From the Statehouse

Legislature 2009: Spotlight on education

Financial worries dominated the 2009 session of the Colorado General Assembly, halting efforts to rebuild state college and university budgets and prompting attempts to nibble at the edges of Amendment 23’s guarantees for K-12 spending.

The most significant policy proposal of the 2009, Senate Bill 09-163, passed easily and with little examination outside of the House and Senate education committees. It will bring an end to the CSAP-focused system of evaluating schools and replace with a system based on student growth over time, and it will give Colorado a single accountability system to replace the three the state now has.

The combination of 2008’s Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and SB 09-163 have the potential, over time, to create a different kind of K-12 education system for the state.

Education News Colorado this session tracked more than 100 bills, budget measures and resolutions of interest to the education community. About 50 of those were significant and passed; another dozen education bills of interest didn’t make it.

Here are the highlights what your legislators did – and didn’t – do on education issues.

Innovation and reform

SB 09-163 tops this list, but lawmakers also started the state down the path toward use of educator identifiers (HB 09-1065), standardized high school/college dual enrollment (HB 09-1319 and SB 09-285) and portability of teacher pensions across all districts (SB 09-282).

Charter schools

Charter school proponents made a big push this year for creating reliable sources of funding for charter facilities. Bills were introduced for that purpose, amendments were added to other bills and provisions were proposed on budget bills. The results were clearly mixed from the charter point of view. But, a measure to give charters better access to school district bond issues, Senate Bill 09-176, was passed.

Also passed was Senate Bill 09-230, which allows charter schools to become food service authorities, making them eligible for federal programs and able to provide meals to other schools.

Money for K-12

Facing a $1.5 billion revenue shortfall in what was left of the 2008-09 budget and in the full 2009-10 fiscal year, fund transfers and budget cuts were a major focus for lawmakers this session. Much of the “extra” education spending approved by the 2008 legislature, such as $35 million for full-day kindergarten facilities and extra per-pupil funding, was slashed.

K-12 education received the full funding called for by Amendment 23, but there was debate about what exactly A23 covers, a discusssion likely to revive if the legislature has to make cuts in a few months after the 2009-10 budget year starts, and when planning begins for the 2010-11 budget.

One small slice of the education funding increase , $110 million, is off limits for school districts until next January. The school finance act (SB 09-256) authorizes the legislature to pull that back if budget conditions warrant.

No money, at least from the state

Legislators like to do things – pass bills and create programs. That can be hard to do in Colorado, given constitutional spending limitations, and it’s even harder in tight budget times.

That didn’t stop lawmakers from creating a number of education programs and studies this year – and propose they be paid for with “gifts, grants and donations.” In a few cases, it’s hoped federal stimulus funds will be available.

Those GGD programs include dropout prevention (HB 09-1243), the educator identifier, the parent advisory council and parental involvement bill (SB 09-090), the healthy choices dropout prevention pilot (SB 09-123), the teacher of the year program (HB 09-1240) and the education innovation institute at the University of Northern Colorado (SB 09-032).

Health and safety

Bills to expand free lunches to some preschool students (SB 09-033) and require creation of school policies on food allergies  (SB 09-226) were passed, but it generally was a bad year for this kind of legislation. Bills to require school bus seat belts (SB 090029), physical activity in schools (SB 09-131) and healthy snacks in schools (SB 09046) all died.

Districts and schools

The legislature finally passed a bill making it easier for parents to get time off from work for school conferences (HB 09-1057), and lawmakers eased the zero tolerance rules on bringing any kinds of weapons to school (SB 09-257), responding to the case of a suburban high schooler caught with fake drill-team rifles.

Based on other legislation, school boards will have to record their meetings (HB 09-1082). But, they won’t have to post district check registers on the Internet because SB 09-057 died. School can’t offer incentives just to get students to enroll so schools can bulk up enrollment counts (HB 09-1125). And, schools will be able to get loans from the state treasurer to build alternative energy projects or buy alternative-fuel school buses (HB 09-1312).

Education interest groups, especially those representing school boards and administrators, were nervous about tight funding this year, so they made a full-court press to kill or weaken bills seen as imposing new duties on local districts without state funding.

Study, study, study

For many lawmakers, the 120-day session is more than enough. Others like to keep at it through the summer and autumn, working up new proposals for the next legislature. No fewer than four interim or study committees will be working on issues of interest to education.

  • There will be a major study of the state school finance system, under increasing pressure because of tight state revenues and growing interest in distributing money in new ways (HJR -09-1020).
  • Another panel will take a broader look at the state’s “fiscal stability,” an issue of growing concern because of revenue problems, the impending expiration of Referendum C and new legal theories about how the state can work around the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (SJR 09-044).
  • Yet another committee will study school safety, specifically the issue of how schools should handle students returning from detention or treatment (HJR 09-1025).
  • And, a permanent legislative “commission” on early childhood and school readiness issues was created by HB 09-1343.

One thing lawmakers won’t be studying is the possible merger of the departments of education and higher education – HJR 09-1013 was killed.

Data

The brave new world of school reform, alignment, new accountability measures and the Race to the Top requires data, and lots of it.

Two little-noticed bills on this subject were passed.

  • HB 09-1214 empowers the Education Data Advisory Council to review all proposed laws and rules requiring school data reports and advise the legislature or the appropriate agency on the cost and need for those requirements.
  • HB 09-1285 extends the state Government Advisory Board and creates an education data advisory subcommittee.

Higher education

It wasn’t a particularly happy session for higher education.

The biggest scare was over money. It took some doing, but state colleges and universities were saved from cuts that would have taken them below 2005-06 levels and were basically funded at no-growth levels. That, of course, will mean budget cuts at state colleges and universities, because costs rise even when revenue doesn’t.

Since the state has little money for higher ed, there was a push to give colleges and universities more financial flexibility, but that went only so far. A bill to streamline the approval process for cash-funded construction projects was passed (Senate Bill 09-290). A more expansive measure (SB 09-295) at various times contained provisions to give college control over tuition and financial aid, exemption from state fiscal rules and to permit community and four-year colleges to seek sales and property tax revenue. But it died in the closing hours of the session.

Bills to give tuition breaks to veterans (HB 09-1039) and to students whose parents take a job in Colorado (HB 09-1063), to encourage vets to become teachers (SB 09-062) and to provide more scholarship funding for National Guard members (HB 09-1290) did pass. But the measure to extend resident tuition to undocumented students (SB 09-170) was killed in the Senate.

(Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts. Right-click on the bill number to open in a new window; close that window to return to the Tracker. We’ll shortly be editing the Tracker so that it includes only bills that became law.)

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.