Budget battles

Party lines sharply drawn on Common Core, PARCC

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, argues for cutting funding for PARCC tests.

During a procedural roll-call vote early Thursday evening, all 17 Republican senators voted for a motion to pull $16.8 million in funding for the coming PARCC tests from the proposed 2014-15 state budget.

The motion failed, as all 18 Democratic senators voted against it. The vote was not on a bill, merely on an amendment to a small portion of the budget.

The vote came exactly a week after the House defeated a similar amendment during its consideration of the budget, House Bill 13-1336. But three House Republicans opposed the move to defund PARCC, including Cheri Gerou of Evergreen, Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch and Carole Murray of Castle Rock.

The votes spotlight erosion of Republican support for key elements of the mainline education reform agenda. In past sessions many Republicans have supported major reform legislation such as school and district accountability and educator evaluation, programs that depend on statewide test results.

“It’s really a vote in support of or in opposition to the state proceeding with the Common Core,” said conservative Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. “I don’t know of a more substantive decision we can make today.”

The vote was the culmination of a discussion that started earlier in the afternoon when Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, proposed two amendments to trim the $16.8 million from the budget. The two amendments consumed about 45 minutes of debate, and both were defeated on initial votes.

Both were doomed from the start, but that didn’t dampen Marble’s emotional rhetoric. She’s emerged this year as the Senate’s most strident critic of testing, the Common Core Standards and almost anything else associated with education reform.

She talks a lot about returning to the way education used to be, and on Thursday she said, “Going back to basics is not a bad thing.” Earlier she commented, “ ‘Dick and Jane’ wasn’t such a bad reading book after all.”

Lundberg picked up the theme, saying the Common Core “has a whole lot to do with indoctrination [in] a unified set of values.”

But Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, argued, “This amendment turns the clock backwards instead of moving us forward into the 21st century.”

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and a central figure on education reform legislation, also spoke against defunding PARCC.

The roll-call vote came at the end of the debate, when attempts to overturn earlier votes are permitted under legislative rules.

“Voracious appetite” beats out fiscal caution

The simmering fight over campus construction projects boiled up again Thursday as the Senate debated the budget.

While ideology and partisan feeling play a role in the testing and K-12 discussions, opinions in the college construction debate are driven by local interests, and they cross party lines.

And the funny thing is the fight is largely over state revenue hasn’t yet been collected. The tussle is largely about a priority list of campus construction projects that, under the plan approved by the House, would receive up to $119 million in funding only if the 2013-14 budget year surplus ends up being larger than currently forecast by executive branch economists. (It’s complicated; see this story for the explanation.)

After the dust settled Thursday evening in the Senate, the price tag for wish list projects has risen to $129 million. And senators had decided a new science building at Fort Lewis College would be split between $10 million in certain funding and $10 million in surplus “wish list” funding and that a $20 million building at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison had been added to the surplus-funding wish list.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, fought hard against the pork-barrel spending spree, repeatedly referring to lawmakers’ “voracious appetite” for building projects. But his amendments to trim the cost of the wish list were defeated.

“There is a voracious appetite to fund projects,” he said. Rather, he suggested, lawmakers shouldn’t commit future revenues now but let the 2015 legislature decide how to spend any surplus from this year.

“Let the army of lobbyists for all the higher education institutions take care of that with next year’s Capital Development Committee,” he said. “I wish we could restrain ourselves.”

After losing a vote on one amendment, Steadman quipped, “The voracious appetite marches on.”

Steadman did get some support from Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “What we’re fighting over is phantom dollars for phantom projects,” he said.

The dispute over spending future revenues is partly a feud between the Capital Development Committee and the Joint Budget Committee, of which Steadman is vice chair.

Rep. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village and chair of capital development, objected to Steadman’s “voracious” comments. A former CU regent, Schwartz is known for her advocacy of higher education spending.

Use of to-be-collected surplus revenues for campus buildings would have the effect of capping at $31 million a 2013 law to transfer extra money to the State Education Fund, which is used to support various K-12 programs.

That was mentioned only once during Thursday’s debate. Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said while he supports the college funding plan, “It also means less money going into the State Education Fund.” (K-12 interests have decided not to oppose the plan and focus instead on bigger education funding bills.)

Trying to steal from various Peters to pay Paul

One of Marble’s amendments would have shifted the $16.8 million of testing money into K-12 funding to reduce what everyone at the Capitol calls the “negative factor,” or the current $1 billion shortfall in school funding.

Republicans had drafted nine other negative-factor amendments that proposed to generate varying amounts of money by taking it from a grab bag of state programs.

Steadman kept pointing out that the negative factor can’t be affected by amendments to the budget bill but rather can only be changed through the annual School Finance Act, which is House Bill 14-1298 this year.

Republicans made their points on three of the amendments, all of which lost, and they withdrew the other six, to the relief of everyone in the chamber.

(Sen. David Balmer, D-Centennial, provided a little insight into the intensity of negative factor as an issue this year. “I’ve received almost 700 emails from parents in my district that the negative factor be reduced with no strings attached.”)

The Senate is expected to take the final roll-call vote on HB 14-1336 Friday. Then the Joint Budget Committee will have to reconcile differing House and Senate amendments and make sure the whole thing balances.

“I think we have some work yet to do,” Steadman said.

New Partner

Boys & Girls Clubs coming to two Memphis schools after all

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Principal Tisha Durrah stands at the entrance of Craigmont High, a Memphis school that soon will host one of the city's first school-based, after-school clubs operated by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

Principal Tisha Durrah says her faculty can keep students focused and safe during school hours at Craigmont High School. It’s the time after the final bell rings that she’s concerned about.

“They’re just walking the neighborhood basically,” Durrah says of daily after-school loitering around the Raleigh campus, prompting her to send three robocalls to parents last year. “It puts our students at risk when they don’t have something to do after school.”

Those options will expand this fall.

Craigmont is one of two Memphis schools that will welcome after-school programs run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis following this week’s change of heart by Shelby County’s Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners voted 9-4 to foot the bill for operational costs to open clubs at Craigmont and Dunbar Elementary. The decision was a reversal from last week when the board voted down Shelby County Schools’ request for an extra $1.6 million to open three school-based clubs, including one at Riverview School. Wednesday’s approval was for a one-time grant of $905,000.

Commissioners have agreed all along that putting after-school clubs in Memphis schools is a good idea — to provide more enriching activities for neighborhood children in need. But some argued last week that the district should tap existing money in its savings account instead of asking the county for extra funding. Later, the district’s lawyers said the school system can only use that money legally to pay for direct educational services, not to help fund a nonprofit’s operations.

Heidi Shafer is one of two commissioners to reverse their votes in favor of the investment. She said she wanted to move ahead with a final county budget, but remains concerned about the clubs’ sustainability and the precedent being set.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club provides after-school programs for children and teens.

“If we give (money) to something that’s para-education, we have less to give to education,” she said. “There’s only a limited amount of dollars to go around.”

The funding will help bring to Memphis the first-ever school-based Boys & Girls clubs opened through Shelby County Schools, the largest district in Tennessee, said Keith Blanchard, the organization’s Memphis CEO.

While the nonprofit has had a local presence since 1962 and is up to seven sites in Memphis, it’s had no local government funding heretofore, which is unusual across its network. Nationally, about 1,600 of the organization’s 4,300 clubs are based in schools.

Blanchard plans to get Dunbar’s club up and running by the beginning of October in the city’s Orange Mound community. Craigmont’s should open by November.

“We hope to maybe do another school soon. … A lot will depend on how this school year goes,” he said. “I certainly hope the county sees the value in this and continues to fund in a significant way.”

At Craigmont, the club will mean after-school tutoring and job training in computer science and interviewing skills. Durrah says the activities will provide extra resources as the district seeks to better equip students for life after high school.

“It looks toward the long term,” Durrah said of the program. “This really fits in with the district’s college- and career-ready goals.”

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.