From the Statehouse

Accountability bill heads to governor

“It’s kind of gone through quietly, but in the education world it’s making a big noise” was how Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, described Senate Bill 09-163 after the Senate accepted House amendments and just before it was repassed 28-5.

The bill, known as the Education Accountability Act of 2009, makes substantial changes in the ways that student, school and district performance are measured and reported, in how underperforming schools are improved and will expand what information is available about school performance.

It will merge the current separate accountability systems of accreditation, CSAP scores and federal requirements into a single system that will evaluate schools based on academic improvement over time and other indicators and create a system of improvement and assistance steps for schools at the lower end of the scale.

Many consider it 2009’s most important education measure, and it was the top legislative priority of the Colorado Department of Education.

The original bill envisioned elimination of the annual printed School Accountability Reports and posting of school information online. The House approved an amendment that provides highly detailed requirements for the kinds of information that will be provided to parents and the public. Hudak said she wasn’t enthusiastic about that amendment, but that it was time for the bill to move.

Senators weren’t so agreeable to House amendments on Senate Bill 09-226, which would require school districts to set policies for handling students with food allergies. At the request of sponsor Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver, the Senate rejected House changes and called for a conference committee. With only next Monday and Tuesday left in the legislative session, the bill now faces a tight deadline.

Another measure still in play as the clock ticks is Senate Bill 09-295, which is designed to give state colleges and universities greater flexibility in construction projects, financial management and enrollment of foreign students. (Original provisions giving colleges wide control over their own tuition rates and financial aid were politically untenable this year and were stripped in the Senate.)

The House Education Committee voted 13-0 Friday afternoon to advance the bill. But, amendment language is still being drafted on the financial management and foreign student sections, so there will be a lot of work to do on preliminary floor consideration. The House Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 09-290, a related measure that includes only the provisions related to college construction projects.

In other Senate action

Senators spent a fair amount of time wrangling over Senate Joint Resolution 09-044, which proposes a between-sessions legislative committee to study the state’s “long-term fiscal stability.”

To oversimplify the arguments, minority Republicans fear Democrats will use the study as a forum to plot the repeal of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and raise taxes. There was lengthy debate over committee membership, but the resolution received preliminary approval.

The Senate also reconsidered and repassed House Joint Resolution 09-1020, which authorizes an interim study of Colorado’s school finance system. The measure was reconsidered so Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, could add several more “whereas” clauses relating to the specific issues the panel can study.

The Senate did give final approval to three education bills:

  • House Bill 09-1267, which conforms state law on religious colleges to a recent federal court decision (32-1)
  • House Bill 09-1039, which makes veterans eligible for in-state tuition, even if they haven’t lived in Colorado long enough, and allows colleges to voluntarily give the same benefit to dependents (33-0)
  • House Bill 09-1290, which increases the amount of scholarship money available for National Guard members (33-0)

The Senate Local Government Committee postponed indefinitely House Bill 09-1362, the bill that would have allowed community and four-year colleges to partner with local governments to ask voters for property and sales taxes to support colleges.

In other House action

The House gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 09-291, the measure that would reduce state matching money to school districts that lower their property taxes. This ignited a hot late-night debate in the Senate earlier this week. There was a brisk but mercifully short House debate before the bill received preliminary approval.

Representatives also gave a preliminary OK to Senate Bill 09-285, which would include career and technical education in the larger dual high school/college enrollment plan that’s moving in another bill.

Long bill ends long journey

Gov. Bill Ritter Friday afternoon signed Senate Bill 09-259, the state budget for fiscal year 2009-10, which starts July 1.

The budget, and many pieces of accompanying legislation, patched together fund transfers, program cuts, fee increases and accounting tricks to deal with a $1 billion shortfall in state revenues.

The next full state revenue forecasts are due in late June, and many observers fear those numbers will be bad, raising the need for a summer special session so the legislature to cut the budget some more.

More grades?

Schools with lots of transfer students say A-F labels don’t fit

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Schools with large numbers of kids who transfer in or out should get an extra grade from Indiana’s A-F system, a legislative committee said Thursday.

The proposal, backed by both Democrats and Republicans on the House Education Committee, would give schools a second A-F grade based just on the scores of students who have attended for at least a year.

The goal is to account for schools with “high mobility,” common in poor neighborhoods where families move frequently and kids sometimes change schools several times in a single school year. When kids change schools, their test scores often sink. Lawmakers argued the schools where they end up on test day can be unfairly saddled with a low grade that doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of teaching at the school.

Even so, the schools will still be judged the same as all schools in Indiana on their first A-F grade.

The proposal was added as an amendment to House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. The bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

The amended bill would require the Indiana State Board of Education to first define a “high-mobility” school. Then, starting in the 2018-19 school year, the board would assign those schools both the typical grade based primarily on state tests and a second grade that only considers the test and other academic data of students who have attended the school for one year or more.

The second grade could not be used by the state board to make decisions about state sanctions, the bill says. But it would help parents and others better understand the circumstances at the school, said Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author and chairman of the education committee.

“Especially in our urban centers, there are several schools … that have very high mobility rates,” Behning said. “We could all recognize that if you’re being moved from school A to school B to school C to school D in a year, it’s going to be very difficult for your performance to be where it needs to be.”

The bill also makes a similar change to high school graduation rates, which would help Indiana better comply with new federal law, Behning said. The bill would alter the graduation rate calculation so that students who drop out would only count in a school’s rate if they attended that school for at least 90 percent of the school year. Otherwise, their graduation data gets counted at the previous school they attended for the longest time.

Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, one of the largest online schools in the state, testified in support of the bill. She said the graduation rate change and second letter grade better reflect the work they’re doing with students.

“We really believe that if we can keep a student, we can help them,” Brown said.

Virtual schools have performed poorly on state tests, which some school leaders argue is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently move and switch schools, come to school far behind grade level and have other learning difficulties that make them more difficult to educate.

Read: The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

Indiana Connections Academy sees about 20 to 25 percent of students come and go each year, Brown said. Other virtual schools, such as Hoosier Academies, have reported more than double that rate.

Although the rates for individual schools could vary widely, Beech Grove schools had the highest district mobility rate in 2015 in Marion County, where 20.1 percent of students left a Beech Grove school to go outside the district, according to state data. Franklin Township had the lowest, with 8.5 percent. Generally, transfer within districts was much lower.

In IPS, the rate was 18.4 percent for students leaving to attend a school in another district, and 8.2 percent of students left their home school to attend another in IPS.

Brown said she thinks the second school grade could help all schools that see high turnover, but it also could dispel some misinformation about what virtual schools are for — it’s not a “magic pill” for kids who are far behind, she said, a scenario she encounters frequently.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about what’s best for the kid,” Brown said. “And it’s not best to send a student to another school with two weeks left in the semester expecting a miracle to happen.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.