From the Statehouse

Hick signs school finance reform bill

Gov. John Hickenlooper this morning signed the proposed overhaul of the state’s school funding system, but it’s still unclear which billion-dollar proposal voters will face to fund the ambitious plan. That may not be decided until the end of May.

Capitol signing ceremony
Gov. John Hickenlooper shakes hands with Sen. Mike Johnston after signing SB 13-213.

Hickenlooper said the bill “really positions Colorado to be the national leader in school reform and school effectiveness.”

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and primary author of the bill, called it “a tremendous step forward” and said the measure shows it’s possible to combine education reform with additional funding.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, reminded the crowd gathered at the Capitol ceremony that “the biggest challenge ahead of us will be convincing all of the people of Colorado to share this vision” and approve the tax increase necessary to pay for it.

SB 13-213 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.

(Get more details on the bill in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff analysis.)

The new system won’t go into effect unless voters approve an income-tax increase to pay for its costs, which range from $899 million in the first year for basic school funding to $1.12 billion to pay for all the bill’s elements, according to a legislative staff estimate.

If voters approve a tax increase in November the new funding formula wouldn’t kick in until the 2015-16 school year. If voters say no this year, the bill would remain on the shelf but “alive” for five years, allowing backers to go to the voters later if they choose.

Lots of tax plans to choose from

Backers of a proposed tax increase, led by the civic group Colorado Forum, filed 16 variations of a tax increase on the March 22 deadline. The idea was to keep a number of options alive so that supporters could later choose one to submit to voters, based on the wishes of various interest groups in Colorado Forum’s coalition and on perceptions and polling about voter preferences. (The SB 13-213 price tag was set at about $1 billion because previous public opinion sampling indicated that was the upper limit of what a majority of voters might support.)

“We’re very close” to selecting the ballot measure, Gail Klapper, director of Colorado Forum, told EdNews on Monday. Klapper said she hopes a decision will be made by the end of the month. Once that choice is made, backers will have until Aug. 5 to gather the 86,105 signatures necessary to put the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“A modified flat tax is what we’re most likely to get to,” she said of the likely choice.

What Klapper means by that is a proposal that would include a two-step tax increase, with a .37 percent hike for individual taxpayers who earn $75,000 or less a year and a 1.27 percent increase for those earning more. Currently all taxpayers pay 4.63 percent of their federal taxable income to the state. The additional revenue derived from the .37 and 1.27 percent increases would be earmarked for additional K-12 spending.

The two-step tax hike would raise $950.1 million a year in revenue, according to estimates by legislative staff economists.

Up to now Hickenlooper has kept a fairly low public profile on the ballot measure. “I will certainly campaign for it when we decide what it is,” he said. But he declined to say whether he’s favoring any particular version. “I have several preferences, but I’ll keep those to myself.”

Most people involved in the effort believe a successful campaign will require high-visibility leadership from a figure like Hickenlooper. “The only [successful] path I see right now is the governor supporting and actively campaigning,” said one observer.

Gail Klapper of Colorado Forum stands with sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath during SB 13-213 signing ceremony.
Gail Klapper of Colorado Forum stands with sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath during SB 13-213 signing ceremony.
The Colorado Forum proposals come in four flavors: The two-step increase, a truly flat increase of .72 percent and two sets of five-tier increases.

The two-step tax would raise the least amount of revenue. The across-the-board .72 percent increases would raise an estimated $927.7 million, while the variations of five-step increases would raise $1.07 billion and $1.16 billion.

There’s been a lively debate about the tax structure among segments of the business and education communities. Some business interests have argued for the flat .72 percent increase while other groups wanted to differentiate rates so that lower-income taxpayers wouldn’t see as large an increase.

Choice of the two-step plan is seen as a likely compromise, according to several sources.

In addition to the four different tax increases, the Colorado Forum proposals also include four variations of tax policy changes. Those include:

  • A combination proposal that includes repeal of the current constitutional requirement for automatic increases in base school funding (Amendment 23) and replacing it with a provision earmarking about 43 percent of annual state general fund spending for schools. The combination plan also changes the Gallagher Amendment, which governs local property taxes, to set a floor on the valuation of residential property for the assessment of school taxes.
  • A version that includes just the Amendment 23 changes.
  • A version that includes only the Gallagher changes.
  • No change in either constitutional provision.

Various interest groups have different opinions about the need to change Amendment 23 and Gallagher, so those issues have been part of the behind-the-scenes debates about which ballot measure to go with.

Klapper indicated Monday that the final version might well include the Amendment 23 change but that “we’re really wrestling with the Gallagher piece.”

Her goal, she said, is to choose a version “that every constituency finds something in it to love.”

Campaign could be costly

Once a measure makes the ballot, proponents will have to persuade voters to raise their taxes. Klapper joked that it will take “astronomical amounts” of money to fund a successful campaign.

Another observer, Chris Watney of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, estimated a campaign cost of $7 to $10 million.

Asked if a June start for petition gathering was risky, Klapper said, “The experts tell me that’s enough time.”

Colorado Forum is already getting some expert advice, from Mike Melanson of OnSight Public Affairs. He’s a Democratic strategist who has managed campaigns for Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall.

One potential complication for the campaign is the fact that voters also will face a $70 million proposal to set excise and sales taxes on recreational marijuana. Asked about the possible interplay of the two measures in voters’ minds, Klapper said, “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Signing key step in long journey

The signing of SB 13-213 was the culmination of an effort that started in 2011, when a group called the Colorado School Finance Partnership began studying the state’s funding system. Many of the themes in its final report are echoed in the bill.

SB 13-213 sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston, Rep. Millie Hamner and Sen. Rollie Heath confer before bill signing.
SB 13-213 sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston, Rep. Millie Hamner and Sen. Rollie Heath confer before bill signing.
The partnership is a coalition of civic, business and education groups originally convened by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The west foyer of the Capitol was filled with leaders of education groups, partnership members, some business leaders, lobbyists, a smattering of superintendents and legislators for the signing ceremony.

Both Hickenlooper and Johnston took care to mention lots of people by name and thank them for their work on the issue.

Conspicuously absent were any Republican officials. The bill gained no GOP votes in either the House or Senate, where Republicans hewed to the party’s anti-tax orthodoxy.

On Tuesday, while Democratic legislative staffers were tweeting every nuance of the event, @CoSenGOP tweeted, “SB 213 is a billion dollar tax increase disguised as school reform.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davidson, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davidson said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”


Teacher Pay

Every Tennessee teacher will make at least $33,745 under new salary schedule

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Some teachers in 46 Tennessee districts will see a pay boost next year after the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to raise the minimum salary for educators across the state.

The unanimous vote raises the minimum pay from $32,445 to $33,745, or an increase of 4 percent. The minimum salary is the lowest that a district can pay its teachers, and usually applies to new educators.

The boost under the new schedule won’t affect most Tennessee districts, including the largest ones in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga — where teacher salaries already exceed the state minimum. (You can see the list of districts impacted here.)

The state’s largest teachers union lauded the increase, which will be funded under the state’s 2017-18 budget under Gov. Bill Haslam.

“Teachers statewide are increasingly struggling to support their own families on the stagnant wages of a public school teacher,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “It is unacceptable for teachers to have to choose between the profession they love and their ability to keep the lights on at home or send their own children to college.”

Tennessee is one of 17 states that use salary schedules to dictate minimum teacher pay, according to a 2016 analysis by the Education Commission of the States. In that analysis, Tennessee ranked 10th out of 17 on starting pay.

The 4 percent raise is a step toward addressing a nationwide issue: the widening gap in teacher wages. On average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn, according to a 2016 study from the Economic Policy Institute. Tennessee ranks 40th in that study, with its teachers earning 70 percent in comparison to other graduates.

View the Economic Policy Institute’s data in full: