targeting dollars

Denver Public Schools already provides more money to educate low-income students, but it wants to do more

Photo by AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Denver Public Schools is preparing to change the way it doles out funding for low-income students, upping the amount it provides schools to educate the district’s highest-needs students.

They include children who are homeless, in the foster care system and whose families receive food stamps. Such students automatically qualify for free school lunches, which is why they’re referred to as “direct-certified” students. About 29 percent of DPS students in kindergarten through 12th grade are direct-certified, according to district figures.

Next school year, DPS plans to provide schools with an extra $80 per direct-certified student. Doing so would cost the district about $1.5 million, according to officials. That money would come out of DPS’s general fund, which officials said has been slightly buoyed by overall enrollment increases and budget reductions in some central-office departments.

The $80 is in addition to the approximately $500 extra the district already provides for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because their families are low-income. Two-thirds of DPS students meet that criteria, which includes students who are direct-certified.

“This is absolutely the right thing to do,” Erik Johnson, the district’s executive director of finance, said at a recent school board work session at which the plan was presented.

That’s because students facing homelessness or who are in the foster care system or whose families are significantly below the poverty line often need more help, district officials say.

While federal regulations prevent the district from tracking the state test scores of direct-certified students, DPS calculations show that schools where more than half the students are direct-certified are more likely to earn a lower school rating, which is largely based on test scores and student academic growth. Of the 24 DPS schools where more than 50 percent of kids are direct-certified, only five earned the district’s top two school ratings.

Free and reduced-price lunch is “quite a broad category,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg said, and giving schools more money to educate direct-certified students is an effort to “make sure we’re … targeting our supports and resources where the needs are greatest.”

“There are significantly different degrees of need between students who are homeless or in the foster care system versus students who come from two-parent, low-income, working-class families” and might qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Boasberg added.

District records show that not all schools with high percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch also have high percentages of direct-certified students.

For instance, Fairview Elementary in west Denver and Math and Science Leadership Academy, an elementary school in southwest Denver, both serve about 200 students, 98 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But 82 percent of kids at Fairview are direct-certified, while only 32 percent at Math and Science Leadership Academy are.

Fairview has the highest percentage of direct-certified students in the district, records show. Among the schools with the lowest percentage of direct-certified students are Denver School of the Arts, which is a magnet school that draws students from across the region, and Slavens K-8 school in southeast Denver. At both, just 3 percent of students are direct-certified.

School board members reacted favorably when the plan was explained at a recent meeting. It’s currently part of the district’s proposed 2017-18 budget, which the board must adopt this spring.

Around the country, at least one other urban district, Boston Public Schools, uses direct-certification numbers to distribute money to schools to educate low-income students.

The Denver school that stands to gain the most funding next year is Place Bridge Academy, which serves about 1,000 kids in preschool through eighth grade and has special programming for refugee students. According to the district’s preliminary calculations, Place Bridge, where 62 percent of students are direct-certified, would get an extra $48,400 next year.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.