Future of Schools

Rejecting Ritz's logic, state board promises A-to-F grades will be issued

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
State Superintendent Glenda Ritz speaks with reporters after Indiana's request for a waiver from some rules of the federal No Child Left Behind law was approved in 2014.

Indiana schools will have A-to-F grades for 2014-15, although they probably won’t be publicly released until 2016.

The Indiana State Board of Education today approved a resolution that orders state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to issue school A-to-F grades for 2014-15 despite earlier questions raised by Ritz about whether the board’s earlier actions caused the rules for calculating those grades to expire.

That could have meant the Indiana Department of Education would have no formal guidelines for assigning grades. But the state board rejected Ritz’s argument and insisted last year’s rules are still in effect.

“This has been a very confusing process with the rules expiring, the emergency rules,” Ritz said. “I just want to say I’m glad we’re headed to the new rules and the new measures and the new metrics, and we’re moving as fast as we can toward that.”

Education department spokesman Daniel Altman said the tentative date for final grades being submitted to the state board for approval is Jan. 18. Typically, grades are finalized well before year’s end, but the company that makes ISTEP, California-based CTB, reported scoring problems last month that have caused the delay. Schools are expected to get preliminary score data by Dec. 1.

“Obviously we’re dealing with the delay from CTB,” Altman said. “We’ve been working significantly with state board staff and legislative staff and stakeholders to get the timeline as reduced as it could be, and we’re going to get information to schools as soon as it’s possible.”

A letter from Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, expressed concern that grades wouldn’t be issued before the state’s Jan. 31 deadline for when districts must give performance bonuses to teachers. Brown chairs the budget making Ways and Means Committee in the Indiana House. If that bonus money is not used by then, state board spokesman Marc Lotter said, it could go back to the education department rather than be paid to teachers.

The board voted 9-0 to approve the resolution to issue the grades, with Ritz abstaining. When asked by board member Gordon Hendry why she chose not to vote, Ritz cited the confusion about the rules.

“I choose to, I guess, because of the confusing nature of the entire piece and the resolution enacting a rule that is expired,” she said. “It’s probably more procedural than anything.”

Lotter said 2014-15 grades would be determined using the same system as in 2013-14. A new model for figuring out school grades will equally weigh student scores and improvement over prior years. It will be used for the first time for 2015-16 grades.

An A-to-F grade delay can cause schools a variety of problems, as the scores are used in part to determine teacher raises, as well as guide the state board to decide if it needs to take over schools with repeated F-grades.

Ritz’s team argued earlier this month that the state board’s actions last year to change the way they issued grades for a handful of schools with unusual grade configurations — such as those with some elementary grades and some high school grades — had a secondary effect of invalidating the entire A-to-F system.

The rules, they said, indicate even a small change means there is a new system, and that the old system no longer is in effect.

The Indiana attorney general’s office said in a letter to the board and the department that an expiring emergency rule would not invalidate A-to-F grades and doesn’t negate state law that requires grades to be issued each year.

A legal opinion from Matt Light, with the state’s attorney general’s office, also blocks another proposal Ritz has made. She has suggested A-to-F school grades be “paused” for 2014-15. Ritz proposed grades only be changed and made public if they were better than those from 2014. If scores went down, she said, grades should stay the same.

Pausing grades is “inconsistent with statutory requirements and provisions relating to placement of schools in A-F categories for school performance and accountability,” Light wrote.

Ritz and her team have tried to persuade the state board to “pause” accountability and school grades several times. Recently, those arguments have been spurred on by difficulties schools have had as they quickly implement new academic standards and give new tests after Indiana dumped Common Core standards in 2014.

Light wrote that while it might be valid to argue that new standards and new tests had an effect on accountability, it doesn’t mean that withholding grades is the best option. Plus, he wrote, there’s no evidence that the 2015 ISTEP test isn’t valid or reliable.

“There is always a difficult balance to be struck between the need to establish the validity and reliability of the test items against the burden of time needed to test the items,” his letter said.

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.