Higher ed bill a work in progress

The Senate Education Committee Thursday gave 6-1 approval to Senate Bill 11-052, the higher education performance-funding bill. But nearly three hours of discussion on the measure made it clear that there are lots of questions to be answered as the measure works its way through the legislature.

Other Thursday action

Two bills go to governor

The core of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, would base 25 percent of the overall funding for higher education on institutional performance, starting in 2016-17. The Department of Higher Education and institutions would negotiate individual contracts, and performance on those would determine part of funding.

Heath, pitching the bill to his fellow committee members, called it “a pretty exciting opportunity for all of us.” He said the bill is needed to incentivize state colleges to graduate more students, close completion gaps and bring underrepresented groups into higher education.

“We are not graduating enough people at all levels … to occupy the jobs” the state needs in the future, he said.

The current draft of the bill sets a 2020 statewide goal – but not a requirement – of increasing the number of degrees and certificates awarded by 30 percent. About 43,000 degrees and certificates were awarded in 2010.

Contracts would be individualized by institution, so a community college, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily be held to the same expectations as CSU.

The bill envisions a strong role for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, including preparation of a statewide master plan (required by existing state law) and setting specific goals and expectations for the tiers of the state system – research universities, four-year colleges, community and junior colleges, and vocational schools – and for individual institutions.

Heath said he and Massey initially hoped to keep the bill simple, but “It’s gotten a lot more complicated than we thought.”

Among other things, the revised version of the bill approved by the committee combines lots of existing higher education law – on performance contracts, master plans, tuition setting and other issues – with the performance funding proposal.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia

The Department of Higher Education is working with Heath on bill drafting. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also DHE director, and two top aides sat in on the hearing.

“The administration has not yet taken a position on the bill, but we have been working with the sponsor,” Garcia told the committee. The lieutenant governor, along with deputy director Matt Gianneschi and lobbyist Chad Marturano, spent a lot of time at the witness end of the committee table, answering questions about the bill.

Garcia said the department also has “tried to work with institutions and address their concerns” about the role of CCHE and how contract negotiations would be conducted. “All of the institutions had some concerns about a performance funding bill at a time when funding is diminishing,” Garcia said. He also noted that some institutions – such as the community colleges – haven’t yet fully weighed in on the bill.

The committee approved an amendment – proposed by Heath but drafted by a group of institutional representatives – specifying that the performance contracts will be developed through a collaborative process, not dictated by the department or commission.

Committee members raised questions about how the plan would be financed, the impact on students at low-performing colleges and whether financial incentives are needed.

“I really seriously question the whole incentive process and whether institutions need an incentive to do a better job,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, questioned the need for the bill, given that Garcia said colleges have done well on the existing system of no-consequences performance contracts.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, said she likes the bill but “I really need to hear from the institutions … and find out if it [the bill] is the best it can be.”

No college or university representatives testified, although lobbyists for several institutions were in the committee room.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, several times criticized a provision of the bill dealing with DHE regulation of trade and professional schools that want to receive state financial aid funds, estimated at only $3 million a year.

Lobbyist Steve Durham, representing trade schools, and Bentley Rayburn, president of Colorado Technical University, testified against that portion of the bill. A King amendment to delete that section was defeated, but he promised to keep working on the issue.

In the end, all committee members present, except Renfroe, voted to move the bill to the floor.

Even Heath admitted that there’s one big question about the bill that can’t be answered now – whether there will be enough state funding available for higher education in 2016 to make performance funding workable.

School safety bill on ice

At the beginning of its meeting, Senate Ed spent more than two hours on Senate Bill 11-173, which is an attempt to prod school districts into conducting “all-hazards” drills instead of just fire drills and into using communications systems that connect with local emergency agencies.

There’s a fair amount of confusion and disagreement over whether the bill does or doesn’t mandate school districts to do certain things. Sponsor Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, insisted it doesn’t. But, Colorado Association of School Boards lobbyist Jane Urschel took a different view in her testimony.

The lengthy hearing didn’t do much to clear up confusion, and the bill finally was laid over until next week at King’s request.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.