Monday, March 4, 2013

Superintendent Luna Takes Reporter Questions on the FY14 Public Schools Budget

The following is a transcript of the reporter roundtable Superintendent Luna hosted on March 4, 2013 after the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) approved the FY2014 Public Schools Budget. The full audio is posted online.

Superintendent Luna:
I want to take an opportunity to answer question you may have about this budget, make just a couple of comments before we start, and then take your questions.  I think that I want to highlight some things that maybe won’t end up being the most talked about part of this budget, and maybe a couple of those things that aren’t budget related but I think are significant.  What I was very pleased is that with all the discussion you heard this morning and even with the competing motions that were presented is that both motions, everybody on the JFAC committee, had come to the conclusion that the $34 million and the money that was in my budget and the Governor’s budget stays in education.  I think that there was some conversation early on in the session and some that was even continuing on up until this morning, that maybe some of that $34 million or some of the money that was allocated for education in my budget or the Governor’s budget would end up going elsewhere, and I think you saw very strong support in the committee this morning, regardless of the competing motions, that all that money stay in education.  I was pleased that we saw an obvious bipartisan support for the budget that did pass, and I think it’s been a number of years since we’ve seen a majority of Republicans vote for a budget and been joined by a majority of the Democrats.  When  you look at some of the discussion and some of the passion that’s been in education and funding and reform over the past couple of years, that this is a positive step. 

There’s a couple of things in the budget that I think are very important for student achievement that may now catch people’s attention at the very first.  One of those is the fact that students in high school are going to continue to be able to earn college credits and that those college credits will be paid for by the state.  I think when we look at our efforts to get people or students going on after high school that’s something we struggle with in Idaho.  We have a very high graduation rate, but we have one of the lowest percentage of students who go on after high schools.  What are some of those things that happen in high school that research tells us help improve the number of students going on?  One of those is a student taking a college entrance exam before they graduate from high school .  This budget provides for that, but it also provides for students now to take the PSAT, which is something that they’ll do in their sophomore  year, and that’s going to help give them an indication as to are they on track for meeting college and career-ready requirements when they graduate from high school.  It’s a precursor to them taking the SAT when they are juniors, so that’s good.  And then we also know that students who earn 12 or more college credits before they graduate from high school, 75% of them go on and higher percentage end up with some form of post-high school degree or certificate.  It was important that the program we started two  years ago continues, and that is that students in high school can earn up to 36 college credits and those can be paid for by the state, so when they graduate from high school they have up to a year’s worth of college under their belt and it not only puts them on a track towards a post-secondary degree or certificate, but definitely has very positive financial consequences for families and students that are looking at how to afford and fund education after high school.  The other things in the budget are obvious.  There’s a heavy focus on teacher compensation and a heavy focus on technology.  I think that those are important.  I’m pleased that there’s a differential pay plan that’s funded.  That there’s technology that’s funded.  Restoring those steps on the salary grid that had been frozen for the last number of years, I think it’s a positive step that we’ve restored those.  The budget that I submitted in September asked that we restore one of those years.  This budget restores both of those, so it makes the salary grid whole.  With that, I guess those are just some of the comments I’ll make and answer any questions that you have.  Who wants to be first?

Q:  The debate on the budget committee was—simplifying it—between putting a large portion of that $33 million towards teacher pay versus putting it into discretionary funding for the districts.  Given sequestration and other financial uncertainties, do you have an impression on whether the districts would’ve preferred that as discretionary versus what the budget committee did?
Luna: My conversations with many of those who represents districts and then superintendents and administrators has been very favorable about the way that the budget that prevailed was written.  The budget that prevailed includes a 1.5% increase in discretionary fund.  The Governor’s recommendation was flat.  We knew that we needed to find some middle ground there, and 1% increase is a positive step.  The fact that we are providing almost $7 million in maintenance math funds, that’s money that was shifted to discretionary and then districts would have to choose whether to spend those funds on maintenance or other things that were necessary at the district level, now we’ve given about $7 million worth of relief on maintenance expenses that would come out of discretionary funding.  I think we found the balance.  I think for that reason most of the discussion I had were very positive about the direction this budget was going and the one that ended up prevailing. 

Q: In those conversations that you had, was there anything that the superintendents in the districts really wanted to see that wasn’t put in there?
Luna: Yeah, probably a lot more money.  That’s seems to always be one of the debates is the amount we’re funding education.  I think that in this budget there are things that…  I think you saw that even in the debate and I think everybody can find things that they like and some things that maybe they would do different.  I think that’s why you ended up with the kind of vote and bipartisan is that everyone realized they were getting some of the things they wanted, but not everything, but it was a good step forward.

Q: Maybe to follow up to Bill’s question, one other point that was made by Senate Republicans, they were pushing for a minimum teacher pay of $31,750.  You had the $31,000 you were looking for.  Can you talk to the difference between those two?  Was there merit in going to the $31,750?
Luna: I think it’s just a matter of what are the things that you do first?  Working under a 2% limit increase that we were able to get to 2.2%, and you saw plenty of discussion about just that bump in two-tenths of a percent, that you start with that number and you decide what’s the best way to spend those dollars and you try to find some balance.  Just like there wasn’t any debate that discretionary funds had to increase, there was debate as to how much, there was debate as to how much to increase minimum teacher pay, and there was no debate that we should increase minimum teacher pay, the debate was how much and finding some balance.  One of the things that came out of these conversations I think you’ve heard from everyone involved in education is that it’s time to look at the salary grid that identifies what a starting teacher’s pay is, and then how the increases are driven by the number of years you’ve taught and the amount of education you have, that it’s long past due to look at that grid and look at how those dollars are spent and keeping them in compensation—even in some form of grid—but reworking the grid.  I heard that over and over, so I think this year we’ve increase minimum teacher pay, we’ve made the grid whole, that creates the perfect opportunity now to look at that grid and how we can make it better and more compatible with the education of the 21st century.

Q: Can you put this into some perspective for us?  Given the past budgets, what does this budget do for Idaho’s children—Idaho’s kids—compared to the drastic measures that have been taken over the past several years?
Luna: Well last year we saw an increase even larger than this in public schools budgets, so this is the second year in a row that we’re seeing an increase.  Obviously, during the recession there were some very difficult decisions made.  We helped navigate through those.  I think it was in 2009 or 2010 that we came up with our list of 10 bad ideas.  It obvious that the economy was not capable of sustaining the revenues that education and all of state government had been accustomed to.  There was going to be cuts, and we tried to find ways to minimize the impact that those cuts would have on children and what happened in the classroom.  Last year and this year, in 2011 even, our budget request was built looking through that same lens.  There’s a number of things in this budget that are good for students.  For example, I mentioned the ability for student to earn college credits while they’re in high school.  The fact that we are funding more math and science teachers, I think that’s critical, because what that means is that it really is a benefit for those students that live in our more remote and isolate areas of Idaho to make sure that they have access to math and science at that higher levels than they had access to before.  The fact that high school students can take the SAT and now PSAT , those are very positive steps and things for students. 

Q: In the past they could they not take these tests?
Luna: The state’s paying for them now, so that’s the difference.  In the past, and what we learned from other states, is that when students take those exams it’s a predictor of those that will go on.  We look at other states that started down this path before we did and there’s a couple of things that we saw that we could do that didn’t necessarily cost a lot of money, but if we’re willing to look at the amount of money that we have and then figure out the best way to spend that money, then this was something that was good for students.

Q: How much does it cost to take this test?
Luna: It costs us about $900,000.

Q: For a family, though?
Luna: It’s about $70 to take that assessment. (Correction: It costs students $50 to take the basic SAT and $20 to add an additional subject area test.)

Q: How much did it costs to pay for before this?
McGrath: It depends on the assessment.

Luna: The money that’s in there for technology, I think that’s absolutely critical, because I believe that through the proper implementation of technology, that’s how we’re going to be able to provide equal access and opportunity for students across the state.  It does not exist today.  With the current delivery model, money is not the issue.  It’s where students live.  Students live in some parts of Idaho that are remote and isolated.  You’re not going to find a calculus teachers and sometimes an algebra II teacher and sometimes and advanced English teacher to teach in every high school in Idaho.  It’s just not feasible because of the number of students in the school and any number of things, and so technology provides an alternative delivery model.  Through the Idaho Education Network and now making every high school a wireless environment students are going to have access to not only the great teachers in their school, but every other great teacher teaching in high schools across Idaho.  That’s going to open up access and opportunity for students to take courses that although they were willing and capable and wanting never had access to.  I think those investments in technology are critical for children in our classrooms to have access to…

Q:  Is it as much as you wanted in Students Come First?
A: Students Come First would’ve done this at a lot faster pace.  I understand the reality.  It’s not going to happen as fast as we wanted it to.  It’s not going to happen as fast as is happening in other states, but when the people voted in November they made it clear that we can debate their reasons for how they voted, but the path that we were on would’ve done it considerably faster, and the path that we’re on now it’s going to mean we continue to move forward but at a slower pace.  I’m hoping that with the monies that are available in this budget for pilots that we can identify some pilot projects in Idaho and then look at the success of those and then use those to help people across Idaho understand the value of the proper implementation of technology, and then there’ll be more willingness to move at a faster pace. 

Q: Superintendent, you’ve told us some of the good things in this and you’ve told us districts would’ve liked more money, of course.  What disappoints you in this budget?
Luna: I don’t think there’s anything that disappoints me, because I think that this is a good budget.  I would’ve liked to have seen other opportunities in the way of perhaps professional development, but the compromise we found was that out of the $21 million districts can choose up to 40% to use for professional development, so I think that that was a good compromise.  I think had some ideas on technology that would’ve maybe been a larger scope than what we’re focusing on here, but I’m comfortable with where we ended up on those numbers.  To be honest with you, I think that moving at a pace to restore the maintenance dollars, I’d originally said we should do it over two years.  This does it over three years.  Again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but we originally proposed that we do it over a two  year period.  It was kind of those things that were give and take.  We ended up with a budget that wasn’t everything we asked for, but when it comes to those things that happen in the classroom, that have an impact on a highly effective teacher in every classroom, those were the things we were able to preserve.  Equal access and opportunity continue to move down that path.  Differential pay—the $21 million that will be used to develop local pay for performance plan, or differential pay, I think that’s critical.  I was happy to see that in there.  I’m pleased with the budget that was passed this morning.

Q: Mr. Superintendent, on the issue of technology in the classroom, I’m wondering if you could comment on news that’s been widely reported in different regions of the state, certain school districts in regions of the state, partnering with the Khan Academy.  It seems to be, even when the Students Come First laws were being debated and preparations for the ballot referendum in 2011 and 2012, the Khan Academy was making a splash here in Idaho, and now even over the last 72 hours we have some rural school districts who are partnering with that organization.  What does that mean to you from your vantage point in terms of interests and even a hunger for technology in classrooms?
Luna: I think that’s a great question, Austin, because at times it seems like we’re getting conflicting messages where 85% of high schools said they wanted to be the first to receive the one-to-one technology and funding.  You now see over 40 schools and districts across the state that have adopted and embraced the Khan Academy, which is digital learning in and outside the classroom.  The amount of use of the Idaho Education Network has had a huge increase, so schools and districts using more digital content in the classroom, more online classes if you will, but then the flip side of that is you saw when the people voted in November that Proposition 3 went down.  I think it was defeated to a 2:1 margin.  How do you figure out what school want and then what parents want?  I think the fact that you saw this big step forward with the Khan Academy, I think it’s indication that technology and implementing technology into our schools is becoming organic.  It’s going to happen.  If there was anything good that happened over the past two years during the debate over Students Come First, schools and a lot of educators and maybe even some people in the public went from a total rejection of the idea of technology in the classroom and in the hands of students and teachers to a point now where you see they’re seeking it out on their own, and in some cases without assistance at all from the state.  I don’t think there’s any way to stop it.  I think that’s a good thing, but it does appear to be more organic than it was even a year or two ago.  I hope that helps.

Q: After a very contentious last couple of years, can you talk about your feelings on the tone of the debate today over the budget?
Luna: I thought it was a good debate.  I thought both motions focused on some things that were different, but they all focused on things that are needed in education.  I think the only question is which do you do first?  That was the difference between the motions.  Do we need to get more money in discretionary funding?  Absolutely.  Do we need to restore the dollars that have been cut from maintenance?  We do. Our budget took a slower pace…  The one that paced took a slower pace than the alternative motion, but they focused on the same thing.  And like I said, what I think was very positive is that everybody voted in one way or another to keep all of this money in education.  When the Legislature showed up, that was not necessarily the prevailing way the winds were blowing.  It even has some support even this morning, but you saw at least when it came to JFAC that they all supported keeping all of that money in education.  I think that’s a good thing.

Q: Superintendent Luna, there’s—who knows—at least remaining just a month left in the Legislature.  The Legislature adopts this budget, passes this budget, so what’s left on the table in education for this legislative session?
A: As far as the things we’ve been working on and focusing on is HB 65, which is the “Fix It Bill” as it’s being referred to.  That has passed one body.  It has passed the Senate, it has not passed the House.  Or has it passed the House and not the Senate?
McGrath: It’s passed the House.
Luna: It’s passed the House, and it has not passed the Senate.  That’s something that’s a priority for us.  We’ve been a major part in bring stakeholders together to discuss the charter rewrite bill and the charter facilities bill.  That’s just now starting to move through the Legislature.  That’s a priority for us to get done before the Legislature goes home.  I think both those charter bills are important.  We have some other things that deal more with some specifics that don’t necessarily have an impact on the day-to-day operations of schools, but will have an impact on the way that schools operate and our relationships with them.  There’s a few of those bills that we’re tracking, and I’m sure they’re going to get done, but as far as the things that we’ve been involved in it’s the charter bills and the House Bill 65 fix.

Q: The $21 million that was set aside both for professional development and for differential pay, the differential pay component didn’t have a lot of sideboards.  It didn’t have a lot of  direction on what the districts can do with that, how they should do that, how much they should be able to get for individual teachers.  Do you think the districts are in a position where they’re going to be able to come up with plans that really focus that money on student achievement, or is it going to be we’re going to find a way to spend that money, but how tightly it’s tied to student achievement who knows.
Luna: Let me just talk about the parameters that are in the motion that passed and then the intent language that was attached to it.  It identifies the $21 million and says that 40% can be used for professional development and 60% for excellence in achievement awards based on measures of student academic growth.  I believe that’s the language.  So that means, how are students doing academically?  What measures are you going to use?  And what do you expect to see in way of improvement at the end of the year?  Districts are going to submit, in the language, districts are going to submit us copies of their report.  We’ll publish those, and they will publish their own, online.  And then at the end of the year we’ll get a follow up report as to here’s how they implemented, here’s the impact it had, here’s what they did for professional development, here’s what they did in the way of student achievement bonuses, here’s how the money was distributed down to the individual teacher level, and most importantly here’s the impact it had on student achievement.  Then we’re going to be able to look at these 115 plans and  the 40 or so charter schools, and we’re going to compile a report, and we’re going to be able to identify the best practices and those districts that saw tremendous increase and improvement compared to those that didn’t, and what were the characteristics of the plan and be able to go forward then with a more focused differential pay plan based on what we learned from this year of our school districts and charter schools experimenting with it.  Now will some write strong plans?  You bet, because districts like New Plymouth have been doing it for a long time.  Will some write weak plans and maybe try to game the system and try to find some way around it and distribute the money differently?  They will.  We’ll be able to see if when they present their report, and they could be within law, and within the guidelines, within the intent language and still find some way to not use the money as we all now it’s intended, but we’re going to be able to see then how that has had an impact on student achievement versus those plans that were more robust and focused on student achievement, and we’ll be able to draw some conclusions.  I expect even when we had pay for performance in place under Students Come First, the districts that submitted plans to us and didn’t default to the state plan, those districts that submitted their local plans, they were well thought out.  They had very good measures.  They weren’t trying to find ways to skirt around the intent language.  They took a real serious attempt at it, and just in that one year we saw some pretty impressive results in some of those school districts.  That’s what we expect to see this coming year.

Q: In terms of concerns expressed about the possible effects of sequestration on the teacher pay, how do you see that from here on out?
Luna: First, let me tell you how sequestration is going to affect our schools here in Idaho.  We’ve been following this to make sure we understood what the impact would be, and then the last couple of weeks before sequestration the rhetoric was escalating every day as to the impact that this was going to have.  So here’s what we know.  Sequestration happened.  I guess today’s the first business day.  What happened when sequestration went in place is not going to have an impact at all on Idaho schools today, because sequestration affects 2013 appropriated dollars.  Most of our schools are still drawing down 2012 dollars, and some of them are still drawing down 2011 dollars.  It’s not until our districts actually get to the 2013 bucket of money that, if it has an impact, it will happen to them.  I think that’s a surprise to people.  When the federal government sets its budget, and then says, “Idaho here’s your portion of the federal dollars for education.” And it’s $220 million this year.  They don’t send us the check for $220 million.  They give us access to an account to draw down the funds as we need them, and it has a maximum amount that we can draw.  And so we draw those funds down as we need them, and we have 22 months to draw down those funds.  We have some schools in Idaho that are still drawing down their 2011 dollars.  They haven’t even started touching their 2012.  So my point is that sequestration is not going to have an immediate impact, and what kind of impact it will have when those schools actually get to their 2013 dollars, I think there’s still some debate whether it’s $85 billion or $42 billion or I’ve heard as low as $21 billion after you do all the ins and outs.  So my point is, not an immediate impact, but the impact that will happen if sequestration stays in place we think will be minimal and districts will have plenty of time to manage for it, especially if you’re one of those districts still using 2011 dollars.

Q: Would there be a possible impact during FY2014?
Luna: I guess it depends on how close some districts are to drawing down 2013, but it could.  We’re still waiting for the exact, accurate information from Washington to know whether it’s an $85 million immediate impact, or $45 or down to $20.  (Correction: It’s $85 billion as stated earlier, not $85 million.)  Until they figure that out, I don’t think any state’s going to be able to determine what that impact will be when you start drawing down those 2013 funds.

Q: Will there be any districts that are affected this school year?
McGrath: Not from any funds that flow through us.  It’s possible that districts may get funding directly from the federal government in some way that doesn’t flow through our department, but any funding that comes from our department, no districts are drawing down FY13 federal funds currently from any of those programs that we monitor.

Luna: Any other questions?  (Pause.)  Alright, thank you so much for your time.

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