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.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: