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.

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.