Who Is In Charge

Big four topped 2010 education agenda

The issues
School finance
Pensions
Tuition
Administrative
Charters
ECE
Health
At risk
Higher education
The losers

Four key issues – educator effectiveness, pension reform, school spending and tuition policy – dominated the education debate during the 2010 session of the Colorado legislature.

Pensions and school finance were decided relatively early in the session; educator effectiveness and higher education financial policy weren’t resolved until the closing hours.

Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation and tenure bill, took center stage in the session’s final month, and it has the potential to be the most far-reaching measure passed this year. But, its impact will be much less immediate than that of legislation in the other three areas. (See this separate article for a detailed explanation of SB 10-191.)

School finance

The first piece of 2010 school finance legislation (Senate Bill 10-065) reduced school funding right out of the gate. Introduced Jan. 14 and signed into law two weeks later, the measure took back $130 million in state aid that school districts had hoped to receive in the current school year.

Later in the session, the 2010-11 school finance act (House Bill 10-1369) and the main state budget bill (House bill 10-1376) set total state and local funding at about $5.4 billion for the budget year that starts July 1. That compares to a little less than $5.6 billion this year and is about the same as 2008-09 funding.

This year marks the first time that the legislature didn’t apply the full Amendment 23 formula to school spending, an historic change. It’s estimated full 2010-11 funding would have been about $5.8 billion.

Pensions

Reform of the state pension system, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, was a key education issue because the system includes large numbers of education employees and retirees. The measure is designed to return PERA to solvency in 30 years. Senate Bill 10-001 was signed less than six weeks after it was introduced, just in time to wipe out a scheduled 3.5 percent annual benefit increase for retirees that would have kicked in March 1.

Future annual increases basically are limited to 2 percent. A class-action challenge to the law is pending in Denver District Court.

Tuition and financial flexibility

Senate Bill 10-003, the higher education financial flexibility legislation, was introduced Jan. 13 but didn’t become a live issue until April 30, when a significantly revised version had its first committee hearing.

In the meantime, the measure had gained a tuition provision that allows state colleges and universities to raise undergraduate resident tuition up to 9 percent a year for five years, starting in 2011-12. (That’s on top of the 9 percent allowed by the legislature for the upcoming 2010-11 school year.)

College boards can seek permission from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education for larger increases and have to submit detailed financial plans with their requests.

The bill also puts into law a higher ed master planning process started earlier by executive order. That plan is to be ready for consideration by the 2011 legislature. The measure also gives institutions more flexibility in use of financial aid and in their financial and administrative processes.

Beyond the big four issues, education measures passed during the 2010 session were a mixture of cleanup bills, pilot programs and hopes for the future.

About 100 education-related bills and resolutions were introduced. The Senate accounted for almost half of those, even though it has only 35 of the legislature’s 100 members.

Here’s a look at some of those measures:

Bureaucratic but interesting

  • HB 1013 – A cleanup bill mostly of note for the fact that it pushes back some Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids deadlines, chiefly the Dec. 15 deadline for the State Board of Education to adopt a new state testing system. That requirement doesn’t kick in until doing so is “fiscally practicable.”
  • HB 1036 – Creates a three-year period for school districts to post a variety of budget and financial information on their websites. This was interesting for its political undertones. Republicans, starting in 2009, tried to make government fiscal transparency a signature issue. Democrats and schools board make the issue of school district their own with this bill.
  • HB 1183 – This bill allows pilot-program studies of alternative ways to finance schools, perhaps planting the sees for future reform.
  • SB 205 – A just-in-case bill that allows districts to ask voters for bond issues whose proceeds could be used for operational costs. That’s a backup plan in case Amendment 61, the proposed restriction on government debt, passes in November. That amendment would shut down a state treasurer’s loan program that some school districts use like a line of credit.
  • SB 8 – Another hope-for-the-future bill, this authorizes a study of the average daily membership method of calculating school enrollment. Currently enrollment, a key factor in district funding, is calculated based on actual attendance during a brief period every October.

Charter schools

  • HB 1345 – Creates a procedure under which the commissioner of education can supervise charter schools in emergency situations, such as financial crises.
  • HB 1412 – Establishes a commission of experts from various fields that will study and recommend operational standards for charter school and best practices for school board when authorizing charters.
  • SB 111 – Allows charters authorized by the state Charter School Institute to contract for services with boards of cooperative education services and authorizes a study of designating institute schools as local education agencies.
  • SB 161 – Allows any charter school to apply for various kinds of federal and other grants through the institute.

Early childhood

A 2009 summer legislative study group suggested several bills, some of which died because funding couldn’t be identified. Others passed but are dependent on finding non-state funding.

  • HB 1026 – Creates an incentive grant program for quality early childhood programs – but the effort is entirely dependent on “gifts, grants and donations.”
  • HB 1028 – Sets up a system for creating a streamlined application process for families seeking educational, health, nutrition and other programs that serve young, at-risk children.
  • HB 1030 – Creates a scholarship program for people seeking associate degrees in early childhood education. But, it’s also solely dependent on “gifts, grants and donations.”

Healthy kids

  • HB 1131 – Establishes a grant program for agencies that involve kids in outdoor activities. This was a push by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. It also relies on “gifts, etc.”
  • SB 81 – Creates a task force intended to promote greater use of healthy, local food products by schools.

Troubled kids

  • SB 54 – Requires minimum education services for juveniles being held in adult jails. The measure was substantially watered down because of cost concerns.
  • HB 1274 – Requires notice to schools when students return after time in treatment facilities. This bill has been in the works for two sessions and only passed after extensive negotiations among a variety of interest groups.

Higher education

A variety of bills passed this year are intended to bolster state financial aid resources, ease student movement between colleges and provide greater opportunities to students in some parts of the state.

  • HB 1208 – Accelerates the process for designating community college classes that are transferrable to four-year schools.
  • HB 1383 – Shifts about $30 million from a CollegeInvest scholarship fund into general state funding for need-based scholarships.
  • HB 1428 – Takes at least $15 million from sale of a CollegeInvest loan portfolio into scholarships.
  • SB 64 – Makes it easier for resident students to establish eligibility for College Opportunity Fund stipends by just checking a box on college applications.
  • SB 79 – Allows expansion of some master’s degree programs at Mesa State College.
  • SB 88 – Permits community college students to declare the equivalent of majors in some fields of study.
  • SB 101 – Allows Colorado Mountain College to offer a limited selection of bachelor’s degrees.
  • SB 108 – Allows private and propriety colleges to have their courses reviewed for inclusion in the state program of common core course.
  • SB 202 – Lets adults open CollegeInvest savings plans to help pay for job-retraining programs. Also allows employers to contribute to employee accounts and take a tax deduction.

Didn’t make the cut

About a third of all education bills were killed. Most died in committee, some at the request of sponsors because of lack of support, lack of funding or overlap with other measures.

Others died in committee because they were Republican bills that had no chance in a Democratic legislature – measures that proposed barring felons from school employment, imposing new safety drills, high school exit exams, fiddling with Amendment 23, tax credits for private school tuition and a religious bill of rights for schools.

Only a handful measures lost on the floor, including HB 1271, which proposed contributions limits in school board campaigns, and SCR 2 and HCR 1002, the identical proposed constitutional amendments to free education-related taxes from TABOR restrictions.

Rep. Judy Solano’s annual CSAP cutback bill, HB 1430, died on the session’s last day when both houses refused to back down from their respective versions.

Here’s a quick rundown of some other bills that didn’t make it or were drastically amended.

  • HB 1015 – Proposed pilot alternative funding program for small districts
  • HB 1147 – Helmet requirement for kids on non-motorized vehicles (amended down to a safety education program)
  • HB 1206 – Voting power for student members of the CSU board
  • HB 1253 – Changes in gifted and talented programs
  • HB 1406 – Green construction requirements for new school buildings
  • HCR 1007 – Proposed constitutional amendment to divert some lottery revenues to education in tight budget years
  • SB 5 – Funding to ensure continuity of services from preschool to kindergarten
  • SB 17 – Creation of a pilot program to study weighted student funding
  • SB 107 – Requiring state approval for high schools to use Indian mascots
  • SB 131 – Financial incentives for school districts to provide full-day kindergarten
  • SB 210 – Pilot program to provide cash or prizes to at-risk kids for reading books
  • SB 215 – Expansion of video lottery terminals to fund college scholarships
  • SCR 4 – Keno-for-colleges, a proposed constitutional amendment to do the same thing as SB 215

A very routine measure to clarify state law on school buses, HB 1232, did pass. But, there was an entertaining floor fight one Friday morning in March when Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, attempted to expand the bill to include a mandate for shoulder belts on new buses. His idea was buried with 29 no votes.

One measure that shrunk a lot between introduction and passage was HB 1273, Rep. Mike Merrifield’s arts education proposal. The Colorado Springs Democrat, a retired music teacher, is leaving the legislature because of term limits, and the bill was seen as his swan song.

What started out as a requirement measure ended up as an encouragement to schools districts to include the arts in curricula and an instruction to the State Board of Education to include the arts in upcoming graduation guidelines for school districts.

What’s next

Gov. Bill Ritter has a little under a month to sign or veto bills. He’s already signed many education bills passed earlier in the session, and there aren’t any remaining bills seen as obvious veto targets.

(Normal Education News Colorado style for bills is to use their full numbers, as in Senate Bill 10-001. To save eyestrain in the lower portion of this article we’ve used the shortened version – SB 1.)

See the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

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.