Constitutional Matters

Hickenlooper: We need voters’ help to fully fund schools

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers the Colorado State of the State address in January 2018.

In his final State of the State address, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called for more money for education but said it would take voters’ help to do that.

In an interview after the speech, Hickenlooper said he wasn’t calling for a ballot measure with a new tax for schools so much as he was pointing out Colorado violates its own constitution every year.

Even with increased funding for schools in recent budgets and the governor’s 2018-19 budget proposal, “we remain roughly three quarters of a billion dollars behind the funding Colorado voters placed in our constitution nearly two decades ago,” he said in his speech. “We need to be honest with ourselves and with our voters. This number isn’t going down much without their help.”

The Democratic governor was referring to Amendment 23, a constitutional amendment passed in 2000 that requires education spending to increase by population and inflation (it was inflation plus 1 percent from 2001 through 2011). However, the legislature has not funded education at that level since the Great Recession. The shortfall is known as the “negative factor” or more recently the “budget stabilization factor.”

Hickenlooper said in the interview afterward he and his staff “busted our necks” to get the shortfall down below $1 billion, but it’s still more than $700 million.

“That’s a big number,” he said. “We’re $770 million a year lower than what the voters told us to we should do. Were they just ignorant?”

Colorado voters have turned down several requests to raise taxes to put more money into K-12 education.

“I wasn’t specifically saying we have to go to the voters per se, but I thought it was worth noticing,” Hickenlooper said.

In this context, constitutional compliance could also look like voter authorization to spend less on schools.

“Maybe the solution is to go to the voters and ask them to reduce Amendment 23 to something more manageable,” Hickenlooper said. “Maybe it’s to have a transportation plan that also accommodates increased spending in education. I’m not sure what that looks like.”

“Maybe at some point – I don’t think it will be this year – we put an initiative on the ballot that says we want to take excess revenues every year and commit them to Amendment 23.”

Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights imposes a cap on how much revenue the state can collect each year, but with voter permission, the state could keep additional money and put it toward education.

That’s what’s proposed in a bill from state Sen. Andy Kerr, a Lakewood Democrat, that Republicans sent straight to a kill committee Wednesday.

Hickenlooper included a plan for funding K-12 education among his top priorities for the next year, and he linked it to plans to fund transportation and the state’s water plan. Those priorities, which he called a “common sense agenda,” are:

  • Solving the unfunded liability in the state pension system, which many public school employees participate in;
  • Passing legislation to cap orphan oil and gas wells;
  • Halting the opioid epidemic;
  • Enacting funding plans for K-12 education, infrastructure and the state water plan;
  • Passing legislation and authorizing money for a full buildout of rural broadband;
  • Addressing the negative impact of the Gallagher Amendment on rural communities.

Here’s what Hickenlooper had to say about K-12 education funding in his speech:

Today, in almost every part of Colorado, zip code still determines your educational outcome, and that determines your economic outcome. This needs to change.

We re-convened the Education Leadership Council, with your help, to build a long-term vision and path forward. It’s nonpartisan and comprehensive, with a focus on the building blocks of a child’s success from early childhood to workforce and beyond.

We’re pumping an additional $100 million above enrollment and inflation into our schools this year, and adding $10 million to address teacher shortages in rural areas.

We also proposed repeating this year’s $30 million to rural schools next year.

Even with these increases, we remain roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars behind the funding Colorado voters placed in our constitution nearly two decades ago.

We need to be honest with ourselves and with our voters. This number isn’t going down much without their help. And if we are being really blunt, it hurts rural Colorado more than the Front Range.

Hickenlooper also called for additional focus on being prepared for work and highlighted his apprenticeship programs.

We need to transition from a degree-based education system to one that also includes skill-based training.

Experts tell us almost 60 percent of our kids in America today will not get a 4-year degree, and that number is true in Colorado as well.

Careers and professions by the dozens will be swept away in the coming decades by automation and artificial intelligence.

But new industries will emerge at an equally frantic rate. We will need not just engineers but huge numbers of technicians and analysts with new sets of skills. We need to get more kids learning skills that matter. We need to do it yesterday.

That’s why we’re working with the state board of education to expose more students to coding in middle and high school years. Why not give those schools with a foreign language requirement the choice to offer coding as an alternative language?

But let’s not fall into the trap of instituting a bunch of coding classes and thinking we’ve solved the problem. We need flexible solutions that can adapt to what employers need tomorrow, not just what they need today.

This means training and apprenticeships.

Working closely with business and education leaders, in a public-private partnership, Colorado is igniting an apprenticeship renaissance with Careerwise, and it’s a model being copied around the country.

You can read his full speech here.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.