From the Statehouse

Resolving a $300 million difference

Key senators are negotiating amendments to the proposed overhaul of Colorado’s school funding system ahead of an important floor debate on Monday.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting. / File photo

At issue is an increase of more than $300 million in the bill’s cost that was caused by amendments added to Senate Bill 13-213 by the Senate Education Committee on March 21. (See this EdNews story for details on that hearing.)

Those committee changes pushed the bill’s estimated total cost to $1.4 billion instead of the original $1.1 billion, according to a legislative staff estimate issued late Wednesday.

The problem for supporters is that the new system would go into effect only if voters approve a state increase to pay for it, and the proposed ballot measures that have been submitted would raise only $950 million to $1 billion.

Bill prime sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said Thursday the amount of money currently required by the bill “is unsustainable.” His partner in SB 13-213, Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, said, “We can’t pass a bill with $1.4 billion in it.”

They’re working with Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, sponsor of the most costly amendment approved in committee.

The three chatted amicably in the Senate chamber late Thursday morning just before meeting with legislative staff to work on potential amendments for debate when the bill has its first floor hearing on Monday.

Todd told EdNews that she ideally would like more money in the bill but agrees with the need to bring down its total cost. “I know the limits that have been set.”

What the bill would do

The bill, the first serious attempt to change the school funding formula in two decades, is the product of nearly two years of work by Johnston and Heath and a coalition named the School Finance Partnership, a coalition of education, civic and business groups.

Key elements of the bill include increased funding for kindergarten and preschool, significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, more money for special education, extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates, some changes in requirements for district contributions to school costs and more flexibility for districts in seeking local tax increases.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

Johnston has called the bill “a grand bargain” to both increase funding for districts, which have experienced significant budget cuts in the last four years, and to target funding to areas where sponsors see the greatest need, early childhood and at-risk students.

Because the Colorado constitution requires tax increases be approved by voters, not the legislature, the funding piece of the proposal would have to be passed in a statewide election.

Why and how it was amended

Johnston has been crisscrossing the state for more than a year, meeting with education, civic and business groups to sell his plan. He generally was well received, but questions about his plan quickly bubbled up after the bill was introduced in early March and the district-by-district financial impacts were calculated.

While most districts would receive some funding increases, much of the growth went to districts with the highest concentrations of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and of English language learners. Those included big districts like Aurora and Denver and smaller districts like Commerce City, Greeley and Sheridan.

Large suburban districts like Adams 12-Five Star, Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, Douglas County, Jefferson County and St. Vrain didn’t do so well on a per-pupil basis under the original version of the bill.

District reaction has been mixed. Officials from Cherry Creek and Douglas County have been critical of the original bill, while St. Vrain, for instance, supported it.

And 24 districts, mostly smaller ones, would have lost funding.

All those worries were on display when Senate Education held three hearings on the bill starting on March 19.

Two crucial amendments were added during the final meeting on March 21.

Johnston proposed an amendment to protect funding for the 24 small districts, adding about $33 million to the bill’s cost.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder / File photo

Todd, over Johnston’s opposition, proposed and successfully passed an amendment to create “floor” funding of about $7,400 per student for the large suburban districts that otherwise would receive less money under Johnston’s original formula. Todd’s vote was needed to get the bill to the floor, and she made it clear she needed the amendment passed to vote yes on the bill.

What happens next?

If Johnston, Todd and Heath agree on amendments, they will be presented to and voted on by the full Senate during preliminary consideration on Monday.

Trimming the bill’s cost may require adjustment of the funding weights assigned to at-risk and ELL students, lowering of Todd’s “floor” for districts and other tweaks to the complicated details of the 174-page bill.

“We’re still playing with the floor and still looking at the ELL and at-risk factors,” Todd said Thursday.

Do your homework

Legislative staff on Wednesday released a summary of SB 13-213 as amended by Senate Education. Read it here.

Researchers also released four spreadsheets to show the projected impact on individual districts, based on different scenarios about implementation of SB 13-213. Find links to those documents on this page.

The Department of Education on Thursday also released its own district-by-district spreadsheet; it’s the first link on this page.

Due to the complexity of the bill and the different scenarios used in various spreadsheets, number totals can differ, and it’s easy to get confused. The best figures for what the bill would do as it heads to the Senate floor are probably in this legislative estimate. See column (i) for projected per-pupil amounts by district.

The CDE projects that the bill in its current form would generate average statewide per-pupil funding of $7,841, compared to $6,603 currently.

It’s also important to note that all the figures in these documents will change based on whatever amendments the Senate passes Monday.

Church and state

The backdoor voucher? How a Detroit school created to lift up a ‘Christ-centered culture’ found a way to get public dollars

PHOTO: Allie Gross
At the Cornerstone charter recruitment gathering, families scooped up documents from a table brandishing the phrase “Faith. Family. Culture.” — the private school’s trademark.

When prospective families arrived at Cornerstone Schools’ flagship campus on Nevada Street last month, they were greeted by a staff primed to woo and sell.

Folding chairs had been placed in the tidy front entrance of the northeast Detroit school, and one by one, administrators stood up to speak about the rich culture and strong curriculum that parents and children had come to know and love since the religious school opened in 1991.

“You know, when you come in the fall, we’re going to have a team of parents waiting for you to teach you how to do things because there’s a way to do things. Just like when you go to a church or join a new group,” said Candace Brockman, the primary school principal and soon to be K-8 leader, to the crowd of potential families.

In March, Cornerstone announced that starting next year, its flagship private Christian school would stop providing primary and middle school classes. Instead, a charter, employing the same staff and using the same curriculum, would take over. Families from the religious school would help new families get to know the new school, Brockman explained. The words “Centers of Hope” glimmered in gold typeface above her as she spoke.

“They are going to make sure you understand the history and how they do things and that’s how we’re going to do it here,” she said. “You are going to have to get with our program.”

The history of Cornerstone is clear: The network of schools was started in 1991 by local attorney Clark Durant in response to a speech given by the city’s then-archbishop Adam Maida to the Detroit Economic Club. But how the families Brockman was addressing would get with the program — at least as it exists today — is less straightforward. Although the schools’ genesis was Christ-driven, nearly three decades after its creation, four of Cornerstone’s five schools are charters, which by law cannot teach religion.

And starting next year, the program is even more ambiguous. The last standing private, pre-K through 12th-grade Christian school, the one Brockman was presenting at, will be undergoing its own conversion.

Pinpointing where the religious school ended and the charter school began was difficult. Parents sitting in the room may have wondered: Am I at a meeting with Cornerstone Nevada, the flagship, independent, religious school? Or am I listening to a talk about Cornerstone Jefferson-Douglass Academy, the soon-to-open public charter school? The two entities couldn’t help but brush against each other.

Following Brockman’s presentation, parents were invited to come forward and pick up enrollment information for the public charter school. Making their way to the front of the room, families scooped up documents from a table brandishing the private school’s slogan, “Faith. Family. Culture.” Children grabbed bookmarks that showcased the Cornerstone schools’ principles — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Although posters and murals dotting the hallways made clear that these values came from Galatians 5:22, Fruit of the Spirit — the Apostle Paul’s nine traits of a Christian — the information was noticeably absent from the giveaways.

PHOTO: Allie Gross
A hallway at the Cornerstone flagship campus showcasing the network’s guiding principles.

Cornerstone’s switch from private to charter raises thorny issues about the separation of church and state — and whether Michigan’s notoriously freewheeling charter sector is set up to safeguard it. It also highlights questions about privatization — whether the Cornerstone network is using its charter schools, and the public dollars they’ll bring in, to prop up their struggling religious school.

The network, and its portfolio of independent and publicly funded schools, offers an example of “the extreme difficulties private religious schools are going to confront if they are trying to become charter schools, and want in some way to maintain what they believe are their core values,” said Kary Moss of the American Civil Liberties Union, which lobbies to protect the First Amendment. “This is obviously a big problem in a state like Michigan where there is such a pro-charter movement and little regulation.”

U.S. law bars public schools from teaching religion. Voucher programs, which exist in 14 states and Washington, D.C., have blurred the boundaries by allowing parents to use public education funds to pay tuition at religious schools. But Michigan does not offer vouchers. Voters rejected the practice in 1970 and again in 2000 when now-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos helped to underwrite the ballot proposal and poured upwards of $12 million into the campaign.

As a result, there are no options for religious schools in the state to get public funds for instruction. It also means that religious schools that struggle financially have little choice but to close.

But the state’s chaotic school choice landscape offers a not-so-obvious loophole: Schools can shop for an authorizer to reopen as a charter school, allowing them to receive public funds in exchange for accountability tied to student learning. The downside: They must drop their religious affiliation and practices, and open up to all students.

That could be a tall order for Cornerstone, a 26-year old school network steeped in religious rhetoric and created for the express purpose of “lifting up a Christ-centered culture.” Brockman, like much of the current staff, says on the school’s website that she “considers it a blessing to be able to educate children in a learning environment that places Jesus Christ first.”

The network has transitioned from private to charter before — in 2009 they converted two of their religious schools into charters, and they’ve since opened two more. And their authorizer, Grand Valley State University, has found no problems with the Cornerstone charters overstepping church-state lines. Yet conversations with the school’s founder, Durant, highlight the needle-thin line they straddle.

“We are a little not-for-profit trying to do the great prophet’s work if you will. God’s work. To help these children have fulfilling lives,” Durant said in an interview with Catholic News Network last summer. He later defined a fulfilling life as “following the things Jesus would teach and to love God and to love others.”

The comments give insight into the intricacies and strength of Cornerstone’s religious roots. But they also just toe the line, never fully compromising the school’s secular status.

A big part of this is due to the outward-facing work of the network to still draw distinctions between its private and religious schools. Like the other charters, Cornerstone Jefferson-Douglass Academy will move from the purview of the Cornerstone Schools Association, the organization running the private school endeavors, to the Cornerstone Education Group, a management company that leads the network’s charters.

For example, the four charter schools adopted a brand-new curriculum, and while the schools continued to use the private schools’ principles — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — charter leaders do not place them in the context of the Bible or make them as much of a focus in the school day.

“What you have to do with your charter school is you say ‘OK, what are the attributes then of the character that make it possible for a person to at least begin to appreciate?’” Durant said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “So what is it? It’s love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, all these things which, in a fulfilling life, if you had those virtues, you’d be an amazing human being.”

Durant, who received a contribution and public endorsement from DeVos when he ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 2012, said he wants “every company, every organization” to hire his graduates, knowing that “they would infect the culture in a good way in those places.”

Still, the four charter schools, which fell in the 9th, 14th, 19th and 20th percentile according to the latest state rankings, have not hit the same threshold of success that the Cornerstone private school boasts. The low achievement, which Durant calls unacceptable, spurred a recent restructuring of the charters’ management company. A new CEO and chief academic officer were hired. The network has also been re-visioning what a Cornerstone charter school will look like, with Jefferson-Douglass Academy as a forthcoming case study.

A hallway at the Cornerstone flagship campus.

 

Unlike the other Cornerstone charter schools, Jefferson-Douglass Academy will keep the same curriculum the private school is currently using. Additionally, a Christ-centered class will be offered after school by a third party. Finally, the time slot that previously was saved for chapel and a “Life and Teachings of Jesus” course will stay on the schedule but be replaced with intensive character development.

The school is also in the process of re-thinking how they can make sure influential texts, such as the Bible, are still, legally, underscoring lessons.

“I think of the things that we’ve talked about a number of times and I am certainly interested in, and that is how can we be more intentional about what the kids get exposed to,” Durant said, adding that texts like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech are chock-full of religious allusions that require an understanding of the Bible to fully comprehend.

“If you begin to understand what King said — the references he’s making, why he’s referencing the 40th chapter in Isaiah, why he’s doing these other things — and you have kids go and read that stuff,” Durant said.

And while officials have been clear they understand the law and their First Amendment obligations, at a recent information session for religiously oriented Cornerstone Nevada parents, school officials emphasized that Cornerstone’s core principles and “culture” would go nowhere when the school transitions to a charter.

“We want to have as many of our kids that we can seeding the kindergarten each year,” said Ernestine Sanders, the CEO of the Cornerstone Schools Association, the private school network, explaining how the school’s current pre-K would remain private and Christian.

Current parents who expressed concerns about having students without the same background enter their children’s classes were reassured.

“Is the goal to put all the Cornerstone kids in one (class) and then everybody else in another?” a parent asked.

Sanders nodded. “That’s our goal,” she said.

Critics of allowing religious organizations to receive charters to run publicly funded schools say Cornerstone’s hybrid model is troubling. They note that even if the charter schools stay in their lane and don’t teach religion, public dollars will still be benefiting the private, religious institution.

The Nevada campus, which the private Cornerstone Schools Association owns, will be leased to the Jefferson-Douglass charter school for 13.5 percent of its yearly per-pupil funding — or an estimated $500,000. While Durant says the lease funds will be kept at an arms length from any religious programming done by the private Cornerstone Schools Association, it has been noted that the network’s only remaining religious school, the Nevada campus high school, plans to expand in the coming years.

These fuzzy lines are troubling to some.

“In the religious voucher setting, if you’re going to give vouchers to non-public schools you can trace the money and know what you’re getting,” said Peter Hammer, the director of the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University’s law school. “Here it’s like one of those bad science fiction movies where they take over the body.”

The authorizer that green-lighted Cornerstone’s most recent switch, Grand Rapids-based Grand Valley State University, has experience authorizing schools run by religiously oriented operators. In 1990, one of their schools, Vanguard Charter School Academy, was the subject of an ACLU legal challenge. Filed on behalf of five families with children at the school, the lawsuit charged that the campus allowed prayer in school, taught creationism, and held a mandatory staff retreat with religious overtones.

The suit was ultimately dismissed, after the school made some changes as a result of the lawsuit. But not before attracting national attention to the charter school, which was run by National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter network founded by Michigan billionaire and DeVos friend J.C. Huizenga.

Now, Grand Valley State University, which authorizes over 65 charter schools across Michigan, says it plans to keep a close eye on the church-state issue. The group even plans to hire an outside consultant to make sure the school’s space is “free of inappropriate religious symbols,” said Alyson Murphy, the organization’s director of governance and compliance, in an email.

“We review the curriculum (I recently reviewed the Jefferson-Douglass curriculum with a fine-toothed comb) to ensure it is consistent with public school laws and we also have a school consultant who attends every board meeting,” Murphy wrote in an email. “We are working closely with the board’s legal counsel to make sure that all religious items are appropriately covered up/removed before students are in the building for class.”

Candace Brockman, the primary school principal and soon to be K-8 leader, speaks to the crowd of potential families.

Grand Valley officials appear to have their work cut out for them, far beyond the church-state issues.

Sanders told parents at the transition meeting that the school would likely not be able to serve students with all kinds of disabilities — something private schools can do but public schools cannot.

“If we figure that we can’t meet (a student’s) needs then we’ll have to say that, because sometimes kids come with some incredible challenges, and parents, we know that another school would be able to do that,” Sanders said, noting that the school’s principal was still doing interviews to assess potential students. “You know, like autism is an area where we would say we can’t do that, but there are schools in a public school that have to meet that need, but it’s not something we can do. So the more we know, the more we can say ‘You can come here.’”

Authorizers are responsible for ensuring that charter schools comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

It will have to keep a close eye on the school’s academic performance, as the other charter schools in the Cornerstone network have struggled. One campus, Lincoln-King Academy, landed on the state’s priority list in 2014, and only recently came off of it. Today, it’s the highest ranked Cornerstone charter school, falling in the 20th percentile, but only after Sanders was hired to help bring up achievement and strengthen culture.

Finally, Grand Valley State University will have to make sure that the new school remains solvent — which could be a challenge if it fails to thrive in Detroit’s crowded charter landscape or if current parents grow alienated and leave.

Nicole Perry said she isn’t thinking about pulling her 10-year-old son Ayinde out of the school that will soon be known as Jefferson-Douglass. But she said she was dismayed to learn about the conversion, even though it will eliminate her tuition bill.

Perry, who is the current PTO president for the primary school, said she chose the school in 2012 because of its rigorous academics, small classes, and “Christ-centered learning environment.”

“I feel like with us becoming a charter school it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re like the other schools. When I used to say Cornerstone, it meant something different,” said Perry, who said she cried at the first meeting when she learned Cornerstone wouldn’t be a private school anymore.

Still, she will be there next year — one of the parents Brockman spoke of who will guide and welcome newcomers.

“No one likes change if it’s not what you want, but the way I see it we either have to get on board or get off in my mind,” she said. “My son has been here for six years, I know the lay of the land, I like the school. Let me take this new person and grab them and show them, why not help the situation rather than hurt it.”

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.