Budget squeeze

Budget panel offers a bit of extra cash for schools

Colorado schools would receive an additional $18 per student under mid-year budget adjustments approved Wednesday by the Joint Budget Committee.

Statewide average funding per pupil would be set at $7,312, compared to the $7,294 in the 2015-16 school funding law passed last spring.

The recommendation basically gives districts well less than a fifth of a loaf in terms of what they wanted from the budget adjustments.

The committee’s plan effectively mirrors a proposal by the Hickenlooper administration that also contained an $18 per student boost. The JBC’s recommendation, which requires approval by the full legislature, gets to the same place through a different mechanism.

Mid-year budget tweaks often are routine procedures to adjust school funding to account for actual enrollment and updated local revenues. Projections of those two things, not hard numbers, are used when the annual school funding law is passed every spring.

But this year’s K-12 adjustment has drawn more attention than usual because of a non-binding pledge included in the 2015-16 funding law. In simple terms, that pledge said that if the local tax revenues reported in December were larger than last spring’s estimates, the state wouldn’t reduce its share of school support. Talk last spring was that the increase would be $70 million.

Instead, the JBC’s recommendation is that the state reduce its share of 2015-16 school funding by $133 million, the actual amount of additional local revenue that came in.

Districts would get a little something from the committee’s plan. Because both overall enrollment and the number of at-risk students are lower than originally projected, the legislature could cut school funding by $24 million. But the committee agreed to let schools keep that money, which averages out to the $18 increase per student. Districts that experienced student declines would receive more per student but would lose money overall because they have fewer pupils.

Overall K-12 funding this year would remain the same as originally proposed, about $6.2 billion.

“The total program amount is spread among fewer kids than we thought, so the per-pupil amount goes up,” explained JBC staff analyst Craig Harper.

The committee’s action also affects the negative factor, the amount by which actual school funding falls short of what full support would have been under the state finance formula. The legislature uses the negative factor as a device to balance the overall state budget.

The 2015-16 shortfall was $855 million. The committee’s adjustments would reduce it to $831 million. Members also voted to introduce a bill that would hold the 2016-17 negative factor at the same level.

The Hickenlooper administration has calculated that the shortfall would need to increase by as much as $50 million to balance next year’s budget.

Final decisions on the 2016-17 budget won’t be made until after new state revenue forecasts are issued in March.

Advocates of improved school funding were disappointed by not necessarily surprised by the committee decision.

“We’re disappointed with this action, but we’re appreciative that the $24 million is retained,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger, a leading voice among superintendents on finance issues.

He noted last spring’s pledge by legislators but said, “They didn’t know what this year would look like. … I like to think that if the budget were not in such a difficult place they would have kept that pledge.”

Lisa Weil, executive director of the advocacy group Great Education Colorado, said, “The JBC just decided to use local property taxes raised specifically for schools to balance the state budget, even after stating their intent in last year’s School Finance Act to do the opposite. It’s a sad day when not even these local school dollars are used to help repay the $5 billion debt Colorado owes our students from the past seven years of cuts.”

Committee chair Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, also recalled the pledge during committee discussion. She noted that the budget situation differs from what lawmakers anticipated last spring and said the $24 million is at least a small nod to the pledge.

Get into the weeds in the briefing paper Harper prepared on the issue.

House Education pulls trigger on parent leave bill

It took two tries, but the House Education Committee on Wednesday voted 6-5 to advance a bill that would resurrect a state law requiring some business to give employees unpaid time off for some school activities.

A parliamentary wrangle over amendments delayed a vote at a meeting last Monday. Things went more smoothly on Wednesday, but panel members spent nearly 45 minutes debating the measure. There’s a partisan divide on the bill, and Democrats voted yes and Republicans no on the motion to send House Bill 16-1002 to the House floor.

The bill would revive a 2009 law that gives employees of companies with more than 50 workers up to 18 hours of unpaid time off a year to attend specified school events, like teacher-parent conferences. That law also gave employers various grounds on which to deny leave.

The law expired in September after an effort to continue it failed during the 2015 session. This year’s bill would reinstate the 2009 provisions, without an expiration clause.

House Democrats are pushing the bill as part of a policy agenda to help families. Republicans oppose it, arguing that it’s not necessary. The main business lobbying group, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, is neutral on the measure. If the bill passes the House it’s expected to die in the GOP-controlled Senate – just like last year.

Get details on the bill in this legislative staff summary.

More grades?

Schools with lots of transfer students say A-F labels don’t fit

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Schools with large numbers of kids who transfer in or out should get an extra grade from Indiana’s A-F system, a legislative committee said Thursday.

The proposal, backed by both Democrats and Republicans on the House Education Committee, would give schools a second A-F grade based just on the scores of students who have attended for at least a year.

The goal is to account for schools with “high mobility,” common in poor neighborhoods where families move frequently and kids sometimes change schools several times in a single school year. When kids change schools, their test scores often sink. Lawmakers argued the schools where they end up on test day can be unfairly saddled with a low grade that doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of teaching at the school.

Even so, the schools will still be judged the same as all schools in Indiana on their first A-F grade.

The proposal was added as an amendment to House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. The bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.

The amended bill would require the Indiana State Board of Education to first define a “high-mobility” school. Then, starting in the 2018-19 school year, the board would assign those schools both the typical grade based primarily on state tests and a second grade that only considers the test and other academic data of students who have attended the school for one year or more.

The second grade could not be used by the state board to make decisions about state sanctions, the bill says. But it would help parents and others better understand the circumstances at the school, said Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author and chairman of the education committee.

“Especially in our urban centers, there are several schools … that have very high mobility rates,” Behning said. “We could all recognize that if you’re being moved from school A to school B to school C to school D in a year, it’s going to be very difficult for your performance to be where it needs to be.”

The bill also makes a similar change to high school graduation rates, which would help Indiana better comply with new federal law, Behning said. The bill would alter the graduation rate calculation so that students who drop out would only count in a school’s rate if they attended that school for at least 90 percent of the school year. Otherwise, their graduation data gets counted at the previous school they attended for the longest time.

Melissa Brown, head of Indiana Connections Academy, one of the largest online schools in the state, testified in support of the bill. She said the graduation rate change and second letter grade better reflect the work they’re doing with students.

“We really believe that if we can keep a student, we can help them,” Brown said.

Virtual schools have performed poorly on state tests, which some school leaders argue is because they serve a challenging population of students, including those who frequently move and switch schools, come to school far behind grade level and have other learning difficulties that make them more difficult to educate.

Read: The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools

Indiana Connections Academy sees about 20 to 25 percent of students come and go each year, Brown said. Other virtual schools, such as Hoosier Academies, have reported more than double that rate.

Although the rates for individual schools could vary widely, Beech Grove schools had the highest district mobility rate in 2015 in Marion County, where 20.1 percent of students left a Beech Grove school to go outside the district, according to state data. Franklin Township had the lowest, with 8.5 percent. Generally, transfer within districts was much lower.

In IPS, the rate was 18.4 percent for students leaving to attend a school in another district, and 8.2 percent of students left their home school to attend another in IPS.

Brown said she thinks the second school grade could help all schools that see high turnover, but it also could dispel some misinformation about what virtual schools are for — it’s not a “magic pill” for kids who are far behind, she said, a scenario she encounters frequently.

“At the end of the day, it’s really about what’s best for the kid,” Brown said. “And it’s not best to send a student to another school with two weeks left in the semester expecting a miracle to happen.”

new plan

Lawmakers want to allow appeals before low-rated private schools lose vouchers

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, authored HB 1384, in which voucher language was added late last week.

Indiana House lawmakers signaled support today for a plan to loosen restrictions for private schools accepting state voucher dollars.

Two proposal were amended into the existing House Bill 1384, which is mostly aimed at clarifying how high school graduation rate is calculated. One would allow private schools to appeal to the Indiana State Board of Education to keep receiving vouchers even if they are repeatedly graded an F. The other would allow new “freeway” private schools the chance to begin receiving vouchers more quickly.

Indiana, already a state with one of the most robust taxpayer-funded voucher programs in the country, has made small steps toward broadening the program since the original voucher law passed in 2011 — and today’s amendments could represent two more if they become law. Vouchers shift state money from public schools to pay private school tuition for poor and middle class children.

Under current state law, private schools cannot accept new voucher students for one year after the school is graded a D or F for two straight years. If a school reaches a third year with low grades, it can’t accept new voucher students until it raises its grade to a C or higher for two consecutive years.

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the bill’s author, said private schools should have the right to appeal those consequences to the state board.

Right now, he said, they “have no redress.”  But public schools, he said, can appeal to the state board.

Behning said the innovation schools and transformation zones in Indianapolis Public Schools were a “perfect example” for why schools need an appeal process because schools that otherwise would face state takeover or other sanctions can instead get a reprieve to start over with a new management approach.

In the case of troubled private schools receiving vouchers, Behning said, there should be an equal opportunity for the state board to allow them time to improve.

”There are tools already available for traditional public schools and for charters that are not available for vouchers,” he said.

But Democrats on the House Education Committee opposed both proposals, arguing they provided more leeway to private schools than traditional public schools have.

“Vouchers are supposed to be the answer, the cure-all, the panacea for what’s going on in traditional schools,” said Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary. “If you gave an amendment that said this would be possible for both of them, leveling the playing field, then I would support it.”

The second measure would allow the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a private school accredited and allow it to immediately begin receiving vouchers once it has entered into a contract to become a “freeway school” — a type of state accreditation that has few regulations and requirements compared to full accreditation.Typically, it might take a year or so to become officially accredited.

Indiana’s voucher program is projected to grow over the next two years to more than 38,000 students, at an anticipated cost — according to a House budget draft — of about $160 million in 2019. Currently in Indiana, there are 316 private schools that can accept vouchers.

The voucher amendments passed along party lines last week, and the entire bill passed out of committee today, 8-4. It next heads to the full House for a vote, likely later this week.