Tea leaves

Here’s how the education debate could shift if Democrats retake Colorado’s Senate

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at his 2016 State of the State Address.

Partisan control of Colorado’s Senate is in play this November, and with it the direction of major education policy debates on charter school funding, testing and how teachers are licensed.

For the last two years, Republicans have held a one-vote advantage in the Senate, while Democrats have enjoyed a three-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

But if Democrats have a successful night on Nov. 8, they could reclaim control of that chamber and claim one-party rule for the final two years of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. (Political observers are all but certain the House will remain under Democratic control.)

The potential shift in power comes as Colorado’s schools are calling for more money and less regulation. But there is also a contingent of school leaders and advocacy organizations who are asking lawmakers to keep the status quo, at least for one more year as many of Colorado’s most ambitious reform efforts take hold.

The last time Democrats held both chambers and the governor’s mansion — in 2013 and 2014 — little was accomplished on education issues. Most energy was spent on an ill-fated attempt to rework the way the state funds its schools, and getting more money to schools.

So will anything be different this time? We asked a variety of lawmakers, lobbyists and education activists. Here’s what they said is likely to happen if Democrats take over:

Democrats will almost certainly free up more money for schools in the short-term, as advocates push for a resolution to Colorado’s school funding quagmire.

Despite aggressive lobbying earlier this year by the governor’s office, Republicans refused to approve a technical change to a pool of money the state collects that was in part responsible for triggering a mandatory refund to taxpayers.

Currently, the state collects a fee from hospitals that goes toward Medicaid costs. Those dollars also count toward the state’s constitutionally mandated revenue ceiling outlined in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Once the state reaches its ceiling, like it did last year, the state must issue refunds to taxpayers.

Democrats want to reclassify the fee so that doesn’t continue to happen as other revenue comes close to the state’s limit but doesn’t reach the ceiling.

“The opportunity is that we can pass some Band-Aid fixes to our restrictions to help with education funding,” said Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and chairwoman of the House Education Committee.

If Democrats are successful, an estimated $90 million could flow to schools. However, lawmakers could be forced to cut back funding if economic forecasts don’t improve by next spring.

And that fix might still not be enough to appease school districts and advocates preparing to ask lawmakers to rethink how the state funds its schools.

“Obviously the hospital provider fee can relieve some short-term pressure, but they have to look at a long-term solution,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit organization that focuses on school funding. “We hope that elected officials come looking to solve problems.”

Charter school supporters are worried a Democratic-controlled state Senate means funding equalization is DOA. They’re probably right.

Last session, lawmakers failed to reach a compromise that would have required local school districts to share local tax dollars equally with their charter schools.

While advocates are vowing to bring the measure back, some conservatives who supported the measure are skeptical the legislation will have a fighting chance in 2017.

“That is not a reality without at least a Republican majority in the Senate,” said Tyler Sandberg, senior policy adviser for Ready Colorado, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for school reform policies.

The Colorado League of Charter Schools isn’t as pessimistic.

“Regardless of which way the election goes, we really see this as a bipartisan issue,” said Dan Schaller, the group’s political director. “The dynamics of the election are not going to change that fundamental viewpoint to continue that push.”

State Sen. Nancy Todd, who is likely to take over the Senate Education Committee and is a self-identified charter school supporter but opposed the bill last year, said her goal is to “narrow the gap” between charter school supporters and detractors.

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” the Aurora Democrat said about the clash between the two camps.

But that doesn’t mean she’s going to support the legislation this year. And Pettersen, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, thinks the issue of funding is best decided at the local level.

Despite Gov. John Hickenlooper’s past support of state standardized tests for ninth-graders, there’s enough interest by Democrats to take another look at the state’s testing system.

In 2015, when Colorado lawmakers were scrambling to roll back the amount of standardized testing required by the state, Hickenlooper made it clear he would not support eliminating testing in the ninth grade.

Lawmakers abided. But nearly two years later, both Republicans and Democrats are ready for a second pass at the state’s testing system.

“There’s still room for discussion,” Todd said.

While Todd and others might want to take a scalpel to the state’s tests, others are calling for a total overhaul.

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs and the Senate Education Committee’s current chairman, said he believes the time has come for the legislature to direct the state education department to drop the politically contentious PARCC exams and develop a new system designed in Colorado.

“We love our Colorado beer, we love our Colorado mountains and we want a Colorado way to test,” he said.

While neither Pettersen nor Todd are committed to the PARCC exams, Hill’s proposal would likely be a bridge too far for Democrats in 2017.

Teacher licensure reform, on the back burner since 2013, could take center stage as districts struggle to find qualified teachers.

Reforming how teachers are certified has been on Hickenlooper’s to-do list for years. But the issue hasn’t gotten much traction given other policy and fiscal priorities.

That could change next year, said Leslie Colwell, the Colorado Children’s Campaign vice president for education initiatives. Colwell previously served as an aide to state Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat who worked with Hickenlooper to broach the subject of licensure reform in 2013.

Both men suggested at the time that a license should be easier to obtain for individuals who go through alternative preparation programs — and that an educator’s annual evaluation should be a factor in the renewal process. The law, which hasn’t been updated since 1991, should also be aligned to the state’s other reform efforts, they said.

That summer, Johnston led a group of other lawmakers, university presidents, advocacy groups and teachers in rethinking what educators needed to prove to get a license to teach. The goal was to develop legislation that could win approval. But nothing materialized.

With school districts struggling to find and keep teachers — especially rural districts — this could be the year lawmakers take another look at the issue, Colwell and others said.

“We’re reaching a crisis level in many of our school districts,” Colwell said, arguing that Colorado’s current licensure program has “arbitrary barriers” and can be too expensive.

Regardless of which party is in control, lawmakers interested in rethinking the licensure process could find allies in the rural caucus.

“We have a negative balance of educators,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican.

While some lawmakers might be tempted to roll back some of the state’s most ambitious education reforms, Democratic leaders from both chambers aren’t that interested.

When Colorado lawmakers heard Congress was reining in the authority of the federal education department and handing control of schools back to the states, many rejoiced. They saw it as an opportunity to roll back many of the state’s reform efforts — testing, teacher evaluations and quality ratings — that they see as burdensome, especially for rural schools.

While some of that enthusiasm has tempered down, Todd has a message for those still eager to reimagine the whole education system: don’t hold your breath.

Todd herself is anxious to provide relief to schools and ease the burden of teachers. But she wants 2017 to be a year of reflection.

“We need to be brought up to speed on how these laws have played out,” she said, referring to the bevy of education laws Colorado passed between 2008 and 2012. “That’s something we don’t do well enough.”

While Pettersen agrees 2017 might not be the best year for sweeping changes, she still has hope major legislation can be accomplished to improve our schools.

“We’ll have a better idea,” she said reflecting on this year’s election, “after we can all take a deep breath.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Leslie Colwell’s title. This article has also been updated with Tyler Sandberg’s correct title. 

shift

Memphis school leaders don’t plan to release comprehensive footprint analysis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks Tuesday night during a school board work session for Shelby County Schools.

Since last spring, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and other top officials with Shelby County Schools have promised a comprehensive footprint analysis to serve as a baseline for guiding future recommendations on school closures.

The idea was to change the piecemeal approach to closing Memphis schools by releasing a thorough examination of data being used to right-size a district with shrinking enrollment and too many school buildings, many of them outdated and expensive to maintain, while also looking at academic performance.

But this week, Hopson said he does not plan to release that full analysis this fall, as he had said earlier. Rather, he’ll make recommendations incrementally based on the data that’s been collected during the last year.

The game plan marks a shift in strategy as leaders of Tennessee’s largest school district begin to roll out proposals to close, build and consolidate schools.

During a work session with school board members on Tuesday night, Hopson called his proposal to consolidate five schools into three new buildings the “first phase” of the footprint analysis.

“The data suggests that we have roughly 15 to 18 schools we should close over the next five years. I will continue to make those recommendations in a responsible and data-driven way,” Hopson said.

The superintendent said after the meeting that this and any subsequent recommendations are the analysis that he’s been promising.

“All we said we’re going to do is get the data and make decisions based on data,” he told reporters. “We’re going to use our enrollment, school performance and the condition of the building.”

Hopson’s statement is a departure from months-long discussions about the footprint analysis in which he and top district officials pointed to the release of its full analysis this fall.

In June, in response to a Chalkbeat story identifying 25 schools at risk of closure based on an analysis of publicly available data, the district issued a statement that said Hopson “will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall.” Here is the full statement:

“Shelby County Schools has set ambitious goals for its students and schools through its Destination 2025 priorities, and it has made significant progress towards those goals over the past few years. To continue supporting our students and schools, SCS has initiated an ambitious footprint analysis that will offer the right number of high-quality seats in every neighborhood, better focus resources and attain efficiency by operating the right number of schools. As previously stated, Superintendent Hopson will be presenting a comprehensive plan in the fall that will include a full communications and community engagement effort to ensure that we collaborate with all aspects of our community to benefit our students. Any other reference of potential school closures is speculation and not based on the result of the District’s efforts.”

On Tuesday night, Hopson told reporters: “Chalkbeat did a great article a while back laying out the data. The data was there in terms of how under-enrolled the school was, what’s the school’s performance and things of that nature. So, we’re just looking at that data.” (Chalkbeat’s story identified schools at risk, not proposed for closure.)

Other news organizations also reported statements earlier this year about the district’s plan to unveil a comprehensive plan.

Hopson and several school board members say they’re concerned that releasing the district’s own comprehensive analysis that points to the closure of schools down the road might disrupt those schools prematurely.

“What we know is that if you say this school is slated to close four years from now, you’re going to have a tough time getting teachers, parents leave in droves, and things could change,” Hopson told the school board.

The district has a recent precedent for concern. Last spring, when the board voted to close Northside High School at the end of the 2016-17 school year, all but four of the school’s teachers requested transfers and only 36 students remained enrolled in advance of the planned closure. Faced with a potential mass exodus before Northside’s final year of operation, the board reconsidered its decision and voted to shutter the school in June.

School board member Stephanie Love
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Stephanie Love

School board member Stephanie Love acknowledged that Hopson’s plan to release the analysis gradually is a shift, but one that she supports.

“You can’t put all of this out here, especially if you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, referring to potential academic gains at low-performing schools and new housing developments that could impact enrollment.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Hopson’s gradual rollout will satisfy county commissioners, who hold the purse strings for schools, including construction projects. Without a comprehensive snapshot of the district’s footprint, some elected officials question whether they can embrace Hopson’s recommendations.

“Analysis shows you where you’re at right now,” said Commissioner Terry Roland. “And (Hopson) also needs a plan on what he’s to do going forward. It’s going to have to be a comprehensive plan in order for us to release funds.”

Commissioner David Reaves said the comprehensive plan doesn’t have to include a list of schools to close, but should give the public an idea of “where do the schools need to be positioned” in the face of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have to ask how does this fit in the bigger picture,” Reaves said. “We need to see this from a strategic viewpoint.”

Others said an incremental approach is thoughtful and gives the superintendent room to change plans to fit changing circumstances.

Commissioner Walter Bailey, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said he has full confidence in the district’s internal analysis.

“I’m not one to second guess the approach they are taking,” Bailey said. “They’ve got all the information. So I have to rely on their study and their reports that cause them to initiate the effort.”

The school board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on parts of the first phase of Hopson’s recommendations, with a final vote planned for January or February following public meetings on the proposal.

Teamwork

Who will be advising Indiana’s next state superintendent? Not the charter advocates some expected

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick

Indiana’s next state superintendent Jennifer McCormick today announced the team of 17 educators and policymakers who will help her prepare to take office in early January — and not one of them is a major player in Indiana’s charter school or voucher scene.

That matters because for much of McCormick’s campaign, critics charged that she would be no different from her Republican predecessors who pushed sweeping changes in the state, shifting resources away from traditional district schools toward charter schools and vouchers for private school tuition.

READ: Find more on this year's races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.
READ: Find more on this year’s races for superintendent, governor and IPS school board.

McCormick insisted throughout her campaign that she’s not like Tony Bennett, the controversial former Republican superintendent, but those claims were largely dismissed by the state’s staunchest advocates for traditional public schools.

Perhaps until now.

“I am excited and honored to work with such a dynamic and diverse group,” McCormick, said in a statement as she announced her transition team. “The team’s commitment to Hoosier students will drive critical decision-making which will ultimately impact Indiana’s education system and ensure Indiana has one of the best Departments of Education in the nation.”

McCormick’s team includes one Republican lawmaker, several public school administrators, two university professors and a testing expert. Also on the list are community and business leaders as well as educators who work in preschools and with special needs children, among others.

The Institute for Quality Education, a school choice advocacy group that strongly backed McCormick’s campaign, will not have any direct representation on the team.

McCormick’s victory over incumbent Democrat Glenda Ritz was a surprise to many on Election Night. The Yorktown superintendent’s campaign focused on her strengths as an educator and leader following a decades-long career as teacher, principal and administrator.

But she has offered few insights about how she will govern, especially since her policy positions are fairly moderate.

While she’s likely to get along better with Republican lawmakers than Ritz, who spent much of the last four years clashing with the GOP, she’s expressed concerns about some major Republican-led initiatives over the past few years, most notably taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools that divert money from public schools.

The transition team is her first major act as superintendent-elect, offering Hoosiers their first look at her most important priorities.

Notably missing from the list is anyone from Indianapolis Public Schools — a detail that one school advocate called “unfortunate.”

“What Indianapolis has done is a national model, and so not to have that represented on the transition team seems like an omission,” said David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, a pro-charter school Indianapolis-based nonprofit. “IPS right now is also not just at the forefront of the state, but really at the forefront nationally in its work to create innovation network schools, and districts around Indiana would benefit from that perspective.”

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she had been looking forward to seeing who McCormick would pick to assist her since the two talked last week.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is a really mixed bag of people,’” Meredith said. “I’m glad that she is being really thoughtful in her selections.”

Here’s the full team:

  • Brad Balch: Professor and Dean Emeritus, Indiana State University, Department of Educational Leadership
  • Todd Bess: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Principals
  • Wes Bruce: Education and assessment consultant who has spent many years with the Indiana Department of Education
  • Jeff Butts: President-Elect, Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, current superintendent of Wayne Township.
  • Rep. Tony Cook: State Representative, Indiana House of Representatives – District 32, vice chairman of the House Education Committee
  • Denny Costerison: Executive Director, Indiana Association of School Business Officials
  • Scot Croner: Superintendent, Blackford County Schools
  • Steve Edwards (Transition Team Chair): Retired Superintendent and Education Consultant, Administrator Assistance
  • Nancy Holsapple: Executive Director, Old National Trail Special Services Inter-Local
  • David Holt: Chief Financial Officer, MSD Warren Township
  • Lee Ann Kwiatkowski: Member, State Board of Education, assistant superintendent of Warren Township
  • Micah Maxwell: Executive Director, Boys & Girls Club of Muncie
  • Hardy Murphy: Executive Director, Indiana Urban Schools Association and Clinical Professor of Education, IUPUI, IU School of Education
  • Kathryn Raasch: Principal, Wayne Township Preschool
  • Terry Spradlin: Director of Community and Governmental Relations, Education Networks of America
  • Lisa Tanselle: General Counsel, Indiana School Boards Association
  • Kelly Wittman: Executive Principal, Max S. Hayes Career & Technical High School, a public school in Cleveland, Ohio.