never too early

Proposal would start college saving early – in preschool

Preschoolers at Denver Public School's Pascual LeDoux Academy (Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post),

A bipartisan bill that would create college savings plans for preschoolers survived its first legislative test Monday, passing the House Education Committee 8-3.

House Bill 16-1196 is only a baby step. It would create a three-year pilot program covering up to 2,000 children a year. The state would contribute to the 529 savings accounts  — $50 per child. The pilot program also would seek private donations to the accounts.

The Aspire to College Program would be focused on kids from low-income families with a goal of giving a head start to children whose parents might not be thinking about college or how to pay for it.

“It’s an opportunity program, not a safety net program,” said Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, a co-sponsor.

Research shows that students with college savings accounts, even small ones, are more likely to attend and graduate from college, said Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, who’s teamed with Rankin in pushing the bill.

“It’s an investment in the future,” said Rich Jones of the Bell Policy Center, one of several witnesses who testified for the bill during the 90-minute hearing.

Some committee members were skeptical of the bill, asking if it would be big enough to have an impact, how its results would be evaluated and how the program would be used to teach financial literacy to poor families.

“I don’t like the fact that we’re starting new programs in light of our other huge obligations that we’re not funding,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.

The idea for the program came from the state Department of Human Services. The estimated $100,000 in annual costs would be covered by existing department funds. Wilson asked why the agency hasn’t already started a pilot program. A bill is necessary because Aspire would be a new program, Rankin said.

Upon further review

McQueen defends graduation statistic, acknowledges missteps in communication

Candice McQueen is commissioner of education in Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that more Tennessee high school graduates are fulfilling the state’s requirements than originally thought by her department.

In a memo to school superintendents, she said only 22 percent of recent graduates received their diplomas without completing the requirements. Last month, a state report put that number at 33 percent.

But she defended the original statistic, saying it reflected data available at the time.

“We know many of you have received questions from your local community about your graduates, and we understand the graduation requirement statistic has led to misunderstandings and wrong conclusions,” she wrote. “We recognize the report did not do enough to convey the extent to which districts and schools have been and are working to meet state policy on graduation requirements.”

The memo was signed by both McQueen and Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization for School Superintendents. Local district superintendents had asked the State Department of Education to review the startling statistic, initially released in a department report on the state’s high schools.

McQueen emphasized that no wrongdoing led to so many students missing credits. Instead, they came about from districts using state-sanctioned waivers or allowing students to substitute courses for some requirements, she said.

The commissioner also released guidance related to course data entry in an effort to minimize errors in the future.

“I know your concern on this statistic is rooted in your deep desire to ensure that every student is equipped to be successful after they leave our K-12 system, and we want to do everything we can to both support you in that mission and to provide you with data that will help you further understand how students are doing,” she wrote.

Read the full memo here:

Looking closer

That stunning statistic about a third of Tennessee graduates not meeting requirements? It’s not true

When Chad Moorehead saw that Tennessee’s education department had concluded that a third of graduates received a diploma without meeting the state’s requirements, his first instinct was to find out how many of his own students had fallen through the cracks.

“We’re so small,” said Moorehead, superintendent of Moore County Schools in Middle Tennessee. “We usually have a pretty good handle on what our kids are doing. If we’re missing something in our one high school, I want to know what it is and how to fix it.”

He quickly got an answer from the state: Only 62 percent of recent graduates in Moore County had actually met requirements.

That didn’t seem accurate to Moorehead, so he went through all of his students’ transcripts by hand. He couldn’t find a single one who had gotten an undeserved diploma.

Department officials said he was right. They had counted students who took math and English at a local community college as not having taken those courses at all.

Moorehead wasn’t the only superintendent with questions. State officials quickly started examining graduation data — and reached a new conclusion.

While state officials continue to check districts’ data, it appears that about a third of what looked like missing requirements were in fact data errors. For the remainder, students had actually been allowed to graduate without taking required courses.

That means that only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates had not met requirements, not the 33 percent originally identified by the state.

“It’s better than we thought,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat on Wednesday. “It’s helping us move forward with more clarity.”

McQueen said the state is taking several steps. At the top of the list, she said, is working with the companies that manage student information to improve data entry.

But she said officials also would work with districts to make sure all students fulfill requirements. Sometimes, graduates had been improperly allowed to substitute courses for requirements. In other cases, waivers that were originally designed for students pursuing career training instead went to students who should not have been eligible, she said.

“Waivers are not meant to be used all of the time,” McQueen said.

She said she believes confusion, not wrongdoing, led to some districts overdoing course substitutions and waivers.

“These are misunderstandings that add up,” she said.

The revised report is likely to restore damaged confidence in Tennessee’s much-touted graduation rate gains. But they raise new questions about how the department is managing crucial information about the success of its schools.

“The state department did this research, they got this alarming statistic,” Moorehead said. “Why didn’t they reach out to districts to check the data and start to solve the problem before announcing it to the world?”

Correction, February 16, 2017: This version corrects that, based on current information, only 22 percent of Tennessee graduates did not meet requirements. In a previous version, Commissioner McQueen misspoke regarding the percentage of missing requirements attributed to data errors.