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.

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The non-profit United Way chipped in another $200,000. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.