Colorado

Andrew Romanoff talks education

Andrew Romanoff, the former Colorado Speaker of the House and current candidate for U.S. Senate.

Andrew Romanoff proved he was not afraid to get dirty tackling tough education issues when, in a 2007 tour of rural schools, he poked his head into bat-guano filled attics to check out failing roofs and climbed atop rickety metal ladders to explore dubious fire escapes.

That experience eventually led to passage of Colorado’s first major investment in the capital, rather than operational, needs of schools statewide, a program known as BEST or Building Excellent Schools Today.

“It is the largest investment in school construction in state history,” said Romanoff, a Democrat who was then Speaker of the House, “probably because it’s virtually the only significant investment in school construction that we’ve made at a state level in the history of Colorado.”

Scroll to the bottom to see video clips of the EdNews interview with Romanoff.

In 2008, he got his hands dirty – figuratively – by diving into the state’s messy school funding problems, crafting a proposal to reconcile the demands of Amendment 23, the initiative that increases state education funding, with the constraints of the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights or TABOR, the constitutional amendment that limits the revenues the state can keep.

Romanoff had already proven his mettle for compromise as a leader in the 2005 passage of Referendum C, building a bipartisan effort that persuaded Colorado voters to agree to a five-year “time out” from TABOR to prevent deep cuts in state programs.

The idea behind the 2008 plan, which became Amendment 59, was a permanent fix to the conflict between Amendment 23 and TABOR.

“The proposal that we authored said let’s invest the revenues that come into the state in excess of TABOR’s limits so when the economy is booming and revenue is rolling in, the money that would otherwise be rebated under TABOR would be instead sent to a rainy day fund, a savings account for education,” Romanoff said.

But placed on the longest state ballot since 1912 as the national economy was beginning to sour, the plan was rejected by voters.

“It’s really hard to make the case to finance a rainy day fund when it’s already raining,” Romanoff said.

So what does the U.S. Senate hopeful, who’ll face Michael Bennet in the August primary, have to say about the federal government’s role in education?

Plenty.

“The federal government as a warehouse of research or facilitator of best practices and information – that would be the perfect role for the federal government to serve,” he said. “I think if the feds are going to require states to do things, they should pay for it.”

He likes the voluntary National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, called the nation’s report card, because it allows for comparisons across state lines. He supports the setting of national goals and standards – so long as they don’t “water down” any state’s own standards.

“I don’t support the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, a proposal that one of the other candidates in this race made,” he said. “I think that’s crazy at a time when we’re engaged in an international economic competition.

“We need, I believe, a national commitment to improving student achievement and the benefits that can come from bringing some of the best practitioners in the country together and setting high national standards.”

As a lawmaker, Romanoff frequently cited three things as his educational priorities – early childhood education, recruiting and retaining quality teachers, and providing safe learning environments. He still calls early childhood education “the single best place that we can invest our hard-earned dollars.”

And as a community college teacher for the past 15 years, he has concerns about the push to link student achievement to decisions about teachers – though he declined to say how he would have voted on Colorado’s recently passed, and controversial, educator effectiveness bill.

“The single most important ingredient of a kid’s success is, of course, what goes on at home. But the second most important ingredient that contributes to student achievement is the quality of the teacher,” he said. “Since it’s harder for us to legislate good parenting, a lot of efforts in the capital and elsewhere are aimed at legislating good teaching …

“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers who feel demoralized because they’re expected to solve the problems that society has neglected.”

Click on the videos below to hear more from Romanoff. Click here to see the candidate’s education issues page.

Romanoff talks about a student who taught him about educational inequities across Colorado:

Romanoff talks about the federal government’s role in education:

Romanoff talks about the federal grant competition known as Race to the Top:

Romanoff talks about using student achievement to evaluate teachers, an emphasis of Race to the Top:

Romanoff talks about choice and charters, another emphasis of Race to the Top:

This is the first in an occasional video series in which candidates for the November ballot discuss their views on education. Reporter Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.