Rallying cry

How Colorado stacks up on national union leader’s priorities

The flag hangs over the convention of the nation's largest teacher union

On the eve of Independence Day and the election that will determine the leadership of the nation’s largest teachers union, the outgoing president, Dennis Van Roekel, had a message for the thousands of gathered educators: take charge of reforming schools. And he has some suggestions for how to do it, some of which Colorado is already pursuing.

“We allowed the politicians to define the solution and their solution was No Child Left Behind,” Van Roekel said, referring to the 2001 law passed under former President George W. Bush which set out strict accountability for schools based on test scores.

Yesterday, Van Roekel and other union leaders kicked off an anti-testing campaign yesterday, after months of turmoil over the nationwide rollout of tests tied to the Common Core State Standards. Van Roekel predicted the entire system of standardized testing would crumble. And when that happens, Van Roekel said educators will have an opening to define the future of public education in the U.S.

“I figure there will be a vacuum, a void for one nanosecond,” Van Roekel said. And at that moment, he said, “we the educators must define the solution and we must lead.”

His declaration, during a lunch at the union’s national conference being held this week in Denver, received noisy support from the gathered educators, as did the statement that departing from the current system did not mean reverting to old ways. Van Roekel reeled off a list of fixes ranging from dollars for schools to early education which could define union priorities for the coming years.

“What he mentioned is either in line with what we are attempting to do or are ongoing conversations,” said Henry Roman, in an interview following the speech. Roman heads up the Denver teachers union.

So how does Colorado stack up against Van Roekel’s proposed initiatives? Well, it’s a mixed bag.

School readiness

Van Roekel’s first suggestion: early education for all.

No one doesn’t want their children to be prepared to enter school, Van Roekel said. “Why don’t we believe it’s important for other people’s children, for all children?” he said.

Colorado legislators, including many of those most supportive of education reform, have pushed for universal preschool and full-day kindergarten. Denver, in particular, has been at the forefront of providing access to all families, at affordable levels. And the efforts have received support both from reformers and the local teachers union.

“Kindergarten, who could say no to that?” said Roman. Denver leaders plan to go to voters this fall to ask for additional funds for the city’s preschool program.

Early childhood received a funding bump this year in the state education budget, although not as large as initially proposed.

Still, early education efforts haven’t been universally popular. In the state’s second largest district, Jeffco Public Schools, a new school board majority curtailed a program to expand full-day kindergarten.

More on Colorado’s early childhood education initiatives here.

Dollars for schools

Among the most popular suggestions Van Roekel listed was to bolster money for classrooms, not tests.

“Instead of spending billions on toxic tests, spend it on the learning conditions of students,” he said. “To those people who say learning conditions don’t make a difference, you’re just wrong.”

Recession-era cutbacks to school spending are still in place for Colorado, even as the state’s finances have improved. School finance proved to be the defining education issue of this year’s state legislative session, with school administrators, teachers, and boards of education across the state banding together to defend money for schools without strings attached. They got some of what they asked for, but many school leaders remained dissatisfied with the outcome and some districts still faced six-figure cuts to spending.

And a recent lawsuit suggests the fight isn’t over. A group of school districts and parents filed suit against the state to abolish the practices that maintain recession-era cuts. The lawsuit promises to fuel the fire in the fight over school finance for the coming year.

See more on Colorado’s school finance practices here.

Preparing the next crop of educators

His final proposal: raise the bar for entering the teacher profession, so every new teacher is “profession-ready” on day one.

“What kind of crazy world do we live in that we let in anybody?” Van Roekel said. In an indirect reference to a recent legal decision striking down California’s teacher tenure laws, Van Roekel said that it should be harder to become a teacher, rather than easier to fire one.

Teachers without licenses and without extensive preparation are placed in the highest-need schools, Van Roekel said. Some research suggest low-performing students are placed in the classrooms of inexperienced teachers more often than their higher performing peers.

The state department of education is likely to roll out an accountability system for teacher preparation programs, based on teacher performance, in the next couple years. But efforts to alter how teachers are licensed have stalled out. A committee charged with coming up with recommendations for potential legislation couldn’t come to agreement over whether to tie teacher licenses to the results of the state’s evaluation system.

Another sticking point? Whether to allow alternate licenses in hard to staff positions, especially in rural areas — a particular area of vitriol for Van Roekel, who said all teachers should have to clear a high bar to enter the profession.

For more on the laws governing the teaching practice in Colorado, see here.

money matters

Why Gov. Hickenlooper wants to give some Colorado charter schools $5.5 million

Students at The New America School in Thornton during an English class. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If Mike Epke, principal of the New America School in Thornton, had a larger budget, he would like to spend it on technical training and intervention programs for his students.

He would buy more grade-level and age appropriate books for the empty shelves in his school’s library, and provide his teachers with a modest raise. If he could really make the dollars stretch, he’d hire additional teacher aides to help students learning with disabilities.

“These are students who have not had all the opportunities other students have had,” the charter school principal said, describing his 400 high school students who are mostly Hispanic and come from low-income homes.

A $5.5 million budget request from Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could help Epke make some of those dreams a reality.

The seven-figure ask is part of Hickenlooper’s proposed budget that he sent to lawmakers earlier this month. The money would go to state-approved charter schools in an effort to close a funding gap lawmakers tried to eliminate in a landmark funding bill passed in the waning days of the 2017 state legislative session.

Funding charter schools, which receive tax dollars but operate independently of the traditional school district system, is a contentious issue in many states. Charter schools in Colorado have enjoyed bipartisan support, but the 2017 debate over how to fund them hit on thorny issues, especially the state’s constitutional guarantee of local control of schools.

The legislation that ultimately passed, which had broad bipartisan support but faced fierce opposition from some Democrats, requires school districts by 2020 to equitably share voter-approved local tax increases — known as mill levy overrides — with the charter schools they approved.

The bill also created a system for lawmakers to send more money to charter schools, like New America in Thornton, that are governed by the state, rather than a local school district.

Unlike district-approved charter schools, which were always eligible to receive a portion of local tax increases, state-approved charter schools haven’t had access to that revenue.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, or CSI, the state organization that approves charter schools, said it is critical lawmakers complete the work they started in 2017 by boosting funding to her schools.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” she said. “To not have that equity for our schools, it’s extremely concerning.”

CSI authorizes 41 different charters schools that enrolled nearly 17,000 students last school year. That’s comparable to both the Brighton and Thompson school districts, according to state data.

Hickenlooper’s request would be a small step toward closing the $18 million gap between state-approved charter schools and what district-run charter schools are projected to receive starting in 2020, CSI officials said.

“Gov. Hickenlooper believes that working to make school funding as fair as possible is important,” Jacque Montgomery, Hickenlooper’s spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is the next step in making sure that is true for more children.”

If lawmakers approve Hickenlooper’s request, the New Legacy charter school in Aurora would receive about $580 more per student in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Douglas, the school’s principal, said she would put that money toward teacher salaries and training — especially in the school’s early education center.

“As a small school, serving students with complex needs, it is challenging and we need to tap into every dollar we can,” she said.

The three-year old school in Aurora serves both teen mothers and their toddlers. Before the school opened, Douglas sent in her charter application to both the Aurora school board and CSI. Both approved her charter application, but because at the time her school would receive greater access to federal dollars through CSI, Douglas asked to be governed by the state.

Douglas said that her preferred solution to close the funding gap would be to see local tax increases follow students, regardless of school type or governance model. Until that day, she said, lawmakers must “ensure that schools have the resources they need to take care of the students in our state and give them the education they deserve.”

For Hickenlooper’s request to become a reality, it must first be approved by the legislature’s budget committee and then by both chambers. In a hyper-partisan election year, nothing is a guarantee, but it appears Hickenlooper’s proposal won’t face the same fight that the 2017 charter school funding bill encountered.

State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who helped lead the charge against the charter school funding bill, said he was likely going to support Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“You almost have to do it to be in alignment with the law,” Melton said. “I don’t think with a good conscious I could vote against it. I’m probably going to hold my nose and vote yes.”

surprise!

Teachers in Millington and Knoxville just won the Oscar awards of education

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Millington English teacher Katherine Watkins reacts after learning that she is the recipient of a 2017 Milken Educator Award.

Two Tennessee teachers were surprised during school assemblies Thursday with a prestigious national teaching award, $25,000 checks, and a visit from the state’s education chief.

Katherine Watkins teaches high school English in Millington Municipal Schools in Shelby County. She serves as the English department chair and professional learning community coordinator at Millington Central High School. She is also a trained jazz pianist, published poet, and STEM teacher by summer.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin learns she is among the recipients.

Paula Franklin teaches Advanced Placement government at West High School in Knoxville. Since she took on the course, its enrollment has doubled, and 82 percent of her students pass with an average score that exceeds the national average.

The teachers are two of 45 educators being honored nationally with this year’s Milken Educator Awards from the Milken Family Foundation. The award includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

“It is an honor to celebrate two exceptional Tennessee educators today on each end of the state,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who attended each assembly. “Paula Franklin and Katherine Watkins should be proud of the work they have done to build positive relationships with students and prepare them with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce.”

Foundation chairman Lowell Milken was present to present the awards, which have been given to thousands of teachers since 1987.

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Students gather around Millington teacher Katherine Watkins as she receives a check as part of her Milken Educator Award.

The Milken awards process starts with recommendations from sources that the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the foundation, which picks the winners.

Last year, Chattanooga elementary school teacher Katie Baker was Tennessee’s sole winner.

In all, 66 Tennessee educators have been recognized by the Milken Foundation and received a total of $1.6 million since the program began in the state in 1992.

You can learn more about the Milken Educator Awards here.