Statehouse roundup

Tuition tax credits bill moves on to the House

Updated March 25 – Without further debate, the Senate Wednesday voted 18-17 for final passage of Senate Bill 15-045, which would create a system of state income tax credits for private school tuition, home school costs, and donations to private school scholarships.

The bill got a full airing and preliminary approval Tuesday after lengthy debate and two false starts.

Some form of tax-credit legislation has been introduced by Republicans in every session of recent years. None have gone very far, given Democratic or split partisan control of the legislature for more than a decade.

Prime sponsor Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, argued Tuesday that the bill is needed to put private schools and homeschooling on equal footing with public schools.

He said school choice would be strengthened by the tax credits.

The bill would allow a tax credit equal to half of the statewide per-pupil public school spending for taxpayers with children enrolled full-time in a private school. The credit wouldn’t apply to students already in private school but only to students who move from a public to a private school.

A credit of $1,000 would be allowed for full-time home-schooled students. People who donate to private school scholarships could claim a credit of half of statewide per-pupil funding or the amount of the scholarship, whichever is smaller.

Lakewood Sen. Andy Kerr led Democratic arguments against the bill, saying, “It’s not a front door voucher bill, but it is a backdoor voucher bill.”

Arguing that tax credits actually would undermine school choice, Kerr said “a select few people who can afford to will take this tax credit.”

Democrats used the time-honored tactic of proposing amendment after amendment, prolonging the initial discussion. All were defeated on voice votes.

Legislative rules allow amendments to be resubmitted after the preliminary consideration calendar is completed, so the Democrats did just that. All were again defeated, but one bipartisan change making it easier for lower-income taxpayers to claim the credit did pass.

Prompted by that, Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, invoked a procedural maneuver to get a new cost estimate calculated for the bill. That sent the Senate into recess while legislative staff scrambled to write the estimate, known as a fiscal note. In the end, Democrats chose not to make an issue of it, and the Senate finally recessed just after 3:30 p.m.

The original legislative staff analysis estimated the measure would cost the state $12.1 million in 2015-16 and $37 million in 2016-17, involving 35,891 students in that second year. Its estimated the loss in tax revenues could reach $318.3 million by 2028-29.

The new fiscal note predicted an increase in costs starting in later years of the program, Steadman said.

Supporters of the bill argue public schools actually would benefit financially from the bill because they’d have fewer students to serve. But bill critics say that wouldn’t be the case because of districts’ fixed costs.

Tuesday’s prolonged discussions weren’t the first delay for the bill. Senators previously spent 40 minutes on SB 15-045 last Thursday and another 40 minutes on Friday, but both those debates were called off when the Senate ran out of time.

Tax break for teachers moves ahead

The Senate Finance Committee late Tuesday voted 3-2 to pass House Bill 15-1104, which would provide a small tax break for teachers who spend their own money on classroom supplies.

Teachers could deduct up to $250 from their taxable income, yielding a tax savings of about $10.

Sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, pitched the bill to his fellow committee members, saying it would “help encourage and support those teachers.”

The bill originated with a Republican House member, Rep. Clarice Navarro of Pueblo, but two Finance Committee Republicans voted no, Sens. Chris Holbert of Parker and Tim Neville of Littleton.

Get more information on this bill in this prior Chalkbeat story.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

School Finance

Teacher raises would survive $211 million cut from Indianapolis Public Schools funding request

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

Indianapolis’ largest school district cut about $211 million Tuesday from its request for extra funding, in a bid to win public support for the proposal.

That lower price tag comes with tradeoffs, district officials said. Even if voters approve the new plan, the district would dip into its cash reserves, put off building maintenance, and ditch expanded transportation plans, such as additional busing for students who move partway through the school year.

The new request also reduces how much the district would raise to pay for services for students with disabilities, though it was initially unclear by how much and how that could affect students.

But district officials said they still expected to be able to give raises to teachers if the referendums pass.

The scaled-back request would raise about $725 million over eight years, significantly less than the initial proposal of nearly $1 billion.

The board voted 6-0 in favor of reducing the amount of money the district is seeking, backing off the number members approved two months ago.

Board member Kelly Bentley said many school districts around the state have asked taxpayers for more money.

“We all own property in IPS. None of us want to see our taxes go up,” she said. But, she added, “I am confident that it’s money that’s going to be well spent, and it’s money that is necessary.”

Instead of pulling back spending on teachers and school staff, the district is making the new plan work by adjusting revenue expectations, said Chief Financial Manager Weston Young. The proposal is built on the assumption that state revenue will increase 1 percent each year, and the district will no longer hold as much money in reserves, he said.

“We are still committed to our students through our compensation for teachers and the wraparound services that serve those kids,” Young said.

Reducing the request could help build enthusiasm for the tax increase, which has not gotten much vocal community support. Instead, the referendums have been met with some concern over the size of the ask. But even though they have pared down their plan, district leaders will still need to persuade voters in May to raise their own taxes.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the new plan is a balancing act between what taxpayers can bear and the cost of providing the level of service that families need. Ultimately, he said, the tax increase would pay dividends by helping the district prepare students for college and careers.

“This is one of those situations where you pay now or you pay later,” he said.

The move cut the potential tax increase for homeowners in IPS to $0.58 per $100 of assessed value, down from the initial proposal of $0.73. For taxpayers with houses at the district’s median value — $123,500 — the new plan would increase property taxes by $17.70 per month for operating expenses and $5.54 per month for building improvements, according to the district.

The referendum the board reduced would pay for operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, and under the new request, it would raise about $66 million per year for eight years. That’s down from the initial request of about $92 million per year.

Under the new plan, about $49 million of the money raised each year would go to staff pay, while the remaining $17 million would help pay for services and supplies, regular maintenance, and transportation.

A second measure, which was not changed, would pay for about $200 million in improvements to buildings, primarily safety updates such as new lighting and door security. Both measures are expected to go before voters in May.