Statehouse rounup

Senate and House each pass testing bills, setting up push for compromise

The Senate voted 33-2 early Friday evening to pass its main testing bill, followed a few hours later by a 52-12 House vote to pass its assessment proposal.

Key elements of Senate Bill 15-257 include reduction of high school testing to one set of exams, and flexibility for districts to use their own tests. (See this story for details.)

The House plan, House Bill 15-1323, would allow more high school testing and less district flexibility. (See this story for details.)

The two chambers have three days to come to a compromise; the legislature has to adjourn next Wednesday.

The Senate took its final vote without discussion. House members had a bit of debate before casting their votes.

“We have a commitment that we are going to continue to work on the two bills to reach compromise,” Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, told her colleagues.

No compromise plan has yet been reached, according to statehouse sources. The major differences between the houses are over 9th grade testing and district flexibility in assessments.

In other developments Friday, legislation on opting out of tests and on student data privacy, two top priorities for some legislators and parent groups this year, appear to be dead.

A measure that sought to codify parent rights to opt of testing and to protect districts and teachers from the impact of low test participation was killed by the House Education Committee on a 6-5 bipartisan vote. Senate Bill 15-223 was heavily lobbied, with education reform groups pushing to kill the bill and the Colorado Education Association working to support it.

The last surviving data privacy measure, Senate 15-173, isn’t technically dead, but it’s close to it.

The Senate voted 22-13 to reject House amendments to the measure. If the House doesn’t give up its changes, which is unlikely, the bill will die. The House amendments were generally favorable to technology companies, and some parent activists lobbied the Senate not to accept them.

House Education provides some late-session drama

The opt-out bill passed the Senate 28-7 after amendments tightened the measure considerably (see story). But it languished in the House for most of April as lobbyists pushed and pulled members on the issue.

Proponents argued that it was needed to protect districts from state sanctions for low test participation rates. Opponents maintained the bill would derail the state district and school accountability system and put federal funding for poor students at risk.

The committee, meeting between House floor sessions on a hectic day, made several amendments to the bill and rehashed familiar arguments.

In closing statements before the vote, members aired their struggles with the bill. Here’s a sample:

  • “I’ve been lobbied more on this bill than any other bill this session,” said Rep. JoAnn Windholz, R-Brighton. “There is just a lot of uncertainty” about its impact. She voted no.
  • “This has been a really tough bill for me,” said Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs. “We’ve gotten a lot of lobbying on this from a lot of people.” He voted yes.
  • “I’ve gone back and forth on this bill more times than I can count,” said Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. He voted yes.
  • “This is the most stressful bill I’ve dealt with this session, but it is also the most bizarre,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida. He said he started out supporting the bill but decided to vote no.

Voting for the bill were Lee, Moreno and Reps. Justin Everett, R-Littleton; Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, and Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood. Those voting in the majority to kill the bill were Wilson, Windholz and Reps. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora; Alex Garnett, D-Denver; Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson.

No window for compromise on data privacy

The prime sponsor of the data privacy bill, Republican Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker, told his colleagues on the floor that “I can’t agree to” the SB 15-173 amendments added in the House.

“I believe there is not a reason to call a conference committee because the bill has just gone in two different directions,” Holbert said.

He said it’s better for the bill to die than to make parent groups mad by passing the House version or to antagonize the technology industry by passing the Senate version.

All the no votes on the motion to reject House amendments were Democrats.

In other action

Other education-related bills of interest were on the move Friday, including:

School finance – The Senate accepted House amendments and voted 35-0 to repass Senate Bill 15-267, the 2015-16 school finance act. The bill increases K-12 funding to account for inflation and population growth, reduces the state’s $860 million funding shortfall by $25 million and provides $5 million to be distributed to districts based on how many at-risk students they have. (Background here and see district-by-district spreadsheet here)

Claire Davis Act – The House voted 43-21 for Senate Bill 15-213, the measure that would make school districts liable for some violent incidents. Given that House amendments were minor, the Senate isn’t expected to put up a fight, so this one is close to being done. (Background here)

Bonds for PERA – Tbe proposal to shore up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association passed the House 45-19. Prospects in the Senate may be cloudier for House Bill 15-1388. (Background here.)

Pay for success – The Senate gave preliminary approval to House Bill 15-1317. The bill would allow the state to create “pay for success” programs through which foundations and investors could fund social services such as early childhood programs and be repaid later from the savings in other programs such as special education.

More money for K-12 – The House gave preliminary approval to House Bill 15-1389, the measure that would reclassify revenue received from the state’s hospital provider fee so that it doesn’t count against the state’s annual revenue limit. The potential effect of the bill would be to free up other state funds for K-12, highways, higher education and other programs.

Other money for K-12 – As expected, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted 3-2 to kill House Bill 15-1346, a measure that would have closed offshore tax loopholes for Colorado companies and devoted the revenue raised to education. The Colorado Education Association backed this bill.

New ways to measure students – Senate State Affairs did vote 3-2 to pass House Bill 15-1324. The measure would create a grant program to help districts implement student learning objectives – tailored classroom ways to measure student progress. This bill is backed by CEA as a way to provide an additional method for evaluating teachers.

reconsidering takeover

Indiana lawmakers clear path for state to take over struggling districts, but scales back academic control of Muncie schools

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

A plan that would’ve allowed the state to take control over finances and academics in Gary and Muncie would now offer Muncie schools some relief from the threat of academic takeover.

Muncie educators and lawmakers were vocally opposed when their C-rated district was added into Senate Bill 567. The district is facing significant debt issues and feared potential state control of its academic programs as well as its finances. But a final version of the bill that passed with bipartisan support in the Senate and House late Friday scaled back the original plan, removing the academic piece. Financial control is still part of the deal.

“We’ve laid out a path that they may follow so that hopefully, in the next six months, they can right the ship,” said Sen. Luke Kenley, a Noblesville Republican and author of the bill. “I know the community of Muncie is not happy about this, but perhaps it is a wake up call at the right time to get things accomplished.”

Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from Merrilville and the bill’s second author, agreed with the decision to adjust the plan for Muncie schools and encouraged lawmakers to continue these conversations about how to help struggling districts.

The bill next heads to Gov. Eric Holcomb for consideration to be signed into law.

The Gary school district would be on-track for the state to take over both academics and finances. A few provisions called for by local lawmakers were also added in, such as first considering a Gary or Lake County resident for the role of “emergency manager,” the person who’d take charge of the takeover.

Kenley said he specified in the compromise version of the bill that these measures are “not precedent for and may not be appropriate for addressing issues faced by other” districts. Kenley said he hopes the work he and Melton have done on the bill can help Gary schools and that the financial requirements placed on Muncie would be a “wake-up call.”

“This is not a pleasant task, but it’s one that needs to be done,” Kenley said of the Gary plan. “We have a long way to go and a lot to do.”

Lawmakers came up with the takeover strategy to solve long-standing financial troubles in Gary Community Schools, which has racked up $100 million in debt and dwindled to fewer than 6,000 students. The district has also been labeled an F since 2011, with seven schools considered failing.

The bill originally designated Gary and Muncie as “distressed political subdivisions” and moved them under the auspices of an emergency manager, fiscal management board and chief academic officer. In the new plan, Gary would remain a distressed political subdivision, but Muncie would be considered a “fiscally impaired” district, a less harsh category that wouldn’t require they have a chief academic officer but still places them under a stringent plan to shore up their finances and requires them to appoint an emergency manager.

Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat from Anderson, near Muncie, spoke on the floor and cautioned lawmakers not to be so quick to take such serious action unless it is fully warranted. Further labeling districts in this way, he said, could cause them to deteriorate further if more families decide to leave.

“What we’re doing here as a precedent is very, very important,” Lanane said. “A community’s reputation is at stake here.”

Compromise

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.