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Principals Fought Hard for Their Share of Federal Money. Now Trump and Congress Might Take It Away.

UPDATED

Organizations that represent the nation's school principals are blasting a House appropriation bill that eliminates about $2 billion in funds meant to support teachers and school leaders.

In a joint statement, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the American Federation of School Administrators, called the House decision to put forth a spending bill that would zero out the funding stream known as Title II, Part A "unconscionable." (Politics K-12 has the full run-down on the House bill.) 

"With an abundance of research pointing to educator quality as the primary factor in student success, a budget that singles out support for educators as unworthy of federal investment sends the public a message that Congress does not care about the educators that serve over 35 million students in our nation's schools," the two groups said in a joint statement on Friday. "This decision is particularly painful given that this very same body passed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with new rules to narrow the uses of Title II funds to their intended purpose of developing teachers, principals and other school leaders. 

New Leaders, a New York City-based program that trains school leaders to work in high-poverty schools, also weighed in, saying that the overall cuts to education would "jeopardize vital programs that benefit students across the country."

The Title II cuts will prevent states from taking advantage of the new set-aside under ESSA that specifically targets principals and school leaders, the group said. 

While the bulk of Title II money goes toward teachers, districts can—and have —used that pot for principal-development programs. ESSA provides an additional set-aside for states and districts that want to focus on school leadership, and some states have indicated in their ESSA plans or discussions leading up to the creation of those plans that they intended to take advantage of those new opportunities. 

Washington state, for example, planned to use part of its Title II, Part A funds to work on principal and teacher evaluation and support systems. Vermont planned to use a portion of its money to create the Leaders' Professional Learning Academy/Institute to improve school-leader training and practice.

"States are recognizing that school leadership—which has historically been overlooked and underfunded—is central to improving schools and ensuring that all students get an excellent education," New Leaders said.  "They want this flexibility—six states that submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education in April and another fourteen states with draft plans indicated that they intend to use this set-aside to make meaningful, cross-cutting investments in school leadership."

The organization is concerned that cutting those funds could lead to increased teacher and principal turnover, exacerbate educator shortages, and widen achievement gaps.

"Ultimately, these dramatic cuts will make it more difficult for educators to prepare all young people for success," the organization said.

Since President Trump's budget proposal showed that Title II, Part A funds were on the chopping block, principal and school leadership groups have stepped up lobbying to highlight the importance of those funds to schools.

The Trump Education Department said that it doesn't think that the program is effective, Politics K-12 has reported. But the new administration is not the only one to question the impact of Title II: Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan had also raised concerns about the effectiveness, but he wanted to tweak the program not end it. (Politics K-12 also has a handy look about how Title II is used and the research around it.

Principals as Advocates

The NASSP and the NAESP were among the education organizations that planned a  "Day of Action" last month to let lawmakers know how they use Title II funds.

At a session at the two groups' joint national conference last week, Catherine Brown, the vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank based in Washington, told principals that they had to be their best advocates in communicating their success stories.

"Class size reduction is something that you often hear criticized," she said. "But what is class size reduction? It's hiring another teacher so that a child doesn't have 30 kids in their class, and you actually have enough staff so that the teachers know every child individually. I think [it's about] translating that—and not just talking about the research, but talking about what it takes to run a school..."

She pushed back against the notion that there isn't research to back up the effectiveness of Title II money. 

"The question is not do teachers matter and the question is not does investing in their professional growth matter?" she said. "The question is how do we structure investments in these areas, so you can see an outcome in the research and make that case."

Brown was part of a panel on the state of American education, a wide-ranging question-and-answer session that touched on the Trump administration's education agenda; the principal's participation in development of state plans under the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA; and what kind of role principals can play in a battle to preserve federal funding for K-12. 

Brown and fellow panelists Jim Lynch, the executive director of the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, and DawnLynn Kacer, executive director of Philadelphia's charter school office, called on the audience of school principals to step up their advocacy efforts with so many key issues on the line such as possible cuts to Medicaid and programs that pay for afterschool and other services for poor children and families. Form alliances with businesses, community, and parent groups, and lobby their congressional representatives, they urged.

But advocacy work is a tricky prospect, some principals said, who warned about the fine line drawn around the kinds of outside activities they are allowed to take on under local district policies.

"We can wind up in hot water really quickly," said Gregory Zenion, the principal of Chariho Middle School in Wood River Junction, R.I.

"My concern is that they are asking us to go into the political theater, and they want a grassroots movement," Zenion said.  "What I don't think they fully understand is that the minute we step into the political theater, we are at risk of using our position of authority to influence people, and there are policies in many districts that do not allow that."

Principals often work on annual contracts and do not have the same protections as teachers, said Brian Cox, the principal of Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne, Wyo. Still, Cox and others said, they worry about the impacts of the proposed cuts, but they'd also like to present alternatives to lawmakers when they are lobbying instead of just trying to convince them not to do something.

Andy Ball, the principal of Clifton Middle School in Clifton, Texas, says a source of major frustration for him is federal officials' tendency to lump all public schools together.

"One of the most frustrating things for all of us is when they talk about [public education] in Washington, D.C. they put everybody in the same boat," he said. "It's all schools. All public schools are failing...All schools are not the same, and not all school are failing."

Albert Sackey, the principal at Nathan Hale Middle School in Norwalk, Conn., said that his school has taken steps to advocate for sparing public schools from potential cuts. He's been sharing information with parents and taking advantage of the local PTO to get the word out about issues that are likely to affect the district.

But, he still worries that cuts are inevitable, and his district is bracing for them and working on contingency plans.

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