Who Is In Charge

Arts education requirement advances

It was kind of a topsy-turvy day in the House and Senate education committees.

Two bills of note passed out of House Education – a measure establishing a statewide arts education requirement and a proposal that would give student members voting power on the Colorado State University Board of Governors.

But, the sidelights and undercurrents in a long afternoon of work were perhaps more interesting.

  • The House panel approved one bill creating a state education mandate but rejected another.
  • Senate Ed killed a kindergarten bill most of its members dearly would have loved to pass.
  • A state agency director represented both support and opposition to another bill.
  • Two Republican senators urged a Democratic colleague not to gut his own budget bill.

It was that kind of afternoon, and it lasted from 1:30 p.m. until nearly 6. Here’s the rundown:

Mandate: Arts education

House Bill 10-1273, entitled “Improved Workforce Development Through Increased Participation in Arts Education,” is the swan song of Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, a retired music teacher who’s serving his last term and is chair of House Education.

More than a dozen witnesses – students, teacher and others – testified in favor of the bill, picking up on Merrifield’s introductory theme of how participating in the arts makes for well-rounded, higher-achieving students.

Two brave lobbyists tried to sing a different tune. Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of School Boards, argued (as she usually does) for local control, saying, “We can’t have art on demand or physical education on demand or foreign language on demand by the state. Those decisions have to made locally.”

Bruce Caughey of the Colorado Association of School Executives also opposed the bill. “This is a day I’ve been dreading,” he said. (His organization aligns with Merrifield on lots of issues.)

Merrifield proposed an amendment, which the committee accepted, that does soften the bill’s impact on districts. The change broadens the kinds of arts classes that students could take and also requires that students only “successfully complete” a course, not pass a standardized test.

The bill passed out of committee 10-2, with the only sour notes sounded by no votes from Republican Reps. Tom Massey of Poncha Springs, a former school board member, and Carole Murray of Castle Rock, a former teacher who’s married to a Douglas County principal. “I love you dearly,” Massey said to Merrifield, but “I promised my school districts I would not send them another unfunded mandate.”

Mandate: Exit exams

The committee passed Merrifield’s mandate at the start of the afternoon but killed Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg’s mandate at the end of the meeting.

The Sterling Republican’s House Bill 10-1254 would have required “a score at the proficient achievement level or higher on the 10th-grade statewide assessments in reading, writing, and mathematics; or a score on a postsecondary and workforce readiness assessment indicating that the student has attained postsecondary and workforce readiness” for a student to graduate from high school.

Sonnenberg talked eloquently about the state’s college remediation problem (see the EdNews Data Center for school-by-school stats on this problem). “I bring the bill because I’m not sure our kids are prepared for life.”

The bill was doomed from the start because it’s not in synch with the slow-moving juggernaut of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids reform program, which will replace the CSAPs with another testing system in the next couple of years.

The issue set Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, off on one of her standard critiques of the CSAPs. She finally stopped herself, saying,  “I’d better shut up” – before continuing for a couple more minutes.

Members kept chattering, and Merrifield finally said, “I’m going to close off discussion for the moment” so witnesses – Caughey and Urschel again – could make return trips to the microphone to oppose the bill.

Sonnenberg said, “Thanks for letting me vent,” and the committee finally killed the bill 10-2.

Kindergarten: It was so hard to vote no

It’s not often that a committee kills a bill by the Senate president, and Senate Ed had a hard time doing so even when President Brandon Shaffer, D-Boulder, asked them to do just that.

Shaffer’s Senate Bill 10-131 would have provided additional per-pupil funding to districts that provide high-quality full-day kindergarten to all eligible pupils. The trouble is it would have cost millions the state doesn’t have – about $200 million over the next three years.

“I don’t know from a cost perspective if we’ll be able to do it,” Shaffer said by way of understatement, asking the committee to kill the bill.

Softhearted committee members couldn’t bear to do that, and Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, moved that the bill be sent to Senate Appropriations, which usually has little compunction about killing bills with price tags.

Heath’s motion failed on a 3-3 vote, so Senate Ed had to do the deed after all, voting 3-2 to postpone the bill indefinitely.

Agency head: Yes and no

Rico Munn was in a tight spot. Sitting in the witness chair as Senate Ed took up Senate Bill 10-079, Munn had to explain that he’s both director of the Department of Higher Education and director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

His trouble was that the department opposes the bill while the appointed commission, on which Munn serves as its top staffer but has no vote, decided recently to support the bill.

After joking about “two hats,” Munn made it clear he opposes the bill because the department would rather not have changes made in colleges’ missions while a sweeping higher ed strategic plan is being developed.

The bill would give Mesa State College expanded powers to award graduate degrees. Munn had to split for a meeting with his boss, Gov. Bill Ritter. Mesa President Tim Foster, a former DHE/CCHE director himself, and other favorable witnesses took over.

The committee passed the bill 5-2.

Won’t you change your mind?

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, was another bill sponsor with dark designs on his own proposal Thursday.

His Senate Bill 10-062 would have transferred allocation decisions for about $240 million in categorical education funds from the Joint Budget Committee to the two education committees. (Categoricals are earmarked funds that go to school districts for special purposes, primarily transportation and special education.)

Steadman said he’d decided that bill wasn’t politically or otherwise viable this year and asked the committee to strip out all but a few technical sections.

Republican Sens. Keith King of Colorado Springs and Mark Scheffel of Parker said they really liked the idea and urged Steadman to change his mind. He didn’t, the committee gutted the bill and then approved what little remained.

CSU students try again, win round 1

With Democrats and Republicans on both side of the vote, House Ed Thursday voted 7-5 Thursday to pass House Bill 10-1206, which would convert the two student representatives on the CSU Board of Governors into full voting members.

Sponsor Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, said he was just “the person running this bill for the students.”

A parade of student leaders supported the bill, some noting that student representatives deserve a vote because tuition now provides such a large chunk of CSU’s funding (as it does for lots of state colleges).

Influential lawyer-lobbyist Mike Feeley, a former lawmaker who praised Fischer as “a tremendous friend of the university,” represented CSU and spoke against the bill.

The students, one from the Fort Collins campus and one from Pueblo, would have to be juniors, seniors or grad students and would be appointed to terms of one academic year. Student governments and administrations could suggest candidates to the governor for appointment. The board’s two faculty members would remain non-voting.

A similar measure failed last year. Like Merrifield’s arts bill, the prospects of the CSU bill may be dimmer on the floor or in the Senate.

For the record

House Ed approved House Bill 10-1335, which would allow boards of cooperative education services to provide food services to member schools and would create a donation-supported fund in the Department of Education that could provide grants to BOCES for food services.

Senate Ed also passed Senate Bill 10-026 (authorizing data transfers between College in Colorado and CDE), Senate Bill 10-154 (accreditation standards for alternative schools) and Senate Bill 10-039 (concerning job training scholarships).

On the floor:

House Bill 10-1026 – Incentive grants for quality childcare programs, House final approval

House Bill 10-1232 – Classification of school vehicles, House preliminary approval

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

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.