Statehouse roundup

Modest testing reduction bill advances in Senate

A bipartisan bill that would reduce state testing in high school and early grades won preliminary Senate approval Thursday evening.

The Senate also gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 15-267, the 2015-16 school finance measure.

Final roll-call votes could come as soon as Friday, sending the bills to the House, which seems headed down a somewhat different path on testing.

Key features of the testing measure, Senate Bill 15-257, include the reduction of state testing to one set of language arts and math tests in high school plus the ACT test. Other provisions call for flexibility for districts to use their own tests, creation of district pilot programs to develop new accountability and assessment systems, and the streamlining of early literacy and school readiness assessments.

An amendment added on the floor creates a one-year timeout for district accreditation and ratings and also a one-year extension of flexibility in using student growth data for teacher evaluations.

Senators debated the issue for 90 minutes. Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said, “This is a great milestone in our session. … This is a bill that you can wrap your arms around.”

Sen. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, urged his colleague to “cut back on the overload, the overwhelming flood of testing that is killing the joy of education. … We can do something about it right now.”

The main dissenter at the microphone was Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver. Johnston, the leading advocate of education reform measures in past sessions, is something of an odd man out this year.

Johnston proposed amendments to maintain 9th grade language arts and math tests, which would be eliminated by the bill, and to eliminate the testing pilot programs, which he said would actually increase testing time and costs.

Referring to the bill, he said, “In its current form I think it’s pretty bad policy for the state.”

All his amendments were rejected. Johnston said, “Having fought the good fight, I’ll go eat dinner.” (As usually happens during evening sessions, dinner was brought in for the senators.)

Despite widespread debate and concern about statewide standardized testing, the 2015 legislature has been slow to deal with the issue. Thursday’s debate was the first floor consideration of a major testing bill, and it came on the 107th day of the 120-day session.

The House on Thursday again delayed preliminary consideration of its major testing measure, House Bill 15-1323. The prime Democratic sponsor, Rep. John Buckner of Aurora, has been ill this week.

A key difference between the two bills is 9th grade testing. The House bill currently would continue it, while the Senate bill would eliminate it.

Six of the 11 testing-related bills introduced this session remain alive, but SB 15-257 and HB 15-1323 are considered the major measures. Five bills have been killed in committee (see story on dead House bills). Senate Bill 15-233, which would pull Colorado out of the Common Core Standards and the PARCC tests, Thursday was sent from the Senate floor back to committee. It likely won’t survive there.

Also part of the testing debate is Senate Bill 15-223, which wouldn’t change the assessment schedule but which codifies parent rights to opt their children out of testing. The measure has wide bipartisan support. It has passed the Senate but isn’t scheduled for House Education Committee consideration until Monday.

There’s concern among supporters that even if that bill passes both houses, Gov. John Hickenlooper will veto it, but the legislative session will have ended by then, and lawmakers won’t have the opportunity to override a veto.

See the chart at the bottom of this article for a comparison of HB 15-1323 and SB 15-257 and for a spreadsheet of all this year’s testing bills.

School finance debate airs anxieties about tight budgets

SB 15-267 would increase K-12 funding by $306 million to about $6.23 billion next school year. Most of that is driven by constitutionally required hikes to cover enrollment growth and inflation.

The only discretionary increase in the bill is $25 million that would be applied to the state’s K-12 funding shortfall, the so-called negative factor. That figure currently is about $880 million, and in the past it’s been as high at $1 billion.

Average per-pupil funding would rise to $7,295 from this year’s $7,026.

Johnston and Merrifield teamed up on this bill, offering a variety of amendments to both increase overall funding and to earmark some new funding for at-risk students. All those amendments were defeated. (See this story for more background on the finance bill.)

In other action

A lot of education-related bills were moving at the legislature Thursday. Here are the highlights of the day’s action:

Senate Bill 15-173 – This measure, intended to set new requirements for privacy and security on education technology vendors, got preliminary House approval after a surprisingly short discussion. Along with testing reductions, this bill has been a priority for some parent activists, but they’re unhappy with amendments added in the House Education Committee and approved by the full House Thursday evening.

Senate Bill 15-214 – The Senate voted 35-0 for this measure, which would create a legislative study committee on school violence and youth mental health. It’s the companion to Senate Bill 15-213, a more controversial measure that would open school districts to liability for violent incidents (see story).

Senate Bill 15-072 – A pet proposal of Joint Budget Committee Chair Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, this bill would have raised admissions standards at Metropolitan State University. Lambert argues MSU’s graduation rate isn’t high enough because it admits too many unprepared students. Metro leaders strongly opposed the bill, arguing it would hamper the university’s mission of serving non-traditional students. The Senate Education Committee killed the bill on a 7-2 bipartisan vote.

The House also gave preliminary approval to two bills of interest to small rural districts. House Bill 15-1321 would provide some regulatory flexibility to such districts and also provide $10 million in per-student aid to isolated districts with fewer than 1,000 students. (See this story for background.)

House Bill 15-1201 also carries a $10 million price tag. That money would be spread over two years in grants to boards of cooperative educational services to help small districts save money by sharing administrative services.

Check our special mini Bill Tracker for updates on all the key education bills still in play as the session nears its end.

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.


Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.