Who Is In Charge

Higher ed bills first out of the gate

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado
The Colorado Senate on 2014's opening day, Jan. 8.

Updated Jan. 8 – The 2014 Colorado legislative session opened Wednesday with the standard calls for bipartisanship and serving the public, the usual rhetorical nods to education and the introduction of the first education-related bills.

Higher education got much of the attention in opening-day speeches by House and Senate leaders, especially from Democratic Sen. Morgan Carroll of Aurora, the brand-new Senate president.

Carroll made education the first policy issue in her speech, saying, “Education is the backbone of a healthy democracy, a vibrant economy and is essential for individual liberty to pursue their dreams, their careers, their economic security and their passions. Affordable access to a college or trade school education is critical to protect our freedom to succeed.”

The president told a lengthy story about the struggles of her grandfather and her mother, Rebecca Bradley, to attend and finish college, and about her own financial challenges attending college. (Carroll and her mother practice law together.)

That led her into a recitation of stats about college costs and student debt and a plug for the College Affordability Act, one of the Democrats’ signature 2014 bills.

The measure was formally introduced a short time later as Senate Bill 14-001, with four Democratic but no Republican sponsors. The bill basically would increase state higher education spending by about $100 million in 2014-15, with more money for both state financial aid and institution operating costs. It also would a 6 percent ceiling on tuition increases next school year.

Read what they said

(Courtesy of our partners at Denver Business Journal)

As introduced, the bill is basically identical to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2014-15 budget proposal. In the normal course of business that increase would have been included in the annual state budget bill. But Democratic legislative leaders decided to put the increase in a separate bill, partly for political benefit.

Over in the House, Speaker Mark Ferrandino spent less time on education in his speech but did say “strengthening our education system to prepare our students and make college more affordable” would be one of the Democratic majority’s three priorities.

“The work we do this year in the General Assembly cannot make our schools entirely whole from the hits they took during the recession. But with revenues continuing to recover, we can continue to crawl back,” the Denver Democrat said. “Our goal is to make our education system stronger, more accountable, and better for all Colorado students. And that means working together to target more resources where they’re needed most: in the classroom.”

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver / File photo
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver / File photo

Ferrandino specifically referenced “measures like flexible student count days, professional development for teachers and expanded programs for English language learners.” All were components of Senate Bill 13-213, the law that didn’t go into effect because voters last year defeated Amendment 66, the $1 billion tax increase that would have paid for SB 13-213.

The Republican minority leaders, Rep. Brian DelGrosso of Loveland and Sen. Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs, touched on education.

DelGrosso, saying A66 was bad policy, continued, “This session, let’s pass education reforms that will benefit all our schools and keep Colorado’s economic recovery on track.” He said Republicans would introduce bills on school district financial transparency, charter school facilities and transportation and on improving services for English language learners.

Cadman only said, “We are greatly challenged to do what’s best for our kids, and continued K-12 reform is vital. Twenty-six percent of Colorado students attend a school that is rated D or F. A quarter of our kids head to a school every day that is failing to provide them the education guaranteed to them by our constitution. This is unacceptable and inexcusable. If we don’t fix this, we are failing them.” (Cadman presumably was referring to the ratings issued by Colorado School Grades. Official state ratings don’t use A-F grades.)

All four of the speeches focused heavily on economic development, recovery from 2013’s devastating floods and wildfires and repairing some of the partisan divisions generated last session by gun control bills, energy policy and other issues.

Seven other education bills were introduced in the House and Senate Thursday. Senate Bill 14-002 would fund the Safe2Tell program and move it into the attorney general’s office. (The program provides a way for young people to anonymous report threatening or dangerous behavior by others.) Senate Bill 14-004 would allow the state’s community colleges to offer four-year degrees in applied sciences fields.

In addition to bills mentioned above, other bills of note include:

  • Senate Bill 14-033 – The bill would establish a private school tuition income tax credit for private school tuition or scholarship donations, and homeschool parents also would receive a tax credit. Sponsored by 10 Senate Republicans, the idea is a hardy GOP perennial and has no chance of passage in the Democratic-controlled legislature.
  • Senate Bill 14-006 – This bill would expand the current early childhood educator development scholarship program to provide stipends for students obtaining any postsecondary degree or certificate in ECE. The bill is among to first to propose funding from the State Education Fund (SEF), a piggy bank that lots of lawmakers hope to tap this year.
  • House Bill 14-1048 – The measure would prohibit state colleges and universities from discriminating against student religious groups.
  • House Bill 14-1039 – This bill also could tap the SEF and would direct various state agencies, including the Department of Education, to establish procedures to link student data collected by publicly funded early childhood education programs with the data collected by school districts. The measure also could draw fire from lawmakers concerned about expansion of education data gathering and about student privacy.

Learn more about the 2014 education landscape in Chalkbeat Colorado’s annual legislative preview.

A quick guide to the session

Understanding how the legislature works is essential to tracking how education bills fare in the sometimes-chaotic action. Here’s a guide.

Education coverage: Chalkbeat Colorado is the state’s only news service that covers education exclusively, and we staff the Capitol fulltime during the session. Coverage includes daily stories and roundups on our website, the exclusive Education Bill Tracker and Twitter and Facebook updates. Follow @ToddEngdahl on Twitter.

You also can stay current through our Capitol eNewsletters, which are sent every weekday evening. A week-ahead email is sent on Sunday evening. See the signup box on our homepage to subscribe.

Education decision makers: Virtually all education legislation – there usually are 60-80 or more such bills every year – has to go through the House and Senate education committees.

House Education, chaired by Dillon Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner, meets in Capitol room 0112 Mondays at 1:30 p.m. and Wednesday mornings after floor work has been completed. (13 members)

Senate Education, led by Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, meets Wednesday mornings after floor adjournment and Thursdays at 1:30 p.m., generally in room 356. (7 members)

Another key panel for education is the six-member Joint Budget Committee, which prepares the annual state budget bill and other fiscal measures. It generally meets every day after floor work is finished. Because bills are not assigned to the JBC for consideration, it doesn’t take public testimony at its hearings.

Profile of the legislature: The Senate has 35 members, 18 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Senators can serve two four-year terms. The 65-member House has 37 Democrats and 28 Republicans. Representatives can serve four two-year terms. About half the Senate seats and all House seats are up for election in November.

Rhythm of the session: Because the state constitution limits the length of sessions (lawmakers must adjourn this year by May 7), a lot of work gets packed into a short period of time.

Floor sessions are held in the morning Monday through Friday, while committee work is scheduled late in the morning and in the afternoon Monday through Thursday. Friday is a getaway day early in the session. As the adjournment date approaches, long Friday floor sessions become the norm.

The pace is fairly leisurely in January (although a lot of bills the majority doesn’t support get killed) and then picks up steadily until late April, when major bills such as the state budget and annual school finance bill are considered in a rush of work that often runs into the evenings. There is a detailed schedule of when certain kinds of bills are supposed to pass, but deadline extensions are granted frequently.

How bills move: All bills are supposed to have at least one committee hearing. To become law, a bill must pass out of committee in the chamber where it was introduced and pass two floor votes. The process has to be repeated in the second chamber, with further committee work and floor votes to reconcile amendments if necessary.

Individual lawmakers can introduce up to five bills each session, but there are frequent exceptions to this rule.

Making your voice heard: Public testimony is welcome at committee hearings. Witnesses need to sign in before a meeting starts. Some committee chairs limit each witness to just a few minutes; others are more flexible.

Contacting lawmakers: Every legislator has a Capitol office for use during the session and can be reached by phone and email (directory here). Voice mails and emails generally are read first by assistants and interns. If you want to buttonhole lawmakers in the Capitol halls, they’re the ones with the black nametags. (The legislature has an elaborate system of different colored nametags for staff members, lobbyists, journalists and others.)

Follow the action: The House and Senate galleries are open to the public during floor sessions – be alert for large groups of kids filing in and out during field trips. Committee meetings also are open to observers.

If you can’t get to the Capitol, video of floor sessions is streamed online, and there are live audio feeds of all committee meetings. Both video and audio are archived, so you can catch up on past meetings. See video and audio links here.

Read the paperwork: The legislature floats on a sea of documents, virtually all of which are available online. (Many lawmakers now carry iPads instead of armloads of file folders.)

(Calendars for the next day often aren’t posted until after 5 p.m.)

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.