union vs. district

Colorado Supreme Court to hear Denver teachers’ lawsuit challenging “mutual consent”

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
Assistant attorney general Jonathan Fero, center, addresses the Colorado Supreme Court in 2013 at a hearing for another education case, Lobato vs. State of Colorado.

A lawsuit brought by seven current and former teachers against Denver Public Schools will be taken up by the Colorado Supreme Court, the state’s highest court announced Monday.

The teachers allege DPS is misusing a part of the state’s landmark educator effectiveness law to get rid of teachers with non-probationary status, commonly known as tenure.

Before the law passed in 2010, non-probationary teachers who lost their positions due to circumstances such as decreasing student enrollment were assigned to open positions at other schools, a practice sometimes called “forced placement.”

District leaders didn’t like forced placement for several reasons. They argued that it most often happened at low-income schools, which led to the kids who need the most help disproportionately being taught by teachers who didn’t choose to be there.

So DPS changed its policy. Instead of permanently placing jobless teachers in open positions, the district now gives them temporary assignments with the expectation that the teachers will look for so-called “mutual consent” positions, meaning the principal agrees to hire them.

If a teacher doesn’t find such a position in a certain amount of time, he or she is placed on indefinite unpaid leave. The 2010 law, Senate Bill 191, allows that to happen.

The teachers and the teachers union say it’s unconstitutional to put non-probationary teachers on unpaid leave without cause and a hearing. The impacted teachers aren’t bad teachers and the law is being used to wrongly punish them, they argue.

In January 2014, the seven teachers and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sued DPS and the State Board of Education (a formality common in lawsuits involving state education law) in Denver District Court. The district court sided with DPS and dismissed the case, ruling in part that putting a teacher on unpaid leave is different than firing her without due process.

The teachers appealed and won. The Colorado Court of Appeals reinstated the case, a decision that led DPS to ask for an opinion from the Colorado Supreme Court.

Now that the state’s high court has taken the case, the parties will be invited to file briefs.

In its announcement Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court said it will examine several issues, including whether the lawmakers who passed Senate Bill 191 “satisfied due process for teachers who were previously entitled to ‘forced placement.’”

“Denver Public Schools is pleased that the Colorado Supreme Court has accepted our request to hear this important case,” Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova said in a statement.

She added that DPS believes lawmakers were right to allow districts to end forced placement, especially because of its effects on high-poverty schools. “If districts must go back to ‘forced placement,’ then those students are the most likely to have teachers who are not the right fit forced into their schools,” she said.

Kerrie Dallman, the president of the Colorado Education Association, said the statewide teachers union is glad the case will be heard by the state’s highest court.

“We are confident the Colorado Supreme Court will reinforce long-standing commitments made by the courts and the legislature that honor the teaching profession and ensure Colorado school districts can no longer deprive students of experienced teachers,” she said in a statement.

Budget backlash

New York stands to lose $433 million in education funding under Trump budget, state says

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia at the School of Diplomacy in the Bronx

President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget would “eviscerate” education programs by cutting more than $433 million in New York funds, according to state officials.

The budget would slash teacher preparation, after-school programs, and college aid for low-income students, they said.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia used her meeting last month with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to push back on potential cuts to education spending. On Tuesday afternoon, she released a joint statement with New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa denouncing the cuts.

“Despite the outcry from education leaders, President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” the statement read. “The severe cut will have far-reaching impacts across the nation, with life-shattering consequences for New York’s children.”

Here’s the full breakdown of the state’s preliminary analysis:

expansion plans

Betsy DeVos promises an expansive school choice plan, says opting out would be ‘terrible mistake’ for states

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In a speech to the advocacy group she previously led, Betsy DeVos hinted that an aggressive plan to expand public funding of private schools through the federal government is on the way.

The U.S. education secretary offered few details about the plan, which she said would be voluntary for states. And with an administration besieged by controversy, a skeptical Congress, and disagreement among even school choice supporters, it faces an uphill battle.

That did not deter DeVos in her speech at the annual American Federation for Children conference in downtown Indianapolis.

“The president is proposing the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history,” she said, soon after being greeted by a standing ovation from school choice supporters. “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”

School choice comes in many forms, but DeVos and the American Federation for Children have long advocated for vouchers and tax credit programs that provide public money to families in order to pay private school tuition. While proponents argue these initiatives provide a lifeline to low-income students, critics say they drain resources from public schools and are ineffective at improving student achievement.

Indeed, DeVos was met with protests from several dozen teachers and public education advocates who criticized her plan before it had even been released. Voucher programs “rob a majority of the students — we’ve got more than 90 percent of the kids in this country sitting in public schools,” Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith told Chalkbeat after a rally held before DeVos’s speech.

Even certain school choice supporters are critical of a federal proposal.

“School choice would not only risk being branded as TrumpChoice, but it would be fronted by an unpopular and divisive president,” wrote Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Democrats who are open to school choice but who despise Trump might wonder if they’re missing something when it comes to school choice.”

One prominent school choice supporter, Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, has already backed the proposal. Still, few seem to expect it to become law. In 2015, a bid to give states the option to use federal money to fund private school tuition was easily voted down in the Senate.

In her speech, DeVos emphasized that the administration’s proposal would devolve power to the states, thought it’s unclear how she would accomplish this seemingly paradoxical goal through a federal program.

“We shouldn’t view this as a chance to mandate a one-size-fits all school choice proposal,” she said. “We won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money.”

The last line was perhaps an allusion to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, though she didn’t specify how the Trump administration’s plan would work differently.

Insofar as states will have a choice about school choice, DeVos is clear which direction she thinks they should go.

“Let me be very clear, I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education,” DeVos said. “But those are decisions states must make — no two states are the same and no two states’ approaches will be the same, and that’s a good thing.”

The secretary offered a bevy of options that epitomize the “open system” of choices that families should have access to: “It shouldn’t matter if learning takes place in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, a charter school, a non-sectarian private school, a Jewish school, a home school, a magnet school, an online school, any customized combination of those schools – or in an educational setting yet to be developed.”

Earlier in the evening, Indiana’s Republican Governor Eric Holcomb appeared, and former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak at the conference on Tuesday. Although New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke to the group in previous years, no current elected Democrat appears on this year’s agenda.

DeVos seemed keenly aware of the increasingly partisan breakdown on school choice issues, particularly on school vouchers.

“The oldest school choice program in the country was started by the Democrat,” she said, referring to Milwaukee’s long-running school voucher system. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this: education should not be a partisan issue.”

Currently about 450,000 students use a voucher or tax-credit funded scholarship to attend a private school.

Recent research in Indianapolis, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. has shown students receiving a voucher saw their test scores drop. There is little research on tax credit programs, partially because many don’t require participating students to take their state test or any test at all.

Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and under-serving those students. Existing voucher programs also allow private schools discriminate against LGBT students.

Proponents point to evidence that public schools improve in response to competition from vouchers, as well as older studies showing that some students attending a private school are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

When Chalkbeat asked Secretary DeVos, as she was leaving through a side entrance, what she thought of recent research on school choice, she responded only, “We’re not taking questions.”