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.

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.