Starting on the wrong foot

School funding bill off to rocky start after complaints of “ambush”

Reps. Bob Rankin and Millie Hamner had to defend their school finance bill against complaints that it was rushed.

Everybody likes the fact that the proposed 2016-17 school finance bill doesn’t increase the K-12 funding shortfall, but the measure’s rushed introduction Monday ruffled a lot of feathers.

The measure would allocate $6.4 billion for basic school operations in 2016-17, up from $6.2 billion this school year. The bill would hold the K-12 funding shortfall, often called the negative factor, at $831 million, the same level as this year. See the chart at the bottom of this article for the impact on individual districts.

The bill is seen as modest good news for school districts, who’ve faced tight funding since 2009, when declines in state revenues forced substantial cuts. The state constitution requires base K-12 funding – about 75 percent of total support – to increase every year by inflation and enrollment. The bill does that.

Holding the shortfall to $831 million is considered a victory because projections made before the session convened put that figure as high as $905 million.

The bill would set average per-pupil funding at $7,424, up from this year’s $7,312.

The bill’s rushed introduction left members of the House Education Committee scrambling to understand it when they convened only about 90 minutes after House Bill 16-1442 was formally introduced.

“To rush this most important bill through the process” was unfair to members and to the state’s school districts, said Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida.

Sen. Owen Hill, whose Senate Education Committee will hear the bill later, was more blunt. “I was shocked. … This ambush was unacceptable,” arguing that House members were ambushed because they faced with voting on a bill they didn’t had time to review.

Wilson and a couple of other GOP members harped on the issue throughout the 80-minute hearing, to the irritation of chair Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood.

Bill sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner said the measure came up when it did because it needs to move in tandem with the main state budget bill, also introduced Monday. The budget and companion measures, including school finance, were finished over the weekend, so Monday was the first opportunity to introduce them. The Dillon Democrat is chair of the Joint Budget Committee.

She said the school measure is “a bill we should all be cheering about.”

Her cosponsor, Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, also tried to downplay the complaints. “I don’t think there are many major issues we can’t deal with despite the short notice.” He noted that the JBC had to trim other parts of the budget like transportation and Medicaid in order to set school funding at the proposed levels.

Democrats control the House, so a few irritated Republicans aren’t likely to change the bill much. The GOP-majority Senate may be more troublesome for the bill.

Hill said rushed House consideration of the bill short-changed public review and testimony. He indicated Senate Education will take a longer look at the bill and likely will consider amendments to expand parent choice. Hill was mad enough about the situation that he sent out an email blast criticizing what the House did.

The House panel spent a lot of time on two secondary elements of the bill.

The first of those would change current state law that sets minimum funding for very small districts at 50 students, even if they have a smaller number of actual students. The bill proposes a system under which the floor would be 30 students for the very smallest districts.

The change could be a big blow to the 19-student Agate district on the eastern plains. Hamner proposed an amendment that would delay the cut for Agate by a year, but the committee voted that down.

Another section of the bill would modestly increase funding for a handful of districts that have between 4,000 and 5,000 students. Some of the affected districts are in Hamner and Rankin’s House districts. Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, said that “benefits the sponsors, which we’ll discuss on the floor.”

The committee passed the finance bill 9-2. It goes Tuesday to the House Appropriations Committee, along with the main budget, House Bill 16-1405. That hearing should be a formality, but finance bill debate on the floor later this week could be lively.

Learn more about the bill is this analysis by legislative staff.

Vision quest

Is Colorado’s school ‘vision bill’ going dark?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Rangeview junior Coree Morgan works on an assignment in her electronics class.

A proposed overhaul of Colorado’s public schools has hit a legislative roadblock.

State Senate leadership has assigned a bill that would create a series of legislative committees to study and propose changes to Colorado’s education laws to the State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.

That legislative panel is known for killing bills leadership opposes.

Sponsors of the House Bill 1287, which cleared the state House of Representatives earlier this month with broad bipartisan support, argue Colorado’s education policies are a patchwork of reform efforts and outdated mandates. And given the state’s decentralized education system, the legislature needs to play a larger role in creating a clearer vision for what Colorado schools should look like in the 21st Century.

But Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said he believes the bill is just setting up an argument to send more money to schools.

“It seems like their focus is proving a premise that more money is necessary,” Holbert said Monday. “And that’s just not a premise I’m comfortable in supporting.”

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, called Holbert’s objection shortsighted.

“It’s a dangerous viewpoint,” Rankin said. ”That’s not what this is.”

Rankin and his House co-sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, both serve on the legislative committee that writes the state’s budget. For years they’ve advocated for making changes to how the state funds schools.

One of the stated goals of the bill, Hamner and Rankin have said, is to create a unified vision for the state’s schools that could be sold to voters if it was determined a tax increase would be necessary.

Between the two, Rankin has been less bullish on the argument that schools need more money.

But the bill would also provide the state a chance to review and reconsider major education legislation that’s been enacted since 2008. That includes everything from new graduation requirements for high school students to teacher evaluations.

The state affairs committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday.

One of the members of the committee, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, was a sponsor of the bill. But he dropped his support earlier this month.

He said he objected to the new bureaucratic structure the bill creates.

“A permanent new government program is not the right direction now,” he said, referring to the committees established in the bill.

Rankin, who called the bill one of the most important of his legislative career, said he’s holding out hope and would continue the conversation regardless.

“We don’t think strategically. It’s hard for most of the folks in the legislature to think way ahead,” Rankin said. “I realize it’s a heavy lift, and even if the bill does fail, we have to keep talking about it.”

From the Statehouse

A new test, $22 million for preschool and 5 other major education bills that lawmakers approved in 2017

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Rep. Tim Brown, chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, presents on the budget bill to House lawmakers on Friday.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Indiana’s 2017 legislative session came to a close.

It ended with a plan to replace ISTEP, new rules for charter and voucher schools and a compromise on the state’s next two-year budget. Next, the bills all head to Gov. Eric Holcomb to be signed into law.

Earlier this week, lawmakers also came to agreements that would expand the state’s preschool program and make the next state superintendent appointed, rather than elected.

Here are the major education issues now under consideration to become law:

TESTING

A plan to replace the state’s hated ISTEP testing system with “ILEARN” was approved by lawmakers Friday.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. For the most part, the test plan in House Bill 1003 resembles what was recommended by the group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement.

There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and high schools would give end-of-course exam in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I. An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test students in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. The bill would create a number of graduation “pathways” that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. New options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

While teacher evaluations would still have to include ISTEP scores in some way, districts would have flexibility to decide specifically how to do that.

CHARTER SCHOOLS AND VOUCHERS

Two bills dealing with charter schools and vouchers that passed easily in the House and Senate would make it easier for struggling schools to get a second chance.

Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s author, noted that public schools have the option to join “transformation zones” or “innovation networks” that allow them to avoid closure and make plans to improve, but charters and private schools don’t.

The bill that focuses on charter schools, 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, among numerous other provisions. Even if the schools go beyond their four-year F-grade limit, authorizers can go to the state board to request a charter renewal.

The second, House Bill 1384, includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers. One would allow schools to waive D or F grades that prohibit the schools from accepting new voucher students. That waiver would be good for one year, and would be dependant upon the school’s ability to demonstrate that a majority of private school students made academic improvements in the prior year.

The bills would also …

  • Weakens the state’s “90 percent-10 percent” rule for licensing teachers in charter schools. Current Indiana law says that 90 percent of teachers must hold a traditional state teaching license, or be in the process of pursuing one, and 10 percent can hold an alternative teaching permit. Under the new language, the state’s specific charter school license appears to count toward the 90 percent, rather than the 10 percent as they have in the past (HB 1382).
  • 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 and determine a definition for “high-mobility” schools (HB 1384).
  • Allow private schools to become accredited more quickly, and thus accept voucher students sooner (HB 1382).

STATE TAKEOVER

A plan that would have allowed the state to take control over finances and academics in Gary and Muncie has been significantly scaled back — and would release Muncie from academic takeover altogether.

The measure passed the Senate and House late Friday. While Muncie schools see some relief from earlier sanctions, Gary would be on track for the state takeover, although a few provisions called for by local lawmakers were added in — such as first considering a Gary or Lake County resident as the “emergency manager” in charge of the takeover.

Kenley said he specified in the compromise version of the bill that these measures are “not precedent for and may not be appropriate for addressing issues faced by other” districts.

Lawmakers came up with the takeover strategy to solve longstanding financial troubles in Gary Community Schools, which has racked up $100 million in debt and dwindled to fewer than 6,000 students. The district has also been labeled an F since 2011, with seven schools considered failing.

But Muncie educators and lawmakers made their opposition known when their C-rated district was added into Senate Bill 567 for its own significant debt issues.

The bill originally designated Gary and Muncie as “distressed political subdivisions” and moved them under the auspices of an emergency manager, a fiscal management board, and a chief academic officer. In the new plan, Gary would remain a distressed political subdivision, but Muncie would be considered a “fiscally impaired” district — a less harsh label that wouldn’t require the district to have a chief academic officer, but still places it under a stringent plan to shore up its finances.

SCHOOL FUNDING

The budget was the last bill to pass Friday night, with wide margins of support in both houses.

The two-year plan would increase funding by about 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2019, a boost of $345 million that brings total education spending to $14.2 billion over the next two years. The state also approved increased support for English-learners, students with severe special needs, and career and technical education.

All Marion County school districts will see increases to per-student funding and tuition support — the base amount provided by the state to educate children.

Indiana also recommitted to teacher bonus payments at $30 million per year, adjusting the formula so that high-performing teachers at struggling schools could see higher bonuses than they did last year.

PRESCHOOL

A preschool deal passed the House and Senate Friday morning that would expand the program to 15 additional counties, up to 20 from the current five.

The cost of the expansion will be $22 million per year, which is less than advocates had lobbied for but close to what House Republicans and Holcomb supported.

It includes controversial language allowing a new, limited voucher “pathway.” If a child used a preschool scholarship to go to a program at a private school that accepts vouchers, they could then automatically receive a voucher for kindergarten if they stay at the same school.

The compromise plan would set aside $1 million per year to allow families who use an “in-home” online preschool program to be reimbursed for their costs. Priority would be given to parents of children who live in counties with no high-quality preschool providers, and the state would agree to study the online programs.

STATE SUPERINTENDENT

Last week, House and Senate lawmakers approved a bill that would allow future governors to choose Indiana’s state superintendent.

The final version of House Bill 1005 includes a residency requirement and qualifications for the “secretary of education” position. It also delays the appointment until 2025, meaning Holcomb wouldn’t be around to make the pick and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick could seek a second term.

You can find other education-related bills that passed this session here.