From the Statehouse

School finance bill goes to House

Updated April 2 – The Senate Tuesday morning gave 20-15 final approval to the bill that would rewrite Colorado’s school finance system, a plan that will go into effect only if voters later approve a tax increase to pay for it.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
This morning’s final debate distilled Monday’s lengthy discussions, with Republicans attacking the proposed tax increase required by the bill and questioning whether the measure contains any educational reform.

“What is behind Senate Bill 213,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, “is a tax increase.”

“This bill keeps us in the previous century.” Said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs. Instead, he suggested, “Let’s give everyone of a children a backpack full of money” they can use to choose the schools they want.

“This is not reform, this is a billion dollar tax increase,” argued Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, struck back forcefully at the reform criticism, saying, “We have passed the toughest reform package in this country,” citing the standards and testing, district and school accountability, educator evaluation and early literacy laws passed in the last five years. Heath, a prime sponsor of SB 13-213, said they bill and its funding are needed to bring those reforms to life.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, called the bill a “fairy tale” and indicated the best education reform would be private tuition tax credits. (Two Republican bills on that subject were quickly killed earlier in the legislative session.)

All 20 senate Democrats supported Senate Bill 13-213, and all 15 Republicans voted no. The measure now moves to the House for consideration.

Text of Monday story follows.

Sen. Mike Johnston Monday got the amendments he needed on his 174-page bill to modernize Colorado’s school funding system, but he didn’t get any love from Republicans who don’t like the $1 billion price tag.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 13-213 on a 20-15 preliminary vote, which is expected to be the same party-line total when a final vote is taken later.

As the bill headed into the Senate Education Committee last month, Johnston’s problems were with a fellow Democrat and with some large school districts that were unhappy with the amounts of money they’d receive under Johnston’s original formula.

The bill would increase funding for kindergarten and preschool, provide significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, devote more money to special education and make extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates.

Because the Colorado constitution requires tax increases be approved by voters, the funding piece of the proposal would have to be passed in a statewide election.

Before the Senate Education Committee passed the bill on March 21, Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, added an amendment that set “floor” per-pupil funding of about $7,495 for every district. That was intended to assuage the concerns of several large suburban districts. (See this article about the committee meeting.)

The trouble was that Todd’s amendment ballooned the bill’s estimated cost to about $1.3 billion, something Johnston wasn’t willing to accept.

Negotiations led to a compromise that was presented on the Senate floor Monday. That amendment reduces district floor funding to about $7,022 per pupil but also increases special education funding, a move that would help districts because more state special ed support would reduce the amounts that districts have to backfill from their main budgets. (Current average per-pupil funding is $6,872.)

The amendment also would reduce to $441 the per-student amount that districts would receive from SB 13-213’s Teaching and Leadership Investment fund, which is intended to provide districts with extra funding to implement the costs of state reform requirements passed in recent years. Johnston’s original bill set the figure at $600.

Johnston explained that every district would take a $141 cut, but some districts would receive that money back to fund them at the floor level.

The effect of the amendment is to bring the bill’s cost back to a level that Johnston is comfortable with – and which he and supporters hope voters will support.

Todd told EdNews she thinks most of the concerned districts are “okay” with the bill as amended Monday but said she thinks the issue of floor funding may come up again once the bill moves to the House.

Republicans weren’t happy

Three GOP senators
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Republican Sens. Owen Hill, Scott Renfroe and Mark Scheffel (L-R) led the attack on SB 13-213.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, has successfully allied with Republicans on past school reform measures, most notably Senate Bill 10-191, which created a teacher and principal evaluation system based partly on student academic growth.

But Monday’s debate on SB 13-213 showed a hard partisan split similar to that seen this session on such non-education issues as gun control.

The measure received no Republican votes when it passed Senate Education. GOP senators expanded on their opposition Monday during a debate that stretched from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with Republicans doing most of the talking during the later stages. Sen. Pat Steadman, who chaired the session, noted that it was a “long and languid” debate.

Republicans proposed 21 amendments, and tried six more (including some repeats) at the end of the discussion, as is allowed on preliminary consideration. All were defeated or ruled out of order.

Objections boiled down to three complaints – the bill is too expensive, the school finance system is too complicated and the bill doesn’t really provide education reform.

“This is a bill of special interests who have put together what they want to do to get a billion tax increase,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley. He’s the ranking minority member of the Senate Education Committee and led the GOP floor fight against SB 13-213. “It funds basically the same system with a few tweaks at a much higher amount.”

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said, “You don’t see much in the way of reform in this bill. If this is being labeled as education reform, it’s April Fool’s Day.”

In the end, Republican senators argued for school choice and for replacing the bill with tax credits for private school tuition. (Speakers managed to avoid using the word “vouchers” throughout the debate.)

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.