Dust settles on the money fight

Something for almost everyone in legislative funding decisions

When Colorado lawmakers boast about what they did for education funding in the 2014 session, they aren’t just blowing political hot air.

The 2014-15 school finance package, plus spending included in other bills, comes to just over $479 million for K-12 education. (Throw in the $100 million in higher education funding growth and you’re talking about real money.)

And the big fight over whether to add money to basic school funding or funnel it to special programs ended with about 73 percent of the cash going to district operations.

That debate was unusually tense at times during the legislature’s five-month run, but Gov. John Hickenlooper, key lawmakers, superintendents and lobbyists were all smiles at a recent signing ceremony for two key finance bills (see story).

“We did unprecedented work in funding education,” Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, told reporters during an end-of-session briefing.

But the good feelings may not last for long.

Even though legislative action trimmed the $1 billion-plus K-12 budget shortfall, that gap still stands at $894.3 million. Created by a legislative budget-cutting device called the “negative factor,” the shortfall is the difference between what schools actually receive for basic operating costs (known as Total Program Funding) and what they would have been allocated without the negative factor.

Because of that remaining shortfall, education interest groups will continue to press for further reductions in the negative factor. “We have much ground to make up in school funding,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, after the session adjourned. “We made some good progress this year, but we are nowhere close to making a proper investment in our public schools,”

“The negative factor will continue to be an issue. It’s going to take a number of years to repay,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signs K-12 funding bills with students.
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. John Hickenlooper signs K-12 funding bills with students.

Political leaders are crossing their figures that the fight won’t be as rough in 2015. “I hope next year won’t be as contentious,” said Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the House Education Committee and a key player to the Student Success Act and the School Finance Act.

“I think it will be a continuing discussion,” said Hickenlooper. “I don’t think it will be a battle every year.”

Whether those hopes are realized remains to be seen, given that a variety of fiscal constraints and demands on the legislature could make it harder to trim the negative factor in the future. One of those is the fact that 2014-15 Total Program Funding increase become part of the K-12 budget base, which has to increase by enrollment and inflation every year.

“It’s going to be a harder fight for a smaller increase every year,” predicts Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora. “We’re going to hit a natural ceiling.”

Denver Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston agreed, saying, “We’re a year or two away from hitting the structural wall” that will make it tough to trim the negative factor.

Outgoing House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, originally resisted cuts in the negative factor but was on board with the final deal. “I think we ended up in a good place,” he said. “I feel comfortable. I’m very comfortable that we are sustainable over the next two years.”

Inside the big ed spending bills

K12_201415_SpendingChart

In their push to reduce the negative factor, district lobbyists worked hard to defeat bills that earmarked spending on specific education programs. They weren’t totally successful, but Urschel said, “I think we did very well on ‘no new mandates.’”

In contrast to many of the prior six sessions, the 2014 legislature didn’t create any big, brand-new education programs. Much of the targeted funding that was approved this year will go to existing programs that lawmakers and interest groups felt needed more money.

Here’s rundown of that spending, organized thematically with information about who gets the money or who benefits. You can get more detailed information about the bills that authorized the spending in this special Spending Bill Tracker.

Total Program Funding

Basic school support will be $5.93 billion next year, up from $5.52 billion in 2013-14. (The state share is rising $365.2 million, while local district revenues will go up about $40 million.) Next year’s funding will average $7,020, up from $6,652, according to the Department of Education.

Use Chalkbeat Colorado’s interactive database to see your district’s 2014-15 funding, and how much it will change from this year.

Special groups of students

The biggest chunk of targeted additional spending, about $63.5 million, goes to three groups of special students — at-risk preschool and kindergarten students, English language learners and primary-grade students who are behind in reading.

Funding for these programs generally is given to districts on a per-pupil basis for students who meet the criteria for various programs.

Preschool & kindergarten – $17 million in additional funding was allocated to what’s called the Early Childhood At-risk Enhancement program. That allows school districts to use the funding for either preschool or kindergarten slots for children who meet the at-risk definition of the Colorado Preschool Program. The new money adds 5,000 slots, which will mean an estimated 28,360 students will be served. (House Bill 14-1298 – School Finance Act)

English language learners – The legislature updated state law on services for such students and added $27 million in per-pupil funding. A key change in the law makes students eligible for extra funding for up to five years instead of the two years that has been the limit. ELL programs this year received $15.2 million in “categorical funding,” a $268.8 million pot of targeting spending that’s required by Amendment 23. ELL categorical funding rises to $16.7 million next year, in addition to the $27 million. Under one of the many school funding compromises made this session, the $27 million was not added to categorical funding because doing so would have locked that money into the base and given future legislatures no ability to cut the money in bad budget years. (HB 14-1298)

Struggling readers – Districts will receive an additional $18 million, again distributed per the numbers of eligible students, for early literacy interventions mandated by the 2012 READ Act, which requires individual plans and attention for lagging readers in grades K-3. The law was one of the few reform measures in recent years that was reasonably well funded from the start. But the number of students needing help was larger than expected, so the $18 million is in addition to the $15.4 million previously budgeted. (House Bill 14-1292 – Student Success Act)

Who lost out

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers pushed to increase funding for full-day kindergarten for all students, but those efforts ultimately stalled. (For kindergarten students, the state currently pays districts 58 percent of funding for other students. If districts want to offer full-day kindergarten they have to pay for it themselves – or charge parents. Kindergarten attendance is not compulsory in Colorado.)

There was debate this session about devoting additional funding to at-risk students in general. Some districts argued that extra money for at-risk preschoolers and for English-language learners doesn’t help districts with poor students who don’t fall into those categories. But no one found an affordable compromise on the issue.

Additional funding for special education students really wasn’t on the table this session. Budget increases for such programs was approved in recent sessions.

Other student support

A few bills targeting smaller groups of students managed to survive the 2014 session.

Gifted & talented – A proposal to require screening of all students and hiring of qualified coordinators in all districts was whittled down to $1.9 million and stripped of most of its mandates. The funding is on top of $9.6 million in existing money. (House Bill 14-1102)

Advanced Placement classes – This legislation was relentlessly whittled down as it moved through the process and ended up with $261,561 to provide incentives for rural districts to provide AP classes. The grants are capped at 475 students. (House Bill 14-1118)

Counselors – The Colorado Counselor Corps, which provides additional counselors at schools with at-risk students, got an additional $3 million on top of $5 million in current funding. This bill was one of several that took a haircut. (Senate Bill 14-150)

And still more spending bills

A long list of other measures, and provisions in omnibus spending bills, provided cash for a wide variety of administrative costs, studies, training, school safety and other programs.

At-risk student support

Minority teachers – Lawmakers found $50,000 for the Department of Education to do a study of recruitment and retention of minority teachers. (House Bill 14-1175)

Opportunity gaps – This is a mandate that would provide $144,216 to create a database to track enrollment of different groups of students in core courses, also correlated to test scores. The idea is to uncover tracking of minority students. (House Bill 14-1376)

Turnaround leaders – A program to train leaders for low-performing schools received $2 million in funding. (Senate Bill 14-214)

Charter school facilities

Charter schools, which usually don’t have access to bond issue and other revenues that districts enjoy, often struggle with construction, lease and maintenance costs. Charters will get up to $11.5 million in per-pupil based facilities reimbursements, on top of the current $7 million. Another $6.5 million was added to a fund that backs charter construction loans. (HB 14-1292)

Health & Safety

School meals – Students in grades 3-5 who are eligible for reduced-price meals will get free meals under a bill that primarily will tap federal funds. (House Bill 14-1156). The Breakfast After the Bell program will get an additional $14.3 million in federal funds. (House Bill 14-1336 – Main state budget)

Medical emergencies – High school students will be able to get training in CPR under a $250,000 new grant program. (House Bill 14-1276)

Walking to school – The Safe Routes to School program, which provides education about safe walking and biking to school, will get $700,000 in state funds, partly to cover loss of federal money that the Department of Education has received in the past. (House Bill 14-1301)

Threat reporting – The non-profit Safe2Tell program is being brought into the Department of Law and funded with $318,246 in state money. The program provides a way for young people to anonymously report threats (including suicide), bullying and other dangers. (Senate Bill 14-002)

Marijuana – A bill that details how the state will use marijuana tax revenues includes $2.5 million for a grant program that schools can tap for school nurse training and marijuana education. (Senate Bill 14-215)

Testing

The legislature stepped away from making any changes to the state testing system but did come up with $142,750 to fund work related to a task force study of assessments. (House Bill 14-1202) There’s also $3.8 million in additional funds earmarked for CDE testing costs, and $826,046 more for Spanish language tests. (HB 14-1336)

Administrative Costs & Another Study

What’s included

  • While much of the 2014 debate swirled around use of the state General Fund and the State Education Fund, this story lists bills that tapped other sources of revenue, including federal funds, to give a broader of education funding increases. (Spending for the Building Excellent Schools Today construction program, which receives revenues from state-owned lands, isn’t included.)

Financial transparency – The final big fight over the Student Success Act was about whether to fund a state website that users could search for information about K-12 spending, down to the individual school level. CDE received $3 million to hire a contractor to build such a site, which doesn’t have to launch before July 1, 2017. (HB 14-1292)

Online schools – Among the many studies is one on how to oversee multi-district online schools. A task force will be created to do that, at a cost of $47,659. (House Bill 14-1382)

Small districts – Colorado’s boards of cooperative educational services will get an additional $2 million in state funding, the idea being to give BOCES more resources so that they can help smaller districts with implementation of various new state educational requirements. (HB 14-1298)

CDE increases – The department got several pots of additional money to run various programs, including teacher of the year ($24,800), early childhood administration ($63,607), creation of early childhood student identifiers ($298,000), information technology improvements ($3 million), English language learner programs ($311,682) and college and career readiness programs ($170,845). (HB 14-1298 and HB 14-1336)

CDE also gets a little bit off the top of several bills for administration. For example, state law allows the department to retain up to 3 percent of Counselor Corps funding for its costs – primarily staff – of running the program.

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.”

diplomas for all

Education commissioner floats idea of allowing a work readiness credential to confer benefits of a diploma

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

A high school diploma opens doors to matriculating in college, qualifying for certain jobs and entering the military.

But many students struggle with New York state’s arduous requirements, which generally include passing at least four Regents exams. During a discussion Tuesday about creating more diploma options, New York state’s education commissioner floated a radical solution: Allow students to use a work-readiness credential to obtain a “local diploma” instead.

“I think what we need to look at is the opportunity of saying can the CDOS [Career Development and Occupational Studies credential] be, can the completion of the CDOS sequence, be an appropriate end to receiving a local diploma?” Elia said during a Board of Regents conversation about graduation requirements.

The CDOS credential was originally crafted in 2013 as an alternative to a diploma for students with disabilities. They can show they are ready for employment by completing hundreds of hours of vocational coursework and job-shadowing or by passing a work-readiness exam. The rules were changed last year to also allow general education students to obtain the credential, which can substitute for a fifth Regents exam for students who pass four.

Allowing the credential itself to confer the benefits of a diploma would mark a seismic shift in what it means to graduate in New York state. Students would potentially avoid having to pass a series of Regents exams — which would mark a huge victory for advocates who argue those exams unfairly hold students back.

But it would also raise questions about whether standards are being watered down. Chalkbeat has reported that the work-readiness exams used to obtain a CDOS credential often test fairly basic life skills, such as how to overcome obstacles when throwing a company party. The state itself is currently reviewing these exams to see if they have “sufficient rigor.”

The state cautioned that there is no formal proposal on the table. Also, the commissioner’s statement Tuesday morning was vague. If state officials decide to move forward with the proposal, for instance, they would need to decide if it is for all students or only students with disabilities. Officials would also need to clarify whether the work-readiness exam itself was sufficient for a diploma, or whether extra coursework would be tacked on.

“The Board of Regents and the State Education Department have made it a priority to allow students to demonstrate their proficiency to graduate in many ways. This is not about changing our graduation standards. It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “Today, the Board of Regents and the Department started a discussion to examine all of New York’s diploma options and graduation requirements. This discussion will continue over the coming months. It is premature to speculate on any changes that could be made as a result of this process.”

Regardless of any changes, all students would likely be required to complete the same number of high school courses, which includes 22 credits of required work, state officials said.

Still, just having the head of the state’s education department float this concept suggests a dramatic policy reversal. Starting in 2005, the Regents began a process to make it more difficult to earn a diploma in an attempt to prepare more students for college and career. Local diplomas exist today but are only offered in limited cases, for students with disabilities who complete a set of requirements, including the math and English Regents, and for general education students who just miss passing two of their Regents exams.

Recently, state education officials have been looking for ways to help students just shy of the passing mark. In 2014, they created a “4+1” option, which allows students to substitute a final Regents exam for a pathway in areas like the arts or Career and Technical Education, and then last year added CDOS as a potential pathway.

In 2016, another rule change allowed students to appeal Regents exam grades with scores below passing and let students with disabilities graduate after passing two Regents exams and getting a superintendent’s review. Last year, the number of New York City students successfully appealing Regents exam scores in order to graduate tripled, likely contributing to a boost in the city’s graduation rate.

By placing a discussion about diploma options on Tuesday’s agenda, state officials suggested the Regents want to do even more. Allowing students to earn a local diploma without passing any Regents exams would be the biggest change to date.

Stephen Sigmund, executive director of High Achievement New York, did not comment specifically on this provision and said he generally supports recent changes to graduation requirements. But he said looking forward, it will be important to maintain high standards.

“Ensuring that there’s rigor and that graduates are ready for what comes next is very important,” Sigmund said.

Many education advocates are likely to be supportive by the change. A group of activists rallied at the State Education Department on Monday, carrying signs that said “diplomas for all.”

These and other advocates argue that students across the state — particularly those with disabilities or those who struggle with tests — have had their life options severely limited by the exams.

State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who has been active in fighting for more diploma options, said for him, finding solutions for these students outweighs critics’ concerns about rigor.

“I think this is a major victory for parents who had seen their potential for their children stifled,” Kaminsky said. “I am firmly of the belief that we need to err on the side of giving children options to graduate.”