Higher ed bill a work in progress

The Senate Education Committee Thursday gave 6-1 approval to Senate Bill 11-052, the higher education performance-funding bill. But nearly three hours of discussion on the measure made it clear that there are lots of questions to be answered as the measure works its way through the legislature.

Other Thursday action

Two bills go to governor

The core of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, would base 25 percent of the overall funding for higher education on institutional performance, starting in 2016-17. The Department of Higher Education and institutions would negotiate individual contracts, and performance on those would determine part of funding.

Heath, pitching the bill to his fellow committee members, called it “a pretty exciting opportunity for all of us.” He said the bill is needed to incentivize state colleges to graduate more students, close completion gaps and bring underrepresented groups into higher education.

“We are not graduating enough people at all levels … to occupy the jobs” the state needs in the future, he said.

The current draft of the bill sets a 2020 statewide goal – but not a requirement – of increasing the number of degrees and certificates awarded by 30 percent. About 43,000 degrees and certificates were awarded in 2010.

Contracts would be individualized by institution, so a community college, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily be held to the same expectations as CSU.

The bill envisions a strong role for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, including preparation of a statewide master plan (required by existing state law) and setting specific goals and expectations for the tiers of the state system – research universities, four-year colleges, community and junior colleges, and vocational schools – and for individual institutions.

Heath said he and Massey initially hoped to keep the bill simple, but “It’s gotten a lot more complicated than we thought.”

Among other things, the revised version of the bill approved by the committee combines lots of existing higher education law – on performance contracts, master plans, tuition setting and other issues – with the performance funding proposal.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia

The Department of Higher Education is working with Heath on bill drafting. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who’s also DHE director, and two top aides sat in on the hearing.

“The administration has not yet taken a position on the bill, but we have been working with the sponsor,” Garcia told the committee. The lieutenant governor, along with deputy director Matt Gianneschi and lobbyist Chad Marturano, spent a lot of time at the witness end of the committee table, answering questions about the bill.

Garcia said the department also has “tried to work with institutions and address their concerns” about the role of CCHE and how contract negotiations would be conducted. “All of the institutions had some concerns about a performance funding bill at a time when funding is diminishing,” Garcia said. He also noted that some institutions – such as the community colleges – haven’t yet fully weighed in on the bill.

The committee approved an amendment – proposed by Heath but drafted by a group of institutional representatives – specifying that the performance contracts will be developed through a collaborative process, not dictated by the department or commission.

Committee members raised questions about how the plan would be financed, the impact on students at low-performing colleges and whether financial incentives are needed.

“I really seriously question the whole incentive process and whether institutions need an incentive to do a better job,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster.

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, questioned the need for the bill, given that Garcia said colleges have done well on the existing system of no-consequences performance contracts.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, said she likes the bill but “I really need to hear from the institutions … and find out if it [the bill] is the best it can be.”

No college or university representatives testified, although lobbyists for several institutions were in the committee room.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, several times criticized a provision of the bill dealing with DHE regulation of trade and professional schools that want to receive state financial aid funds, estimated at only $3 million a year.

Lobbyist Steve Durham, representing trade schools, and Bentley Rayburn, president of Colorado Technical University, testified against that portion of the bill. A King amendment to delete that section was defeated, but he promised to keep working on the issue.

In the end, all committee members present, except Renfroe, voted to move the bill to the floor.

Even Heath admitted that there’s one big question about the bill that can’t be answered now – whether there will be enough state funding available for higher education in 2016 to make performance funding workable.

School safety bill on ice

At the beginning of its meeting, Senate Ed spent more than two hours on Senate Bill 11-173, which is an attempt to prod school districts into conducting “all-hazards” drills instead of just fire drills and into using communications systems that connect with local emergency agencies.

There’s a fair amount of confusion and disagreement over whether the bill does or doesn’t mandate school districts to do certain things. Sponsor Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, insisted it doesn’t. But, Colorado Association of School Boards lobbyist Jane Urschel took a different view in her testimony.

The lengthy hearing didn’t do much to clear up confusion, and the bill finally was laid over until next week at King’s request.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.