Who Is In Charge

A Lobato debate in the House?

It looks like the full House may get to debate an issue lawmakers have been avoiding all session – the potential costs and tradeoffs posed by the Lobato v. State school funding case.

Lobato v. State illustrationThe potential vehicle for that discussion is House Bill 12-1109, an unlikely bill from an unlikely source, and a bill with virtually no chance of passage.

After hanging around on the calendar since Jan. 20, HB 12-1109 had its first hearing Tuesday morning in the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill proposes a draconian short-term solution to school funding problems – cutting the budgets of most state agencies by $198 million next year and putting the money in the State Education Fund, which is used to supplement state support of K-12 schools.

Its sole sponsor is Democratic Rep. Wes McKinley, a colorful southeastern Colorado rancher better known this session for bills on non-profit cemeteries and growing industrial hemp. McKinley’s original education bill proposes the across-the-board cut. He said Tuesday he’d be willing to amend the measure into a 7.9 percent cut in state employee salaries so state services wouldn’t be affected.

In something of a surprise, appropriations members spent nearly an hour debating the bill and then voted 8-5 to send it to the floor for consideration. Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, joined seven Republicans in supporting the bill.

Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh
Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh
“One reason I want this to go to the floor is that this is the Lobato discussion,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “What your bill will do, Representative McKinley, is to force a ‘if it were to be successful’ discussion. … I’d like to have 65 people have that discussion.” (The House has 65 members.)

Many critics of the Lobato ruling fear it would do the same thing on a larger scale that McKinley’s bill would do in a small way – force lawmakers to slash other government programs in order to increase school funding.

Two other Republicans, committee chair Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan and Rep. Glenn Vaad of Mead, agreed that the full House should have the debate. But Vaad stressed he was voting for the bill in committee only for that reason, not because he’d support it on the floor.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, also voted to send the bill to the floor but clearly isn’t a fan.

“You have the prize for the most fiscally inappropriate legislation,” she told McKinley. “You are basically cutting the core functions of government. … I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. I’ve been working since November to make sure we take care of what we need to take care of. … I see this bill as being reckless.”

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, spoke up for McKinley. “Those previous comments I think, quite frankly, are out of line,” he said. “Representative McKinley tried to find a way to think outside the box to fund education.”

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, said McKinley’s bill “brings into perfect focus” the state’s revenue problems. But she also said, “We’re going to have a long protracted debate and we all know here we are not going to pass this bill. … We don’t have time to have debates for the sake of debates.”

On Dec. 9 Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State suit, finding the state’s spending formula for K-12 schools does not meet constitutional requirements for a “thorough and uniform” school system.

Estimates of what it might cost to meet Rappaport’s ruling run between $2 and $4 billion a year on top of the roughly $5.2 billion the state and districts now spend for basic school operating costs.

Attorney General John Suthers has appealed the ruling on behalf of Gov. John Hickenlooper and the State Board of Education, and the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments this fall.

Although Rappaport’s decision came just weeks before the 2011 legislative session opened, there’s been no sustained discussion of the case during hearings on education bills or on the 2012-13 budget. Some lawmakers predicted in January that would be the case because legislators would want to see how the appeal turns out.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said before the session started that he planned to introduce comprehensive school funding legislation this year, “something that’s a long-term vision for school finance in Colorado. … This would include a long-term plan for both funding and reform.”

About a month ago, during a talk to a school finance forum, Johnston reiterated his interest in proposing a bill (see story). He spoke shortly after the release of a paper on the issue by the Colorado School Finance Partnership, a group with which he’s been working (see story).

Asked Monday about his plans, Johnston said he’s still working on the issue. But he hinted that he might not have legislation ready for this year, given the complexity of the issue.

The legislative session has only three weeks more to run – lawmakers must adjourn no later than May 9 – leaving little time amid the crush of last-minute business for discussion of an issue as complex as school finance.

Scheduling McKinley’s bill for floor discussion will be up the the majority Republican leadership of the House. The bill is on Thursday’s calendar, but bills frequently are delayed.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: