Colorado

Monday Churn: Update on budget cuts

Daily Churn logoWhat’s churning:

The Colorado School Finance Project, which tracks K-12 spending and budgets, estimates that district cuts in the upcoming 2011-12 school year could be as high as $287 million. The project released its final report recently, after districts had completed their budgets ahead of the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

The project’s two sets of numbers are samples and estimates, not a full data collection, but they give an overall idea of the situation.

Some 60 districts responded to a project questionnaire about budget plans. Those responses came up with a range of $191 to $211 million in cuts. Participating districts represent 60 percent of student enrollment statewide. (Read the report.)

The project also compiled a list from information reported in local news outlets. That survey found a range of total cuts from $274 to $287 million for 83 districts covering 90 percent of enrollment. The state has 178 districts. (Get full report and shorter summary.)

School finance legislation passed last spring cut $228 million from total program funding, which covers basic school operating costs from a combination of state and local revenues. (Another $67.5 million will be available to districts next year to partially compensate for enrollment growth and local revenue losses.) But, school districts have additional expenses, other sources of revenue and varying levels of reserves, so total program doesn’t necessarily reflect the full picture of cuts. (Total program funding is about $5.2 billion next year.)

Finally, the project culled questionnaire responses and news reports to spotlight budget trends. That document noted continued use of staff reductions, salary freezes and furlough days by districts. Other cost-cutting steps include increased class loads for teachers in upper grades, reduction of electives and other specialized classes, deferred building maintenance, outsourcing of some functions and higher fees for students and families. (See trend summary.)

A fourth candidate has emerged for the at-large seat on the Denver school board. Baker neighborhood resident John Daniel, 54, filed a statement of intent to run last week.

Daniel hasn’t run for office before and said his political experience consists of serving on the committee that successfully pushed in 2008 for passage of Initiative 100, which requires impounding of vehicles driven by undocumented immigrants. (That measure was repealed last week by the Denver City Council.)

If elected, Daniels said, he’d push to slash 10 percent of the DPS administrative budget, “putting it into teachers.”

Already running for the at-large seat are former City Council member and former DPS employee Happy Haynes, South High School social studies teacher Frank Deserino and Park Hill resident Roger Kilgore, a water resources engineer and consultant.

Good reads from elsewhere

Stack o’ pink slips: The Washington, D.C., schools on Friday fired 206 teachers for poor performance, about 5 percent of the teaching workforce. Most were let go because of unsatisfactory ratings in the district’s evaluation system, which includes meeting student growth targets on standardized tests and also uses multiple observation sessions. Some 75 teachers were let go in 2010, the first year the system was in use. Washington Post

Chiefs look for NCLB out: A group of state chief school officers are exploring ways to use their own accountability systems if Congress doesn’t overhaul the No Child Left Behind law this fall. Some state school leaders said recently that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has signaled he may be open to waivers of the requirement that all students be proficient in English and math by 2014. New York Times

Education Week also has details on the waiver chatter.

Loans may be in the crosshairs: Mainstream media coverage doesn’t offer much detail on what specific budget cuts are being talked about in the deficit grudge match between President Obama and congressional Republicans. One interesting specific is a proposal, reportedly by conservative GOP leader Rep. Eric Cantor, to require students to pay the interest their loans accrue while they’re enrolled in college. Inside Higher Education

AFT to the defense: Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, told reporters recently that the union’s local affiliates will defend the rights of teachers caught up in test cheating scandals, including the mess in Atlanta. Weingarten hastened to add that the union doesn’t condone cheating. USA Today

The Churn is published periodically during the summer.

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.