From the Statehouse

Budget angst fills Capitol

No matter where you looked Wednesday in Colorado’s Capitol complex, there were people worrying or arguing about the state’s budget woes.

Gov. Bill Ritter
Gov. Bill Ritter announced his latest round of proposed budget cuts on Jan. 27.

Two House committees wrangled over proposals to abolish tax exemptions. Gov. Bill Ritter proposed new nips and tucks in current spending. A new higher education study panel opened its first meeting with a gloomy briefing. And interest groups politely sparred over who should bear the cost of educating jailed teenagers.

It all started at 7:30 a.m. in one House committee and was still going more than 13 hours later in another House panel.

Here are some snapshots of the day.

Don’t raise my taxes

Part of Gov. Bill Ritter’s budget-balancing plans for both 2009-10 and 2010-11 include rescinding about a dozen tax exemptions. Most affect business, but one bill would reimpose a tax on soda and candy.

If all the measures (House Bills 10-1189 through 1200) pass, they’re estimated to produce more than $130 million in revenue next budget year. If some or all fail, deeper state budget cuts will have to be made, with K-12 spending the likely target.

Lobbyists for the Colorado Education Association, Colorado Association of School Boards and Colorado Association of School Executives braved a committee room packed with opponents to testify in favor of the measures. In addition to business executives and lobbyists, opponents included a squad of red-jacketed Coca-Cola employees.

For procedural reasons, the bills started early Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee, where minority Republicans used parliamentary techniques and general long-windedness to drag the proceedings out, disrupting other House business in the process.

The House Finance Committee picked up the task at 1:30 a.m. and met late into the evening, taking public testimony on the bills.

Among bills delayed on the House floor was Senate Bill 10-065, which cuts $110 million (about 2 percent) from current-year state school aid. It also specifies that the state won’t cover the $20 million cost of higher-than-projected enrollment and numbers of at-risk students. (The bill has to be passed and signed by Friday or school districts will have access to the $110 million.)

Another budget “adjustment”

As House Finance started its ordeal across the street, Ritter gathered reporters in his wood-paneled Capitol office to announce still more proposed adjustments to the 2009-10 budget to fill an additional hole of nearly $50 million.

The latest plan proposed no further K-12 cuts. But it does suggest taking $5.5 million in federal stimulus funds from 2010-11 and adding it to the stimulus money already being used for higher education in this budget year. (Doing so frees up money from the state general fund, which is what needs to be balanced.)

That means colleges and universities this year will receive more in stimulus dollars than in state tax support, and state and federal support will decline by $61 million in 2010-11.

What keeps higher ed afloat is tuition, which is projected to provide two-thirds of college and university budgets next school year. Ritter has proposed a 9 percent increase for next year.

Since the recession started pummeling state revenues, the state has made about $2 billion in cuts and revenue shifts and faces the need to make at least $1 billion more.

(Go here for the details of the governor’s latest balancing plan.)

Somber marching orders for commission

Earlier, at mid-morning, a group gathered for its first meeting in an office building at the foot of Capitol Hill. The 12-member Colorado Higher Education Strategic Plan Steering Committee was appointed by Ritter to develop a new master plan for the state system and make a report by the end of this year. (See this EdNews story for more details about the commission and its members.)

The meeting opened with a gloomy briefing by state budget director Todd Saliman and a sobering presentation about the deterioration of the state system and the threat that poses to Colorado’s economic competitiveness, given by David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

The new commission will do part of its work in four subcommittees, which will include steering committee and outside members, including representatives of state colleges and universities.

One of those subcommittees will study higher ed finances, and state higher ed director Rico Munn may have surprised some members when he said that subcommittee also will be expected to come up with some short-term financial suggestions for possible consideration by the 2010 legislature.

Don Elliman, Ritter’s chief operating officer, indicated that the subcommittee’s assignment was made partly to forestall a legislative study of higher education. Munn and Elliman are advising the commission.

Fighting over jailed kids

Late in the afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee turned its attention to Senate Bill 10-054, which would require school districts to provide educational services to juveniles being held in county jails after having been charged as adults. A legislative fiscal analysis estimates an $113,378 annual cost to the state and that the bill would “increase costs for the school districts.”

The hearing created the uncomfortable spectacle of school lobbyists testifying against the bill, and juvenile justice advocates and district attorney and sheriffs’ lobbyists supporting it.

“Districts are doing everything they can just to keep the schoolhouse doors open” and can’t afford the added cost for educating a few students in jail, said Jane Urschel, lobbyist for the school boards association.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster and prime sponsor of the bill, called educating jailed kids “a moral and legal obligation.”

Two committee Republicans opposed the bill and Sen. Linda Newell, D-Denver, was clearly lukewarm, but she voted for the bill in the end, and it passed 4-2. It move on to an uncertain fate in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Any bill with any price tag will get tough scrutiny there in this lean budget year.

The last word

The mood of the day may have been unintentionally summed up by Greg Stevinson, a member of the Commission  on Higher Education who is also serving on the new steering committee.

Reflecting on the situation of higher education for the past several years, he said: “We’ve been fighting over scraps. Now there aren’t any scraps left.”

In other news

The Senate Education Committee killed Senate Bill 10-017, a proposal by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, which would have provided grants to school districts to study weighted-student funding programs. The program would have been funded by “gifts, grants and donations.”

Introduced Wednesday was House Bill 10-1208, which would require creation of at least 14 college credit transfer agreements under which students could transfer their associate’s degree credits in those specified majors to four-year schools. While such students could be required to take additional lower division courses in their majors, the bill specifies that they still should be able to graduate at the same time as similar students who’d started at those four-year schools.

Credit transfer has been a touchy issue in the past, with higher education resisting attempts at legislative mandates. State colleges and universities currently have an extensive but patchwork system of course transfers.

This bill could be a fast track, though, as it has 47 cosponsors in both houses and from both parties. Among them are House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, and Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder. (Sen. King, a longtime advocate of easy credit transfers, has not signed on to the bill.)

The sweetener for higher ed may be that the 14 transfer agreements don’t have to be in place until 2016.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.