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Colorado’s new director of school choice: If we hold all schools accountable, divisiveness over charters will go away

Bill Kottenstette, Colorado's director of school choice. Photo courtesy of Kottenstette

For decades, both Republicans and Democrats in Colorado have embraced charter schools.

And it can stay that way if the state continues to hold all schools accountable and push for better quality, said the new director of school choice at the Colorado Department of Education.

Bill Kottenstette, the former executive director of Jefferson County charter school Compass Montessori, is settling into a role at the department that includes overseeing a $36 million grant program to help launch charter schools.

Kottenstette, a father of five who also worked with charter schools in Denver, started in June. In an interview with Chalkbeat, he spoke about the controversy over the term “school choice,” whether charters need to work harder to be integrated and what’s next for the charter sector.

(Spoiler alert: He thinks district-run schools face the same challenges as charters!)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I don’t think a lot of people in the education community know this office exists. What do you guys do?

We have two primary roles. The big role is to administer the federal charter school startup grant. The other role is to serve as the point of online and blended learning for the state. We also work with innovation schools.

How do you hope to shape the department into your own?

I’m fortunate enough to have been a teacher, a school administrator and also a district administrator. I’m excited that those formative experiences will help shape my thinking for this office.

Primarily, I look forward to finding where I think this office could help in supporting school administrators. An example of that: We’re working on our annual school finance seminar where we provide technical assistance and information sharing between business managers, school administrators and charter boards. I know as a former administrator that it would have been helpful to have an expert on facilities who could speak to strong financial metrics for school bonds.

Coming from the district side, I know the anxiety of working with the state on innovation applications or charter applications is: “We want to put our best foot forward. So, can you help provide guidance and instructions so we can submit applications that are complete and strong? And if we need to go to the state board, can you provide us the right coaching so we feel calm?”

You worked with charter schools in both Denver and Jefferson County. What are the similarities and differences between charters in an urban environment and a suburban environment?

I’d say the similarities aren’t even all that unique to charter schools. Public schools in general have similar challenges: They want do right by their community. They want do right by all the kids that they serve. They’re really looking at, “How do individualize education today?”

Charter school supporters aren’t monolithic. But there appear to be two general camps. One camp believes charter schools should be held to high standards by the government that funds them. The other believes the market — families — should decide what a quality school is. Where do you fall?

I don’t know if I can give you a solid answer for where I personally fall. But I can tell you the priority of the work for the office, which is the charter school grant. And we do have definitions of quality in the application. We have a rubric and we score schools based on the extent that we’re seeing indicators of quality. This is based on the belief that if you’re authorized with these foundations in place that you’re more likely to be successful and stay opened.

School choice has become more of a hot topic than ever before. Why do you think that term is so politically charged?

At the national level, there are broader issues that are playing out in different states. In Colorado, school choice can still be a hot-button topic. But it’s much more embraced here than in other areas. As I’ve seen conversations around charter and innovation schools, typically they’ve been supported in a positive, bipartisan way. We’ve avoided a lot of controversy at the national level. My optimism is that we in Colorado can stay in that space. The way we do that is really honoring our commitment to following best practices and say we’re about kids, we’re about making sure all kids have a great opportunity in their schools. And when we’re going to hold people and institutions accountable for quality and effective outcomes, that level of divisiveness goes away because people can see progress.

There are some lawmakers who are very excited about technology playing a larger role in education. They envision a world where students can be handed a laptop and told, “Here’s 100 different courses — go learn.” Do you think schools and the sector are ready for that sort of revolution?

Last week there was a report on blended learning that came out — a road map. A lot of that conversation was looking at the idea of blended versus an online school. We know and recognize the impact that technology is having on education. The great benefit is that technology increases access to information. A student in rural Colorado can access Chinese classes, even if the expert isn’t in their community. But I think in general, where people are falling, is that it needs to be in balance. If I’m a school, I’m asking, “How do we introduce technology in our environment while anchoring our practice in the education philosophy we have?”

There is a challenge in convincing some people to really embrace technology in school given some of the criticism of online schools. They have such a bad rap. Is there any sort of quality control the sector needs to do to help folks embrace technology in classrooms?

I’m excited about partnering with my colleagues at CDE. We collectively come together and say our work is to support schools that are struggling. And when we see indicators where we would not like them to be, we have support structures that kick in so we can help them be successful.

Something that is really fascinating about Colorado’s charter schools is that the overall student population is more diverse than the state average. But charters schools are slightly more segregated than district-run schools. What role do charter schools play in integrating schools?

Charter schools always have to ensure equal access to all kids. So we need to make sure those policies are really being followed.

Enrollment policies are a big issue. We need to make sure a school is available to all and can be accessed equally. Where there is a gap, we need to ask if there is a strategy we can take to overcome that. I think that those approaches are going to be incubated over time. Denver, I believe, is doing some really exciting work around transportation.

One of the big levers we have is the charter school startup grant. We were able to get authorization to encourage weighted lotteries. So, if a school is seeing a lower level of applications for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, you can provide added weight those so they have a greater chance to access enrollment.

If you were to look into your crystal ball, what would you say is the next big policy conversation for charter schools?

I think that in Colorado, we’re so far along relative to other states. The conversation for charters is no different than that for all schools. It’s a public school conversation. What can we do to invest and improve the quality, make the public schools in Colorado great? District schools, charter schools, innovation schools will all be engaged in similar conversations.

What is the one thing you’d like charter school critics to know about charter schools?

There’s a lot of excitement and energy in the charter world. People come into that space because they’re passionate about the work, they’re passionate about serving their community. There’s a lot of positive energy in the space.

Charters are part of the system. They’re comprised of the same DNA that serves the same public system. Educators who strive to be the best professionals they can be, to serve their kids well. They’re motivated day in and day out to serve kids well.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million over two years for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million over two years for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.

rethinking the reprieve

Indiana lawmakers take step to eliminate generous ‘growth-only’ grades for all schools, not just those in IPS

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

A panel of Indiana lawmakers took a first step Monday to stop giving new and overhauled schools more generous state A-F grades that consider only how much students improve on tests and cut schools slack for low test scores.

The House Education Committee was initially looking to clamp down on Indianapolis Public Schools’ innovation schools, barring them from using student test score improvement as the sole determinant in their first three years of A-F grades. The more generous scale has boosted IPS’ performance as it launches a new strategy of partnering with charter operators, by allowing some innovation network schools to earn high marks despite overall low test scores.

But lawmakers expanded the scope of the bill to stop all schools from receiving what are known as “growth-only grades” after Chalkbeat reported that IPS’ overhauled high schools were granted a fresh start from the state — a move that would allow the high schools to tap into the more lenient grading system.

“I want to be consistent, and I felt like [grading] wasn’t consistent before, it was just hodge-podge,” said committee Chairman Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican. “We need to be transparent with parents.”

Read: Why it’s hard to compare Indianapolis schools under the A-F grading system

The committee unanimously approved the bill. If it passes into law, Indianapolis Public Schools stands to be one of the districts most affected. Growth-only grades for innovation schools have given the district’s data a boost, accounting for eight of the district’s 11 A grades in 2018. All of its high schools could also be eligible for growth-only grades this year.

Indianapolis Public Schools officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In the past, they have defended the two-tiered grading system, arguing that growth on state tests is an important window into how schools are educating students. Growth-only grades were originally intended to offer new schools time to get up and running before being judged on student test scores.

IPS was also the target of another provision in the updated bill that would add in stricter rules for when and how schools can ask for a “baseline reset” — the fresh start that its four high schools were recently granted.

Read: IPS overhauled high schools. Now, the state is giving them a fresh start on A-F

The resets, which districts can currently request from the state education department if they meet certain criteria that show they’ve undergone dramatic changes, wipe out previous test scores and other student performance data to give schools a fresh start. The reset schools are considered new schools with new state ID numbers.

The state determined a reset was necessary for IPS’ four remaining high schools because of the effects of decisions last year to close three campuses, shuffle staff, and create a new system a new system for students to choose their schools. Each school will start over with state letter grades in 2019.

But Behning and other lawmakers were skeptical that such changes merited starting over with accountability, and they were concerned that the process could occur without state board of education scrutiny. If passed into law, the bill would require the state board to approve future requests for accountability resets.

A state board staff member testified in favor of the change. The state education department did not offer comments to the committee.

Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said he didn’t like the fact that a reset could erase a school’s data, adding that he had concerns about “the transparency of a school corporation getting a new number.”

The amended bill wouldn’t remove the reset for IPS high schools, but by eliminating the growth-only grades, it would get rid of some of the incentive for districts to ask for a reset to begin with. Under current law, reset schools are considered new and qualify for growth-only grades. But the bill would require that reset schools be judged on the state’s usual scale, taking into account both test scores and test score improvement — and possibly leading to lower-than-anticipated state grades.

The amended bill would still offer a grading grace period to schools opening for the first time: New charter schools would be able to ask the state to give them no grade — known as a “null” grade — for their first three years, but schools’ test score performance and test score growth data would still be published online. Behning said he didn’t include district schools in the null-grade measure because they haven’t frequently opened new schools, but he said he’d be open to an amendment.

The bill next heads to the full House for a vote.