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.

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
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.

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.”