Who Is In Charge

Final school funding debate fails to materialize

The question of $5 million hung over final resolution of the legislature’s school funding package Tuesday, but in the end the question faded away.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, wanted the $5 million added to House Bill 14-1298, the 2014-15 School Finance Act, to slightly increase state support for kindergarten students. (Kindergarten students are funded at 58 percent of the per-pupil rate for students in grades 1-12.)

Kerr, chair of the Senate Education Committee, added $10 million for kindergarten when HB 14-1298 came through his committee. But he lost that Monday in a conference committee, which also rejected his suggestion for $5 million. (Get details in this story.)

Kerr was shopping for support Tuesday to add the $5 million on the Senate floor, but he didn’t find enough.

After the conference report came to the floor vote late in the afternoon, the Senate accepted the report without change and re-passed the bill 23-12.

Kerr referred to the issue only obliquely during brief remarks, saying, “Vote your conscience on the conference committee report. … In the conference committee some of our programs took a haircut, and some were completely lopped off.” Kerr voted against the report but for the bill.

The House knocked off for the day before considering the conference report but is expected to approve it and re-pass the bill Wednesday, the last day of the 2014 session.

Senate moves on last education bills

The Senate on Tuesday morning cleared its calendar of the remaining education bills that needed final votes.

Two of those weren’t amended in the Senate so go right to Gov. John Hickenlooper for consideration:

Academic gaps – House Bill 14-1376 is intended to shed light on tracking of minority students into less-rigorous classes and would require the Department of Education to create a “course level participation performance report” that breaks out student enrollment in core courses (English, math, science and social science) by student demographic groups, correlated where possible with the proficiency levels of students in each core course level as measured on statewide assessments. The bill also would require school districts to use that data as the basis for proposed actions in their school and district improvement plans. Cost: $144,216. Passed 19-16.

Trophies for academic growth – House Bill 14-1385 would set up a system of annual awards – with trophies – for high schools with the highest academic growth in each prep football conference. “This bill attempts to incentivize student to excel in academics just as they do in athletics,” sponsor Sen. George Rivera, R-Pueblo, said during preliminary debate Monday. “Trophies are for sports,” groused Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa. Passed 27-8.

Four other bills also are on their way to the governor after the House Tuesday agreed to Senate amendments. They include:

Higher education funding – House Bill 14-1319 would create a new funding formula for the state’s higher education system that gives greater weight to enrollment and would base a modest amount of funding on institutional performance measures such as graduation and student retention. A pet project of lame-duck House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, the bill gives substantial flexibility to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to hash out the details, setting up a long summer and fall of haggling among higher education interests. The formula won’t go into effect until 2015-16. Being speaker is powerful: The bill passed the Senate 33-2 and the House 59-5.

Gifted and talented – In a session of “haircuts,” House Bill 14-1102 took several trims. It originally proposed increasing G&T funding by nearly $6 million and requiring districts to screen all students and provide certified G&T program supervisors. The bill’s price tag has been reduced to a $1.6 million grant program, and most of its mandates have been softened to encouragements. Passed 21-14, re-passed 40-25 by the House.

Advanced Placement incentives – The House voted 56-9 to re-pass House Bill 14-1118, which would budget $261,561 to provide incentives for rural school districts to offer Advanced Placement classes. Passing the bill is a victory for a House Republican, Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, a retired rural superintendent known for his Western-cut suits and aw-shucks manner.

Traffic safety – House Bill 14-1301 allocates $700,000 to the Safe Routes to School program, which provides information for students and parents about safe walking and biking to school, as well as grants for driveway and sidewalk improvements and similar work. The House re-passed it 47-18.

Still pending on the last day

A handful of other education bills still require House review of Senate amendments, although there isn’t expected to be disagreement between the two chambers. Those measures are:

Scholarships – House Bill 14-1384 proposes a new college scholarship program that would take more than $33 million in so-far unused proceeds from the state’s 2010 sale of its student loan portfolio and devote it to a new program that would both provide financial aid to students and give funding to state and private organizations that offer college counseling services. The idea is modeled on the Denver Scholarship Foundation. Actual scholarships wouldn’t be awarded until 2016, after the program has been set up and additional funding has been raised. During Monday debate Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, complained that the program wouldn’t give out money immediately. But sponsor Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, said delay was necessary because “We’re talking about building a long-term investment so it’s sustainable.” Passed Senate 24-11.

School closures – Anticipating possible changes for schools on the accountability clock, House Bill 14-1381 sets public communication, timetable, student reassignment and other requirements districts must follow when schools are to be closed for low academic performance. Passed Senate 18-17.

Online schools – House Bill 14-1382 contains a new definition of online education and new requirements for transfer of student records between schools, but mostly it sets up a task force to study how multi-district online schools should be overseen. Largely the product of an initial task force, the bill originally proposed having the Department of Education set standards for districts that authorize multi-district programs. (CDE now certifies the programs.) There were lots of objections to that plan – and complaints that the original task force wasn’t inclusive, so the bill ended up proposing another study. Passed Senate 28-7.

And the House Tuesday gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 14-214, a bill that could have future implications for the 130,000-some teachers who are covered by the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The bill proposes three studies of PERA, possibly setting up pension legislation in the 2016 legislative session. The measure needs Senate approval of a minor House amendment.

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, he 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.