2014 session review

For education, 2014 session was all about the money

PHOTO: Chalkbeat Colorado

Dollars and cents dominated the education debate during the 2014 legislative session. Relentless lobbying and a continuous series of compromises ended with more operating funds for schools, with money left over for some special programs.

The state’s colleges and universities, increasingly reliant on tuition in recent years as state funding shrank, also got a welcome boost – without all the drama of the K-12 debate.

“This has been a remarkable year in funding our commitment to education,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver. The vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee, Steadman engineered the final compromise on the K-12 funding package.

The group of finance bills “goes a significant way to help rebuild our education system,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.

The legislature also took first steps on volatile new issues – testing and student data privacy – and made necessary changes to avoid disruption of the state’s accountability and educator evaluation systems as Colorado moves to new statewide achievement tests in the spring of 2015.

In contrast to some recent sessions, there was no big new education initiative approved this year. Nothing really was on the table, given the focus on finances.

Behind the money fight

Finance package highlights
  • K-12 Total Program Funding rises to $5.91 billion in 2014-15 from $5.76 billion
  • Statewide average per pupil spending will increase to about $7,020 compared to $6,839
  • Most of the increase comes from the automatic escalator in the constitution. Lawmakers reduced the negative factor by $110 million
  • $27 million for ELL programs
  • $18 million more for READ Act
  • $17 million for 5,000 additional slots for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students

District superintendents and school boards began working last year – even before Amendment 66 was defeated – on a plan to reduce the “negative factor,” the $1 billion shortfall in K-12 funding. That built up during the recession when state revenues declined and legislators narrowed the definition of how much school funding was subject to the state constitution’s requirements for annual increases.

Some lawmakers expected the fight; others were caught off guard.

“I anticipated it would be a struggle,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, who fought hard to get a larger reduction in the negative factor.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, also said, “I anticipated it would be hard. … We were all more grouchy than we should have been coming into the session. There was a lot of frustration. It all arose out of a real sense of urgency.”

Ferrandino, asked about the fight, said, “I did not anticipate that. It was one of the surprising things of the session. … As we moved through the session we listened and made modifications to the bills.”

The lobbying pressure from superintendents, school board members and teachers was coordinated and intense, and its goal was cutting down the negative factor.

“It’s been challenging,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. She was a key player on the finance package, along with Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, plus Johnston and Steadman.

“We didn’t get to negotiate with the interests” in the way that was possible on bills in past sessions, Hamner said, because groups were so adamant. “I hope next year won’t be as contentious.”

The two main finance bills, the Student Success Act (HB 1292) and the School Finance Act (HB 1298), were introduced in late February. The arguments, negotiations and amending continued until the last day of the session, when the House approved the final version of the finance act.

District interests, who had pushed for a negative factor trim of up to $275 million, won a $110 million cut. They also succeeded in trimming some earmarked spending from the two bills, primarily a $10 million plan to convert Colorado to the average daily membership method of enrollment counting.

“I think we did very well on ‘no new mandates,’” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. Achieving that, and reducing the negative factor, “took being a broken record.”

But the Hickenlooper administration and bill sponsors managed to retain increased funding for early literacy programs, English language learners and at-risk preschoolers, as well as $3 million for a state school financial transparency website.

“The process has been totally amazing,” Murray said. “The result we have achieved has been a good one. On both sides of the aisle there is something for us to love and something for us to hate.”

Other spending bills

What with extra cash floating around the state treasury, lawmakers and interest groups couldn’t help but seek funding for a variety of specific education programs. Here are other programs that were taken care of in separate bills – after they took haircuts in the amount of funding.

Counselors – The Colorado Counselor Corps, which provides funding for districts to train and hire extra counselor, gets an extra $3 million on top of $5 million in current funding (SB 150).

Gifted and talented – This much-amended measure provides an additional $1.6 million for gifted and talented programs, much lower than was originally proposed. The bill’s original mandates on school districts also were softened (HB 1102).

Advanced Placement – A bill that will provide financial incentives to small rural districts for providing Advanced Placement classes was cut down to about $262,000 in funding (HB 1118).

Testing & Data

Debate about two issues that have bubbled up from the grass roots – the amount of testing and the privacy of student data – enlivened several committee hearings this session. But lawmakers opted to avoid sweeping solutions and instead pass more limited measures.

On testing, a task force will be created to study a wide variety of testing issues and report back to the 2015 legislature (HB 1202). Measures to delay rollout of new state tests (SB 136) and to roll back some elements of the new social studies tests (SB 221) failed.

Another measure imposes various data security and privacy requirements on the Department of Education, but it leaves the issue of regulating district data collection to another day (HB 1294). A much more stringent, GOP-sponsored measure was killed (SB 201).

“I was glad we got a start on student data privacy,” Murray said, saying that the process of addressing the issue should be handled one step at a time. Regulating district data collection “needs to be a larger conversation,” she said.

Other issues

Accountability & Evaluation

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Two of the session’s more important bills were among the least controversial. Because of the “data gap” that will be created by the 2015 switch to the new CMAS tests, the district and school ratings issued next fall will apply for two years, although districts can appeal ratings for the second year (HB 1182). And next year districts will have flexibility in how much they weight student academic growth when evaluating teachers (SB 165). Get more details here.

Other accountability-related bills set procedures for districts to follow when closing schools for poor academic performance (HB 1381) and allow small rural districts that are in the two highest accreditation categories to file performance plans every two years (HB 1204.)

On the lighter side, high schools in each prep football conference that record the highest annual academic growth would receive trophies under a bill that passed late in the session (HB 1385).

Administrative

There was a running low-grade debate for much of the session about the minutes of school board executive sessions, a discussion sparked by alleged misuse of closed meetings by the Douglas and Jefferson county school boards. But the issue also sparked a debate about lawyer-client confidentiality, audio recording and local control. One bill on the subject was killed (HB 1110), but a second version passed and requires boards to keep minutes of executive sessions that include the topics discussed and the length of time spent on each (SB 182).

A hot-button measure that basically would have forbidden districts from placing teachers on unpaid leave was killed by its sponsor after a tense House committee hearing (HB 1268). This was part of the running DPS-union fight over use of the state’s mutual consent law – get background in this story.

And a bill that would have allows board to pay themselves died quickly (HB 1116).

At-risk Students & Low-performing Schools

While the finance package provided extra funding for at-risk preschoolers, English language learners and struggling readers, a handful of other bills proposed to deal with other issues related to at-risk students and struggling schools.

Minority teachers – The Department of Education gets $50,000 to prepare a study on the recruitment, preparation and retention of minority teacher, with the report due Dec. 1 (HB 1175).

Student tracking – CDE also is supposed 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 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 (HB1376).

Turnaround leaders – Lawmakers came up with $2 million for a program to train leaders for low-performing schools (SB 124)

But a measure that would have created pilot programs to create improvement strategies for alternative education campuses died in the session’s closing days as the money ran out (SB 167). And a bipartisan (but mostly Republican) bill to pay highly effective teachers bonuses for working in low-performing schools never got any traction (HB 1262).

Charters

Charter schools received a boost in per-pupil funding for facilities costs in the finance package (up to $11.5 million) and also got a formal seat at the table in district planning for tax override proposals (HB 1314). Several Republican-sponsored bills to increase charter facilities funding were killed, primarily because the money was in the Student Success Act.

Early Childhood

Other than the additional $17 million for at-risk preschool and kindergarten students, 2014 wasn’t a banner year on this issue. A bill to increase funding for childcare center quality improvements (HB 1076), a scholarship plan for ECE teachers (SB 6) and an innovative funding plan for ECE facilities (SB 185) all failed, the first two because of the fierce competition for education dollars.

“All of the oxygen got pulled out of the room” by the finance debate, Johnston said. “Work is left to be done.”

Health & Safety

A grab bag of bills on these issues passed, although the most controversial, on parent education about immunizations (HB 1288), was watered down in the face of opposition. (Get more details in this Chalkbeat Colorado story.)

A plan to provide free lunches to grade 3-5 students who now are eligible for reduced-price meals passed, after the original proposal to cover all students through 12th grade was scaled down (HB 1156). Students in grades K-2 already are covered by the provision.

The issue of allowing teachers to carry guns at school also was resolved by compromise. A bill allowing school boards to let teachers carry (HB 1157) was killed in committee. But a measure allowing charter schools to hire armed security guards – something districts already can do – passed with bipartisan support (HB 1291).

Other successful measures included a grant program to train high school students in CPR (HB 1276), additional funding for the Safe Routes to School program (HB1301) and funding for the Safe2Tell program, an anonymous tip line teens can use to report threats of school violence and suicide, bullying and similar problems (SB 2).

But a measure that would have made cyber bullying a separate crime in state law failed to pass, weighed down by opposition from juvenile justice advocates, free speech supporters and others (HB 1131).

Higher Education

Campus of Western State Colorado University in Gunnison
Campus of Western State Colorado University in Gunnison

The 2014 session also gave state colleges and universities significant funding increases – minus the fuss that surrounded K-12 funding.

Higher education got a $100 million increase, $60 million for institutions (up 11 percent) and $40 million for student financial aid (up about 40 percent). The funding measure (SB 1) also includes a 6 percent cap on tuition increases in the next two academic years.

Students and parents also got the promise of more financial aid in the future with passage of $33 million scholarship and student counseling program to be funded from state and private sources (HB 1384). But the program will take a year to set up, so there’s no money for students immediately.

Lawmakers also approved a long list of campus construction projects – but many of those will be funded only if the 2013-14 state surplus is larger than currently forecast (HB 1342).

The higher education system also got some marching orders about how it will spend its state money in the future (HB 1319). The bill requires that 52.5 of state support be devoted to per-pupil stipends (favoring growing institutions) and sets requirements, including performance measures such as student retention and completion rates, for how the rest of state funding is to be divvied up. The exact shape of the new system isn’t set, given that the Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education are assigned to come up with the details of how it will work.

The legislature, without much controversy, approved important changes for two segments of the state system. Community colleges now will be able to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied sciences fields (SB 4). And the online Colorado State University Global Campus for the first time will be able to enroll some freshman- and sophomore-level students (SB 114). Both bills were pitched as an affordable way to expand college options for more students.

Lawmakers killed a bill on the touchy – and expensive – question of improving salaries for community college adjunct instructors (HB 1154), and a measure that would have given resident tuition eligibility to Native American students belonging to tribes with historic ties to Colorado also died (HB 1124).

Online schools

Like some other things this year, the touchy issue of regulating multi-district online schools was turned into a study (HB 1382). Early in the session bipartisan sponsors convened a task force to help develop a bill. That included a big change in the way the state oversees online schools. But complaints about that idea – and about the membership of the small initial study group – forced compromises that turned the bill into a study by a new, bigger task force.

School Construction
Before the session opened, questions were swirling around the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program, the subject of a somewhat critical audit last year. The program emerged from the session with only a few tweaks, and supporters managed to mostly stave off attempts to earmark for other purposes new BEST revenues from marijuana taxes.

The tweaks include legislative budget oversight of BEST cash grants (SB 112), setting aside of some funds for schools damaged by natural disasters (HB 1287) and changes in the factors used to determine local district matching requirements (HB 1190).

Other bills that didn’t make it

Of the 82 education-related bills tracked by Chalkbeat Colorado this session, nearly 30 percent were killed, often by their sponsors after they figured out they didn’t have the votes they needed.

Among the fallen were a plan to create an August sales tax holiday for school supplies (HB 1094), the annual GOP bill to allow tax credits for private school tuition (SB 33) and a couple of Republican bills to change the retirement age and benefit calculations for the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, which covers all Colorado teachers (SB 68 and HB 1201).

All of this year’s education-related bills, the important and the technical, those that passed and those that failed, are listed in the Education Bill Tracker. Use it to read the final texts of those that passed and to see where and when the losers met their fates.

research report

Three years in, some signs of (slight) academic growth at struggling ‘Renewal’ schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio at Brooklyn Generation School — part of the Renewal program

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an aggressive and expensive campaign to turn around the city’s lowest performing schools, he made a big promise: Schools would see “fast and intense” improvements within three years.

Almost exactly three years later, and after flooding 78 schools with more than $386 million in new social services and academic support, there are signs that the Renewal program has generated gains in student learning. The evidence is based on two newly updated analyses of test score data — one from Marcus Winters, a fellow at the conservative-learning Manhattan Institute, and the other from Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College.

But the researchers caution that those improvements are modest — when they exist at all — and don’t yet match the mayor’s lofty promises.

The results may have implications far beyond New York City, as a national and political test case of whether injecting struggling schools with resources is more effective than closing them.

The two researchers previously reviewed the first two years of test score data in elementary and middle schools in the Renewal program: Winters found a positive effect on test scores, while Pallas generally found little to no effect.

Now, as the program reaches its third birthday, the pair of researchers have updated their findings with new test score data from last school year, and largely reaffirmed their earlier conclusions.

“We’re not seeing large increases” in student achievement, Pallas said. “And the reality is it’s hard to get large increases in struggling schools.”

Some advocates have argued that it is too early to expect big shifts in test scores, and that infusing schools with extra social services like mental health counseling and vision screenings are valuable in themselves. But de Blasio’s promise of quick academic turnaround has invited questions about Renewal’s effectiveness and whether resources can be more effective in improving low-performing schools than shuttering them.

To assess the program’s academic effect, Pallas compared changes in Renewal school test scores to other schools that had similar test results and student demographics when the program started, but did not receive extra support.

The biggest gains Pallas found were concentrated at the elementary level.

Over the past three school years, 20 elementary schools in the Renewal program have made larger gains on average in math and reading than 23 similar schools that didn’t get extra resources. The proportion of elementary school students considered proficient in reading at Renewal schools increased from 7 percent in 2014 to 18 percent last year — an 11-point jump. Meanwhile, the comparison schools also saw gains, but only by seven percentage points, giving Renewal schools a four percentage point advantage.

At the middle school level, the results are less encouraging. The 45 Renewal middle schools did not collectively outperform a group of 50 similar schools outside the program in reading or math.

In math, for instance, Renewal school students improved from 5 percent proficient to 7 percent. However, the comparison schools outside the program improved by roughly the same margin — increasing proficiency from 6 to 9 percent (and still far below city average). In reading, Renewal middle schools showed slightly less growth than the comparison group.

City officials have argued that Pallas’ findings are misleading partly because Renewal schools and the comparison schools are not actually comparable. Renewal schools, they say, were designated based on a range of factors like school climate or teacher effectiveness, not just student demographics and test scores.

“The schools included in the study are neither similar nor comparable in quality and a comparison of the two dissimilar groups is unreliable at best,” Michael Aciman, an education department spokesman, said in a statement. Aciman added that Renewal schools have made larger gains in reading and math than similar schools across the state, and have made progress in reducing chronic absenteeism and improving instruction.

Pallas notes that there are some limitations to his approach, and acknowledges that he could not account for some differences between the two groups, such as the quality of a school’s principal. He also does not use student-level data, for instance, which would allow a more fine-grained analysis of whether the Renewal program is boosting student achievement. But Pallas, and other researchers who have previously reviewed his data, have said his model is rigorous.

The Manhattan Institute’s Winters found more positive trends than Pallas, consistent with his earlier findings. Using an approach that evaluates whether Renewal schools are outperforming historical trends compared with schools outside the program, Winters found that the Renewal program appeared to have a statistically significant effect on both reading and math scores — roughly equivalent to the difference in student achievement between charter schools and traditional district schools in New York City.

Asked about how to interpret the fact that his results tended to be more positive, Winters said either interpretation is plausible.

“It’s hard to tell which of these is exactly right,” he said. But “neither of us are finding results that are consistent with what we would expect if the program is having a large positive effect.”

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised nearly $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, an incumbent running in northeast Denver’s District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Jennifer Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $300,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a slate of candidates that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.