Who Is In Charge

Brutal day for education bills

The “kill committees” did their work Wednesday, defeating bills on charter school facilities, state aid for private college students and regulation of school-management firms.

The first two, sponsored by Republicans, died in the Democratic-controlled Senate State Affairs Committee. The third had bipartisan sponsorship but died in the Republican-majority House State Affairs Committee. The two panels are where majority leadership traditionally sends bills they want to stop.

All three bills raised interesting issues and were somewhat controversial, but none were consequential. Their fates were not necessarily a surprise, but for two measures last-minute “hail Mary” amendments created a bit of suspense before the final votes.

Democratic Sens. Rollie Heath of Boulder and Bob Bacon of Fort Collins
Democratic Sens. Rollie Heath of Boulder, chair of Senate State Affairs, and Bob Bacon of Fort Collins, vice chair.

Here are the victims:

– House Bill 11-1055, which would have allowed charter schools to request use of vacant district buildings and appeal to the state if denied, died in the Senate committee on a 2-3 vote.

– House Bill 11-1168, which would have doubled College Opportunity Fund stipends for low-income private college students, was defeated in the same committee by the same vote.

– Senate Bill 11-069, which would have required an existing state study panel to also look into educational management organizations, was killed in the House committee on a 2-5 vote.

The three votes were party line, with Democrats in the majority in the Senate committee and Republicans in the House panel. After the motions to pass the bills failed, all were postponed indefinitely.

Here are the details:

Charter facilities – 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 a building was suitable for a school, the charter would have received get it rent-free. There was a similar provision giving Charter School Institute schools access to vacant state land and buildings.

The bill was a legislative priority for the Colorado League of Charter Schools but 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 motion of the sponsor, the bill was further changed on the House floor with 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.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial
Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial

In the committee Wednesday, Senate sponsor Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, offered another amendment that would have set up a process for districts to sell a building even if a charter wanted it, but that wasn’t enough to turn the tide.

Elisabeth Rosen, a lobbyist representing the Colorado Association of School Executives and several other groups, opposed the bill, while a battery of charter school witnesses supported it.

Lindsay Neil, head of Colorado Stand for Children, testified in support of the bill and complained about it being assigned to State Affairs, saying that had undermined her faith in the legislative process.

Vice Chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, complained that Spence’s amendment – which actually was written by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs – “has come in the last hour.” But Bacon committed to working with King and Spence on a possible substitute, compromise bill that might be introduced before the legislative session adjourns.

The measure’s potential impact appeared 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.

College Opportunity Fund stipends – HB 11-1168 would have doubled College Opportunity Fund stipends for low-income private college students. Colorado Christian University wanted the bill; a lobbyist for the University of Denver and Regis University opposed it in testimony Wednesday. They’re the only three schools that would have been covered by the bill. Pell-eligible students at the three schools currently receive 50 percent of the stipend assigned to students at public colleges.

Colorado Christian President Bill Armstrong, a Republican former U.S. senator, urged the committee to pass this bill.

Spence offered a last-minute amendment, also ghost-written by King, that basically would have delayed implementation of the bill until college funding improves, but that was defeated.

Although lobbyists for public colleges didn’t testify, the bill could have had the effect of reducing direct state support of public higher education. In a budget-cutting year that alone would have been enough to doom it.

Education management organizations – SB 11-069 would have directed the Charter School and Charter Authorizer Standards Review Committee to study standards for educational management organizations and whether such organizations should be regulated. It also proposed a definition of such groups and required the Department of Education to post on its website information about such groups active in Colorado.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Wetminster
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Wetminster

Although carried in the House by Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, the bill was the brainchild of Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster. She started out with a bill to regulate such organizations right away but watered that down in the Senate because of opposition.

The three bills joined a list of controversial and/or partisan education proposals already killed this year, including:

  • House Bill 11-1204 – Energy efficient school buildings (Democratic)
  • House Bill 11-1247 – Beverage container deposit to supplement State Education Fund (Democratic)
  • House Bill 11-1270 – Parent trigger bill to close struggling schools (Republican)
  • Senate Bill 11-011 – Student votes on Colorado State University board (Democratic)
  • Senate Bill 11-079 – Requiring districts to study outsourcing of non-instructional services (Republican)

Letter grades for schools make brief appearance

Hudak had a little better luck in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday, which voted 5-3 (another Democratic-Republican split) to pass House Bill 11-1126, of which she’s the Senate prime sponsor.

The bill would require parent notification and meetings at schools that have been designated by Department of Education for improvement, priority improvement or turnaround plans because of inadequate student growth.

Spence said parents don’t understand those labels and proposed an amendment that would assign letters grades to such schools C for improvement, D for priority improvement and F for turnaround. The idea of letter grades is popular in some education circles, and they are used in some states.

The amendment was defeated, but Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said, “Leave it to Sen. Spence to raise a big and very important idea.” Johnston said some of his education policy wonk friends don’t understand Colorado’s accountability categories, adding, “I think Sen. Spence is on to a very important idea that we should discuss at length” – later.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Hudak got even more trouble from King, who said her bill was out of sync with the state’s schedule for release, appeal, review and implementation of school improvement plans. He proposed an amendment, which was defeated, but vowed to raise the issue again on the floor.

Hudak got a little testy about the debate, at one point saying she “strongly urged” her committee colleagues to resist all amendments. Other members chuckled.

The committee voted 8-0 to pass Senate Bill 11-173, a watered-down bill that requires fire inspectors to inquire about school district progress in implementing all-hazard drills and installing communications systems that link to emergency response agencies.

Sponsor Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, has been a tireless crusader for school safety but has run up against school district resistance to mandates with this and previous pieces of legislation.

He vented a bit in his final remarks, saying, “I think there are school administrators who don’t understand our passion on this issue. … Until they look into the open eyes of a dead child, they never will.”

He warned that the next Columbine tragedy “is not a question of if, it’s a question of when and how bad.”

In other action – and inaction

The House Wednesday gave 48-17 final approval to House Bill 11-1254, the measure that updates the state’s definition of bullying and creates a donation-funded grant program for anti-bullying programs.

The Joint Budget Committee did not make final decisions on balancing its proposed 2011-12 budget and meets again Thursday. The budget bill is scheduled to be introduced next Monday but may have to be delayed because the committee hasn’t reached a decision. The committee’s decision will have an important influence on the size of education budget cuts next year.

New mayor

Illinois charter PAC ready to spend millions in Chicago elections

PHOTO: Creative Commons

A pro-charter Illinois PAC will expand its focus from statewide politics into Chicago’s upcoming mayoral and alderman elections, with a plan to infuse millions of dollars into contested races where education is at issue.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for urban public education,” Andrew Broy, president of INCS Action, a political action committee that advocates for charter schools in Illinois, told Chalkbeat. “We expect to spend a seven-figure sum in each of these races.”

INCS Action is the political advocacy arm of the Illinois Network for Charters Schools, and in the past has advocated for lifting a cap on charters statewide and against a statewide charter moratorium.

The expansion of charter schools is a live-wire issue in Chicago, with some advocates arguing that the growth of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, pushes out resources for neighborhood schools in low-income areas. Charter advocates, meanwhile, argue the charter school model offers a faster way to bring high-quality education to students in Chicago.

Chicago Public Schools has 121 charter schools, down 7 percent from two years ago when the teachers union negotiated a cap on charter enrollment.

The upcoming elections make up just one part of a the network’s larger legislative agenda, with three of its five legislative goals already in place, Broy said. They’ve established the state charter school commission, secured charter funding equity in Illinois, and created a 10-year renewal term for charter contracts, he said, adding, “we still need to secure state facility funding and lift the cap on charter schools nationwide.”

INCS Action has not yet named the candidates it will support, but said its criteria for endorsement include contested races featuring candidates with different positions on charter schools. “For aldermanic races, if we can impact 2,000 or 3,000 votes in a ward, that offers a lot of opportunity,” Broy said.

Aldermen can introduce city-level resolutions against charter openings or ban a charter’s expansion into their ward or, if they are supportive, offer tax-increment financing for charter school buildings or other investments.

The Chicago Teachers Union also runs a PAC, through which it has supported candidates at the state, mayoral and aldermanic levels. The union opposes charter expansion. 

Broy expects his group will support candidates by sending out mailers, canvassing and telephoning voters.

According to election finance data obtained by Illinois Sunshine, the INCS Action PAC has already contributed more than $65,000 to the campaigns of state-level candidates for congressional seats in Illinois since Sept. 11. The largest sums went to the campaigns of Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Burr Ridge, the House minority leader, and Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Alton.

In state-level races, INCS Action has been a heavy hitter since it started in 2013. This past spring, the organization said in a press release that 13 of the 15 primary candidates for Illinois’ state Senate and House of Representatives supported by the group won their primaries.

The next governor could play a big role in the future of charter schools in Illinois, and by extension in Chicago, but Broy says the committee has declined to endorse a candidate because of the amount of spending required to sway a candidate or the election. The committee gets more bang for its buck focusing on local races.

Incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker have staked out opposing positions on the charter debate, with Rauner a supporter of charter schools, while his opponent says he’d place a moratorium on opening new charters.

Meanwhile, Broy said his political action committee will soon begin throwing money into campaigns he believes they can win. “In some races, we see a pathway to victory with our support.”


Heated Debate

Candidates clash over innovation schools and high school closures in IPS Board campaigns

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang / Chalkbeat
Candidates for the District 3 and District 5 seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board debated at a forum hosted Tuesday night by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Central Library.

In the races for three seats on the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, candidates are sharply split over whether the district is moving in the right direction.

The divisions were clear during a forum Tuesday night hosted by Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Recorder, WFYI, and the Indianapolis Public Library. Some of the most heated discussions came over the district’s recent decision to close high schools and move to an all-choice high school model, and candidates also clashed over the district’s innovation partnerships with outside operators to run schools — including some where students have struggled the most.

“It’s just disruptive when you just keep changing and changing and changing,” said ceramics studio owner and IPS parent Joanna Krumel, who goes by Jodi, a challenger in the at-large race. “Especially when the district was doing a good job with the programs that they had.”

Retired IPS teacher Susan Collins, who is also running for the at-large seat lamented the closure of high schools that had long legacies in their neighborhoods: “Why do we let our good programs die?” she said.

But at-large incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan defended the district’s decisions, pushing back on the perception that schools have taken a turn for the worse.

“I don’t think we were doing well. I don’t think all was all right with IPS. I think we were patient for too long with strategies that weren’t moving the needle for kids,” said Sullivan, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Read more: Sort through each school board district race and see candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

Candidates also debated the district’s low test scores, financial transparency, community engagement, and equity of access to highly sought-after magnet programs.

Often, their disagreements illustrated long-standing rifts between advocates and critics of school choice.

The at-large challengers denounced the district’s partnerships with charter schools, influential charter supporters such as The Mind Trust, and the Indy Chamber on finances and its referendum efforts.

“There is too much incursion by business interests in the education of our children,” Collins said.

Krumel said she didn’t support working so closely with charter schools, either: “I don’t think that charter schools are here to stay. At least I hope they’re not.”

But Sullivan called those “adult battles” over politics that distract from addressing the needs of children.

“I’m just very sad that we still have the same kinds of conversations that take our eyes off the prize of being able to offer every single kid in the city of Indianapolis a great opportunity,” Sullivan said. “I would like to have more conversations about where we’re going, what’s possible — and not a return to something that I don’t think were ever really glory days, especially not for too many of our students of color and students in poverty.”

In the race for the open seat in District 3, which represents the north side, one candidate supported innovation schools while two others expressed concerns.

“I see innovation schools, frankly, as the next generation of the district willing to take risks, to do what it takes to serve our students,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of facilities and procurement for Marian University and an IPS parent. “Innovations schools are not the panacea, but innovation represents one of those options that the district has … [to] ensure that our schools stay locally controlled.”

But Sherry Shelton said she wanted to support ideas proven to work, and she didn’t believe the innovation schools showed enough positive results.

“I don’t think we should take a chance with our students,” said Shelton, director of information services for Pike Township schools. “I think we should stop the innovation schools, re-evaluate the program, tweak it, and if it’s something that we’re going to move forward with, that we develop a successful process to open those, evaluate, and keep them up to a certain standard.”

Michele Lorbieski, a trial attorney with Frost Brown Todd and an IPS parent, said the innovation schools cause disruption, and said they haven’t shown as much improvement as is often touted.

“I think we need to pump the brakes on these innovation schools,” she said. “We’re doing a pilot to figure out if our high school students should take the IndyGo bus, but we didn’t even pilot the innovation schools. So let’s make sure they’re effective before we keep going down this path at this pace we’re going.”

In the race for District 5, which represents the northwest side of the city, candidate Taria Slack outlined the challenges of teacher turnover that she has seen in the innovation schools that her three children attend.

“I think we need to stop replicating this program until we have better research on what’s really going on,” said Slack, a federal worker. “We need to make sure that our kids are hitting every last one of these benchmarks.”

But incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an IPS parent, said families and community members sometimes feel innovation schools are the best fit for their neighborhoods.

“Sometimes the innovation school option is the best option,” she said. “So I see charter schools and innovation schools as part of our educational landscape, part of our toolbox if you will, to look at what’s the best option for our children in a specific neighborhood.”

Watch the full forum: