Statehouse roundup

Bid to pull testing funds livens up Senate budget debate

The Senate Wednesday rejected a bid by five Republicans to pull $16.8 million in testing funds from the 2015-16 state budget bill.

“What we are hearing from parents is there is too much testing,” argued Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “They want out of this product called PARCC. … This one amendment does something very simple, it defunds PARCC.”

The proposed amendment was offered during the hours-long debate on Senate Bill 15-234, the so-called “long bill” that will set state spending in the upcoming budget year.

Long lists of amendments are proposed to the budget bill every year, mostly by minority party members who know their motions will fail but who want to make political points. The GOP controls the Senate by a one-vote margin this year, and the testing amendment was proposed by five Republicans, all of whom to sit on the Senate Education Committee.

Democratic senators opposed the amendment – along with some key Republicans.

“This is not the place to do it,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver and a member of the Joint Budget Committee. “This is something current law requires the state to pay for.”

Later in the debate, JBC chair Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs agreed, saying, “I don’t think this is the right vehicle either. … We try not to make substantive law in the long bill.”

Lambert was referring to the longstanding legislative practice of using the budget bill only to set amounts of funding for programs that are currently required by state law, not to change those programs. Separate sections of state law require the current testing system, and the language of the amendment wouldn’t have changed those. The amendment also didn’t refer specifically to PARCC tests.

It’s also longstanding legislative practice for JBC members of both parties to oppose changes to the long bill, regardless of which party proposes those amendments.

The 40 minutes of debate ended with an initial standing vote. Several Republicans voted no, including Lambert, fellow JBC member Sen. Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel of Parker.

The budget bill was debated on what’s called “second reading,” or preliminary consideration. A final Senate vote on the budget will be taken Thursday.

Testing critics will have plenty of other opportunities for debate. The House Education Committee will consider a major testing bill next Monday, and Senate Education will have a testing marathon featuring five bills on April 9. (See the Testing Bill Tracker at the bottom of this story for information and links on all 2015 testing bills.)

House panel advances rural aid bill

Some House Education Committee members questioned the $10 million cost of a new bill intended to help small rural school districts, but the committee passed the measure 10-1 Wednesday after listening to testimony and chewing on it for more than 90 minutes.

House Bill 15-1321 would exempt rural districts with fewer than 1,000 students from certain state requirements related to parent involvement, accountability committee membership, financial reporting, and evaluations, and also provide $10 million in 2015-16 for per-pupil distribution to those districts. (Get more details in this Chalkbeat story and this legislative staff summary.)

2015-Education-Bill-Tracker-plain

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, was the biggest skeptic. “I have some concerns about the $10 million. … So many other schools” have financial needs as well, she said. Fields was the only no vote.

Rural administrators and lobbyists from groups including the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Colorado Succeeds and the Colorado League of Charter Schools testified for the measure.

The rural aid bill joins a long line of proposed spending bills awaiting action in the House Appropriations Committee. Each house of the legislature has been allocated only $5 million by the JBC for new or expanded spending this year. But the bills on the appropriations calendar total hundreds of millions of dollars, including more than a dozen education-related measures running to about $280 million.

House Education’s talkative session on rural aid meant it ran out of time to vote on House Bill 15-1322, which would commission a $165,000 study of the data reporting requirements the state imposes on school districts. (See a bill summary here.)

Some committee members complained about the cost; others wondered if it was necessary. When amendments surfaced just before the committee was due to be kicked out of the hearing room for another meeting, chair Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, pulled the bill off the table.

More education bills introduced in House

The session’s May 6 adjournment clock is counting down, but that doesn’t mean the legislative leadership is stopping members from introducing new bills. Here are education-related measures that popped up in the House on Wednesday.

House Bill 15-1326 – This bill would prohibit state colleges from discriminating against applicants who have high school diplomas from districts that have lost state accreditation. The sponsors are Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo. Both represent school districts that could soon face state intervention for low performance. The bill has no Senate sponsors.

House Bill 15-1328 – The measure would require youth sports organizations to conduct criminal background checks on staff members and some volunteers. This is a House retread of Senate Bill 15-048, which was killed in the Senate.

Testing Bill Tracker

Click the bill number in the left column for more a more detailed description, sponsors and other information. Click the link in the Fiscal Notes column at the right for a bill’s description and an estimate of potential state costs.

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach — a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse.

The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” said an enthusiastic Elisha Holmes as he worked Friday with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the goal of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

awarding leaders

Meet the nine finalists for Tennessee Principal of the Year

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: Docia Generette-Walker receives Tennessee's 2016 principal of the year honor from Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. Generette-Walker leads Middle College High School in Memphis. This year's winner will be announced in October.

Nine school leaders are up for an annual statewide award, including one principal from Memphis.

Tracie Thomas, a principal at White Station Elementary School, represents schools in Shelby County on the state’s list of finalists. Last year, Principal Docia Generette-Walker of Middle College High School in Memphis received the honor.

Building better principals has been a recent focus for Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen as roles of the school leaders change under school improvement efforts.

“Successful schools begin with great leaders, and these nine finalists represent some of the best in our state,” McQueen said. “The Principal of the Year finalists have each proven what is possible when school leaders hold students and educators to high expectations.”

The winner will be announced at the state department’s annual banquet in October, where the winner of Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year will also be announced.

The finalists are:

West Tennessee

  • Tracie Thomas, White Station Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Stephanie Coffman, South Haven Elementary, Henderson County School District
  • Linda DeBerry, Dyersburg City Primary School, Dyersburg City Schools

Middle Tennessee

  • Kenneth “Cam” MacLean, Portland West Middle School, Sumner County Schools
  • John Bush, Marshall County High School, Marshall County Schools
  • Donnie Holman, Rickman Elementary School, Overton County Schools

East Tennessee

  • Robin Copp, Ooltewah High School, Hamilton County Schools
  • Jeff Harshbarger, Norris Middle School, Anderson County Schools
  • Carol McGill, Fairmont Elementary School, Johnson City Schools