Who Is In Charge

Literacy bill signed into law

The Colorado READ Act, House Bill 12-1238, was signed into law Thursday by Gov. John Hickenlooper at a packed Capitol ceremony.

Gov. John Hickenlooper and students
Gov. John Hickenlooper was flanked by second graders from Aurora's Kenton Elementary as he signed the Colorado READ Act on May 17, 2012.
“This is legislation that really does put kids first,” Hickenlooper told a crowd of officials, lawmakers, lobbyists and educators in the Capitol’s west foyer.

“It’s really a great day for young people in Colorado,” said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the administration’s point man on education. “”But we’re not done. We have a long way to go.”

The law, nearly a year in the making, is the most significant piece of education legislation to emerge from the just-completed 2012 regular session. It also has the distinction of being one of the few recent Colorado education reform laws to come with significant funding.

Several speakers at the signing ceremony referred to the long process it took to get to the final product.

“It certainly takes a village to write a bill to help raise a child,” joked Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and a prime sponsor of the bill.

Here are the key features of the READ Act:

• Next school year districts will report to the Department of Education the number of K-3 students with significant reading deficiencies. The State Board of Education the will define what constitutes a significant reading deficiency for the purposes of the law. SBE has until March 31, 2013, to adopt the rules for the new program.

• The law is expected to cover up to 24,000 students. An estimated quarter of Colorado third graders don’t read at grade level.

• Starting in 2013-14 districts will annually assess K-3 students’ reading abilities with CDE-approved tests. The department is required to create a list of approved instructional programs and professional development programs that districts can use.

• Individual READ plans have to be created for students with significant deficiencies. The law also creates a process for parent, teacher and administrator consultation to determine each year if students should advance to the next grade. Parents have the final say for K-2 students. Superintendents (or designated administrators) will review the cases of third graders recommended for advancement and can decide to retain a student. Special services must be provided for third graders who are held back.

• The law contains protections and exemptions for students with disabilities, limited English proficiency or who have already been retained.

• The program will divert interest revenue from the state school lands permanent fund to provide about $16 million in per-pupil funding (about $700 per student) to districts working with students who have significant reading deficiencies. The law also includes some $5 million in funding to be used for CDE administration costs ($1 million) and for professional development grants to districts. So total funding in 2012-13 will be about $21 million.

• Districts receiving the per-pupil funding will be required to use specific interventions, such as enrollment in full-day kindergarten, summer school or tutoring.

• The law abolishes the existing Read-to-Achieve grant program and uses its remaining funding for the new grant program.

Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs
Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs / File photo
The idea for the law originated last year with a coalition of business and education reform groups working with Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs and outgoing chair of the House Education Committee. Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Summit County, was Massey’s co-prime sponsors.

The original concept called for mandatory retention of lagging third graders, but that plan was quickly dropped in the face of widespread opposition.

As passed by the House, HB 12-1238 had a “preference” for retention, contained only $5 million in funding and also would have required services for a second group of students, those with just “reading deficiencies.”

Low funding and some of the bill’s language didn’t sit well with Senate Democratic leaders, and the bill was significantly amended. More funding was added, the bill was refocused on a smaller group of students, some of the more detailed requirements for parent consultation and notification were streamlined and retention language was softened.

Democratic Sens. Rollie Heath of Boulder and Bob Bacon of Fort Collins were key figures in crafting the Senate compromise, in consultation with Massey.

Several speakers at the ceremony highlighted Heath’s role in the bill. Garcia said Heath “reall helped keep us on track … and come up with a bill we all could fully support.”

The Senate sponsors were Johnston and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial. Hickenlooper advisors also were heavily involved with the READ Act from the beginning.

Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton
Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton
A few lawmakers, led by Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, were skeptical of the bill, arguing that the money would be better spent to expand state preschool programs and full-day kindergarten. But the bill had lots of momentum after the Senate passed it 35-0. The House accepted the Senate version and re-passed the measure 58-7 on the last day of the regular session.

The READ Act is the swansong for some lawmakers who have been key players on education legislation for years. Massey, Bacon, Spence and Solano all are leaving the Capitol because of term limits.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.