Colorado

Schomp, Johnson emphasize differences over mill levy, school choice

Updated: We’ve now added the complete video of the debate.

Central Denver school board candidates Meg Schomp and Michael Johnson went one-on-one Wednesday night, throwing into relief their differences over everything from the school board’s role in community engagement to school choice to the oversight of 2012’s bond and mill levy funding.

“There’s a real choice here,” Johnson said. “Meg and I have some real differences.”

The debate was the first in a series sponsored by the advocacy group A+ Denver, along with EdNews and KDVR Fox31. KDVR’s Eli Stokols moderated the debate using his own versions of questions provided by A+ Denver and by members of the public who submitted questions online.

Each candidate used the debate to emphasize the priorities of their campaign: Schomp focused on community engagement and broadening the curriculum beyond the basics of math and reading, while Johnson advocated for increased school choice and greater school-level control over budgets and programming.

In ten years, Johnson said, he wants the district to graduate every student either prepared to go to college without remediation or ready to enter a career path.

“I think we need to raise our expectations, we need to raise our standards,” Johnson said.

Schomp said that vision needed to be made broader, to ensure that students were not only equipped with the basic academic skills but also with a strong basis in subjects like art and civics.

“I think that college and career readiness are extremely important, but I also think there are other elements that are important for a child’s success in life,” Schomp said.

Here are some of the highlights of major topics discussed over the course of the debate:

School choice

Schomp said that her preference is to create a system where the first option for families is to have an excellent neighborhood school that their children can walk to and from.

“I support alternative options for our children,” Schomp said, noting her own child’s enrollment at the Denver Green School, which is an innovation school. “However, I don’t support the possibility of our neighborhood schools being starved as a result of it.”

Schomp argued that the proliferation of charter schools and district-run “innovation” schools that have exemptions from certain district requirements are hurting traditional schools’ ability to function.

“When we’re giving innovation schools and charter schools some latitudes that we don’t give our traditional schools, that’s not a fair playing field,” Schomp said.

Johnson replied that the solution to that problem is to give neighborhood schools the same kind of bureaucratic freedom enjoyed by charter and innovation schools.

“I’d like to see the neighborhood schools have the same kind of flexibility in organizing their day and how they run their schools,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that his priority is to give families access to whatever school program works best for their student, a goal that he said requires the expansion of school choice.

“I would like for us to come as close as we can to have an individualized education plan for every child,” Johnson said.

Community engagement

Both candidates agreed that the district should do a better job engaging families and community members, but they articulated slightly different approaches to how school board members should move to the front lines.

“I think that parents too often have been engaged in problems with our schools too late,” Schomp said. “We don’t have early and often engagement. Our families at times find it hard to access the district.”

As a solution, Schomp proposed that the school board have quarterly meetings outside of the district’s administrative buildings.

“I like that idea,” Johnson responded, “But I think that the first job for community outreach is the elected school board members. I think it’s our obligation to reach out to the community; I think it’s our obligation to go to PTA meetings.”

Stokols asked what the candidates thought the board should do to help schools that are struggling and losing students. In response, Johnson raised an idea that he would emphasize throughout the evening: pushing more decision-making down to the school level.

“Give all the local schools more autonomy so they can develop a program that works well for the community,” Johnson said. “I think if we got rid of the rigid, top-down rules that controls what we do on a daily basis, that would make a big difference.”

Bond and mill levy oversight

Disagreement over the merits of the $466 million bond issue and $49 million property tax measure that passed last year prompted some of the liveliest exchanges of the debate.

Johnson, who helped design and campaign for the mill levy and bond and who currently serves as the co-chair of the levy’s oversight committee, described the measures as an essential step to bring to Denver’s schools the type of arts, physical education and enrichment activities that Schomp argued schools need.

“I wonder how you can run for the school board having opposed that funding,” Johnson said.

Schomp, however, was a prominent critic of the measures, and characterized the design and implementation of them as lacking in community involvement and oversight.

“If I felt it was a good bond, I would support it,” she said. “And I would like to see a new bond.”

Amendment 66

Both candidates said they support the proposed $950 million tax increase for education.

Teacher evaluations

Johnson is a strong proponent of the evaluation plan, known as LEAP, that Denver is developing, while Schomp expressed reservations about the weight that the evaluation system places on students’ standardized test scores.

“At this point we are evaluating teachers based on achievement tests that teachers cannot control the factors for,” Schomp said, noting that the results of tests are often influenced by socioeconomic factors such as whether a child has eaten on the day of the exam.

Schomp also expressed concern about the classroom experience level of LEAP’s peer evaluators and principals, arguing that often the evaluators have spent less time in classrooms than the teachers they are rating.

Johnson downplayed those concerns, arguing that the results of the evaluation system has been instrumental in helping support teachers as they improve their practice.

“We’ve developed a system that has buy-in from teachers,” he said. “It’s very fair.”

The next debate, featuring the candidates for the at-large seat, will be held next Thursday, September 26. If you have a question for the candidates, submit it here.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.