From the Statehouse

Johnston pitches tax plan, gets some advice

Voters will need a clear, understandable message to gain their support for the proposed $950 million K-12 tax increase, members of a key education advisory panel have told Sen. Mike Johnston, the plan’s leading backer.

Sen. Mike Johnston (right) makes a point as Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia listens.
Sen. Mike Johnston (right) makes a point as Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia listens.

Johnston met Thursday with the Education Leadership Council, which advises Gov. John Hickenlooper on education issues. The session came just four days ahead of the deadline for submitting the petitions necessary to put the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot.

The always-optimistic Johnston was bullish about potential voter support and fundraising. He told the group that private polling shows the measure with support of 52 to 54 percent. On fundraising, he said, “Our target is to raise $6 to $10 million.”

The appointed council, which includes education and business leaders plus assorted civic figures, was a friendly audience for Johnston, and much of the discussion focused on building public understanding and what it will take to pass the plan.

“There’s a lot in this that is hard to explain,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who chairs the group. “That allows people to misstate what’s in it.”

The ballot measure would raise state income tax rates to 5 percent on income up to $75,000 a year. Income above that amount would be taxed at 5.9 percent. The current individual tax rate is 4.63 percent on all income. The measure is needed to fund Senate Bill 13-213, a much more complicated law that would change the formula for funding school districts and direct more money to preschool and full-day kindergarten, as well as to districts with high concentrations of at-risk students and English-language learners.

Johnston, who’s been crisscrossing the state since well before SB 13-213 was passed, said, “There were some misunderstandings” but believes citizens are beginning to understand the plan. “For the most part we’ve gotten a great deal of excitement.”

He added, “There’s going to be massive outreach operation in the next three months,”

Nate Easley, executive director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, said voters will want to know if raising taxes will lead to better education outcomes, and “what’s in it for me.”

Johnston said the campaign will include customized fact sheets that will let voters know what the new system will mean for individual schools districts.

“I think the challenge is the people who don’t have kids,” Easley said.

Johnston replied that the campaign will need to make the case that an improved education system is necessary for future economic growth.

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said the campaign needs a clear, simple message. “There’s a lot of information. We’re going to need a focused, factual ‘here’s-what-it-does’ [message],” she said.

Noting that many business leaders seem ambivalent about the proposal, Stevenson said, “Chambers of commerce are going to need some personal attention” and that there needs to be “a particular campaign for small-business people.”

Concerns have been raised about the proposal’s impact on business because many small business owners pay their business taxes on their individual returns. (Johnston said the two-step tax rate proposed in the ballot measure actually places less of a burden on business than one of the alternatives, a flat percentage increase in taxes on all.)

Garcia noted that the group’s discussion indicated that even the well informed have questions about the proposal. “If we aren’t well informed enough to correct some of the misconceptions, we have no chance,” he warned.

Johnston took on some of those criticisms in his remarks.

On the two-step tax rate, he said, “We very intentionally built the tax structure to meet the objections we heard.”

He also said the proposal would provide a more certain source of school funding than the current constitutional provision that requires base K-12 spending to increase annually based on enrollment and population.

The ballot measure and SB 13-213 would devote 43 percent of annual state revenues to schools plus include a reserve fund to cover spending in years when revenues decline.

Some Republican critics of the plan warn that the legislature could use the new revenues to shore up the Public Employees Retirement Association pension system.

Johnston said the provisions of SB 13-213 would prevent that. “There are belts and suspenders and duct tape all over this” to ensure funding isn’t diverted.

The Denver Democrat also dismissed as “pure fiction” concerns that some districts actually would lose funding under the plan.

Contributions to backers top $1 million

Colorado Commits to Kids, the main campaign committee backing the tax increase, on Thursday reported it has raised $1.08 million since it launched in June. Nearly $740,000 was raised in July, according to a monthly report filed with the secretary of state.

Notable contributions included $250,000 from David Merage, a businessman and philanthropist; $250,000 for Fort Collins philanthropist Pat Stryker, a longtime donor to Democratic Party and liberal causes; $50,000 from the advocacy group Stand for Children; an additional $150,000 from Gary Community Investment Co. and an additional $10,000 from Dan Ritchie, CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. The Gary firm and Ritchie also contributed in June. (See the full list of July contributors here, and read this EdNews story about the group’s June financial report.)

(Three other groups, one in support and two opposed, reported no July activity.)

The committee’s main spending in July was the $491,198 paid to FieldWorks, the campaign firm that is gathering petition signatures for the measure. The company was paid $75,000 in June.

Colorado Commits face a Monday deadline to file at least 86,105 signatures with the Department of State. The campaign hasn’t commented on how the signature gathering has gone, but observers expect it will have more than enough signatures, given the amount spent with FieldWorks, which is using paid petition circulators.

Groups such as the Colorado Education Association and Great Education Colorado have been gathering signatures using volunteer circulators.

A different spin on polling

While Johnston was putting a positive spin on polling numbers, the opposition group Compass Colorado issued a news release citing an April poll with a different take. “Not only do voters oppose the two-tiered tax increase system of Initiative 22, they strongly oppose the initiative across all ages and genders,” the group said.

Compass, which has Republican ties, is organized in such a way that it’s not required to report contributions and spending. It actively opposed Proposition 103 in 2011, a different education tax plan defeated by voters. (Read the Compass news release.)

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

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 Davison, 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,” Davison 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.”