eyes on opt-out

Who is driving the opt-out movement? The answer might surprise you

PHOTO: Shannan Muskopf via Flickr

Members of the country’s growing opt-out movement aren’t necessarily who you think they are.

According to a report released Tuesday, they’re not all parents of public school students. Many don’t have children at all. And they’re worried about more than the effect of high-stakes testing on students. The reasons why they support boycotting the tests runs the gamut from opposition to federal overreach to concerns about the role of corporations in public schools.

The report from Teachers College at Columbia University surveyed 1,641 supporters of the opt-out movement across 47 states, including 588 from New York, in an attempt to answer fundamental questions about who they are and what they want.

Some of those findings aren’t surprising. “The typical opt out activist is a highly educated, white, married, politically liberal parent whose children attend public school and whose household median income is well above the national average,” states the report. The median household income of respondents surveyed was $125,000, compared with the national median, which was $53,657 in 2014, the most recent year available.

But it’s the breadth of the movement that’s noteworthy, explains Oren Pizmony-Levy, one of the report’s authors.

“It’s not just about the tests. They’re saying something bigger about the direction of education reforms in the U.S.,” Pizmony-Levy said. “It does bring together all sides of the political spectrum.”

The most common reason opt-out supporters cited for boycotting the tests was opposition to using test data to evaluate teacher performance, with 36.9 percent of respondents listing that as one of their top two reasons to support opting out (45 percent of the respondents work in education). That was followed by concerns over teaching to the test (33.8 percent), opposition to the growing role of corporations in schools (30.4 percent), fears that the tests cut into instructional time (26.5 percent), and opposition to Common Core standards (25.8 percent).

Roughly half of those surveyed self-identified as liberal, while nearly 18 percent identified as conservative.

The authors noted that there is some potential bias in the data because it depends on accurate self-reporting, and was disseminated electronically, which largely excludes those who don’t have internet access.

But Pizmony-Levy said the survey still begins to sketch out a more detailed profile of who opts out and why. (On the most recent math and English exams, 21 percent opted out across New York state, as did 2.5 percent in New York City.)

“I think what this is telling us is activists disagree with the current direction of education reforms [which include] … ideas about accountability from the business world,” he said. “They’re saying maybe there are other directions we should go.”

maybe next year

Senate Republicans kill bill that would have taken broad look at public education in Colorado

Students at Vista PEAK Exploratory in Aurora work on a math assignment. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

A Republican-controlled state Senate committee spiked a bill Wednesday that was meant to spark a broad conversation about the future of Colorado’s public schools.

Some lawmakers hoped House Bill 1287 would help sell voters on raising taxes to better fund the state’s schools. But the Senate State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill the legislation, which would have created a series of committees to examine the state’s education laws and make recommendations for changing them.

Republicans objected to the bill because they didn’t want to create more bureaucracy, and they thought it was a ploy to raise taxes.

The bill’s demise was a defeat for a group of the state’s most authoritative lawmakers on education policy. It was one of the top legislative priorities for state Reps. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. Both serve of the state’s budget committee and rallied lawmakers around the bill.

Rankin called the bill the most important of his legislative career.

“I’m bitterly disappointed, although it was expected,” he said. “I certainly don’t intend to give up. We’ve worked for over three years to move this idea forward. We thought we built a bipartisan coalition that was interested and wanted to help. We thought we were making really good progress.”

Hamner also expressed dismay over the bill’s death.

“To die quietly like that in Senate was really, really surprising and disappointing,” Hamner said. “Do we still have a need to establish a vision for the future of our kids? Yes. Apparently we’re going to have to do that without our Senate majority.”

Last-minute amendments brought by state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, to address Senate GOP leadership’s concerns could not save the bill.

Supporters of the bill said the legislature needed to step in to help rethink Colorado’s education landscape holistically, not with piecemeal legislation. The state’s laws are outdated and clash with 21st century expectations, they said at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Our current collection of policies and laws have failed to keep pace with changes in expectations of our education system,” said Mark Sass, a Broomfield high school teacher and state director of a teacher fellowship program. “We need a deliberate and collaborative conversation in our state, as to our vision of education.”

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said he supported the goal of the bill. His name was listed as a sponsor when the bill was first introduced. But he said he eventually concluded the bill was the wrong approach.

“I’m not sure this is the solution to get us there,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a bottom up approach. I get nervous about standing up and staffing and financing another government program.”

After the committee hearing, Sass said Republican lawmakers failed to realize their unique role in Colorado shaping statewide education policy. The state’s constitution gives no authority to the governor, the education commissioner or the State Board of Education to create a strategic plan.

“We need someone to drive this conversation,” he said. “If the legislature won’t, who will?”

Priola said in an interview that he had hoped for more time to lobby Senate leadership and members of the committee. Instead, he said he’d try again next year.

“We live in a state with 178 school districts and thousands of schools,” he said. “There can’t be one way of doing things, but there also can’t be 1,000. There has to be some commonality on what we’re doing and what direction we’re heading.”

Rankin was less committed in trying again next year.

“I want to think about,” he said. “I don’t think this elected, term-limited legislature with the background they come from can develop the kind of leadership needed for this movement.”

The death of House Bill 1287 puts another bipartisan piece of legislation on shaky ground.

House Bill 1340, sponsored by state Reps. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, would create a committee of lawmakers to study and make changes to the way Colorado funds its schools.

The state House of Representatives was expected to hold its final vote on that bill Wednesday morning. But Democratic leadership pushed the vote by a day.

Some Democrats in the House saw the two bills as a package, while Republicans in the Senate saw them as competing. With partisan rancor flaring in the waning days of the session, House Democrats could return the favor and kill the finance study bill.

Rankin, the House Republican, said he hoped his chamber’s leadership would let the finance study bill move forward. He introduced a similar bill two years ago but was unable to get the bill through the legislative process.

“I think it’s a good idea to take a hard look at school finance. Maybe we can get some dialogue going,” he said, adding that he believes lawmakers still need to think about a strategic plan for its schools.

Hamner, the House Democrat, said she also supported the finance study.

“I think their bill will be just fine,” she said. “Unless the Senate decides to kill it in State Affairs.”

budget bump

Mayor’s budget includes funding for homeless students, 3-K for All, and air-conditioned classrooms

PHOTO: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photo Office
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio unveils his executive budget.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2018 executive budget, unveiled Wednesday, was hailed as a win by advocates who successfully pushed for the restoration of $10.3 million in funding for homeless students omitted from his draft budget.

“We are disappointed that we had to fight to get the $10.3 million restored,” said Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children, “but are relieved that the mayor has restored the funding.”

The mayor’s $84.9 billion budget funds several other education priorities, many of which were first revealed in January. New additions include a sweeping plan to extend universal pre-K to 3-year-olds, announced Monday, and a five-year plan to install air conditioning in all city classrooms.

The “3-K for All” initiative builds on the mayor’s existing Pre-K for All program for 4-year-olds, his most significant education commitment to date. Extending the program to younger children will cost the city $36 million in fiscal year 2018, ramping up to $177 million in fiscal year 2021. With additional funding from city, state and federal sources, it could eventually serve 62,000 children.

“This is spending money where it will have the biggest impact,” the mayor said Wednesday. “Doing that [early education] investment the right way will facilitate everything else we’re trying to do in education.”

Equipping all classrooms with air conditioning will cost the city more than $28 million over five years, the mayor said, calling it an essential change. “Talk about everyday things that parents care about and kids care about and teachers care about,” he said. (Hot rooms are more than just uncomfortable: A study released last year found that Regents test-takers in New York City were less likely to pass if they were tested on hotter days.)

The restored $10.3 million for homeless students will pay for dozens of social workers in schools with high populations of homeless students through an initiative called “Bridging the Gap,” an Afterschool Reading Club program for children living in shelters, and teachers based in shelters who are charged with boosting school attendance, among other initiatives.

While advocates praised the mayor for including that funding, they said it’s still far less than is needed to truly address the crisis.

A recent report from the city’s Independent Budget Office found that the number of students who spent part of the 2015-16 school year living in a homeless shelter rose by 15 percent over the previous year, to nearly 33,000. Those students are clustered at a relatively small number of schools — 155 district schools each have 10 percent or more of their students living in shelters.

“Even with the increase to 43 Bridging the Gap social workers,” Levine wrote in an email, “most of these schools will not have a social worker to focus on this population.”