Statehouse roundup

House committee endorses “pay for success” bill

The House Finance Committee Tuesday voted 13-0 to advance a bill that would allow the state to craft “pay for success” plans.

House Bill 15-1317 would enable the state to launch such pay for success programs through which private investors or philanthropists would fund social services programs. Funders would be repaid if those programs produced savings in other government services but would have to absorb their costs if programs didn’t produce results.

A oft-cited example of such programs is private funding for quality early-childhood education. The hoped-for savings would come in remedial and special education costs after those children enter school.

“We need to be careful with taxpayer dollars,” said Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver and one of the bipartisan measure’s prime sponsors. “It shifts the risk from the taxpayers to those individual investors.”

Testimony at the hearing featured endorsements from witnesses representing groups like the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Gary Community Investments, Colorado Concern, the Colorado Children’s Campaign and the Colorado Fiscal Institute.

A similar measure died in the closing days of the 2014 legislative session, but sponsors feel they have a better chance this year. See this article for more background on the bill.

Senate strips main element from truancy bill

Sen. Chris Holbert’s imaginative plan to end jailing of truant students who defy court orders to stay in school ran aground on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.

As introduced by the Parker Republican and Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, Senate Bill 15-184 would have shifted truancy cases from district courts to the Office of Administrative Courts, whose judges don’t have the power to jail people.

2015-Education-Bill-Tracker-plain

Administrative judges typically handle licensing, workers’ comp and teacher firing cases, among other matters. (Get more background on the original bill here.)

School districts now can take truant students to court, and a student can be sent to juvenile detention for contempt if he or she refuses to return to school.

Holbert and Fields want to end such jailing.

“This bill is a step right now to say that zero kids will go to jail because of truancy,” Holbert said on the floor Tuesday.

The idea of using administrative judges first ran into polite opposition at a mid-March hearing of the Senate Education Committee. Justice Brian Boatright of the Colorado Supreme Court and other judges testified about innovative steps already being taken by many courts to deal with truancy.

Some committee members wanted to replace Holbert’s idea with an amendment basically calling on the courts to review truancy policies and continue working on new methods to deal with the problem.

Holbert was able to hold off changes in the education panel and in another committee. But on Tuesday a big coalition of Republicans and Democrats passed a floor amendment to keep truancy cases in the regular courts.

The sponsor wasn’t fazed. Holbert noted that he’d earlier promised, “If I didn’t have the votes I would stand by the will of the body.”

He said he hopes the amended bill goes to the governor’s desk but vowed, “If that number [of jailed students] doesn’t go down to zero I’ll be back with Senate Bill 16-something. Ending the practice of sending kids to jail for truancy is the right cause.”

Sponsor scrambles to save Indian mascots bill

Final floor votes on bills are usually routine, given that members have expended all their rhetoric during preliminary consideration and that sponsors presumably have lined up their votes.

Lamar High School Savages logo
Lamar High School Savages logo

But things didn’t go according to the script on Tuesday when the House prepared to vote on House Bill 15-1165, the Indian mascots bill. (Learn more about the bill and Monday’s preliminary debate here.)

During Monday’s debate bill opponents criticized the bill’s proposed heavy fines for schools that refuse to change offensive Indian mascot names.

On Tuesday prime sponsor Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, offered an olive branch on that issue, saying, “I’m happy to talk with our Senate sponsor about pulling back on that fine.”

But Salazar faced a new problem after Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, came to the microphone to say he couldn’t support the bill and that decisions to change mascot names should be made locally. Vigil’s district includes the La Veta Redskins and the Sanford Indians.

With Vigil a no and a second Democrat excused, Salazar didn’t have the 33 Democratic votes he needed to pass the bill, so a final vote was delayed until Wednesday.

Bill to improve awareness about child sexual assault advances

The Senate Monday gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 15-020, which would require the state’s School Safety Resource Center to provide materials and training for schools on awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse and assault. It also encourages districts and schools to adopt abuse and assault prevention plans.

Sen. Linda Newell has shepherded the bill through three Senate committees since late January. The Littleton Democrat is an advocate on mental health and abuse issues and argues the bill is needed to give school staff greater awareness of child sexual abuse and enable them to better help victims.

The bill is a Colorado version of what’s called Erin’s Law, named after an Illinois woman who has made it her mission to get states to pass such laws.

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.

They’re conducting 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,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked 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 $400,000 price tag 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 that hasn’t been functional for years.

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