From the Statehouse

Data security efforts raise concerns from Ritz allies

Three new bills under consideration this week could redefine how the state’s education data is managed, accessed, and stored.

The bills have different goals. While one seeks to connect multiple layers of Indiana students’ information in one place, pulling together K-12, college, and workforce data to learn what skills students need for future jobs, two others aim to defend against concerns about privacy.  

Despite their differences, all three bills have provoked concerns about who controls Indiana’s education data and how to protect it.

One concern stems from arguments by critics of the new Common Core standards. By adopting the new standards, the critics have said, Indiana could make its students’ data vulnerable to being shared outside the state, such as with the federal government or private vendors. Other states that have participated in the Common Core standards have signed agreements to share their students’ data with federal government, the critics point out.

Proponents of more sophisticated use of education data have advocated for creating large data warehouses that can be used, for example, to track student test scores over time with the hopes that the information could be useful in improving instruction, such as through teacher evaluation. But critics of this idea fear that the data-gathering could be used by the federal government to take control of educational decision making or put students’ personal information at risk of being stolen or sold to private companies.

Another point of contention in Indiana has to do with the ongoing battle between State Superintendent Glenda Ritz and Governor Mike Pence over the state’s education direction. While the battle between the two has to do with different ideas about how to improve schools, the weapons have been control over various state education apparatuses — and data is a key tool that each wants to control.

A new “data czar?”

It was House Bill 1003 that first raised alarms.

Authored by Rep. Steve Braun, R-Zionsville, it would create a new state agency under Gov. Mike Pence that aims to bring together data from K-12 schools, colleges, the state’s workforce development arm and business leaders with the goal of spotting trends and helping schools adapt to employer needs.

The bill immediately generated criticism from the state’s largest teachers union, which characterized the head of the new agency as a “data czar” and another threat to Ritz’s authority of the Indiana Department of Education and the data it manages.

Under the headline “Dangerous student, parent and teacher data bill being pushed in the Indiana legislature,” the Indiana State Teachers Association warned its affiliates on Jan. 18 on its blog that by creating the Indiana Knowledge Network, the bill essentially established “another new government bureaucracy” and asked supporters to oppose it.

“The bill essentially makes INK a new government database warehousing agency that will be controlled by Gov. Pence and his appointed director, who will become, in effect, the state’s ‘data czar,’ “ the post read.

The network actually already exists as the Indiana Workforce Intelligence System, a consortium that includes the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, the Indiana Commission on Higher Education, the Indiana Department of Education and Indiana University’s Indiana Business Research Center. Each group shares data and analysis.

But the bill aims to ratchet up the use of the data through a new state agency. Its board would be made up of appointees from the departments who provide data to it — education, higher education and workforce development. Also on the board would be Pence appointees from business and universities along with two members of the House and two from the Senate.

Braun argues the bill would only allow better use of data the state already is collecting. The idea, he said, is not to change the way data is collected or how each collecting agency uses it, BUT to make connections to try to better understand the job market and how well Indiana students are prepared for it.

“We hope to do what no other state is doing today, to accurately project the future job market to inform how the education system is developing curriculum for building those skill sets, or train existing workforces.”

But Ritz thinks the bill gives too much latitude for data collection without enough accountability, said John Barnes, her lobbyist.

“Our initial concerns were about the creation of someone who is a data czar,” Barnes said. “We’re concerned about too much power in the hands of too few people and insufficient checks and balances at a time when concerns about data privacy is a hot topic. We’re concerned that the governance committee doesn’t have enough oversight power. There aren’t enough teeth in that. We’d like to see that beefed up.”

Democrats on the House Committee on Commerce, Small Business and Economic Development, where the bill was passed last week, also said they might ask for changes when the bill is considered by the full House this week.

“It’s a great bill,” said Shelli VanDenburgh, D-Crown Point. “There are a lot of great things in here. However if this bill gives carte blanche to INK to have whatever data they need on any student and access to any data the department of education, and our state holds very close in privacy, I have concerns on that.”

A data repository

Another potential battle over data security came to the fore in today’s House Education Committee meeting, during a discussion of a second education data bill that also is being considered this week. House Bill 1320, authored by committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, creates a data repository for education records.

Behning said the House Bill 1320’s purpose is to make data that schools see, but parents generally don’t, accessible so parents can learn more about how their children are performing academically. For example, the state uses student test scores over the years to predict their likelihood of each student graduating on time, he said. State test score reports will include this information in the future and the data will be accessible to parents online, Behning said.

“The goal of this is to provide additional information to parents that they are not receiving,” he said.

Union leaders and other Ritz supporters came to the hearing with lots of questions about a provision that would put this new repository under the control of the state board, not Ritz. They feared that move could have potentially allowed the state board to work around Ritz or veto her decisions about when and what type of data was released.

The bill even attracted the attention of Diane Ravith, the educational historian who has become one of the nation’s most prominent opponents of standardized testing and what she calls “big data,” as well as a supporter of Ritz.

But the Behning quickly defused any controversy when he opened the hearing by offering an amendment to keep the data under Ritz’s control. Behning said placing the repository under the state board was an error and never his intent for the bill.

“That certainly changes some of our issues with the bill,” said John O’Neil, an Indiana State Teachers Association lobbyist. “We want to make sure this isn’t a new entity created that is under the CECI or the state board.”

The bill also aims to beef up data security by adding criminal penalties for anyone who releases data that can be directly tied to students. Doing so would be a misdemeanor under the bill, punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or up to a year in jail.

Behning said he would hold off on a vote until later in the week to allow committee members to review amendments and other changes to the bill.

Common Core fix

A final data bill, Senate Bill 277, is designed specifically to preempt concerns about what data-sharing efforts could mean for students’ privacy. In Indiana, the concerns have swirled around a question of whether to implement the national Common Core learning standards.

During the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers responded to critics of the standards by passing a law that put a “pause” on the state’s implementation of the Common Core, This bill addresses a different concern of Common Core critics — that the standards could compromise students’ privacy.

While the Common Core itself does not require data sharing, several states adopted the standards at the same time they accepted federal Race to the Top education grants and also agreed to share data with the U.S. Department of Education.

Miller’s bill is aimed at addressing the worry that Indiana would have to share students’ personal information with the federal government or private companies.

“It’s intended to make clear when data can be shared,” Miller said. “Some folks think it may have been opened up to more of an opportunity to be shared. I’m not trying to stop anything we do currently.”

Indiana adopted Common Core standards in 2010, joining 45 other states that have agreed to follow them. The standards are aimed at making students “college and career ready” by the time they graduate high school and more able to compete against students educated in other countries. In Indiana, Common Core from opponents have argued the standards are not as strong as Indiana’s prior standards or or that they will cede too much control over the state’s education policy to the federal government, including control over student records.

“Until Common Core began, many parents had no idea how vulnerable their students’ data had become,” said Heather Crossin, co-founder of Hoosiers Against Common Core, who supports the bill. “They’d like to see their children’s right to privacy be assured.”

Common Core supporters have embraced the bill and the concept of data security, hoping to calm fears about the standards.

“There was no intent, no plan and no law that was going to compromise that data,” Derek Redelman, a Common Core supporter and vice president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said of the national standards. “But if we can allay those concerns we are ready to do so.”

Frank Bush, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said data security and Common Core go well together.

“As a Common Core supporter we strongly support this bill,” he said. “I hope it will eliminate some of the fears.”

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”