Who Is In Charge

JBC tosses around touchy scenarios

Closing colleges or privatizing universities are radioactive issues that Colorado legislators don’t much like to talk about, but the Joint Budget Committee members and others were forced to do just that on Wednesday.

They learned closing colleges could save less than you might think, and letting universities go private would require breathtaking tuition hikes.

Scenarios for those two things were part of a briefing paper presented to the committee during a hearing that formally opened JBC consideration of state higher education spending in 2010-11, one of the many very tough issues lawmakers face in trying to balance that budget.

CapJBCLogos111809Spending on colleges and universities, neither partially protected like K-12 funding nor mandated like Medicaid and some other state-federal programs, took a beating during the recession at the start of the decade and has taken an even harder blow during the current downturn.

The higher ed budget is being held together with federal stimulus funds, but those run out after the 2010-11 budget year.

Here’s a little budget history:

  • In 2008-09 state colleges received about $555 million in state tax funds, $151 million in stimulus money and $1.2 billion in tuition revenue.
  • For the current 2009-10 budget, declining state revenues have forced Gov. Bill Ritter to propose trimming state tax support in the middle of the year to about $330 million and backfilling with $376 million in federal money. (Tuition revenue is roughly $1.3 billion.)
  • In 2010-11, conditions in the stimulus law will require the state to take tax support back up to $555 million, but there will be only about $95 million left in stimulus cash. Overall higher ed spending would remain stable at about $1.9 billion, but only with the help of yet another 9 percent tuition increase.

Eric Kurtz, the JBC staff analyst who handles higher ed, outlined those familiar figures and tough choices during the two-hour briefing Wednesday afternoon.

But things got more interesting when he turned to four “briefing issues” – closing colleges, privatizing universities, proportional cuts to all colleges and eliminating the $8.2 million in financial aid given to students who attend private Colorado colleges and trade schools. (JBC staff analysts regularly give the committee such background on budget alternatives for information and discussion, not necessarily as recommendations.)

Kurtz wrote a closing scenario that used Northeastern Junior College in Sterling as an example, and he built his privatization scenario around the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Closing and privatization are possibilities that sometimes are mentioned around the Capitol but which to date haven’t been discussed seriously because of their political sensitivity.

Such sensitivity was clearly on display Wednesday as lawmakers reacted to Kurtz’ scenarios.

“I think we need to close two or three four-year institutions,” said Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver. He warned that starvation budgets could threaten the accreditation of major campuses. “If we want to defend the accreditation of some of our larger institutions, which smaller institutions do we close?”

Romer suggested the JBC hire a consultant to study every state college, one by one, and examine the budgetary and economic implications of closure.

Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, piped up that the same sort of triage should be done for all state agencies.

Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, warned, “We also have to consider the ripple economic effect. For some communities their community college is the major employer.” (Romer, McNulty and Court were among several non-JBC members who sat in on the briefing.)

JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, seemed uncomfortable with the whole discussion, saying, “For the record, I don’t know of any proposal to close any college.”

“This is a dead serious conversation,” Romer replied. “We’re at the tipping point where these decisions have to be made.”

“Sen. Romer, let’s take this discussion up later,” Pommer said.

(Pommer earlier had joked with Kurtz, saying that next time he created such a scenario it should perhaps be for a fictional institution, like “Mars Community College.”)

Here’s a brief rundown on Kurtz’ two scenarios. (Use the link below to read his full analyses.)

Closure – Northeastern Junior College: Kurtz said he chose the college as an example because it has a relatively high cost per student. Direct state support is now about $4.5 million a year (not counting the federal aid). But, if even 40 percent of students went to another state college and drew support there, the savings would be reduced, plus the state would have to pick up Northeastern’s debt. Net savings would be only about $2.4 million, Kurtz calculated. And, that doesn’t include the loss of tax revenue from out-of-work college employees and broader losses to the economy in northeastern Colorado. Northeastern is the third largest employer in the region.

(One interesting sidelight to Kurtz’ report was his comment that Northeastern students could drive 40 minutes to Sidney, Neb., and find cheaper tuition at the community college there – even as non-residents – than they pay in Colorado.)

Privatization – CU-Boulder: Kurtz calculated that the campus could replace state tax support (but not federal stimulus money) and “go private” in just two years – but doing so would require 18 percent tuition increases for Colorado students in each of those years.

Tuition hikes would have to rise to 22.5 percent a year if CU followed current state policy and set aside 20 percent of new tuition revenue for increased financial aid.

Boulder is the campus most frequently mentioned when privatization comes up. Most recently the idea was kicked around in a legislative study committee last summer. The idea was quickly pooh-poohed by CU President Bruce Benson and committee chair Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, a staunch CU supporter.

Department of Higher Education officials will appear before the JBC at another hearing in early December to answer budget questions.

Read the full briefing paper

  • Closing colleges scenario – page 23
  • Privatization scenario – page 27
  • Proportional reductions scenario – page 31
  • Cutting financial aid for students at private colleges scenario – page 34

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.