Practice Makes Perfect

Colorado students show lawmakers their policy chops

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Students presenting to state representatives as part of the Colorado Youth Advisory Council.

Joshua May of Grand Junction had the attention of a dozen state legislators. They had heard the series of water policy recommendations he and his colleagues came to share, and now it was time to bring the point home.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m a really big statistics guy. I don’t like doing anything without the numbers to back it up,” May said.

“Of the top ten states that are fastest-growing, four of them rely on the Colorado River for their water,” he said. “For us to consider living in a future Colorado, we want to make sure it is growing, but that it’s growing sustainably.”

Do you ever wonder whether teenagers care about public policy? Josh is a junior in high school.

His colleagues were a group of teenagers from across the state who are participating in the Colorado Youth Advisory Council, created by the state in 2008. Students apply to participate in the council, and remain members for two years.

The advisory council’s 40 members gathered at the capitol building in Denver Monday to present a set of recommendations about water policy, mental health, K-12 testing, and public safety.

The teens had been working on the proposals for months before their trip to Denver, first identifying their concerns, researching and surveying their peers, and developing a set of recommendations.

The education policy group zeroed in on an issue that has been a hot topic across the state: Standardized testing.

Students surveyed their peers and found, among other things, that just 3 percent felt standardized tests benefitted them. They also found that more than half of their fellow students would rather take paper-and-pencil tests than online exams.

The students recommended that the PARCC test and any consequences based on its results be postponed, and that the state provide paper tests, especially to schools in rural areas.

The issue was close to home: Most of the students are either in the middle of their standardized testing or just finished one round.

East High School student Adina Glickstein said that the students wanted to make clear to the legislators that their recommendations are nonpartisan. “We’re students, and this affects us.”

The legislators pushed the students on their presentations: After the water policy team spoke, several lawmakers expressed skepticism about the impact rainwater collection would have on the state’s rivers and streams. During the education section, the students had to cut off questions from interested legislators.

Legislators commended the students for their work. The final question of the day from the panel of legislators: “Would you like to take our seats?”

Student Matthew Barad, from Colorado Springs, said he had at least one concrete piece of evidence that the legislators were paying attention. “I have three business cards in my wallet of people who want to talk more about education,” he said.

Below, watch two East High School students describe the testing policy recommendations they presented to the state legislators.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

an almost-deal

Albany deal appears close after Assembly passes two-year extension of mayoral control

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at a 2015 press conference with Democratic colleagues

After weeks of haggling by state lawmakers — and a day spent huddling behind closed doors — the stage is set for a possible two-year extension of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of city schools.

The Assembly passed a bill in the wee hours of Thursday morning that outlines both the extension and a number of other provisions, including the reauthorization of local taxes and the renaming of the Tappan Zee Bridge for the late Governor Mario Cuomo. Notably, it does not include sweeteners for the charter school sector, which Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has forcefully opposed.

The state Senate is expected to return for a vote Thursday afternoon, though it is not yet clear if a deal has been reached. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, did not confirm a final agreement, but told reporters Wednesday night that negotiations were “moving in the right direction.”

According to Politico, the text of the bill was released just before 11:30 p.m. and passed the Assembly around 1 a.m., by a vote of 115-15.

The bill was passed in an “extraordinary session” called by Governor Andrew Cuomo this week after lawmakers failed to reach a deal during the regular legislative session, which ended last Wednesday. Mayoral control is set to expire Friday at midnight, an imminent deadline that’s led to a flurry of “what-ifs.”

If the Senate approves the deal, it would be a victory for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has repeatedly sought multi-year extensions but been granted only one-year reprieves. It would also allay the fears of education experts on both sides of the political aisle, who have spoken out on the need to retain mayoral control rather than returning to a decentralized system run by 32 community school boards.

Losing mayoral control “would be devastating,” wrote schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a June 19 op-ed. “If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress.”

But not everyone was pleased with the way things have gone down this week. “Today’s extraordinary session produced nothing to celebrate,” wrote Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb in a statement released after the vote. “There is no victory in completing work that should have been done weeks ago. No one deserves applause for passing bills in the middle of the night out of public view.”