Who Is In Charge

Feds’ budget deal may bite state schools

Automatic federal budget cuts scheduled to hit Jan. 2 could cost Colorado school districts $37.5 million in 2013-14, according to estimates presented to a U.S. Senate hearing.

And depending on how events play out in Washington by the end of the year, the cuts, which primarily would affect federal grants for high-risk and special education students, could be even larger.

The situation is fluid, making predictions difficult. “Right now it’s very up in the air,” said Leanne Emm, assistant commissioner for finance at the Colorado Department of Education, who has been advising school districts on the situation. “It’s all based on a lot of assumptions.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is urging Congress to stop the automatic cuts, known as “sequestration” in federal budget jargon.

“Essentially, we’re playing chicken with the lives of the American people – our schools, communities, small businesses, farms, public safety, infrastructure and national security” if the automatic cuts are allowed to take place, Duncan said during a recent Senate hearing.

The possible cuts in a dozen federal education programs could equal an 8.8 percent reduction in what districts currently receive, according to “Under Threat,” a document prepared for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, by the majority staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

A June 18 memo from Emm to school districts estimated a 9 percent reduction and said, “We urge districts to be cautious in their planning.” The memo also suggested that districts “develop different scenarios – one with no cuts and one that factors in potential reductions.”

The largest federal grant programs that could be affected are Title I, which provides funds to schools with significant numbers of at-risk students, and federal support for special education.

Because the state’s budget year starts on July 1 and the federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1, there’s been confusion about whether the cuts would hit in the middle of the current 2012-13 state and school district budget year.

But according to a July 20 federal letter to state education departments, the cuts – if they happen – would hit in the 2013-14 school year.

The clock on the cuts started ticking last year when President Obama and congressional leaders cut a deal on raising the government’s debt ceiling. Part of that tradeoff was that if congressional leaders didn’t subsequently agree on federal spending cuts – they didn’t – then nine years of automatic cuts would start next January.

Targeted programs include both defense spending and domestic programs such as education and human services. The Obama administration hasn’t yet released any detailed plans on how the cuts would be made, so estimates made in the Senate report and elsewhere are calculated using flat percentages.

Congress can stop the automatic cuts if it chooses, but whether the cuts happen – and how large they might be – depend on election year politics and lobbying.

And two factors could create larger budget problems for Colorado schools.

First, defense interests have been lobbying to cancel the automatic cuts for military spending. If that happens, Harkin said last week, the required cuts for domestic programs could rise to as much as 17.6 percent.

Second, automatic cuts to various federal health and human services programs could put pressure on the overall state budget and force the 2013 legislature to either eat those cuts or try to make them up by shifting funds from other parts of the budget. Because K-12 education consumes more than 40 percent of the state general fund budget, any shifts could threaten school spending.

Analysts from the Legislative Council and the Office of State Planning and Budget, based on the assumption that automated cuts would start hitting the state budget in January, estimated Colorado could lose $63 million to $68 million in funds for the rest of the federal fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2013.

In a statement, Duncan predicted the cuts would have these effects on two major federal programs:

  • Title I funding would be cut by $1.1 billion, cutting off more than 4,000 schools serving an estimated 1.8 million students. The jobs of more than 15,000 teachers and aides could be at risk.
  • Special education funding would drop by by $900 million. That could mean layoffs of more than 10,000 teachers, aides, and other staff.

Here’s a list of possible cuts to Colorado’s share of various federal education programs, as estimated by the Senate staff report. The report also estimates that state Head Start spending could be cut $6.3 million. Colorado currently receives about $81 million in Head Start funding.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.