From the Statehouse

School breakfast bill clears House

The Colorado House this morning gave 49-16 final approval to the “breakfast after the bell” bill.

Fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Commerce City have breakfast in the classroom.
Fourth-graders at Alsup Elementary in Commerce City have breakfast in the classroom.

There was no discussion before the final vote, but members were mostly supportive during preliminary debate Wednesday on the bill, which has been nipped and tucked a bit to assuage concerns about its impact.

The measure, House Bill 13-1006, is intended to provide universal free breakfast at high-poverty schools in an effort to ensure hunger doesn’t detract from student learning. It’s sponsored by freshman Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and is being pushed by Hunger Free Colorado and a coalition of other advocacy groups.

“I love this bill,” Moreno told fellow House members. “The breakfast after the bell model is proven to have an incredible success rates.”

Many schools offer breakfast before school starts, but HB 13-1006 supporters say participation rates are low. They cite Commerce City and Pueblo City schools where participation is much higher when breakfast is served after school starts.

The bill also requires that participating schools serve breakfast to all students, not just those eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. The rationale behind that is to remove the embarrassment some students feel about being labeled as poor if they eat breakfast.

Of course almost nobody’s against breakfast for school kids, but that didn’t mean some school districts, especially smaller ones, didn’t have questions. The cost of the program is intended to be covered by federal funds, but some districts were concerned the original form of the bill might have forced districts to bear some costs on their own because of technicalities in federal regulations. Smaller districts were worried that the bill might be too great a burden.

The bill has been amended in two House committees and on the floor to ease those concerns.

Here are the key changes:

• In its first year, 2014-15, the bill will apply only to schools with 80 percent or more of students eligible for free- and reduced-price meals. This was added to deal with the concern about extra costs. The percentage drops to 70 percent in 2015-16.

• Districts with fewer than 1,000 students (just over 100) wouldn’t have to participate. (The original draft of the bill exempted schools and charters that didn’t participate in the federal nutrition program.)

• There’s flexibility for schools that already have formal before-school programs and also serve breakfast and for districts where 90 percent or more of students ride the bus. (They can serve breakfast on the bus.)

The bill also has provisions allowing schools to drop out if their enrollment dips below the 70 percent threshold or if federal funding is eliminated. It’s estimated that participating schools will gain an additional $28 million in federal money by using the program.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City / File photo
Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City / File photo

There also have been concerns that serving breakfast after school starts would cut into instructional time. But Rep. Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff, R-Pueblo, said Wednesday the experience in her city’s schools has shown breakfast can be served in 10 minutes, while teachers are taking attendance, collecting homework and doing other start-of-the-day tasks.

There were a few discouraging words on the House floor. Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said, “Shouldn’t it be the parents’ responsibility to feed the kids?”

Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, agreed with that but said he was supporting the bill because “It’s about making sure students are prepared to learn.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said he too would support the bill but asked sponsors to monitor its effects.

“Test scores should rise significantly,” said Wilson, a retired superintendent who described himself as “a conservative Republican educator – which is an oxymoron.”

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, proposed an amendment that would have required the breakfasts include meat or meat substitutes, but that was defeated.

Not everybody’s happy with the amended bill.

Moreno went to the State Board of Education Tuesday to brief members on the proposal, including the amendments he planned to add on the House floor.

Member Marcia Neal, who represents the Western Slope, told Moreno, “A lot of superintendents in western Colorado are opposed because it dictates the way they do breakfast. … They feel very strongly that they are being dictated to in a way that indicates distrust.”

Moreno replied, “That’s definitely not the intent at all.”

Early childhood consolidation bill moves

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee gave 6-1 approval to House Bill 13-1117, which would consolidate a variety of early childhood programs and offices around state government into the state Department of Human Services.

Passing the bill is a goal of the Hickenlooper administration as part of its initiative to improve early childhood services.

A long list of witnesses supported the bill, and the only discouraging words came from Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who complained about government intrusion.

“It’s a fundamental question of the role of government, the role of the family,” Lundberg said. “I don’t think the government should assume larger roles of responsibility for families.”

Similar Republican concerns killed a 2012 version of the bill in a House committee. On Wednesday, Lundberg was the only ‘no’ vote in the Senate panel, with two other Republicans supporting the bill.

School resource officer bill clears Senate

The full Senate gave 34-0 final approval to Senate Bill 13-138, which would require better integration of school resource officers into the school safety planning efforts, give the state School Safety Resource Center $57,815 for a staff member to help districts find school safety grants and add a school resource officer (SRO) to the center’s advisory board.

The bill is the only measure directly involving school security still alive in the 2013 session.

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.