Finally

State board signs off on Colorado bid for flexibility from federal law

After months of on-and-off discussions, the State Board of Education on Wednesday grudgingly voted 5-2 to approve submission of Colorado’s request for flexibility in meeting federal education laws.

That application, originally due March 31, now goes to the U.S. Department of Education for final approval.

Colorado Department of Education staff members have been negotiating the document with federal officials for months, periodically briefing the board on progress. CDE staff and federal bureaucrats reached agreement on the document some time ago, but formal board sign-off was needed.

Although it was clear Wednesday morning that the board would approve the application, members took a few minutes to grouse about what they believe to be federal interference in state control of education.

“The federal intrusion into education is not productive,” said board chairman Steve Durham, a Republican from Colorado Springs. “No Child Left Behind has been a catastrophic failure.”

But Durham said he was supporting the application because the alternative would be a burden for school districts — putting Colorado back under the original accountability requirements of No Child Left Behind, the nation’s main education law.

“A good part of this board’s job is not to make life more difficult for local school districts,” Durham said.

A key element of the state’s application seeks to address high testing opt-out rates that drop test participation rates below federal requirements. Several districts fell below that 95 percent threshold last spring, according to a Chalkbeat Colorado analysis.

The application — formally called an ESEA flexibility request and sometimes referred to as a waiver — exempts Colorado from certain provisions of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The federal department created the waivers in 2011 to give states flexibility after congressional efforts to update ESEA stalled. Both the House and Senate passed update bills earlier this year, but prospects for passing a new law are uncertain.

Colorado first received approval of its flexibility plan in 2012 and was due to apply for renewal last March. The state filed an application but then had to modify it because of changes to the state testing system passed by the legislature in early May.

Proposed response to testing refusals

Federal law requires at least 95 percent participation on language arts and math tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school. States are required to choose penalties for districts that miss that goal on two or more tests. Colorado’s penalty, which never has been used, had been a one-step reduction in a district’s state quality rating. However, the state board passed a resolution earlier this year saying low-participation districts shouldn’t be punished.

Colorado’s flexibility request instead proposes these steps in response to low test participation:

  • The state will calculate and report test participation rates for all districts, schools and ethnic and other student groups. The state has committed to this, and the information is expected to be released next month.
  • Districts with substandard test participation rates are required to include steps for increasing participation in their annual improvement plans, which are filed with the state.
  • Participation rates will be a factor considered in the effectiveness reviews conducted with the state’s lowest performing schools.
  • The state will provide low-participation districts and schools with information about state tests, “including reasons for administering the assessments and how the results are used.” That information is supposed to be disseminated to parents and community members.

Other key elements of the application

The flexibility request also substitutes a new college and career readiness test in the 10th grade to meet federal requirements. The PARCC language and math tests will no longer be given in 10th grade but will continue to be given in 9th grade.

A one-year timeout in ratings of schools and districts is also part of the request.

A key element of Colorado’s original flexibility request allowed the state to use its own rating system and not also use the federal adequate yearly progress standard. That would continue under the new waiver.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.