Future of Schools

School finance bill goes to House

Updated April 2 – The Senate Tuesday morning gave 20-15 final approval to the bill that would rewrite Colorado’s school finance system, a plan that will go into effect only if voters later approve a tax increase to pay for it.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
This morning’s final debate distilled Monday’s lengthy discussions, with Republicans attacking the proposed tax increase required by the bill and questioning whether the measure contains any educational reform.

“What is behind Senate Bill 213,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, “is a tax increase.”

“This bill keeps us in the previous century.” Said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs. Instead, he suggested, “Let’s give everyone of a children a backpack full of money” they can use to choose the schools they want.

“This is not reform, this is a billion dollar tax increase,” argued Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, struck back forcefully at the reform criticism, saying, “We have passed the toughest reform package in this country,” citing the standards and testing, district and school accountability, educator evaluation and early literacy laws passed in the last five years. Heath, a prime sponsor of SB 13-213, said they bill and its funding are needed to bring those reforms to life.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, called the bill a “fairy tale” and indicated the best education reform would be private tuition tax credits. (Two Republican bills on that subject were quickly killed earlier in the legislative session.)

All 20 senate Democrats supported Senate Bill 13-213, and all 15 Republicans voted no. The measure now moves to the House for consideration.

Text of Monday story follows.

Sen. Mike Johnston Monday got the amendments he needed on his 174-page bill to modernize Colorado’s school funding system, but he didn’t get any love from Republicans who don’t like the $1 billion price tag.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 13-213 on a 20-15 preliminary vote, which is expected to be the same party-line total when a final vote is taken later.

As the bill headed into the Senate Education Committee last month, Johnston’s problems were with a fellow Democrat and with some large school districts that were unhappy with the amounts of money they’d receive under Johnston’s original formula.

The bill would increase funding for kindergarten and preschool, provide significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, devote more money to special education and make extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates.

Because the Colorado constitution requires tax increases be approved by voters, the funding piece of the proposal would have to be passed in a statewide election.

Before the Senate Education Committee passed the bill on March 21, Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, added an amendment that set “floor” per-pupil funding of about $7,495 for every district. That was intended to assuage the concerns of several large suburban districts. (See this article about the committee meeting.)

The trouble was that Todd’s amendment ballooned the bill’s estimated cost to about $1.3 billion, something Johnston wasn’t willing to accept.

Negotiations led to a compromise that was presented on the Senate floor Monday. That amendment reduces district floor funding to about $7,022 per pupil but also increases special education funding, a move that would help districts because more state special ed support would reduce the amounts that districts have to backfill from their main budgets. (Current average per-pupil funding is $6,872.)

The amendment also would reduce to $441 the per-student amount that districts would receive from SB 13-213’s Teaching and Leadership Investment fund, which is intended to provide districts with extra funding to implement the costs of state reform requirements passed in recent years. Johnston’s original bill set the figure at $600.

Johnston explained that every district would take a $141 cut, but some districts would receive that money back to fund them at the floor level.

The effect of the amendment is to bring the bill’s cost back to a level that Johnston is comfortable with – and which he and supporters hope voters will support.

Todd told EdNews she thinks most of the concerned districts are “okay” with the bill as amended Monday but said she thinks the issue of floor funding may come up again once the bill moves to the House.

Republicans weren’t happy

Three GOP senators
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Republican Sens. Owen Hill, Scott Renfroe and Mark Scheffel (L-R) led the attack on SB 13-213.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, has successfully allied with Republicans on past school reform measures, most notably Senate Bill 10-191, which created a teacher and principal evaluation system based partly on student academic growth.

But Monday’s debate on SB 13-213 showed a hard partisan split similar to that seen this session on such non-education issues as gun control.

The measure received no Republican votes when it passed Senate Education. GOP senators expanded on their opposition Monday during a debate that stretched from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with Republicans doing most of the talking during the later stages. Sen. Pat Steadman, who chaired the session, noted that it was a “long and languid” debate.

Republicans proposed 21 amendments, and tried six more (including some repeats) at the end of the discussion, as is allowed on preliminary consideration. All were defeated or ruled out of order.

Objections boiled down to three complaints – the bill is too expensive, the school finance system is too complicated and the bill doesn’t really provide education reform.

“This is a bill of special interests who have put together what they want to do to get a billion tax increase,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley. He’s the ranking minority member of the Senate Education Committee and led the GOP floor fight against SB 13-213. “It funds basically the same system with a few tweaks at a much higher amount.”

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said, “You don’t see much in the way of reform in this bill. If this is being labeled as education reform, it’s April Fool’s Day.”

In the end, Republican senators argued for school choice and for replacing the bill with tax credits for private school tuition. (Speakers managed to avoid using the word “vouchers” throughout the debate.)

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.