Who Is In Charge

Colorado’s R2T bid seeks $377 million

State officials Tuesday filed their 152-page application (not counting appendices) for $377 million in federal Race to the Top funds, insisting that the plan sets the path for further education reform even if Colorado doesn’t win a federal grant.

A key element of the plan, an executive order creating a 15-member Governor’s Council for Educator Effectiveness, also dramatically changes the education landscape in the 2010 legislature, making it less likely that any major teacher effectiveness legislation will be passed this year.

Gov. Bill Ritter
Gov. Bill Ritter

The new council is charged with developing definitions of principal and teacher effectiveness and guidelines for a new educator evaluation system. But, the council won’t have to make any recommendations for legislation until Sept. 30, 2011.

Freshman Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, has been developing comprehensive educator evaluation and tenure legislation for this year. He told EdNews Tuesday that Ritter’s plan is similar in many ways to his and that he’ll have to reconsider what legislation he’ll introduce.

The R2T program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Program passed by Congress last year, offers some $4 billion in competitive grants to states for improvements in four broad areas – teacher and principal effectiveness, performance at struggling schools, modern data systems and better assessment tools.

Highlights of Colorado proposal include:

  • Creation of the Colorado Center for Educator Excellence, a non-profit charged with researching teacher performance measured by student growth and disseminating best practices.
  • Establishment of the Educator Effectiveness Office, a state-level unit to provide technical assistance to school districts in developing and implementing new educator evaluation and effectiveness management systems.
  • Identification, development and implementation of high-quality evaluation systems in all participating school districts without such systems by 2012-13. Each district would receive two staffers to implement the system and to provide training and support to teachers and principals.
  • Expansion of Teach for America’s Colorado workforce to more than 800 teachers and use of its tools for using student growth data to evaluate teacher effectiveness.
  • Identification of a select group of highly effective teachers on the basis of student growth data and award of $10,000 grants to each teacher and matching grants to their schools for use of those classrooms as models for other educators.
  • Creation of the Colorado Turnaround Center, a non-profit overseen by the state that would build the supply of school operators, share knowledge about successful strategies and mobilize supports for children in failing schools.
  • Establishment of an integrated statewide data system that links information about students from preschool into college, using data from a variety of public agencies.

According to education Commissioner Dwight Jones, the application requests $45 million to help low-performing schools, $21 million for development of an educator evaluation system and $15 million for standards and assessments.

Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien is leading the state's Race to the Top effort.

Colorado’s application was developed starting last summer using state employees, consultants and hundreds of volunteers who participated in four volunteer committees. Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien led the state’s effort.

U.S. Department of Education R2T requirements (which were a moving target at times last year) urged states to get the widest possible support for their applications. In Colorado, 134 school districts representing 94 percent of state students formally signed on to the application. (In recent months Jones led an intense effort to recruit districts, which will receive half of the funds Colorado might win.) In 35 districts, teacher bargaining units also signed on to the application, with the major exceptions of Aurora and Cherry Creek.

The months of work were capped by the Tuesday morning news conference in the historic restored library of Denver’s East High School. Ritter, O’Brien and Jones were joined by dozens of legislators, state officials, education advocates and students, including members of Project VOYCE, a student group that participated in the planning.

“Colorado has been racing to the top for years,” Ritter said. “This proposal will accelerate our reforms of the last three years and give Colorado a blueprint for future reforms regardless of whether we secure a Race to the Top grant. The collaborative approach – the involvement of hundreds of education stakeholders from across Colorado – again demonstrates our statewide commitment to improving student learning and helping good teachers become great teachers.”

Businessman Zach Neumeyer, who’s been active on education issues, and Colorado
Education Association President Beverly Ingle also spoke in support of the application. The event was long on praise for all involved in the effort and short on details of the plan.

The biggest surprise in the application was the Council for Educator Effectiveness created by Ritter’s executive order.

State education leaders have repeatedly acknowledged that Colorado is weakest in the area of educator effectiveness. The 2008 and 2009 legislative sessions passed important education reforms in the areas of standards, testing, P-20 alignment and school and district accountability. Last year lawmakers also approved creation of an educator identifier system that ultimately can be used to link teachers and principals with student achievement data.

Legislation on educator evaluation and tenure was expected to be the major education issue of the 2010 session, but that effort appears to have been preempted by Ritter’s new council.

Its 15 members, 11 of whom will be appointed with the advice of interest groups ranging from the CEA to the statewide PTA, have a deadline of Dec. 31 to recommend statewide definitions of teacher and principal effectiveness. It has the same deadline to “develop and recommend guidelines for implementation of a high-quality educator evaluation system.”

The executive order requires that council make recommendations about policy changes and legislation “on or before” Sept. 30, 2011, to the governor, legislature and State Board of Education. Such recommendations can include those that will “support districts’ use of evaluation data for decisions in areas such as compensation, promotion, retention and removal, as well as the criteria for earning and retaining non-probationary status.”

The executive order calls for ensuring that educators are evaluated by multiple methods “at least 50 percent of which is determined by the academic growth of their students.”

Asked why he chose to use an executive order rather than pursuing legislation this year, Ritter pointed to some other states, which have been busy in recent weeks passing new laws to burnish their R2T applications. “That’s simply not how we go about school reform in this state. … Collaboration is essential to this process,” the governor said, saying the council is the vehicle for such collaboration.

One interpretation of Ritter’s decision would be that he thought the application might be more attractive if it included a specific action – even if it was an executive order – rather than the mere prospect of some legislative action months after the application was filed.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-DenverJohnston’s bill concept also included a study of educator effectiveness before new evaluation and tenure laws would go into effect.

He said Tuesday he supports the governor’s plan. “I still will do some sort of bill,” perhaps to “codify” the governor’s plan, Johnston said.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, said Tuesday she plans to go ahead with her Senate Bill 10-050, which would extend the probationary period for new teachers and require teachers to periodically renew tenure. Its prospects for passage are considered slim.

Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for round 1 of R2T. Applicants will be graded on a 500-point scale. Finalists for the first phase are expected to be announced in March and successful applicants named in April. Funds will be available for the 2010-11 school year and likely be spread over four years.

Total K-12 spending in Colorado is about $5.7 billion a year, or nearly $25 billion over four years. Previous DOE advisories indicated that states of Colorado’s size might receive grants smaller than the $377 million Colorado has requested.

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budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.