Who Is In Charge

Clashing views aired on student counts

Worries and hopes about changing the way student enrollment is counted were laid bare Wednesday at a meeting of a panel studying the issue.

Justin Silverstein
Consultant Justin Silverstein did a lot of listening during the Dec. 15 meeting of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee.

The debate among members of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee spotlighted the divide between school administrators and school reformers on the issue and also highlighted the political difficulty of making any change in student counting during a time of declining state financial support for schools.

Colorado’s current enrollment counting system basically involves adding up the students who are in school on Oct. 1 (and in a window of time around that date).

Last spring, legislators approved a study of counting students by a method called “average daily membership,” which tallies pupils based on average enrollment in districts over a school year.

Counting enrollment is a complex issue but the concerns line up like this:

• School districts worry that use of average daily membership could provide a rationale for lawmakers to reduce school funding, they resent claims that schools let some students go after the Oct. 1 count and they feel inclusion of graduation and dropout rates as part of the new state accreditation system for districts provide incentives to keep kids in school.

• Some education reformers believe average daily membership is a more accurate way to count students and get money to the districts and students that need it most, especially at-risk kids. Some also believe that using ADM gives school districts an incentive to keep kids in school – and that the current single-count system provides an incentive to push difficult students out after the count is tallied.

Both views were on display Wednesday.

Aurora Superintendent John Barry
Aurora Superintendent John Barry

John Barry, superintendent of the Aurora Public Schools, was the leading skeptic in the group.

“This is a large administrative overhead cost unless we get some kind of state-funded system so it wouldn’t be an unfunded mandate,” Barry said. Although he stressed he wasn’t speaking officially for the influential Denver Area Superintendents Council, “Right now they’re very concerned” about a possible change.

“The best way to approach this would be to reward districts with funding” to retain students, Barry said. “My question is … is the investment in the time, money and effort [for a new counting system] worth it when we could be focusing on something else?” Barry repeatedly used the question, “Is the pain worth the gain?”

Barry also asked, “Do we have any data that this [kind of counting system] has significantly affected student achievement?”

Mark Fermanich, one of the consultants doing the study, replied, “I don’t think there’s a lot out there.”

Alex Medler
Alex Medler

Alex Medler, vice president of the Boulder-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a former Colorado Children’s Campaign official, advocated the reform view.

“We have disincentives now for doing what’s right for kids,” he said. “We have to address removing the incentive” to counsel kids out of school after the Oct. 1 count.

Fountain-Fort Carson Superintendent Cheryl Serrano raised a fear that’s often voiced by school leaders – “Is this just a way for the state to cut?’

Vody Herrmann, school finance chief for the Department of Education, said, “That wasn’t the intent” when the law was passed, and Medler said, “No one here is looking to reduce the overall investment in education.”

Serrano said she also feared a switch actually would benefit districts with fewer poor, low-achieving students. “I think you’re going to see the rich get richer.”

Mary Wickersham
Mary Wickersham

Mary Wickersham, an education advisor to outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter, noted repeatedly that school funding is tight and declining. “If you have a fixed pot of money, you can’t have winners if you don’t have losers” when the counting method is changed.

A key issue in the debate is the potential cost of the verification and auditing required to make sure districts actually are serving the students they claim.

“It’s going to be verification that takes the work,” Fermanich said. He and fellow consultant Justin Silverstein briefed the panel on questions that asked school districts about the time required to manage the current count.

Medler wondered how tight verification needs to be. “No one wants money going to kids who aren’t there” but “at some point, we need to say it’s not worth it to solve every [data] problem.”

Herrmann defended verification in general, saying that the state has $4 to $8 million a year in “audit exceptions” – state aid that districts claim but which they may not be entitled to receive.

“They are doing everything they can to generate more money. It’s not every district, but we have some that are flagrant,” she said.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author of the bill that created the study, sat in on part of the meeting. “I completely agree that this [changing the count system] isn’t going to fix it all,” but he said that other states use different systems from which Colorado might learn.

Johnston told Education News Colorado recently that he would consider introducing ADM legislation during the 2011 legislative session, depending on what the study and the advisory panel come up with. The panel is to hold its last meeting the week of Jan. 2.

Because of delays in raising the private funding required for the project, the study, being done by the research firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, didn’t get started until last month. The advisory committee had its first meeting Dec. 1, and the report is due Jan. 7.

More information about the project

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.