From the Statehouse

Budget angst fills Capitol

No matter where you looked Wednesday in Colorado’s Capitol complex, there were people worrying or arguing about the state’s budget woes.

Gov. Bill Ritter
Gov. Bill Ritter announced his latest round of proposed budget cuts on Jan. 27.

Two House committees wrangled over proposals to abolish tax exemptions. Gov. Bill Ritter proposed new nips and tucks in current spending. A new higher education study panel opened its first meeting with a gloomy briefing. And interest groups politely sparred over who should bear the cost of educating jailed teenagers.

It all started at 7:30 a.m. in one House committee and was still going more than 13 hours later in another House panel.

Here are some snapshots of the day.

Don’t raise my taxes

Part of Gov. Bill Ritter’s budget-balancing plans for both 2009-10 and 2010-11 include rescinding about a dozen tax exemptions. Most affect business, but one bill would reimpose a tax on soda and candy.

If all the measures (House Bills 10-1189 through 1200) pass, they’re estimated to produce more than $130 million in revenue next budget year. If some or all fail, deeper state budget cuts will have to be made, with K-12 spending the likely target.

Lobbyists for the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards and Colorado Association of School Executives braved a committee room packed with opponents to testify in favor of the measures. In addition to business executives and lobbyists, opponents included a squad of red-jacketed Coca-Cola employees.

For procedural reasons, the bills started early Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee, where minority Republicans used parliamentary techniques and general long-windedness to drag the proceedings out, disrupting other House business in the process.

The House Finance Committee picked up the task at 1:30 a.m. and met late into the evening, taking public testimony on the bills.

Among bills delayed on the House floor was Senate Bill 10-065, which cuts $110 million (about 2 percent) from current-year state school aid. It also specifies that the state won’t cover the $20 million cost of higher-than-projected enrollment and numbers of at-risk students. (The bill has to be passed and signed by Friday or school districts will have access to the $110 million.)

Another budget “adjustment”

As House Finance started its ordeal across the street, Ritter gathered reporters in his wood-paneled Capitol office to announce still more proposed adjustments to the 2009-10 budget to fill an additional hole of nearly $50 million.

The latest plan proposed no further K-12 cuts. But it does suggest taking $5.5 million in federal stimulus funds from 2010-11 and adding it to the stimulus money already being used for higher education in this budget year. (Doing so frees up money from the state general fund, which is what needs to be balanced.)

That means colleges and universities this year will receive more in stimulus dollars than in state tax support, and state and federal support will decline by $61 million in 2010-11.

What keeps higher ed afloat is tuition, which is projected to provide two-thirds of college and university budgets next school year. Ritter has proposed a 9 percent increase for next year.

Since the recession started pummeling state revenues, the state has made about $2 billion in cuts and revenue shifts and faces the need to make at least $1 billion more.

(Go here for the details of the governor’s latest balancing plan.)

Somber marching orders for commission

Earlier, at mid-morning, a group gathered for its first meeting in an office building at the foot of Capitol Hill. The 12-member Colorado Higher Education Strategic Plan Steering Committee was appointed by Ritter to develop a new master plan for the state system and make a report by the end of this year. (See this EdNews story for more details about the commission and its members.)

The meeting opened with a gloomy briefing by state budget director Todd Saliman and a sobering presentation about the deterioration of the state system and the threat that poses to Colorado’s economic competitiveness, given by David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

The new commission will do part of its work in four subcommittees, which will include steering committee and outside members, including representatives of state colleges and universities.

One of those subcommittees will study higher ed finances, and state higher ed director Rico Munn may have surprised some members when he said that subcommittee also will be expected to come up with some short-term financial suggestions for possible consideration by the 2010 legislature.

Don Elliman, Ritter’s chief operating officer, indicated that the subcommittee’s assignment was made partly to forestall a legislative study of higher education. Munn and Elliman are advising the commission.

Fighting over jailed kids

Late in the afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee turned its attention to Senate Bill 10-054, which would require school districts to provide educational services to juveniles being held in county jails after having been charged as adults. A legislative fiscal analysis estimates an $113,378 annual cost to the state and that the bill would “increase costs for the school districts.”

The hearing created the uncomfortable spectacle of school lobbyists testifying against the bill, and juvenile justice advocates and district attorney and sheriffs’ lobbyists supporting it.

“Districts are doing everything they can just to keep the schoolhouse doors open” and can’t afford the added cost for educating a few students in jail, said Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the school boards association.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and prime sponsor of the bill, called educating jailed kids “a moral and legal obligation.”

Two committee Republicans opposed the bill and Sen. Linda Newell, D-Denver, was clearly lukewarm, but she voted for the bill in the end, and it passed 4-2. It move on to an uncertain fate in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Any bill with any price tag will get tough scrutiny there in this lean budget year.

The last word

The mood of the day may have been unintentionally summed up by Greg Stevinson, a member of the Commission  on Higher Education who is also serving on the new steering committee.

Reflecting on the situation of higher education for the past several years, he said: “We’ve been fighting over scraps. Now there aren’t any scraps left.”

In other news

The Senate Education Committee killed Senate Bill 10-017, a proposal by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, which would have provided grants to school districts to study weighted-student funding programs. The program would have been funded by “gifts, grants and donations.”

Introduced Wednesday was House Bill 10-1208, which would require creation of at least 14 college credit transfer agreements under which students could transfer their associate’s degree credits in those specified majors to four-year schools. While such students could be required to take additional lower division courses in their majors, the bill specifies that they still should be able to graduate at the same time as similar students who’d started at those four-year schools.

Credit transfer has been a touchy issue in the past, with higher education resisting attempts at legislative mandates. State colleges and universities currently have an extensive but patchwork system of course transfers.

This bill could be a fast track, though, as it has 47 cosponsors in both houses and from both parties. Among them are House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, and Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder. (Sen. King, a longtime advocate of easy credit transfers, has not signed on to the bill.)

The sweetener for higher ed may be that the 14 transfer agreements don’t have to be in place until 2016.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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.