Colorado

New era dawns for college tuition

The Colorado legislature this year gave up its direct power to control college and university tuition, but the rates students may pay in the next five years indirectly still will be up to lawmakers.

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education Thursday unanimously approved tuition flexibility plans submitted by six higher education institutions and systems. Five of the plans contain “what-if” scenarios that suggest different levels of tuition increases depending on how much state support the 2011 legislature allocates to higher ed.

So the lower state support is, the more tuition may jump.

A law passed by the 2010 legislature allows college boards of trustees to raise tuition up to 9 percent a year for each of the next five years. (Traditionally, the legislature set tuition increase ceilings in the annual state budget bill.) The new law also allows colleges that want higher rates to ask permission from the CCHE. Those are the plans approved by the commission Thursday.

The commission votes don’t set future tuition rates, nor have any colleges and universities made official tuition decisions for 2011-12. The commission merely gave institutions authority to raise tuition more than 9 percent, and individual college boards won’t set actual 2011-12 tuition until next May or June.

“Nobody wants these tuition increases. What we have tried to do is set up a mechanism for colleges to respond if they have to,” said Rick Munn, director of the Department of Higher Education.

Gov. Bill Ritter has proposed $555 million in state support for higher ed in 2011-12, so that’s the base against which colleges have calculated their what-if tuition plans (see this story for background). Of course, that amount may change depending on state revenues, the proposals of the incoming Hickenlooper administration and, ultimately, the decisions of the legislature.

At a previous meeting, the commission approved flexibility plans for the Colorado State University System, Metro State College and Fort Lewis College (see this story for details). The Colorado School of Mines chose not to file an application.

The flexibility law requires colleges to have plans to maintain affordability for low- and middle-income students. While institutions have proposed a wide variety of affordability strategies, a common tactic is to earmark percentages of increased tuition revenue for financial aid and for student counseling and retention programs.

The plans are a sign of the accelerating shift towards state college pricing models that look more like those of private colleges – higher tuition, different tuition rates for different programs depending on cost and student demand and more individually tailored financial aid based on the needs of individual students.

Here are highlights of the flexibility requests approved Thursday:

University of Colorado System – The university won’t raise undergraduate resident tuition more than 9 percent if currently proposed levels of state aid for 2011-12 are approved. At a lower level of state funding, CU would raise tuition up to 9.5 percent. The system did not request permission for increases above 9 percent in budget years 2012-13 through 2015-16.

Community College System – The system won’t raise tuition more than 9 percent if state funding is approved at forecast levels, but it may raise 2011-12 tuition by 15.7 percent if state aid is 10 percent below what has been proposed. Also, depending on state support, the system wants the flexibility to raise tuition between 10.8 and 12.7 percent in 2012-13.

University of Northern Colorado – The university proposes average increases of 15 percent next year (ranging from 8 to 22 percent depending on program and credit hours taken), an average of 12 percent in 2014-15 and of 9 percent in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Adams State College – Tuition could increase 11 percent annually through the five-year period if 2011-12 state support comes in at the forecast levels. If state aid drops by about 10 percent, Adams proposes a 25 percent increase next year, 20 percent in 2012-13, 12 percent in 2013-14 and 9 percent in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Mesa State College – The college proposes keeping overall tuition increases below 9 percent if state funding is as expected. If state funding is more than 10 percent below projected levels, Mesa proposes to increase tuition .49 percent for each percentage that state funding drops. The college doesn’t expect increases of more than 9 percent for 2012-13 through 2015-16.

Western State College – The college is considering raising tuition by 11.6 percent a year during the five-year period if state funding is stable and by 16 percent a year if state funding drops by 10 percent or more.

The new flexibility system applies only to tuition for Colorado residents who are undergraduates. College trustees can set rates as they choose for out-of-state students and for graduate programs.

(See the bottom of this DHE page for links to the full financial plans for each college and system. Go here to read a new DHE detailed new report on tuition rates and fees in the current school year, and see a report on financial aid for Colorado students in 2009-10 here. Also see this table showing the change in tuition and fees from 2009-10 to 2010-11.)

Master plan, or master planning?

Now that a citizens’ committee has taken a year to develop a higher education strategic plan, the commission is going to take another year to decide how to implement it.

The commission Thursday formally adopted the strategic plan recently finished by a citizen committee as part of the CCHE’s new master plan for higher education. DHE staff also proposed that the commission develop more detailed plans to implement the broader goals suggest in the document, titled “The Degree Dividend.”

That sparked discussion among commission members about whether they were adopting a “master plan” or a system of “master planning.” Eventually they agreed to give themselves a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for the additional work.

At any rate, the tuition flexibility law also requires CCHE to submit a plan to the legislature before the 2011 session starts, so “The Degree Dividend” was approved as that document and will be sent along to the Capitol.

Another delay for Westwood

For the second time this fall, the commission delayed a decision on whether to place for-profit Westwood College on “probationary accreditation.” The college has been placed on probation by its accrediting agency, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges. The CCHE in October discussed whether to put Westwood on Colorado probation to align with the accrediting body’s action.

No decision was made then because the accrediting commission was to reconsider the Westwood case in November. Staff members told CCHE Thursday that the accrediting commission apparently has made a decision but won’t be announcing it until next week.

So, CCHE again decided to wait to act until after the national body’s decision is known. (See previous story about Westwood and CCHE.)

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.