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.

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.


Indiana budget deal would offer modest school funding increases plus a big fix for teacher bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Many schools across Indiana could expect more money per student in the coming years and strong teachers at struggling schools would be likely to receive higher bonuses under a budget deal announced Friday.

House and Senate lawmakers have come to an agreement on how much money to send to Indiana schools over the next two years. The budget would increase total dollars for schools by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019. Included within that: a 2.5 percent average increase for per-student funding to $6,709 in 2019, up from $6,540 this year. The budget is expected to go up for a final vote late Friday.

Overall, the budget plan would accomplish some of the key goals prioritized by Gov. Eric Holcomb, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and House Republicans. Those goals include increasing funding for the state’s preschool program, internet access for schools, and Advanced Placement exams that help students earn college credit while in high school.

Under the compromise, every district in Marion County would see its basic state aid and per-student funding increase, including Indianapolis Public Schools. (IPS would have seen cuts in the House plan, and the increases wound have been higher under the Senate plan.)

Suburban districts such as Carmel and Hamilton Southeastern would get sizable funding bumps as with the Senate plan. Districts losing enrollment, including East Chicago, could lose state money. But overall, many of the districts with some of the state’s poorest students stand to see increases. The Gary and Hammond districts, for example, would both see gains in per-student funding and overall.

Lawmakers also settled on a compromise about how to pay teachers.

Throughout the session, they waffled about whether to pay teachers more for their performance or for taking on additional work in their schools.

At first, the House cut the bonuses entirely and set aside $3 million for a “career pathways” program that would reward teachers who take on leadership roles in their schools. That was far less money than the $40 million the Senate wanted to put toward teacher bonuses, but some teachers said they would rather have the long-term opportunity to improve their teaching and leadership skills rather than a short-term bonus that might not go toward their salaries in the future.

“I want a leadership role, but I want to be a teacher — I don’t want to be an administrator,” said Allison Larty, a teacher in Noblesville and Teach Plus policy fellow. “(A bonus) is not going to be make an impact. The creation of career pathways will make an impact in the long run.”

But those dollars were eliminated in the Senate budget and the budget compromise. Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said it came down to Senate negotiations. Senators were willing to spend more on preschool, Brown said, if they didn’t have to spend elsewhere — so career pathways dollars were cut.

But lawmakers did agree to change the state’s now $30 million teacher bonus program, which came under fire from educators across the state last year for rewarding effective teachers in high-performing, usually affluent schools at a higher level than similar teachers in lower-performing schools.

Going forward, the program will dole out money based on a policy created by each school district, rather than ISTEP scores. Under the plan, the state would distribute $30 per student to each district, which would then divvy up the local bonus pool among teachers rated “effective” or “highly effective.” Of that money, up to 50 percent can be added into a teacher’s base salary so that the teacher receives it in future years as well. And teachers in virtual schools can receive these bonuses — something the Senate had moved against.

The compromise plan keeps other requirements suggested by the Senate for virtual schools, mandating that they report information about class size, teacher-per-student ratios, and how often teachers have in-person meetings to the education department each year. Virtual schools would get 90 percent of the basic per-student funding amount from the state, as they do now. (The House’s plan would have increased that to 100 percent.)

The state’s voucher program would see its funding grow over the next two years under the compromise plan. Indiana is projected to spend more than $156 million by 2018 and $167 million by 2019 on the program, up from $146 million in 2017.

This new agreement no longer carves out the voucher money as a budget line item. Critics of making it a line item said it made the program vulnerable to cuts, but supporters applauded the change because they said it increased transparency around how much the state spends on vouchers but pulling it out of school-by-school calculations and placing it squarely in the budget itself.

The budget also includes:

  • $22 million per year for the state’s preschool program, up from about $12 million. $1 million per year is set aside for “in-home” online preschool programs.
  • About $32 million for English-language learners, up from about $20 million. The grant would be $250 per English-learner student in 2018 and $300 per student in 2019. Schools with higher concentrations of English learners would get additional funding.
  • $3 million per year to improve school internet access.
  • $5 million over two years in incentive grants for schools and districts that consolidate services.
  • $10.4 million for Advanced Placement tests and $4.1 million for PSAT tests.
  • $1 million to align initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math.
  • $500,000 per year for dual language immersion programs.
  • $26.3 million per year for testing and $12.3 million per year for remediation testing.
  • $15 million per year for the Charter and Innovation Network School Grant Program, which would support schools that want to become “innovation schools.”

Chalkbeat reporter Dylan Peers McCoy contributed to this story.