From the Statehouse

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.

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.