From the Statehouse

K-12 cut now looks like $431 million

Thursday roundup
Tax sniping
New bills
For the record

Projected cuts in state aid to K-12 education next school year keep rising, and school administrators fear they will get even bigger.

Todd Herreid, a legislative staff analyst, told members of the House Education Committee Thursday that recent calculations indicate “a decrease in total program spending of at least $431 million compared to current law. This represents a decrease of 7.5 percent.”

Herreid made his comments as he presented the committee with a required annual report on the condition of the State Education Fund, kind of a piggy bank that is one of the sources of state aid to school districts. The report estimates that the SEF will be down to only about $6 million in 2010-11.

The estimated $431 million cut is more precise but is in the same ballpark as a rough estimate Herreid made in late December, when quarterly state revenue forecasts were issued.

In November, Gov. Bill Ritter’s proposed cutting K-12 support by 4.56 percent, or $260 million, from the dollar amount of school aid in the current 2009-10 budget. The Department of Education calculated that cut actually would amount to $374.1 million, or 6.12 percent, when calculated against the full amount school districts would otherwise expect to receive in 2010-11 under full application of the Amendment 23 funding formula.

Herreid’s figure of $431 million represents an increase in CDE’s original $374.1 million estimate.

The Ritter administration has taken the position that Amendment 23 applies only to “base” state funding of schools, about 75 percent of total support. The other 25 percent, nearly $1 billion, is distributed to districts through what are called the “factors,” pots of money designed to compensate districts for cost of living, at-risk students and small size. So, K-12 cuts would be taken in some form from the factors.

Most legislators have at least grudgingly agreed with Ritter’s interpretation of A23. Some interest groups, especially the Colorado Education Association, believe that interpretation is unconstitutional.

Some district administrators fear the effective cut in school instructional budgets could be 10 to 12 percent in 2010-11, given that districts will face increased costs for things like pensions and health insurance at the same time state aid is cut.

So something will have to give, most likely class sizes, teacher jobs and teacher salaries.

The legislature recently passed, and Ritter signed a law, cutting $110 million of state school aid in the current budget year, about 2 percent. The state also isn’t compensating districts for higher-than-projected enrollment and numbers of at-risk students.

Background and EdNews stories

Education in cross fire of tax debate

Program cuts are one side of budget balancing; raising revenue is the other.

For the past two days, the Senate Finance Committee has been working its way through a package of eight bills that propose to eliminate various tax exemptions and use the revenue for both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budgets.

The debate has been partisan, with Republicans opposing and majority Democrats supporting – and passing – the bills.

Supporters argue that failure to pass the tax bills will force even deeper education cuts, a contention that was challenged by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, during a Wednesday evening hearing.

According to a GOP news release, King “blasted the lobbyists for two liberal education groups that were falsely claiming the revenue generated from the Democrats tax increase plan would go towards K-12 education.” The release identified the groups as the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives, groups that teachers’ unions – or education reformers for that matter – might not think of as “liberal.”

GOP staffers also cranked out a news release promoting a Republican proposal to cut state payroll rather than eliminate the tax exemptions.

By early Thursday evening, Senate Finance has passed all but two of the tax bills. The package will go to the Senate floor Friday afternoon.

Ed bills continue to stack up

A large number of new bills were introduced in the Senate Thursday, including three related to education:

• Senate Bill 10-150 – This measure would allow additional revenues from state lands to flow to the Public School Fund rather than the permanent fund for 2010-11 only. This is a way to raise a little more cash for K-12 schools. Most school aid comes from the tax-supported general fund, which lawmakers frantically are trying to balance, with a lesser amount coming from the State Education Fund and the smallest amount from the Public School Fund. Sponsored by Joint Budget Committee members.

• Senate Bill 10-154 – The bill would expand the definition of “at-risk student” as it applies to alternative schools, which have separate accreditation standards because of their high percentages of at-risk students. At-risk usually is defined as eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. The bill would expand that to “include children with disabilities, migrant children, homeless children, children with a documented history of serious psychiatric or behavioral disorders, and children who are 2 or more years behind grade level as determined by statewide assessments or by other assessments,” in the words of the summary. Sole sponsor for now is Sen. Paula Sandoval, D-Denver.

• Senate Bill 10-161 – The proposal would allow charter schools to contract with boards of cooperative education services and other charters for buildings and services. Sponsors are Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs.

For the record

The House Thursday gave preliminary voice approval to House Bill 10-1064, which would require high school athletes to use the standard Colorado High School Acivities Association appeals process for eligibility disputes before taking a case to outside arbitration or to court.

The House Education Committee approved House Bill 10-1044, which would require state licensing of neighborhood youth organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, and House Bill 10-1013, a technical cleanup of school finance laws.

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.