Who Is In Charge

Bills move, shrink, die

Bills proposing a minimum amount of physical activity for elementary school students and making it slightly easier for charter schools to use district buildings advanced in the Colorado legislature Wednesday.

Those two bills featured skirmishing over the eternal issue of local control of schools, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the issue.

Later action came in two House committees, where a plan to revamp the board of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association was passed and a bill trying to nudge schools towards greater energy efficiency was killed.

Also Wednesday, two Democratic Joint Budget Committee members introduced Senate Bill 11-184, which would create a 60-day tax amnesty next summer during which people who owe back state taxes could pay them without incurring penalties and at half the normal interest rate.

Revenue from the amnesty, estimated at about $15 million, would go to the State Education Fund. Legislative Democrats, hoping to blunt Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed $332 million cut in 2011-12 school spending, are looking for spare change anywhere they can find it, and the measure is the first bill on the issue.

The sponsors are Sen. Pat Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, both of Denver, along with a lengthy list of Democratic cosponsors in both houses.

Wednesday snapshots

  • Mandatory physical activity in elementary schools – House Bill 11-1069 was passed 6-2 by the Senate Education Committee.
  • Charter school access to vacant district buildings – House Bill 11-1055 won preliminary House floor approval on a voice vote.
  • Membership changes for the PERA board – House Bill 11-1248 was passed 7-6 by the House Finance Committee.
  • Energy-efficient schools – House Bill 11-1204 was postponed indefinitely on a 5-3 party-line vote by the House State Affairs Committee.

Wednesday details

Physical activity bill chewed over but passes

Some of the yes votes were lukewarm, but the Senate Education Committee Wednesday voted 6-2 for House Bill 11-1069, the measure that would require at least 10 hours a month of physical activity for elementary school students.

Representatives of the Colorado Health Foundation, the Colorado Public Health Association and the Colorado Children’s Campaign all testified in favor of the bill, citing statistics about the growing problem of childhood obesity and the health benefits of physical activity.

But Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, urged committee members to vote against the bill. “CASB’s opposition and the opposition of our members have nothing to do with the research” about youth obesity,” Urschel said. “There’s no question that we are in the middle of an epidemic of fatness.”

“We do not believe it is the state’s role to tell districts how to use their time.”

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, said, “I’m a little surprised you’re still opposing it,” given that the House stripped out lengthy requirements for data districts would have had to report to the state.

Urschel said, “We do worry about how it will go in future years,” raising the fear that future legislatures will add to mandates established by the bill.

“I don’t understand what the big burden is,” said Hudak, noting that the bill includes a very broad definition of physical activity, including students walking around while on field trips. “In fact, it is way too weak,” Hudak said.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said to Urschel, “I don’t know what you’re afraid of. … It’s not a mandate in the sense that you’re thinking about it.”

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, agreed the bill is “so watered down” but said the issue should be left to local school boards.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, commented, “I don’t think it’s going to make one bit of difference if the bill passes or not in terms of children getting exercise.” Local school officials are “going to roll their eyes and say, ‘Here comes something else. Can’t the state leave us alone?’”

Renfroe and Spence were the only no votes on the bill. All committee Democrats plus Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, voted for it. Heath and King indicated they were lukewarm supporters.

Freshman Rep. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver and a doctor, is Senate prime sponsor of the bill.

After the hour of discussion, chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, jokingly asked Aguilar, “Senator, do you want to come back to Education?”

“Never again,” Aguilar joked.

Charter facilities bill keeps shrinking

Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield

While Democrats were voting against local control and Republicans were supporting it in Senate Education, the roles were reversed on the floor of the House.

As originally introduced by freshman Rep. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, HB 11-1055 would have allowed charter schools to request use of vacant district buildings and land and, if refused, appeal to the Department of Education. If the department ruled the building was suitable for a school, the charter would get it rent-free. There was a similar provision giving Charter School Institute schools access to vacant state land and buildings.

The bill is a legislative priority for the Colorado League of Charter Schools but has raised concerns among other groups. The House Education Committee amended the bill to take vacant land out of the measure and require charters to pay CDE for the costs of building evaluations.

On the floor Wednesday, Beezley said his measure “is a simple, humble bill. … Essentially it lets a public school occupy a public school building. … I would urge we not let those assets go to waste.”

Beezley then proceeded to slenderize the bill further with successful amendments that took state buildings out of the measure entirely, created an additional appeal process to the State Board of Education by either a charter or district and established an exemption for districts that have long-term facilities plans that include charter schools.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County
PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County, opposed the bill

House Democrats said that last amendment was so significant that the bill ought to go back to House Ed for a more deliberate review than could be provided on the floor. 
That transfer attempt failed after lengthy debate.

Some Democrats’ comments had a districts vs. charters tone, and at one point House Ed Chair Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, went to the microphone to say, “What we keep losing sight of is that charter schools are public schools.”

As with the physical activity bill, the measure’s potential impact would appear to be limited. A legislative staff analysis estimates there are 20 vacant buildings in six districts around the state, with an average of 10 new charters opening a year.

PERA board overhaul advances

The House Finance Committee voted 7-6 Wednesday evening to send House Bill 11-1248 to the floor, but comments by two Republicans who voted yes indicate sponsor Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, still has some convincing to do.

The bill would change the membership of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association board to six outside members appointed by the governor, seven association members and the state treasurer.

The current board has three gubernatorial appointees, the treasurer and 11 elected association members.

Kerr, a critic of last year’s PERA reform legislation who has doubts about the association’s plan to achieve solvency in 30 years, believes taxpayers deserve a greater voice on the board.

New Republican Treasurer Walker Stapleton testified for the bill, saying, “This is not a critique of PERA’s current board. What it is about is ensuring diversity.”

A handful of PERA retirees and board chair Carole Wright opposed the bill, saying they fear the change would politicize the board.

That seemed to strike a chord with Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial. “The question is which composition of the board is best to resist political pressures. I’m not sure appointees are the best ones to do that.”

Board members are trustees with the fiduciary responsibility to oversee pension fund investments. Contribution rates and benefits can be changed only by the legislature. Some past legislative decisions have had nasty consequences in economic downturns.

Swalm voted yes but specified that was “only for now.” Freshman Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, also voted yes and also said “only for now.”

The committee spent nearly three hours on the bill Wednesday evening – on top of 4 ½ hours spent earlier on other bills.

Energy efficiency bill strikes out for second year

Rep. Andy Kerr, R-Lakewood, didn’t get very far with his 2010 proposal that new schools be built to Energy Star standards.

His milder 2011 plan, House Bill 11-1204, met the same fate Wednesday in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which killed it 5-3. This year’s bill would have required schools built or significantly renovated after Jan. 1, 2012, meet federal Energy Star standards, be designed in consultation with the Governor’s Energy Office or have a design team that includes at least one person skilled in energy efficiency.

Kerr got a polite and lengthy hearing from the committee, but various Republican members weren’t impressed with the idea, saying many school districts and architects are already designing energy efficient buildings and so there’s no need for a state mandate.

Lobbyist Jason Hopfer testified against the bill on behalf of the Douglas County School District.

For the record

Lawmakers Wednesday acted on several other education bills, many of them minor or technical. Bills of interest included:

  • House Bill 11-1169 on sharing of threat information by campus police – House 47-18 final approval
  • Senate Bill 11-029 on streamlining of reports by the State Land Board (the manager of state school lands) – Passed 13-0 by House Education Committee.

House Bill 11-1048, the proposal to allow families to take tax credits for private school tuition or the costs of home schooling, was again laid over in the House Finance Committee.

Sponsor Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, told Education News Colorado the bill will be heard Thursday. In a bid to get the bill out of committee, Swalm said he will offer an amendment requiring students to spend a year in public school before becoming eligible for the credit and another amendment that would slightly reduce the tax credit and give districts $500 for each student they lose because of the program.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information

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, he 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.