Words of caution

Hick: TABOR repeal “a doomed effort”

Gov. John Hickenlooper spoke to the CASE convention on Feb. 6.

Gov. John Hickenlooper told a large audience of school administrators Friday that he “can’t imagine” the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights being repealed and that instead the state needs to “modify the different parts of the constitution to put them more in harmony.”

Hickenlooper’s message to the annual winter meeting of the Colorado Association of School Executives probably wasn’t quite what some of the group wanted to hear, on TABOR or on other issues.

After the governor had finished his 20-minute speech, Boulder Superintendent Bruce Messinger asked Hickenlooper if he would lead a campaign to repeal TABOR. “We will need the governor to lead that charge.”

“To take on that battle … right now, that would be a doomed effort,”Hickenlooper said. “We’d be better served to look at modifying TABOR. I’m not politic, but at least I’m honest.”

Here are the highlights of what the governor said on other key issues.

School spending: He touted his proposed increase of about $380 million in state funding for 2015-16, but he warned about future years. “We’re at a serious turning point” in the following budget year, 2016-17, Hickenlooper said. For that year required K-12 spending increases “will more than eclipse all the projected new money for every other purpose in the state.”

Reducing the shortfall in K-12 spending “should be a priority for all of us,” he added. “But to create a system where no other part of the state [government] is able to grow is going to be a very great challenge.”

“There are no quick fixes, there is no magic wand out there.”

Testing: “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had over the past 12 months on testing,” the governor told the group.

He didn’t refer to any specific possible changes in testing but broadly cautioned against radical changes. “We are seeing an international jobs war. The key to winning that competition is going to be education, and we’ve got to have some way to measure our success.”

He continued, “I get it – the volume of assessments has taken too much time away from teaching. That’s something we should be able to solve.”

But, he cautioned again, “Streamlining can’t come at the expense of maintaining fairness and consistency across every Colorado community.”

Community dialogue: On both finance and testing Hickenlooper stressed the need for expanded community dialogue across the state. “All of us need to do a better job of listening. … No one’s going to get everything they want.”

How schools are doing: “Despite all the budget cuts … there has been a lot of good news coming out of Colorado schools,” Hickenlooper said, citing achievement gains in districts like Adams 12-Five Star, Denver Public Schools and Edison in El Paso County.

“I think we are beginning to close the opportunity gap in Colorado,” he said. “Colorado is the greatest state … I think our education system is well on its way to being a reflection of that.”

After the governor left, a panel of six superintendents reacted to the speech and discussed other issues.

“I would agree with the governor that I think the repeal of TABOR is a fool’s errand,” said Walt Cooper, superintendent of the Cheyenne Mountain district.

But, as the session closed, Messinger said, “I think we have to be very resistant about accepting this as the new normal.” Changing TABOR “may be impossible, but only if we believe it’s impossible. … We can accept this as the new normal … or we can create the new normal and move a lower tax state into a higher tax state.”

The TABOR amendment requires voter approval for all state and local tax increases. It also sets limits on how much new revenue that state can spend in a given year. Rising state revenues are pushing the state budget toward that ceiling and may require tax refunds as early as the next budget year.

The legislature could submit a ballot measure to voters asking to retain the extra revenues, but it’s considered unlikely that will happen this session.

A second constitutional provision, the Gallagher amendment, sets limits on property tax collections and acts in combination with TABOR to limit local district revenues, shifting the burden of K-12 funding to the state. And a third provision, Amendment 23, requires school spending to increase by inflation and enrollment growth every year.

What superintendents are asking

A large group of Colorado superintendents came together to push for reduction of what’s called the negative factor, the shortfall in K-12 spending that began building after the 2008 recession.

They had some success with that lobbying effort, and this year superintendents are pushing for addition of $70 million to 2015-16 K-12 spending on top of Hickenlooper’s plan. The proposal would allocate $50 million to districts for at-risk students and $20 million to small rural districts.

A statement proposing that idea was signed by 174 superintendents in November, and several dozen of the district leaders gathered at a news conference Thursday to publicize the idea. (Read full statement.)

“This proposal is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson said.

Superintendents pose for group portrait at CASE convention.
Superintendents pose for group portrait at CASE convention.

funding dance

Indiana to tap reserves to free up $140M for teacher pay, Holcomb promises

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Governor-Elect Eric Holcomb speaks to Republican supporters at an Election night event.

Indiana plans to free up $140 million over two years for schools with the goal of increasing teacher pay, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged Tuesday night in his State of the State address.

The state will tap into its $2 billion in reserves to pay down a pension liability for schools, Holcomb said, reducing schools’ expenses so more money could go to educators.

“Just like paying off your mortgage frees up money in your personal budget, this state investment will save all local schools $140 million over the biennium with continued savings thereafter,” Holcomb said.

He said he hoped schools would use the savings to increase teacher salaries. Lawmakers said after the speech that they would look for ways to make sure local districts direct more dollars to teachers.

The freed-up funding would equate to relatively small raises for Indiana’s roughly 70,000 public school teachers. In a bill seeking designated funds for teacher pay, Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, estimated it would cost $315 million to raise educators’ salaries by 5 percent over two years.

The move to find the money to increase teacher pay comes after education leaders raised concerns over not having earmarked dollars. Holcomb previously suggested that schools use their overall funding, proposed to increase by 2 percent each year, for teachers’ salaries. Other Republican lawmakers have also proposed increasing teacher pay by reducing school budgets in other areas.

Still, the $140 million would come from reduced expenses, not a new influx of state dollars. Lawmakers would still have to approve the move.

“Personally, I think it’s a wise use of surplus,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

Against a backdrop of an ongoing teacher strike in Los Angeles and large-scale teacher demonstrations in places such as West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, Indiana has made addressing teacher pay a top priority in this year’s legislative session. Indiana ranks 18th highest in the nation for teachers salaries adjusted for cost of living, according to an analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research — leading some to fear teachers will flee to higher-paying states.

But while the issue has easily won bipartisan support and united unlikely allies, it has proved more difficult to find a solution — namely, the money — that satisfies educators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s too early to pick a number,” Bosma said, though both Republican and Democratic leaders agreed after the speech that the $140 million — while a “creative” approach — wasn’t enough.

“We can do that this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “We can find a way to give an increase in teacher pay this year. We don’t have to kick the can down the road. We don’t have to say, oh, let’s turn it back over to the local school districts and let them find the money.”

But a meaningful solution could take time: Holcomb also announced Tuesday night the formation of a commission to study teacher compensation and search for ways to improve salaries, with the goal of proposing action in 2021. Business leader Michael L. Smith, an investment fund co-founder and retired Anthem executive, will lead the commission.

“Teachers deserve compensation that reflects one of the most honorable, critical and challenging occupations in the state,” tweeted Lawrence Township teacher Tamara Markey, Indiana’s Teacher of the Year, who was among community leaders invited by House Republicans to provide social media commentary on the speech.

Holcomb’s State of the State speech also emphasized workforce development, including preparing high school students for careers. He introduced Mary Roberson, superintendent of Perry Central Community Schools, to tout the district’s partnerships with local manufacturers to give students hands-on training.

“A strong economy depends on a world-class workforce,” Holcomb said. “That workforce depends on a great education. A great education depends on great teachers.”

protest prep

Los Angeles teachers went on strike Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

Teachers, retired teachers and parents show their support for UTLA in front of Venice High School in Venice, Calif., on Jan. 10, 2019. (Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The nation’s second-largest school district will be upended Monday as Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike.

Teachers and their union say they are fighting for higher pay, lower class sizes, and more support for district schools. The district says it agrees with many of the union’s demands, but can’t pay for them given its fiscal realities.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles rejected a final offer from the district Friday afternoon, which included steeper class size reductions and more nurses and counselors for schools. There was no bargaining over the weekend.

What will happen at Los Angeles schools on Monday?

Schools will remain open — with other staff, emergency substitutes, and parent volunteers supervising kids. Teachers will be outside picketing. Inside, the L.A. Times reports that “schools have been preparing to keep students together in large spaces and use online education when they can.”

Is this a continuation of the #RedForEd wave of teacher protest?

Yes and no. Schools staying open marks one crucial difference from what happened when teachers went on strike in West Virginia last year, closing schools for nearly two weeks. That was the start of a wave of teacher activism focused on school funding and teacher pay, reaching Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.

The L.A. Times has a helpful look at why this strike is both similar to and different from the ones across the country last year. Unlike in those red states, it notes, California teachers can’t be portrayed as “victims of Republican machinations” because the state government is reliably Democratic:

An us-versus-them construct, however, does not translate readily to California, where unions are among the state’s most powerful special interests.

And L.A. teachers must face off against a district whose leaders echo their union’s demand for increased state and federal funding for schools.

The union leader also is trying to put forward a complex argument on funding. While [UTLA president Alex] Caputo-Pearl argues that the state needs to do much more, he also says that L.A. Unified is hoarding a fortune — and that district leadership is choosing to starve its schools.

What are the union and the district really fighting about?

The L.A. Times broke down the essential disagreement over funding in a separate story this weekend. In short: Although the district currently has a substantial surplus, the district’s analyses, as well as one from L.A. County, suggest it will soon turn into a deficit. The union claims the district is “hoarding” money, while the district says it’s simply being prudent. At the same time, a proposed budget from the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, could bring an infusion of new resources. Reporter Howard Blume ends it here:

Beutner says the union’s demands would cost $3 billion. That’s debatable, partly because the union has not responded to the district with specifics on how much smaller it is asking for classes to be. The union’s position, so far, is to demand the elimination of a contract clause that gives the district broad authority over class sizes. …

Everyone wants smaller class sizes — teachers, parents, students. But meaningful class-size reduction is one of the most expensive reforms in education.

What about charter schools?

Unlike in most places that saw teacher strikes last year, Los Angeles is set to see charter schools play a big role in striking teachers’ rhetoric.

The union has gone on the attack against charters, which serve about one in five Los Angeles public school students and are mostly non-unionized. UTLA recently called for stopping any new charters from opening, pinning the district’s financial struggles on their growth.

The union also believes that the district wants to implement a “portfolio model” of managing schools, a controversial idea that often brings about charter school growth and holds district and charter schools accountable for their results in similar ways. (The district says it has no such plans.)

These union–charter battles have deeply shaped the district’s politics. The last set of school board elections were the most expensive in American history, with charter supporters spending nearly $10 million and unions putting in over $5 million.

But the union’s contract demands only briefly touch on charters. Charters, though, are the focus of many district educators’ anger over not having the resources they say they need and, in the unions’ telling, amount to privatization of public education.

Some of L.A.’s charter schools share buildings with district schools, making some confrontation possible on Monday.

The head of the state charter association wrote an open letter to Caputo-Pearl before the strike. “Please be kind to both our District and charter community,” wrote Myrna Castrejón on Friday. “Students, parents, and school staff aren’t crossing picket lines to make political statements.” (The union’s strike guidelines tells members not to “get involved in confrontations or debates,” threaten people who cross the picket line, or block entrances for kids. “It’s okay to make adults wait a little while to get in [to schools], though,” UTLA says.)

As to the substantive debate, each side can point to research backing up one of their key points. Academic analyses from other states, as well as a union-backed report from Los Angeles, show that districts really do lose resources as charters grow, at least in the short term. At the same time, studies show Los Angeles charter students do better on state tests than similar students in district schools.

What does this mean for teacher unions nationwide?

As the strike kicks off, other teachers unions will be paying attention — wearing red in solidarity or watching for cues as they inch toward strikes of their own. In Denver, for one, the teachers union is entering its last week of negotiations. And as CALmatters noted on Jan. 11:

Issues at the forefront of the LAUSD dispute, such as rising pension costs, declining enrollment and the charged debate over charter schools, are also brewing in other school districts across the state.

The looming strike in Los Angeles has made ripples in local unions across California. Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District, for example, are nearing a potential strike and plan to rally Saturday similar to a demonstration UTLA held in downtown Los Angeles in mid-December.

What will the political ramifications of the strike be?

That’s not at all clear, and likely depends on the length of the strike and the public response. But there is a special election around the corner to fill the seventh seat on the closely divided LAUSD board. Expect the strike and its fallout to play a big role in the race.

A few prominent elected officials have also weighed in supporting teachers, including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna — though most national Democrats have been silent.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is mulling a run for president, has tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, to no avail. A strike would complicate a campaign kickoff.

“Launching a presidential bid while thousands of chanting, sign-toting teachers take to the streets would seem to be a non-starter,” the L.A. Times wrote. “A strike could force Garcetti to push back any presidential announcement, as better-known rivals enter the race, soak up media attention and begin fundraising.”