Who Is In Charge

Bills slowly jelling in school finance panel

The work of the School Finance Interim Committee has boiled down to 13 possible bills, none of which propose any sweeping changes in the way Colorado pays for K-12 education.

Members of Interim School Finance Committee discussed possible bills.
Members of Interim School Finance Committee discussed possible bills.

The legislative panel has held more than half a dozen meetings to study and discuss the finance system, but the state’s budget crisis seems to have dissuaded members from floating any major changes to the formulas that drive distribution of the $3.5 billion in annual state aid to districts. (An additional $2 billion in local taxes also is spent on schools.)

Committee discussion – and individual member interests – has produced 11 bill drafts and two bill ideas that the panel kicked around on Thursday. The committee is supposed to vote later this month on which bills to recommend to the 2010 legislature.

While there are no significant changes proposed, some of the draft bills propose interesting approaches to significant problems, including some with school reform implications.

Enrollment counts:
Newly appointed Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, is proposing that the system of counting enrollment (and doling out state aid) be changed from the current Oct. 1 headcount to one based on average daily membership across the school year. This is a touch subject for school districts because average daily membership typically is lower than the enrollments counted every Oct. 1. So, the idea would be to conduct a pilot program and then phase the switch over three years.

Johnston, a principal in the Mapleton district, was at an out-of-state conference Thursday so couldn’t attend the meeting.

“I definitely think it [such a change] is coming; I don’t think it’s there yet,” said chair Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, referring to nervousness about such a switch during tight budget times. “We can contemplate it further at the next meeting.”

At-risk funding: Johnston also is proposing changes that would allocate money for at-risk students at charter schools based on actual at-risk enrollments. (The current system gives charters such funds based on the overall at-risk enrollments in their home districts.) His idea also would require districts to funnel a set percentage of at-risk dollars to the individual district schools the students actually attend.

A similar plan died in the 2009 legislative session. It’s a somewhat touchy idea because of its potential to create financial winners and losers among individual schools.

Johnston also is proposing an overall – but unspecified – increase in state at-risk aid, something that Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, called “over the rainbow” in the current budget climate.

New funding system for small districts: Middleton and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, are proposing variations on an idea to create a new funding systems for districts with fewer than 2,000 students. The current per-pupil funding system makes such districts financially vulnerable to even small enrollment drops.

The proposals would allow such districts to choose a stable amount of funding for five years, giving them time to plan for enrollment changes. Committee members are interested in using such a scheme as a “carrot” to encourage small districts to control costs by sharing services, and perhaps even superintendents, with neighboring districts.

Property tax freeze revenues: Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, is proposing a bill that would requires that all school aid saved by the state because of the 2007 property tax freeze be deposited in the State Education Fund.

The freeze law prevented automatic tax reductions in many districts, meaning the state didn’t have to backfill for the loss of those local revenues. Republicans termed the law unconstitutional, but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled otherwise earlier this year. King argues it’s only right that the saved money be earmarked for other school spending out of the SEF, which is projected to become insolvent in the next year or two.

Some Democratic committee members cautioned Thursday that doing so would just shift money around to no purpose and reduce legislative budgeting flexibility.

School improvement zones: Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, is floating a bill that would authorize a school board or two boards “to create a school improvement zone of up to 10 public schools for the implementation of significant innovations in practice and procedure that are designed to improve academic performance.” Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, noted that the 2008 Innovation Schools Act pretty much allows that to happen now, and Romer acknowledged that.

Weighted student funding: King is proposing a state grant program for school districts to design weighted funding systems that would more finely target money based on individual student needs.

School awards: King and Merrifield want to come up with some money “to pay for banners and trophies for schools that are identified as eligible to receive awards under the Colorado school awards program.” (This one has “gifts, grants and donations” written all over it.) Merrifield said, “I’d buy the first two banners.” King replied, “I’ll buy as many as you do.”

Online education: Massey wants to continue a $500,000 program of supplemental funding for online education that is scheduled to expire.

Speech therapists: Massey also is proposing loosening of state requirements for speech and language pathology assistants who work in schools. Many districts have complained that current requirements are too high for the kind of assistants needed in schools, and that has led to a shortage of assistants. Some school administrators would prefer a system of waivers to accomplish this.

Spence piped up, “I’m trying to make the connection between this bill and school finance,” echoing an uncomfortable discussion that came up at the panel’s last meeting.

Online financial information: Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, and Massey are floating a plan to require school districts and other education agencies to post their financial information online, to be phased in over three years. This is a redo of a Republican idea killed in the legislature last spring.

State law cleanup: This draft bill would eliminate a handful of the reports school districts have to file with the state.

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cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.