From the Statehouse

Lobato 9/1: One last speed bump

Colorado’s education commissioner and a top higher education official tried to minimize the cost of education reform during defense testimony in the Lobato school-funding trial Thursday, and time ran out before the state could put its last witness on the stand.

Lobato v. State illustrationRobert Hammond, commissioner of education, and Matt Gianneschi, deputy director of the Department of Higher Education, were the state’s biggest-name witnesses.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs and a lawmaker with long experience in school finance, was supposed to testify in the cleanup position. But other witnesses – and the lawyers examining them – ran long, delaying King’s appearance in the witness chair until Friday. A few rebuttal witnesses and closing arguments also are to be squeezed in on the final day.

The central claim made by the plaintiffs is that the state’s finance system doesn’t meet the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” education system. They want the courts to order the legislature to come up with a new, constitutional system.

In addition to Hammond and Gianneschi, lawyers for the state also called John Andrews, Republican former president of the state Senate, to the witness stand. Here are the highlights of what each said:

Hammond: Supported lawsuit before he opposed it

Robert Hammond
Robert Hammond

Early in his testimony, Senior Assistant Attorney General Carey Markel asked Hammond if he’d once supported the lawsuit, which was filed in 2005.

“I did. I supported it,” he said. At the time, he was a senior administrator in the Boulder Valley schools.

Asked if his thinking has changed, Hammond said, “It has.” But his explanation was cut off for procedural reasons (see TONE section below).

Hammond also said he knows that the current financial situation “is tough for those school superintendents, and I have a lot of sympathy for them.”

On cross-examination, plaintiffs’ lawyer Kathleen Gebhardt and David Hinojosa showed Hammond a long series of documents – studies, department memos, legislative documents and even an Education News Colorado article.

The documents made references to various education costs, budget cuts, costs of new programs and the like. The two would ask if, say, a legislative document estimated new state tests would cost so much. He invariably answered, “yes” or “correct.” (It’s an old cross-examination technique.)

Hammond agreed that full implementation of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids “does” require resources, and that roll-out of the new educator evaluation system is currently being funded with foundation grants.

Asked if that was enough, Hammond said, “Not yet. We’re getting there.”

Gianneschi: Costs unknown until plan in place

Matt Gianneschi
Matt Gianneschi

Now a key aide to Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, Gianneschi was the top education advisor to former Gov. Bill Ritter and a key architect of the CAP4K plan.

He praised that program, saying, “I think CAP4K was one of the most important events in Colorado education history” and that “Colorado has made, I would argue, remarkable progress” in education reform.

Asked if CAP4K’s requirements of new standards, tests, special diplomas and P-20 system alignment will cost the state and districts additional money, Gianneschi said, “Maybe. … We don’t know because CAP4K’s not been implemented. … We won’t know until it’s implemented. At this point it [cost] is purely speculative.”

Gianneschi said, “I am sympathetic” to the plaintiffs’ claims, noting his wife is a teacher.

Andrews: Public schools needed … for now

John Andrews
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Andrews

Andrews served six years in the state Senate starting in 1999. A founder of the Independence Institute, he now runs a similar organization, the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.

Although he said “there’s no issue more important and dear to me than educational excellence” and praised the “well-functioning fairness” of state school funding law, he had no detailed testimony to offer about the rationale for legislative decision making on the matter.

On cross-examination, plaintiffs’ lawyers noted that Andrews sponsored legislation to post the 10 Commandments in schools and require the teaching of patriotism.

Assistant Attorney General Nick Heinke undoubtedly pre-empted a defense question when he asked Andrews if he’d once signed a “declaration” urging the privatization of education.

Andrews said he had signed a declaration that states, “I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education.” The statement is circulated by a group named the Alliance for the Separation of School and State.

On cross-examination, Andrews said that idea is “aspirational” and that public schools have an important role to fill in the meantime. “My vision is … learning and education can and ultimately should be offered by the same free and open marketplace” as many other goods and services. “Maybe in 50 or 100 years, America will be there.”

Highlights of the day

Lobato trial site
Site of Lobato trial in Denver City and County Building

TONE: There’s an elephant in courtroom 424. One side of the elephant is labeled “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights,” and on the other is the phrase “Other state programs.” Two overarching policy question looming over the Lobato case are how an increase in education spending would affect other state programs, and how increased school spending would be raised, given that the state constitution requires voters approval for tax increases.

But those issues can’t be discussed during the trial, because District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled before the trial started that the sole legal issue to be decided was whether the school funding system is constitutional.

That means witnesses can’t talk about how other state spending demands or TABOR limits affect school spending. Hammond, Gianneschi and Andrews all inadvertently started to cross that line Thursday, only to be stopped by objections that were upheld by Rappaport.

QUOTE: “Somebody read my dissertation. Finally, finally.” – Gianneschi after plaintiffs’ lawyer Geoffrey Klingsporn asked about it during cross-examination. Gianneschi wrote about replacing state revenues with alternative revenues in higher education (more info here).

DOCUMENTS: Refresh your memory about the trial with EdNews’ archive of Lobato coverage. The plaintiffs’ website has a list of witnesses who testified and links to transcripts of the first 13 days of the trial. Links to key legal documents in the case can be found on the attorney general’s website.

COLOR: During cross-examination, Hinojosa asked Hammond about the Greeley schools. Several Greeley parents are among the plaintiff group represented by Hinojosa.

The lawyer asked if Hammond knew how Greeley was handling budget cuts. “I can’t speak to how they’ve allocated their resources,” said the commissioner. “I haven’t looked at that district in great detail.”

“They have outstanding leadership in Greeley, wouldn’t you agree? Best superintendent in the state?” asked Hinojosa.

“I would say so,” replied Hammond, who’s married to Greeley Superintendent Ranelle Lang.

By the way, Rappaport shut the down trial down shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday out of consideration for the court reporter’s tired fingers.

UPCOMING: Expect a full final day. Then the participants can bug out for the holiday, leaving Rappaport to ponder the testimony of more than 80 witnesses, tens of thousands of pages of documents, transcripts and other materials (including a few videos) and ultimately to issue her ruling.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.