Who Is In Charge

Clashing views aired on student counts

Worries and hopes about changing the way student enrollment is counted were laid bare Wednesday at a meeting of a panel studying the issue.

Justin Silverstein
Consultant Justin Silverstein did a lot of listening during the Dec. 15 meeting of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee.

The debate among members of the Average Daily Membership Advisory Committee spotlighted the divide between school administrators and school reformers on the issue and also highlighted the political difficulty of making any change in student counting during a time of declining state financial support for schools.

Colorado’s current enrollment counting system basically involves adding up the students who are in school on Oct. 1 (and in a window of time around that date).

Last spring, legislators approved a study of counting students by a method called “average daily membership,” which tallies pupils based on average enrollment in districts over a school year.

Counting enrollment is a complex issue but the concerns line up like this:

• School districts worry that use of average daily membership could provide a rationale for lawmakers to reduce school funding, they resent claims that schools let some students go after the Oct. 1 count and they feel inclusion of graduation and dropout rates as part of the new state accreditation system for districts provide incentives to keep kids in school.

• Some education reformers believe average daily membership is a more accurate way to count students and get money to the districts and students that need it most, especially at-risk kids. Some also believe that using ADM gives school districts an incentive to keep kids in school – and that the current single-count system provides an incentive to push difficult students out after the count is tallied.

Both views were on display Wednesday.

Aurora Superintendent John Barry
Aurora Superintendent John Barry

John Barry, superintendent of the Aurora Public Schools, was the leading skeptic in the group.

“This is a large administrative overhead cost unless we get some kind of state-funded system so it wouldn’t be an unfunded mandate,” Barry said. Although he stressed he wasn’t speaking officially for the influential Denver Area Superintendents Council, “Right now they’re very concerned” about a possible change.

“The best way to approach this would be to reward districts with funding” to retain students, Barry said. “My question is … is the investment in the time, money and effort [for a new counting system] worth it when we could be focusing on something else?” Barry repeatedly used the question, “Is the pain worth the gain?”

Barry also asked, “Do we have any data that this [kind of counting system] has significantly affected student achievement?”

Mark Fermanich, one of the consultants doing the study, replied, “I don’t think there’s a lot out there.”

Alex Medler
Alex Medler

Alex Medler, vice president of the Boulder-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers and a former Colorado Children’s Campaign official, advocated the reform view.

“We have disincentives now for doing what’s right for kids,” he said. “We have to address removing the incentive” to counsel kids out of school after the Oct. 1 count.

Fountain-Fort Carson Superintendent Cheryl Serrano raised a fear that’s often voiced by school leaders – “Is this just a way for the state to cut?’

Vody Herrmann, school finance chief for the Department of Education, said, “That wasn’t the intent” when the law was passed, and Medler said, “No one here is looking to reduce the overall investment in education.”

Serrano said she also feared a switch actually would benefit districts with fewer poor, low-achieving students. “I think you’re going to see the rich get richer.”

Mary Wickersham
Mary Wickersham

Mary Wickersham, an education advisor to outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter, noted repeatedly that school funding is tight and declining. “If you have a fixed pot of money, you can’t have winners if you don’t have losers” when the counting method is changed.

A key issue in the debate is the potential cost of the verification and auditing required to make sure districts actually are serving the students they claim.

“It’s going to be verification that takes the work,” Fermanich said. He and fellow consultant Justin Silverstein briefed the panel on questions that asked school districts about the time required to manage the current count.

Medler wondered how tight verification needs to be. “No one wants money going to kids who aren’t there” but “at some point, we need to say it’s not worth it to solve every [data] problem.”

Herrmann defended verification in general, saying that the state has $4 to $8 million a year in “audit exceptions” – state aid that districts claim but which they may not be entitled to receive.

“They are doing everything they can to generate more money. It’s not every district, but we have some that are flagrant,” she said.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and author of the bill that created the study, sat in on part of the meeting. “I completely agree that this [changing the count system] isn’t going to fix it all,” but he said that other states use different systems from which Colorado might learn.

Johnston told Education News Colorado recently that he would consider introducing ADM legislation during the 2011 legislative session, depending on what the study and the advisory panel come up with. The panel is to hold its last meeting the week of Jan. 2.

Because of delays in raising the private funding required for the project, the study, being done by the research firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, didn’t get started until last month. The advisory committee had its first meeting Dec. 1, and the report is due Jan. 7.

More information about the project


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”