Here we go again

Lawmakers go back to class on school funding

More than a quarter of Colorado’s 100 lawmakers are finding time in their frantic schedules for a deep look at one of the Capitol’s most head-hurting issues – how to pay for schools.

Rep. Millie Hamner says the formal effort by three committees is a way of “stepping back, regrouping” on a difficult subject. By educating a wide group of lawmakers, “Hopefully we’ll have some sense of buy-in about what needs to be done.” The Dillon Democrat is chair of the Joint Budget Committee and promoted the idea along with a budget panel colleague, GOP Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale.

But some people who follow school finance are at least somewhat skeptical of the effort and worry it might provide an opening for proposals to redistribute existing K-12 support rather than finding a way to increase school funding.

“Dividing inadequate revenue in different ways doesn’t look very appealing to us,” said Boulder Valley Superintendent Bruce Messinger. Specifically, some district leaders fear that the legislature may consider shifting state support among districts to increase funding for poorer districts.

The six-week effort kicked off Wednesday with a joint meeting of the JBC and the legislature’s two education committees. Combined, the three panels have 26 members.

School funding’s been studied more than once

There’s been no lack of school finance studies in recent years. A special legislative panel studied it in 2009, and an effort spearheaded by the Colorado Children’s Campaign took on the issue in 2012.

Two lawsuits that challenged aspects of the finance system, the Lobato and Dwyer cases, produced reams of documents and data about K-12 funding.

Both the Colorado Supreme Court rejected those challenges, and voters defeated proposed statewide tax increases to fund schools in 2011 and 2013.

So Colorado continues to allocate money to school districts according to a formula created in 1994 and a constitutional amendment passed in 2000. And school funding continues to be squeezed by the vagaries of the annual state budget process and by the negative factor. That’s the mathematical device the legislature uses to reduce school funding from what full application of the finance formula would provide.

The Supreme Court last fall ruled that the negative factor was constitutional, dashing the hopes of people who wanted a court-ordered solution to underfunding.

Funding equity a rising concern

The last couple of years have seen a new wrinkle to the debate – funding equity.

The current funding formula does provide districts additional funding based on numbers of at-risk students and to very small districts. Money also is allocated based on cost of living for staff, a factor that benefits all kinds of districts but not necessarily poor ones.

Critics feel the formula doesn’t provide enough extra money to districts with high percentages of poor students and English-language learners, the kinds of students that need more intensive instruction.

A law passed in 2013 would have provided more money to such districts, but it never went into effect because voters defeated the tax increase needed to pay for it.

Another piece of the equity puzzle are local property tax revenues called “mill levy overrides.” Those are additional taxes approved by a district’s voters.

Those revenues aren’t included in the state funding formula so are purely “extra” money for districts that have them.

Some lawmakers have noted that the statewide total of override revenues, about $826 million, is very close to the current state funding shortfall of $855 million. That’s the negative factor.

In a December briefing paper prepared for the JBC, staff analyst Craig Harper noted, “With the inclusion of override revenues, 58 school districts … were funded at or above pre-negative factor levels in FY 2014-15, some of which were well above that level. An additional 58 school districts offset at least a portion of the negative factor reduction with override revenues. Finally, 62 districts did not collect override moneys and absorbed the full 13.0 percent negative reduction in FY 2014-15.”

Override revenues are not evenly distributed and vary widely by district. Some districts don’t have them at all.

District leaders fear some lawmakers may be interested in placing a greater reliance on local revenues, perhaps going so far as to reduce a district’s state funding by the amount of its override revenues.

“Recalibrating the process would create a lot of tension,” Messinger said. Others agree such a change would trigger a serious political backlash from districts.

While some statehouse observers used the terms “rearranging the deck chairs” and “Groundhog Day” when asked about the study, others think it will hold educational value for lawmakers.

“It’s a great chance to start a conversation,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. The last time lawmakers took a truly in-depth look at school finance was 2013, when Johnston pushed through his proposed rewrite of the funding formula.

Normally, he noted, committees are preoccupied with debating and voting on bills and “don’t have time to absorb detailed content.”

Study kicking off with experts

This week’s first meeting of the three committees featured a briefing by Marguerite Roza, a school finance researcher and consultant from Georgetown University and the Center on Reinvesting Public Education. She focused on ways to improve school productivity and target financial resources more closely on student achievement. (See her presentation below.)

Interestingly, Roza didn’t mention key Colorado problems — the constitutional limits on raising taxes and on annual spending increases and the negative factor. Roza recommended shifting more funding to at-risk students. But the negative factor has reduced the amount of money available for such extra support.

The speaker at the Feb. 17 meeting is Andrew Reschovsky, a University of Wisconsin expert of property taxes. The committees hope to wrap up their business with a final meeting on April 13.

Learn more about school finance in Chalkbeat’s archive.

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.

under study

Tennessee lawmakers to take a closer look at school closures

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
The once-bustling sidewalks outside of shuttered Lincoln Elementary School are empty today. Shelby County Schools closed the school in 2015.

In five years, more than 20 public schools have closed in Memphis, often leaving behind empty buildings that once served as neighborhood hubs.

Now, Rep. Joe Towns wants to hit the pause button.

The Memphis Democrat asked a House education subcommittee on Tuesday to consider a bill that would halt school closures statewide for five years. The measure would require the state comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability to study the impact on students and communities before allowing local districts to shutter schools again.

The panel will review Towns’ proposal during a summer study session.

Towns said empty school buildings hurt property values, lower tax revenue, and hit local governments in the pocketbook. Currently, there’s no Memphis-specific research on the economic impact of shuttering schools.

“There are unintended consequences,” Towns said. “What this does to a community is not good. Who here would want to live next to a school that’s been closed?”

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he sympathizes. But pausing school closures might make it more difficult for Shelby County Schools to balance its budget, he said.

“Our superintendent is faced with buildings that hold a thousand kids, and they’re down to 250,” White said. “I don’t want to put one more burden on them.”

Last fall, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district may need to close 18 schools in the next five years if student enrollment continues to decline. Hopson recently unveiled a framework for investing in struggling schools before being considering them for closure.

Any future school closures in Memphis won’t be just to cut costs, district leaders have said. And for the first time since the historic merger, Shelby County Schools is not grappling with a budget deficit.