Colorado

Education issues a key feature of Election 2013

Colorado’s 2013 election is a great example of the old cliché that all politics is local.

Aside from Amendment 66, the proposed $950 million P-12 statewide tax increase, and the proposed marijuana tax, ballots around the state are dominated by local races and questions.

IllustrationIn Arapahoe County, for instance, there are five city elections for nearly 20 offices and nine ballot measures and five school district elections for 13 board seats, plus two school ballot measures. (That’s not to mention the 15 special district questions on Arapahoe ballots.)

School board elections are a common feature on ballots around the state, although the number of proposed district tax measures is down compared to recent years, partly because some school boards were reluctant to compete with A66 for voter attention.

Elections this year are being conducted this year with mail ballots that voters will need to return by mail or at voting centers.

Here’s a quick review at how Election 2013 shapes up for education:

Statewide issues

The vote on A66 sets up a watershed moment for education funding in Colorado. Passage of the income-tax increase would create significant new revenues for public schools and trigger implementation of Senate Bill 13-213, a sweeping change in how funds are allocated to individual school districts.

Defeat of the amendment could well lock schools into a tight “new normal” of funding that is some $1 billion lower than it would have been if not for recession-induced budget cuts in recent years.

Proposition AA, the proposed taxes on recreational marijuana, also has education implications in that some of the revenue would be earmarked for school construction.

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School board races

Colorado’s 178 school boards are organized in a variety of ways. Many boards have five members, some have seven; many board members serve at-large while others represent areas within districts. Some boards preside over multi-million-dollar enterprises; others oversee small budgets and a few hundred students.

But all school board members are elected, and all run in November of odd-numbered years.

There’s also great variation in the intensity of board races, with hot contests in some districts and cancelled elections in others because there weren’t enough candidates to make a race.

For instance, among the 10 largest districts, there are strongly contested races in Denver, Douglas County and Jefferson County and full slates of candidates in Adams 12-Five Star, Aurora and Colorado Springs District 11.

But only one of two seats is contested in Cherry Creek, and only one of three in Poudre. And Boulder Valley and St. Vrain cancelled their board elections because there weren’t enough candidates to make a race.

Among El Paso County’s 15 districts, about a dozen have at least one contested seat. (El Paso has the largest number of districts of any single county.)

Denver and Douglas County have the highest profile races. In DPS, where four of seven seats are on the ballot, the races are a replay of recent years’ contests in that they put a group of candidates who support the administration’s reform initiatives against a group who are more skeptical of those policies and more supportive of neighborhood school improvement.

In Dougco, there’s a similar four-versus-four split, with challengers attacking the current board’s operating procedures and financial management, among other issues.

The intensity seems a bit lower, but Jeffco has a similar split between administration supporters and critics in its three races.

The Dougco election in 2009 was marked by over Republican Party involvement in the board races, leading to a takeover of the board. This year the GOP is backing certain candidates in both counties.

There’s also an overlay of partisanship or ideology in a few other districts’ races. In Grand Junction’s Mesa 51 contests the county GOP is backing certain candidates. An in northern Colorado’s Thompson district a tea party-type group named Liberty Watch is backing a slate.

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District tax proposals

School district tax proposals were the big election story in 2012, when voters in 29 school districts approved 34 bond issues and operating revenue increases – plus one sales tax hike – worth just over $1 billion. Districts had 38 proposals worth about $1.03 billion on the ballot.

The list is shorter and the ask is smaller this year. Some 23 districts have tax measures on the ballot, but the amount requested is only $206.4 million, according to information compiled by the Colorado School Finance Project. And the largest proposal, an $80 million bond issue in Littleton, wouldn’t require additional property taxes but merely asks voters to approve continuation of an existing tax.

Other proposals of note include a $44 million bond issue in Commerce City and tax overrides for operating expenses in Westminster ($5.2 million), Lewis-Palmer ($4.5 million) and Canon City ($1.3 million).

Six small districts are seeking $30.4 million worth of bond issues to raise the matching funds needed to qualify for state Building Excellent Schools Today construction grants.

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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.