Who Is In Charge

Legislative Preview 2014 – Money issues top of mind

For education, the 2014 session of the Colorado legislature looks like it will be all about money, just as it was in 2013.

School districts, having lost $1 billion in recent budget-cut years and stung by voter rejection of the Amendment 66 education tax increase, will be pushing hard for 2014-15 funding larger than the enrollment-and-inflation increase proposed by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper has proposed a more significant increase for higher education, but some lawmakers are looking to allocate that money in a new way that could provide political advantage in an election year. Several lawmakers also are aiming to resurrect pieces of Senate Bill 13-213, the omnibus school-finance overhaul that dominated education debates last spring. Its enactment was tied to passage of A66, so the package is on ice. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t try to enact parts of the plan – if they can find the money.

Major education policy proposals of the magnitude of 2010’s teacher evaluation law don’t appear high on the agenda for the 2014 session, which convenes its four-month run on Wednesday.

The one exception could be an update of teacher licensing laws, a non-starter last year that’s taking a backseat to financial issues for the moment. And a flurry of lesser education proposals, from childhood obesity to Common Core Standards, and from student data privacy to teacher pensions, could surface in 2014. But most Capitol observers expect that few such bills, some motivated by the political and ideological preferences of individual members, will advance very far.

Schools and colleges are favorite issues for lawmakers – more than 80 education-related bills were introduced in 2013. But lawmakers obviously wrestle with lots of other issues as well. Budget needs of other agencies, economic development and hot-button issues like gun control color the overall tone of a legislative session, indirectly affecting what happens to education bills. The mood of the session also will be affected by the fact that 2014 is an election year in which many Republicans believe the political tides are moving in their direction. Election-year sessions see some lawmakers acting cautiously and others taking risks, sometimes with unpredictable results.

Here’s a look at likely education issues during the 2014 session, based on interviews with a wide range of legislators, lobbyists and education advocates.

School finance

Declining state revenues during the recession prompted lawmakers to reinterpret the state’s school finance formula and use a calculation called the “negative factor” to reduce annual state school support to an amount the legislature felt it could afford each year. It’s estimated that the negative factor has cut $1 billion from what schools otherwise would have received.

A66 would have restored most of that with an increase in income tax rates. Without that new funding, Hickenlooper’s proposed 2014-15 K-12 budget follows constitutional requirements for increasing funds to account for enrollment growth and the rate of inflation. But it wouldn’t make much of a dent in the negative factor. (See this story for background on the issue.)

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon
Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon / File photo

“With Amendment 66 turning out the way it did, clearly school finance is going to be a top priority,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. As chair the House Education Committee, Hamner is expected to be a central figure in education legislation this year.

Rep. Carole Murray of Castle Rock, ranking Republican on House Ed, agreed, saying, “The number one priority is trying to bring the money back to schools as best we can.”

Mainline education groups like the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Education Association and the Colorado Association of School Executives, along with leaders of many districts, are united in a push to “buy down” the negative factor and in resisting any earmarked education spending that wouldn’t fund general school operations.

“That will be our thrust. We do not want earmarked money. … We want to restore,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of CASB.

Many legislators, and even the governor’s office, pay lip service to a negative factor buy-down, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Among other things, some legislative leaders, budget writers and the administration are concerned that putting a lot of money back into school operations in one year would sell the K-12 funding base, squeezing the state budget in a future economic downturn and forcing reapplication of the negative factor at that time. Hickenlooper also wants to use some of the revenue that state is gaining during the current economic recovery to beef up state reserves and pay back money “borrowed” from some state cash funds during the recession.

A number of legislators are more interested in spending new money on “one-time” educational expenses. “There are a lot of people with their eyes on the one-time funds,” said one lobbyist.

So the outcome of the school finance debate will depend on how legislators can balance demands for buying down the negative factor with desires for fiscal caution and for earmarking dollars for certain education programs (more on that below). “There’s going to be just a general competition for limited resources,” Hamner predicts.

Many of the funding decisions may not be made until near the end of the legislative session, when the main budget bill and the annual school finance bill are introduced.

Paying for colleges

The state’s colleges and universities also were hit by the recession, and Hickenlooper’s budget plan proposes the largest increase in years, both for individual campuses and for the state’s financial aid program. The plan also includes a promise by institutions’ boards of trustees to hold 2014-15 tuition increases to no more than 6 percent. (Get more details here.)

Nobody in the legislature is publicly disagreeing with that plan, but some lawmakers want to take it a step further. Traditionally, higher ed funding is included in the state’s annual main budget measure, known as the “long bill” in statehouse jargon.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo
Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood / File photo

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, want to put the funding increase and the tuition cap in a separate measure, planned to be Senate Bill 12-001. The financial effect for colleges would be the same, so some in the statehouse wonder if running a separate a bill is primarily a way to provide a talking point for lawmakers facing tough reelection contests next November. (Kerr, a Jeffco teacher who isn’t facing reelection this year, is expected to have a higher profile on education issues this year as he’s the new chair of the Senate Education Committee.)

But some worry that a separate higher ed funding bill opens the door to political mischief, “There are a thousand different ways this thing could go sideways,” said one lobbyist.

Picking up 213’s pieces

The brainchild of Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, SB 13-213 was a comprehensive rewrite of state school finance law with a lot of moving parts, including more funding for at-risk students and English language learners, money for implementation of recent education reforms, recalculation of state and local funding share, significantly increased support of preschool and full-day kindergarten, greater transparency for district and school finances and a new method for counting student enrollment.

Both Democrats and Republicans (plus Hickenlooper) are interested in reviving parts of the plan as separate bills. Financial transparency and conversion to the average daily membership method of enrollment counting are most frequently mentioned as possibilities.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Johnston and others also are talking about additional support for preschool and full-day kindergarten. This is issue is definitely a moving target.

Johnston also would like to provide more funding help districts implement reforms that already are on the books – new academic standards and new tests, principal and teacher evaluations and early literacy programs. Again, the details are to be determined.

“To me the most important thing is to help districts fund the reforms already in place,” Hamner said.

Policy tinkering

Changes in teacher preparation and licensing have been the air for more than a year, and Johnston planned to introduce a bill last session but held his fire. A study committee chewed on the issue last fall but didn’t come up with a concrete plan, highlighting divisions on the issue within the education community. A particularly touchy point is Johnston’s belief that license renewal should be connected in some way to teacher evaluations. (See this story for background.)

Johnston said that “licensing is a distant third on the priority list” after school finance and providing more money for implementation of existing reforms.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock
Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock / File photo

“I don’t know if we’re going to get a teacher licensing bill off the ground or not,” Murray said.

There’s wide interest in a bill to improve programs for English language learners, increase funding and extend the number of years students can be served by such programs. A bipartisan ELL bill failed in 2013, and this year there may be competing Democratic and Republican versions.

The key questions for the session are whether a bipartisan bill can be crafted and whether funding can be found, given all the education bills potentially competing for dollars.

Johnston has been at the center of most big education debates in the last few years. Asked if he had anything else on his mind this year, he laughed and said, “There’s no big other surprise project coming.”

Higher education issues

A bitter lobbying fight ended last year with defeat of a bill that would have allowed community colleges to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degrees in applied sciences, fields like dental hygiene and mortuary science. A series of meetings after the 2013 session adjourned reportedly smoothed over disagreements, and sponsor Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, hopes a bill will pass. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress. … I know we won’t have the opposition we had last year.”

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora / File photo

The fate of another idea backed by Todd, along with GOP Rep. Chris Holbert of Parker, is less certain. They want to allow Colorado State University’s Global Campus online program to enroll freshman and sophomores. (Students currently can enroll starting at the junior level.) The community college system fears the plan would encroach on its turf, so negotiations are ongoing. “I know and I understand the community colleges aren’t real excited about it,” Todd said, “My hope is that we can continue the conversation. … We need to figure out how to make this work.”

Construction money for college buildings may become an issue late in the session, after the March state revenue forecasts are made. Such funding was mostly non-existent in recent years, and colleges didn’t get as much as they would have liked in Hickenlooper’s 2014-15 spending plans. An uptick in revenues could spark lobbying to use the money for campus projects.

Yet more bills

Predicting a legislative session can be tricky, given that lawmakers’ plans sometimes aren’t fully baked before the session starts and because some legislators like to keep their plans quiet until bills are introduced.

But there likely will be no shortage of education proposals. “Everybody always has their pet bills,” Murray notes. Here are some issues that could surface this year:

  • Privacy protections for student data – Murray says she’s investigating the issue but doesn’t have a specific plan yet.
  • Flexibility for rural districts – Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, is working on legislation to ease compliance burdens on small districts, primarily in the area of data reporting to the state.
  • Building Excellent Schools Today construction program – A recent state audit found some problems (see story), and a Joint Budget Committee analyst is recommending tighter legislative controls. There’s also chatter about diverting marijuana tax revenues, which many had assumed would go to BEST, into construction of kindergarten classrooms.
  • Regulation of online schools – Kerr and Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, say they are working on a bill.
  • Early childhood education quality – The governor’s office and some lawmakers are pushing for funding, a plan that died last year in a battle over the negative factor.
  • Accountability – Hamner says she’s working with the Department of Education on whether legislation is needed to adjust the state’s district and school rating system to account for the 2015 change in the state’s testing system.
  • Childhood obesity – Hamner also says she looking into this issue but may not have legislation ready this year.

Also be on the lookout for bills on subsidizing Advanced Placement classes in small districts, increasing funding for the Colorado Counselor Corps and paying school board members, and perhaps proposals on funding of gifted and talented programs and adult education.

There’s also talk of bills – primarily sponsored by individual Republican members – to take Colorado out of the Common Core Standards, reform the Public Employees’ Retirement Association and provide tax credits for private school tuition and donations. Those last two are perennial subjects, but such bills have been killed in recent sessions by the Democratic majorities.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.