From the Statehouse

Can Colorado afford education reform?

The question of paying for education innovations, put off for another day when the legislators passed the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids in 2008, was back on the table Friday as lawmakers and state education officials wrestled with future K-12 funding.

Department of Education officials (foreground) met with legislators at a JBC hearing Dec. 11, 2009.
Department of Education officials (foreground) met with legislators at a JBC hearing Dec. 11, 2009.

A phalanx of Colorado Department of Education brass met with nearly two-dozen legislators for the annual hearing at which the department is supposed to answer budget questions from the Joint Budget Committee.

Gov. Bill Ritter has proposed a 6.1 percent cut in state aid to schools in 2010-11, and that unprecedented proposal has sparked a debate about the interpretation of Amendment 23 and has school districts scrambling to weigh increasing class sizes, laying off teachers, freezing salaries, closing schools and more.

But the hearing focused less on budget details and more on issues like the value of the federal Race to the Top program; well-worn arguments on high-stakes testing and education reform, and the unknown future costs of education innovations set in motion by the legislature in 2008.

The CAP4K program passed that year requires formal descriptions of both school readiness and postsecondary and workforce readiness, adoption of new state content standards, selection of a new statewide testing systems, alignment of local high school graduation requirements with the state standards and coordination of college entrance requirements with the new K-12 system. Implementation is scheduled to stretch into 2014.

The measure (Senate Bill 08-212) didn’t include any funding but did require that a professional three-part study of potential costs be conducted. The first part of the report is due next March, but the full cost study won’t be done until October 2011.

Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder
Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder

JBC Chair Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said, “We bypassed that [funding] process in this bill. … We never should have done that.”

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, said, ‘I don’t really see how our state in our current financial condition can afford to complete CAP4K … is there talk of suspending or delaying parts of it?”

Much of the legislative heartburn over CAP4K costs seems to center on the potential cost of a new testing system. (The readiness descriptions have been written, and the State Board of Education adopted the new standards on Thursday. And, CDE staff and a task force are hard at work on new tests, which must be adopted by SBE in a year.)

A Nov. 20 memo to JBC staff from CDE Deputy Commissioner Ken Turner (who’s since left the department for an education job overseas) said, “On the low side the estimate may be $50 million. One the high side it could run to $80 million” to launch a new testing system and train teachers how to use it.

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs
Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs

And Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs and chair of the House Education Committee, zeroed in on current testing costs, asking “If we were to get a waiver and suspend CSAPs for a year, what would it save us?”

Solano, House Ed vice chair and the legislature’s leading CSAP critic, concurred, asking, “Is that possible?”

Rich Wenning, CDE associate commissioner, said the state spends about $19 million a year on CSAPs, with $5.6 million of that covered by the federal government. Obtaining a waiver would probably take as much time as it will to get a new test in place, he said.

SBE member Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, responded, “I would think that if we were going to pursue a waiver around testing we would be sending a very mixed message … and it would affect our Race to the Top application. … You can’t have accountability without some sort of annual test. … We’d have to look at how badly do we want Race to the Top. I’m not sure it [requesting a waiver] is a risk we want to take.”

Member Randy DeHoff, R-6th District, noted that the new testing system is envisioned to include more than the once-a-year snapshot provided by the CSAPs.

Pommer was not persuaded, commenting, “I find it difficult to believe another test will help teachers teach better.” (Pommer also was dismissive of R2T, saying, “It’s almost entirely political and ideological … it’s just a bribe.”)

Speaking with EdNews after the meeting, Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, downplayed talk about delaying CAP4K implementation. Romer was one of the prime sponsors of the legislation.

“I believe we need to move further, faster, quicker on CAP4K, and we should not use the budget challenges to slow that transition down.”

“I did not hear any voices from CDE or the state board” saying we should slow the process down. “I heard the same familiar voices [of legislators] who don’t believe in standards-based education.”

Romer continued, “I understand they are frustrated by the cost of assessments,” but he predicted the actual costs “will be fraction of” the $80 million figure, and “We clearly are going to get money from the feds to pay for a large portion of those new assessments.”

“I’m sure that the governor won’t support [delaying CAP4K] nor will I nor a majority of the Senate.”

Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, prepare for a JBC hearing on Dec. 11, 2009.
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones (left) and Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, prepare for a JBC hearing on Dec. 11, 2009.

Back to budget woes

There was a little time during the three-hour meeting to discuss the immediate budget crisis.

“School districts have never experienced a reduction on the level proposed,” Jones said, a comment seconded by Vody Herrmann, CDE’s school finance expert.

Herrmann also noted that in the current, 2009-10 budget school districts likely will have to absorb more than a long-expected $110 million, or 2 percent cent. She was referring to the potential cost of higher-than-projected pupil counts and a dramatic rise in the number of at-risk students.

Pommer said, “I think we’ve made it pretty clear that the $110 million is gone.” While it’s “hard for us to know” if cuts will be higher, Pommer added, “I think it’s safe to say we won’t be adjusting for the number of students or for at risk.”

As background, Herrmann noted that about 95,000 additional students have entered schools around the state since the start of the decade, and that the number of at-risk students has grown by 104,000. “Every child that’s come into our school system in the last 10 years basically could be considered poverty level … it just raises more challenges for school districts.”

Last word

Pommer gave Jones the final chance to speak, after various legislator questions and comments on property taxes, what makes a good teacher and childhood obesity had been exhausted.

The commissioner, who’d opened the meeting by saying “traditional road maps haven’t gotten us where we want to go” and that the education system “requires immediate and urgent transformation,” closed by saying, “We can’t go backwards.”

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.