavior management skills and specific learning disabilities and how to work with individual students with their specific needs,” said Gemar.

Sometimes these learning accommodations can cause students to feel stigmatized or left out which could lead to bullying.

“It needs to be discussed it needs to be talked about that everybody is different,” said Gemar. “Everybody does things a little bit differently and if kids have special needs then you know what instead of looking at them differently say what we can do to help you.”

Special education teachers continue to be a difficult position to maintain and recruit for in districts across the country.

“I think a lot of people are turned off by the fact that they have to do all of that extra paperwork and there’s a lot of legal issues involved to make sure we’re providing proper services,” said Gemar.

deconstructing devos Will Betsy DeVos change education as you know it? Probably not — but your state lawmakers …

The confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the federal education department made Betsy DeVos the new face of American education policy.

But the most important upcoming decisions about schools won’t come from the Trump administration, and they won’t be made by DeVos, who faces a confirmation vote Jan. 24. They’ll happen a lot closer to home, in the state legislatures that have long been the main drivers of education policy.

U.S. lawmakers already empowered states to control more of their school policies through the federal education law passed last year. And DeVos said she would stay the course, emphasizing that states should decide whether to take up even her favorite education policy, school vouchers.

Here’s where states still have the most influence, even if DeVos might have some sway.

School vouchers

DeVos has made a career out of pushing school choice legislation, especially laws that allow public money be used toward tuition at private or religious schools. But DeVos’s appointment doesn’t mean vouchers would sweep the nation — instead, state legislatures would have to create voucher programs.

That’s within the realm of possibility in some states, such as Tennessee, where voucher legislation has come close to passing in recent years. After spending the better part of a decade wrestling over the issue, Tennessee lawmakers who support vouchers are optimistic that they might finally push through a program for poor students this year. (DeVos has played a role in currying support through her foundation and advocacy group, American Federation for Children.)

But some states, like New York, would need more than money to adopt vouchers. They’d need a total change in political winds, and possibly even a change in the state constitution, to allow public money to be spent on religiously affiliated schools. Similarly, state supreme court decisions in Colorado make vouchers only a distant possibility.

How schools are judged

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002 under President George W. Bush, created uniformity in the way states evaluated whether schools and school districts were doing their jobs. Under President Obama, states were allowed waivers that freed them up, although some requirements — like requiring test data to be used in teacher evaluations — remained in place.

The new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, is supposed to go even farther. That means the country will have a quilt of different systems, as states arrive at different answers for what school quality means and how it should be measured.

So, for example, while ESSA requires states to report English language learners’ test scores, some states will wait to count their scores until they’ve been in the country for a few years, and others will start right away.

DeVos’ office would have the final say on these plans, but she’s not expected to be heavy-handed. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee and co-sponsored ESSA, said he is optimistic that she won’t interfere with states’ visions.

“As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it … restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities,” Alexander said in November.

Charter schools

DeVos has also been a proponent of charter schools. But the gatekeepers for charter schools operate at the state, or even local, level.

Massachusetts voters declined to lift a cap on charter schools when they voted down a ballot initiative in November. And state lawmakers in Colorado and New York are gearing up for perennial battles over state charter school funding, over which they — not the U.S. Department of Education — have the final say. Seven states still don’t allow charter schools at all.

States also take different approaches to how their charter sectors are regulated.

In DeVos’s home state of Michigan, about 80 percent of charter schools are run by for-profit companies. But for-profit charters only represent 13 percent of charter schools nationwide, in part because many other states, including Tennessee, New York, and Colorado, prohibit them.

And while DeVos aggressively opposed measures to increase oversight of Detroit’s charter schools, even ones with abysmal test scores, other states have tighter regulations on when charter schools must close.

ESSA does include grants for “high quality charter schools,” and stipulates that the Secretary of Education must prioritize giving them to states that do things like craft an ambitious plan for their charter sector and provide equitable funding for those schools. Some states might be tempted to pass laws to conform to DeVos’s ideas about what ambitious plans and equitable funding looks like. But final decisions about charter schools will still be made at a more local level.

Funding

States all face one common challenge: how to allocate scarce resources for public education.

Here, the next U.S. Secretary of Education might play a bigger role for some states than others. While federal funds only account for about 9 percent of the country’s total education spending, some states rely on it much more than others. Title I spending alone accounted for 4.6 percent of total education spending in North Carolina last year, and 4.3 percent in Mississippi, meaning that any cuts or changes to the federal pool of money devoted to poor students could have big ripple effects in those states.

Competitive grant programs, like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top or the charter school grants, can influence state policy, too. That’s what happened in Tennessee, which rushed to revamp its teacher evaluation system and implement a state-run school turnaround district in 2010 in order to win the money.

But federal grants come with end dates, and budgets remain the purview of states and local governments. Courts have consistently decided that it’s up to states to decide what constitutes adequate and equitable funding — and that means school resources will continue to vary widely across the country.

Nashville State eyes Donelson campus at former ITT Tech location

Nashville State Community College is seeking state permission to pursue buying the former ITT Technical Institute location in Donelson with plans for its fourth campus in Davidson County.

On Monday, the executive subcommittee of the State Building Commission will consider the Tennessee Board of Regents’ request to conduct due diligence that could lead to an option to acquire the property at 2845 Elm Hill Pike.

The standalone 32,305-square-foot building that sits on 5.26 acres is among locations expected to be sold as part of liquidation proceedings involving bankrupt ITT Educational Services Inc.

“It would be good for the college because there’s little renovation to do since it was built to be an education facility,” said George Van Allen, president of Nashville State, a two-year, state-run school.


If a deal is finalized, Van Allen said Nashville State’s Donelson satellite campus could open as early as this fall. It would offer general education courses and technical classes in areas such as computer science.

The campus would be the final satellite campus in Davidson County under the liberal arts and technical school’s current masterplan, joining the Southeast location in Antioch and another outpost planned in the Madison-Rivergate area.

Nashville State has its main campus on White Bridge Road in West Nashville. The school also has three other satellite campuses in Clarksville, Dickson and Waverly, Tenn.

“We would hope to have 1,500 new students,” Van Allen said about growth plans of Nashville State, which currently has about 9,400 students.

The former ITT Tech location in Donelson last changed hands for $4.14 million in 2003 and was most recently appraised for $3.68 million. Metro Nashville’s government is expected to provide $1 million towards the acquisition and renovation of the property, according to information included with Monday’s State Building Commission agenda.

“For us to begin conversations with anyone, we’ve got to get approval from the executive subcommittee of the State Building Commission,” said Dick Tracy, the Tennessee Board of Regents’ executive director of facilities development. “We could be up and running quickly as opposed to finding property, then designing and building a building.”

Reach Getahn Ward at 615-726-5968 and on Twitter @getahn.

Schools dig deeper to fund special ed

Though legislators tabled three house bills that would increase state special education funding last week, advocates say they’re optimistic about the underfunded sector’s fate this legislative session.

Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, said the three bills she sponsored were inspired by the findings of a school-funding interim committee charged with examining the adequacy and equity of public education funding in Montana. The result was special education is getting left behind. It’s a mandated service, but schools are struggling to scrape together the resources to fund it.

House Bill 31 proposes to increase special education payments to public schools by inflation, approximately $2 million over the next biennium. House Bill 33 would increase funding for special education cooperatives by $4 million in the next two years.

House Bill 32, or “the big enchilada,” as Kelker called it, combines the funding offered in both HB 31 and 33 for $6 million added to special education funding for Montana’s public schools and cooperatives.

Though inflationary funding increases were established for general education in 2013, this is the first time it’s been proposed for special education.

“On the face of it, it seems pretty obvious that it’s not fair to provide that inflationary increase for some kids, but not all of them,” Kelker said.

Rather than base special education funding on the individual students who require it, money is doled out based on the assumption that 10 percent of the student population can be identified as having disabilities.

Payments are made to schools from the state and each district is expected to make a 33 percent match with general funds. Kelker said most districts are increasingly dipping further into their general funds, though, and making an average 41.3 percent general fund match. Because schools are required by law to offer special needs services, the only option is to dip into the general fund.

For large school districts like Belgrade, it’s a bit easier to do that. Belgrade School District Special Services Director Laurie Salo said her budget is stretched thin, but she feels fortunate to be able to employ her own staff.

The Belgrade special education department employs 75 people and serves between 330-350 students from grades K-12. When Salo started out as a special education teacher in the high school during the 1980s, she was the only one. Today, there are five.

Special education teams also see a wider variety of disabilities today. Salo said there lots of children with severe mental, emotional and behavioral issues, as opposed to the simpler problems like reading and speech disabilities that once dominated the field.

“It’s definitely not getting any cheaper to educate students with special needs,” Salo said.

Belgrade School District Clerk Jay Bates said about 10 percent of both the elementary and high school district budgets go toward special education. In addition to state money from the Office of Public Instruction, Belgrade also receives federal grant money to help cover costs.

“We’re definitely using a bit more of the general education fund each year,” he added.

The majority of schools in Montana are too small to offer their own independent special needs programs like Belgrade does. Around 81 percent of the state’s school districts, in fact, share resources from 21 special education cooperatives, instead. Those co-ops serve 36 percent of the state’s special needs students.

“The issue, really, is the coops have been stuck at the same funding level for their administrative piece since 1992,” Kelker said this week. “Some coop directors have said they could go bankrupt. It’s pretty serious.”

Instead of using state money in-house, small, rural school use their special education block grants to pay for membership in co-ops.

The Gallatin-Madison Special Education Cooperative isn’t in danger of bankruptcy, but it could use a boost, said Director Michelle Halberg. Operating at funding levels that were established 25 years ago is tough, especially when travel costs keep increasing.

The Belgrade-based cooperative serves 14 rural school districts from one-room schoolhouses like Springhill and Pass Creek, to larger districts like Monforton, Amsterdam and West Yellowstone. Speech pathologists, special education teachers, school psychologists, therapists and behavioral specialists employed by co-ops travel constantly from school to school and are often quite isolated.

“It’s very difficult to recruit individuals to a job like this,” Halberg said. “It takes a really unique professional to do that.”

Halberg, who has been working closely with a network of officials from the School Administrators of Montana and the Montana Council of Administrators of Special Education to advocate for special education funding, said the old adage “a high tide floats all boats” is applicable to the current funding concern. More special education funding will positively impact the general student population as well, she said, and allow districts to free up some general fund money for things like gifted and talented programs.

If no additional funding is granted this legislative session, Halberg said she and her associates worry about the quality of services co-ops will be able to offer and the financial strain it would put on the small schools they serve.

She said she’s seen schools put off things like curriculum restructuring or facilities improvements in order to afford required special education services.

“We’re glad to offer these services, it’s the right thing and it’s required, but some schools are wondering how they’re going to do it without passing along a levy to their communities,” she said.

On Tuesday, Halberg visited Helena with a group of fellow advocates from around the state to discuss how to move forward after Kelker’s bills were tabled. There’s still hope, she said. Another bill that addresses special education needs is currently in draft, and they’ve pinpointed ways to make their voices heard throughout the session.

“The exciting thing about the meeting today is we feel like we have strategies to continue educating our legislators,” Halberg said Tuesday afternoon. “We still have a voice. The fact that we’re united in our efforts is really important.”

Both Kelker and education committee member Rep. Peggy Webb, R-Billings, said there’s a chance the tabled bills could return. Webb said committee Republicans worried the bills would be immediately killed for lack of funding if they’d been sent to the appropriations committee last week.

“Our hope is to bring them back if we can find funding,” Webb said. “Everyone wants to fund special education, but we don’t have a money tree. If we did have the money there, I don’t think there’s any question it would have passed.”

Kelker said she’s pleased her colleagues on both sides of the aisle seem to understand the need for her bills and she remains optimistic about their resurrection.

“If nothing else, I think I’ve made a pretty good case that we can’t go on like this,” Kelker said. “If none of them pass, we have some groundwork laid for the next biennium. We can’t go on like this.”

To Solidify Higher-Education Finance, Return Power And Money To The States

Betsy DeVos, picked by US President-elect Donald Trump for education secretary, speaks during the USA Thank You Tour December 9, 2016 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. / AFP / DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Some argue that federalism—the distribution of powers and duties between the states and the federal government, as codified in the U.S. Constitution’s Tenth Amendment—is dead. Regarding higher education, they may have a point: The federal government has been encroaching in this sphere since at least post-WWII, with Washington’s big push occurring in the ‘60s, as part of LBJ’s “Great Society” agenda.

What has resulted from federal intervention into higher education—into an area that the Constitution left to the states, not Washington? The wisdom of America’s Founders in placing education with the states is shown by observing what federal policy has wrought: Over the past quarter-century, average college tuitions have jumped 440 percent—four times the increase in the C.P.I. and twice that of healthcare costs over this period. Student-loan debt is at an all-time high of $1.3 trillion, surpassing total national credit-card debt. Moreover, record numbers of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed (have jobs that don’t require the sheepskin they paid/borrowed so much to attain).

In short, American higher education is in a crunch. The demise of federalism has contributed to this dilemma. Education analysts Fred Hess and Andrew Kelly argue that defenders of the higher-education status quo “suffer from severe bouts of Finland and Singapore envy.” By this they mean that those championing an ever-larger role for Washington in higher education forget that other countries with similar top-down control “have populations of 5 million or so, or about the population of Maryland or Massachusetts.” Attempting to “make rules for schools in a nation that’s as large and diverse as the U.S. is simply a different challenge.”

It is a challenge that Washington has shown it cannot meet. Hess and Kelly demonstrate how top-down control of higher education fatally severs accountability from authority. Although the U.S. Congress and federal bureaucrats exercise ever-greater authority over higher education, when things go awry, it is not they who are held accountable. “Instead, responsibility and blame fall on state leaders and on the leaders in those schools, districts, and colleges who do the actual work.”

We see this cleft between authority and accountability operating, venomously, in all fifty states. For several years now, defenders of the status quo have blamed state legislatures for not funding as high a percentage of public college and university budgets as in decades past. This critique ignores the role federally funded student loans have played in this crisis.

Paul Campos, about whom I have written here, has examined state funding for higher education. He finds that tuition inflation is not caused by “funding cuts” but instead “correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education.” He grants that state dollars appropriated per student are less than they were “at their peak in 1990.” But he also shows that “appropriations per student are much higher than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, when tuition was a small fraction of what it is today.” In fact, “by 1980, state funding for higher education had increased a mind-boggling 390 percent in real terms over the previous twenty years.” But did this “tsunami of public money” help reduce tuition? No. “Quite the contrary.”

The preceding data suggest that federal policy has sown acrimony between public universities and state legislatures. What can states do to satisfy these schools? Not much—the states are becomingly increasingly cash-strapped and, unlike Washington, must balance their budgets annually.

UWO class and Winnebago Literacy Council partnership helps refuges with English

IMGP4552University of Wisconsin Oshkosh undergraduate students had a great opportunity to connect with the greater community through a partnership between a general education class and the Winnebago Literacy Council during the fall semester.

Students at UW Oshkosh take general education classes through the University Studies Program (USP), which is an innovative way of delivering general education—through courses that ask big questions, encourage academic exploration and create connections. The USP, which was launched in 2013, is made up of Explore courses that encourage students to “try on” many different disciplines, and special Quest courses that introduce students to campus life, college expectations and community engagement.

In the fall semester, Professor Cathy Bryan’s foreign language literature Quest III class was paired with Winnebago Literacy Council learners, who were mostly refugees from many different areas around the world. As part of their class, UW Oshkosh students taught and helped the refugees polish their knowledge of the English language while also improving their reading and writing skills.

“We loved having the students here. The 50 students from the Quest program at UWO came to us and filled a big need in our tutoring program,” said Mylia Yang, volunteer and service coordinator for the Winnebago Literacy Council. “The students worked one on one with individuals, we had 60 to 70  individual learners on our waitlist before the students came and helped us.”

IMGP4557“There were several great success stories. One was that a learner and a student were working for weeks on reading and studying for a driver’s license exam and that learner has just successfully got their driver’s license. It’s great to see that progress is being made in such a short time,” Yang said.

For the UW Oshkosh students, the experience of working with people through the Literacy Council was profound.

Sabrina Polman, a nursing major from Watertown, said her experience was far different from what she had originally expected when she enrolled in the class.  

“First going in it was just a class–and now, I have totally changed someone’s life. My learner’s name was Zena and she came from Jordan and has lived here in Oshkosh for four years,” Polman said. “Going in, she knew pretty good English so we got to work a lot on grammar rules and nitty gritty things that are going to help her succeed.” 

The Quest III classes help students understand what they are learning in class and apply it to the real world. Polman and her classmates saw the connection when working with the refugee learners, they said.

“We learn a lot about migration and now it’s easier to grasp the struggles of the people we are learning about in class and relate that to the bravery and determination it takes for people to come here. When I look at Zena and her whole family I see so many connections,” Polman said.

Now that the class is complete, Polman said she values the difference she has made and the friendship that was created  through the USP class. Polman said she is committed to continuing to tutor her learner in the spring semester.

Learn more:

Expecting spike in Texas special ed, advocates push for better …

With increased federal attention on the low percentage of Texas students receiving special education services, the state is poised to ensure the number of students receiving such services will increase over the next year. And disability rights advocates are hoping to go even further, aiming to improve the overall quality of those services. 

Those advocates want school officials to reduce the rates at which black students are labeled as learning disabled — experts say that student group has been overrepresented for decades in special ed. They also want to increase the rate of English-language learners, whom educators can often mistake for having language challenges rather than disabilities.

Four legislators have filed bills to prohibit the state from capping special education services at 8.5 percent of students. The Texas Education Agency has repeatedly denied allegations, first raised in a Houston Chronicle article, that it deliberately capped services. It has also said that it would no longer collect information on overall percentages of students receiving special education services in each district. 

The education agency will continue to collect districts’ special education rates for certain racial and ethnic groups and will monitor the percentage of students receiving services for each type of disability.

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TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said that the number of students identified for special education services will probably increase — because that count has been increasing in Texas over the past few years, though the percentage has remained low.

“We would anticipate this trend will continue,” she said.

Rachel Gandy, mental health policy fellow at Disability Rights Texas, said that Texas is providing special education services to a smaller percentage of students than most other states — and is also targeting disproportionately high rates of black students for those services. English-language learners are increasingly underrepresented for those services, she added. 

The TEA is required by the federal government to monitor districts for disproportionate representation of certain groups in special education.

“The hope is that the kids who need the services will get the services. We don’t want it to mean that kids are funneled into services” they don’t need, Gandy said. She wants the Legislature to ensure students who have been denied special education services in the past get the support they need. 

In the 1990s, educators were worried about too many students being identified as learning disabled, said Rod Paige, former Houston ISD superintendent and U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush. “This means we were mixing up students who had legitimate physical or emotional needs with students who had learning needs and instructional needs because of what I felt to be, in many cases, inadequate reading instruction,” he said.

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As Houston ISD superintendent in 1994, he realized the need for better diagnoses of students, in order to properly educate them.

In response to this concern across the country, federal law since 2004 has allowed districts to use a process called “Response to Intervention,” or RtI, to provide targeted reading and math instruction to help struggling students catch up. Educators can then use the information from those screenings to determine whether students have undiagnosed learning disabilities or whether they need other types of support.

TEA officials say RtI is one of the reasons special education rates have dropped in Texas, because fewer students are being incorrectly identified as learning disabled. But some families have complained Texas educators have used the RtI screening process to delay evaluating students for special education, in violation of federal law.

Many teachers are not using research-based techniques when screening students, said Pam Bell, program manager at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, which contracts with the state to train Texas educators on RtI. “The biggest focus needs to be that all classroom teachers know how to teach effectively,” she said. “A lot of teachers and interventionists still need help in learning, ‘What do you do with these kids?'”

She said Meadows Center consultants tell school administrators that the law prohibits using RtI to delay special education identification. “If you’ve been documenting a child’s response to intervention and the child is not making the progress expected from intervention, you need to consider the possibility of a disability and begin the testing process.”

State Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said he worries Texas schools could overidentify even more students for special education if school districts focus on increasing their special ed student rates. As a legislator in the 90s, he heard from parents of black and Hispanic students who had been labeled learning disabled just because they were grade levels behind in a few subjects.

“The fact remains that a student would go into special education. It was like a cesspool. You came out of it and didn’t get any better,” he said.

Dutton said legislators should also assess the quality of the services provided for students with disabilities, to make meaningful change. “We have to clear up this whole thing, otherwise it will just keep going in a revolving door that goes around and around, without someone sitting down and saying, ‘Wait a minute. None of this makes sense until we do something about the quality,'” he said.

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Improving the quality of special education means training teachers and administrators to educate students with disabilities in general education classrooms, said Christine Broughal, an Austin-based special education attorney at Enabled Advocacy.

“What we have to deal with now is the fact that there is most likely going to be an influx of special-needs children, and how are we going to meet their needs?” Broughal said.

Districts will receive more federal funding when they identify more students for special education services – but that funding won’t actually get to Texas schools for at least another year, she said. She is working with legislators on a bill that would require teacher preparation programs to include special education techniques as well as general education.

In Texas, she said, most students with disabilities spend the majority of their days in general education classrooms. “They’re receiving all of their content and instruction from general ed teachers who have no training in how to teach them,” she said.

Broughal said bills to stop TEA from collecting data on overall special ed enrollment are symbolic because the TEA has already promised to do so.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, who filed one of those bills, said the Legislature should figure out how to “ensure every single special education student in this state gets the special education program that they deserve.” His bill, Senate Bill 160, also says districts should continue to monitor the percentages of specific racial or ethnic groups receiving special education services, to ensure they are not overrepresented or underrepresented.

In the Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest regions in the state, advocates are looking for legislators to hold school districts responsible when they have neglected students with disabilities. “Our area is one of the most neglected areas by the state. There’s not a lot of allocation of resources,” said Evelyn Cano, parent advocate at Aware RGV in McAllen.

Spanish-speaking students in the Valley have generally been underidentified for special education services. Educators are “stuck on the fact that they want them to learn the language or go through a submersion of the language that they’re missing the boat on the fact that they may also have a learning disability,” Cano said.

Parents need schools to provide professional translators in conversations about whether their children should receive services, she said.

She agreed that the state should provide more resources for training teachers, administrators and parents on how to comply with federal regulations on special education.

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • Rio Grande Valley parents and educators told federal and state officials Tuesday that school districts lacked knowledge and resources to get students special education services that comply with federal law.
  • The Texas Education Agency denied allegations that it capped special education services for public school students at 8.5 percent in a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education.