College finance idea hits nerve

Sensitive future debates about funding state colleges – and other issues – were previewed Wednesday as a state advisory panel held a key meeting in its process of drafting a new strategic plan for the state system.

The liveliest discussion was sparked by a misunderstanding over a subcommittee idea about how to divide state tax dollars among different kinds of colleges.

Campus montage
From left, the campuses of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Auraria Higher Education Center.

While that misunderstanding was quickly smoothed over, the question of focusing scarce tax revenue on the colleges that most need it is sure to come up again during the deliberations of the Higher Education Strategic Planning Steering Committee.

Three other big ideas surfaced Wednesday received less immediate attention but are certain to be debated later.

The steering committee, initially created by Gov. Bill Ritter and then formalized by the new higher ed financial flexibility law (Senate Bill 10-003) has given itself an October deadline to finish a proposed strategic plan for consideration by the new governor and lawmakers during the 2011 legislative session.

The panel is wresting with such issues as the funding crisis facing state colleges; low college attendance and completion by Hispanics, the fastest growing segment of Colorado’s population; whether the state has the right mix of colleges, and whether the current system allows easy enough student movement between colleges.

The steering committee is being advised by four subcommittees, and Wednesday’s meeting was the first opportunity for detailed reports from those panels. Subcommittees studying accessibility and the “pipeline” to college made presentations. (Detailed reports will come next month from the subcommittees considering financial sustainability and the role and mission of state colleges.)

Given that the committee is moving toward decision making, Wednesday’s meeting drew larger attendance than has been the case for past meetings, including University of Colorado President Bruce Benson; School of Mines President Bill Scoggins; Nancy McCallin, president of the Community College System, and a bevy of higher ed lobbyists.

A financial concept advanced by the Accessibility Subcommittee got things stirred up during the meeting.

Benson said he was “very concerned” about a proposal that seemed to suggest taking some tuition revenue and institutionally raised financial aid money from richer institutions (such as CU) and giving it to other schools, like state four-year colleges.

Meg Porfido

Meg Porfido, chair of the Accessibility Subcommittee, said, “That was not the intention.”

Two Democratic legislators. Reps. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge on speakerphone and Rep. Dickie Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder in person, also chimed in to oppose any shift of tuition and financial aid funds from CU.

“That’s not the proposal,” said Jim Lyons, steering committee co-chair.

Panel member Don Elliman, with a little irritation in his voice, noted that there was a wording problem in an initial draft of the subcommittee document that was corrected before Wednesday’s meeting.

Don Elliman

Lyons also reminded Benson that the subcommittees were carefully constructed to include representation from all levels of the higher ed system. Later in the meeting, after Benson had left, Lyons joked, “I was tempted to tell him we put that in there just to see if he was paying attention.”

(One lawmaker told Education News Colorado later that CU officials had sent around an e-mail raising the alarm.)

The idea that the subcommittee is considering will be controversial enough if it’s eventually adopted as part of the strategic plan. That concept is reduction of state per-student aid at schools that have greater capacity to raise tuition and outside funds – like CU-Boulder – so that scarce state tax dollars can be concentrated at schools like Metropolitan State College and other four-year schools, which serve higher percentages of first-generation, minority and low-income students.

“There are market forces that allow different kinds of institutions to raise different amounts of money,” Porfido said.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
CU President Bruce Benson

“Other people perhaps don’t try as hard at CSU, Mines and CU,” Benson replied. “Other institutions should be out working on this [fund raising] too.”

Earlier, Porfido said, “If you’re talking about limited unfds … more general fund [state tax dollars] should be put toward the base and middle tiers,” referring to community and four-year colleges. “That’s not thinking that everybody loves.”

The Accessibility Subcommittee floated two other interesting ideas, offering automatic college admission to Colorado students who have appropriate high school records and letting state-funded financial aid go directly to students rather than to institutions.

Among its tentative suggestions, the Pipeline Subcommittee proposed consideration of further integration of the departments of education and higher education.

But, none of those three ideas generated much discussion.

The steering committee next month plans to hear reports from the sustainability and mission subcommittees, do a draft of the strategic plan in August and conduct a series of public meetings around the state in October.

Do your homework

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.