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.)

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.