From the Statehouse

“Felon-free” bill gets panel endorsement

The Felon-Free Schools Act of 2011 got out of the Senate Education Committee Monday with only one vote against it, but not before losing its stern-sounding title.

A bill on parental involvement in schools also got House Ed approval – but it also was significantly amended. And it passed only when committee chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, sided with the committee’s six Democrats to create a 7-6 majority.

Among the day’s fatalities was House Bill 11-1057 in House Ed, which would have provided some due process rights to the estimated 10,000 adjunct faculty at state colleges and universities, In the Senate State Affairs Committee two bills designed to radically change parts of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association met with their expected demise.

Also at the Capitol Monday, the big package of 2010-11 budget balancing bills got final Senate approval and headed to an early morning date with the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday.

Felon-free schools fixed to almost everyone’s satisfaction

Freshman Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, worked hard to blunt opposition to his House Bill 11-1121, and his work paid off when House Ed passed it 12-1.

The bill, an earlier version of which died in a House committee last year, mostly codifies existing school district practice in barring employment to people convicted of violent crimes and sexual felonies. Ramirez’ original bill added drug felonies to the list, but his key amendment limited application of that to a five-year window. So, if a teacher was convicted of a drug felony within the last five years, he or she can be fired. In the future, a teacher convicted of a drug felony can reapply for a teaching job after five years. (There’s also a five-year window for domestic violence convictions.)

The Colorado Association of Schools Boards supported the bill while the Colorado Association of School Executives softened its opposition to neutral because of Ramirez’ amendment.

But, witnesses representing legal groups, including the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the Colorado ACLU opposed the bill, saying the broader issue of denying felons access to employment needs to studied by the legislature.

That prompted several members of ask if the bill also should be considered by the House Judiciary Committee. Massey said he would talk to the chair of that committee.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton and the only no vote on the bill, also complained about the title. “It makes me feel like there are a lot of felons in our schools. … Would you mind amending that to just take that out?” she asked Ramirez. He was happy to oblige, and the title was stricken from the bill.

Parent involvement bill slenderized

Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver
Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver

As originally proposed by Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, House Bill 11-1126 would have required school districts to adopt parent involvement policies by July 1, 2012, and review those annually. The bill also required that if a school is designated for turnaround by the Colorado Department of Education the school must notify parents of that and hold a public meeting.

Witnesses representing a variety of education groups – the Colorado Statewide Parent Coalition, Education Reform Now, the Colorado PTA, the Colorado Education Association and Stand for Children – testified in support, as did Arturo Jimenez, vice chair of the Denver school board.

The original draft of the bill, however, made some school districts nervous about potential costs, and Duran came armed with amendments, which the committee approved.

The key change was an amendment that merely encourages districts to develop formal parent involvement plan, softening the original mandate. The bill’s provisions for public notice at turnaround schools remain.

No go for adjunct faculty bill

Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, offered a big amendment to his HB 11-1057, but that wasn’t enough to persuade House Ed. The original bill would have extended some due process rights to adjunct faculty when they were terminated. He proposed an amendment the left the bill requiring only that those instructors receive letters explaining why they were being let go.

The bill mustered only three yes votes before it was postponed indefinitely on a 7-6 vote, meaning some members who voted against the bill also voted against killing it. (There seemed to be a fair amount of confusion in House Ed Monday, with several members passing on roll call votes to gain time to make up their minds and some pausing several moments before casting their votes.)

The higher ed lobby worked hard against this one, concerned about the potential legal costs if it passed. The fiscal analysis by legislative staff estimated annual costs of $140,000 to $1.4 million, depending on how many of the estimated 2,000 adjuncts terminated annually filed appeals.

PERA bills get required hearing and no more

In each House the State Affairs Committee is where majority leaders send bills that they want killed. That was the case Monday in the Senate committee, where party-line votes of 3-2 killed Senate Bill 11-074 and Senate Bill 11-127.

The first would have allowed school boards and local governments to require higher PERA contributions from employees, offset by lower government contributions. The second would have required new PERA members to join a defined contribution plan rather than the traditional defined benefit system.

“Recess” bill moves along

The House Monday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 11-1069, the measure that would require elementary schools to provides students with 600 minutes a month of “physical activity” – broadly defined.

The bill was amended earlier in the House Education Committee to remove some aspects that school districts opposed, such as extensive reporting requirements.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs

Aside from three supporters speaking briefly in favor of the bill, consideration moved quickly, and there were no speakers in opposition. Prime sponsor Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, has estimated that 90 percent of elementary schools already provide the amount of activity called for in the bill.

The House also gave a quick preliminary OK to House Bill 11-1053, which encourages school districts to exhaust other alternatives before going to court to have truant students jailed. The bill leaves intact the ability of districts to go to court and of judges to jail students.

Budget balancing package moves quickly

The Senate this morning gave final approval to a package of 2010-11 budget balancing bill, including three of interest to education. Amendments to the package restored funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps and the Start Smart school breakfast program. A separate measure that proposed closing the Read-to-Achieve program (Senate Bill 11-158) and using its funds for budget balancing was killed at the request of Senate leadership.

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.