First Person

Why I'm torn over Prop. 103

Vinny Badolato is vice president of public affairs at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

I am a nerd about voting. I love elections. I am very passionate about engaging in what I believe is the most important civic duty we are expected to perform as Americans. I usually can’t wait to get my ballot in the mail (I like the convenience of the mail ballot system, but I do miss the old process of going to the polls), tear open the envelope, fill in the lines, and bring it to a polling place (I also always hand deliver my ballot; I don’t trust putting it in the mail).

It is election season again and this time, however, I am not as excited as usual. It’s not that there aren’t any interesting items on the ballot. There’s an important school board election in Denver, and I have the opportunity to vote for the at-large and District 5 seats. Denver also has an important question that directly impacts the competitive marketplace for businesses in the city. What I am not excited about is the state question, Proposition 103. It’s not that I don’t think it is a critical question on a crucial issue. I am not excited because I am honestly torn as to what answer I am going to choose.

As we all know by now, Proposition 103 is a citizen initiated ballot question that raises state income and sales taxes for five years with the additional revenues earmarked for K-12 and higher education. Coming from a household where all current and future wages come either directly or indirectly from public education, one would think that voting yes would be no-brainer. But while the question seems straight forward enough, the reality is that the question – and its meaning – is far from straight forward. And that’s why I can’t decide.

Proposition 103 comes at a time of a sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment in Colorado, coupled with significant and massive state-level cuts to education funding. Looking at the former, we are in a time when the vast majority of us are strained to make ends meet on a daily basis, and I am not sure that there is the stomach in the electorate to pass new taxes. I do have to interject here that coming from NY and DC, our overall tax rates in Colorado are laughingly low (and subsidized through outrageous fees), so an increase in taxes makes sense to me. But I don’t know if right now is the time for an across the board income and sales tax increase, especially when those taxes disproportionally impact Coloradoans that can least afford it.

Colorado’s inadequate support for K-12 and higher education

But this is an education blog, so let’s spend a little more time on the latter. Colorado does not adequately fund public education. The notion that public education has grown fat with funding since the mid-1970s with little to show in terms of results is a red herring. That may be somewhat true in the aggregate, but it doesn’t take fully into account the layers of mandates and requirements that have forced increased investments along with the fact that we actually assess the performance of every kid these days, as opposed to previously when huge numbers of kids slipped through the cracks.

Additionally, when you disaggregate to Colorado, we have not kept pace with national numbers and are way down on the list in terms of total funding. We have recently drastically defunded already extremely lean K-12 and postsecondary public education systems in Colorado over the past few years. In K-12, the last few years of cuts put us approximately $800 million under where we are “supposed” to be according to Amendment 23. And the impact on the ground of those cuts was brought home this week at the PEBC sponsored Superintendents Forum in Denver. It hurts to hear directly from metro area superintendents about what is being sacrificed due to the cuts, especially since I have two boys who will be in the public K-12 system in a few years.

I want to keep this post focused on K-12, but I would be remiss if I don’t mention higher education. As a former national higher education policy analyst, I am both appalled and embarrassed when I compare Colorado’s higher education funding to the rest of the nation. We’ve been lucky that Colorado is a great place to live and that we have been able to import large numbers of highly educated people (the so-called “Colorado Paradox”). I truly fear that our continual defunding of higher education in favor of placing the funding burden squarely on the backs of our kids and families will not only put a degree out of reach for many Coloradoans at a time when a postsecondary credential is essential, but will also drive or keep away many of our imports to states that hold a vibrant public postsecondary system in a higher regard.

So why not fully support Proposition 103? It provides a new revenue stream for education. But I have trouble fully supporting 103 because it is – and is being sold as – a mere five-year bandage to just “stop the bleeding”. There is no plan on how to use the new revenues that Proposition 103 would bring in, other than that it has to go to public education (statutorily, by the way, and statute can be amended). And I believe that the lack of a plan and long term thinking is a major deficiency.

Some like to say that “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and I agree. Our current education funding crisis should be driving serious actions (I don’t say “conversations” because there are too many of those with no results) on addressing our fiscal house and funding systems.

Big challenges don’t lend themselves to small solutions

Our state is handcuffed by dueling constitutional provisions that ratchet down revenues and virtually prevent the intake of more revenue while at the same time requiring annual increases in revenue expenditures for education that we don’t have. All the while under the requirement that we pass – or at least appear to pass – an annual balanced budget.

Meanwhile, our education finance act has not seen a major restructuring since 1994; before standardized testing, charter schools, the SPF system, the growth model, CAP4K, teacher effectiveness, and a myriad other major reforms both enacted and being proposed. Combine that with the gradual, but steady, decrease in local share that puts more strain on state coffers.

And let’s not forget the impending judicial decision on a major school finance case that can potentially have major ramifications for the system. We also have extensive federal mandates and rules to contend with. Finally, this is all plays out under Article IX, Section 15 of the state constitution that requires “local control” of education – i.e. the convoluted provision co-opted by everyone at some time or another to justify individual agendas – that is arguably in direct conflict with Section 2 of the same article that calls for “the maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.”

What we are left with is an education policy landscape full of overlapping and disjointed layers of laws and regulations and a funding system that is chock full of inequities and inefficiencies at both the state and local levels with competing groups playing the winners and losers game to protect their interests. Meanwhile, our system chugs along as it has for a century, and it’s our kids who stand to lose. What we should be doing during this time of financial crisis is reevaluating where we are, where we want to get to, and figuring out a better way to fund it. For me, this means a fundamental shift in the entire system and delivery of public education in Colorado that is capable of evolving to meet the needs of the kids it serves.

I highly recommend a little-celebrated recent book from Rick Hess, “Education Unbound”, that talks about the promise and practice of “greenfield schooling” as a place to start that conversation. A reformation of the system is possible, if we are willing to get serious about it.

I am not naive. Scrapping the current system for something new and all-encompassing that focuses on individual students and not districts or even schools takes incredible political will and seems next to impossible in our current environment. But it is what we must do. Instead, we are offered a Band-Aid when this patient needs major reconstructive surgery. We are asked to kick the can down the road five more years when a large number of our current crop of state and local policymakers are term limited for a new group of policymakers to grapple with. And that is a shame.

So I am torn. It feels like a cop-out to support a revenue increase without a plan to get smarter about our public education system in Colorado. I will likely vote in favor, however, mostly as a statement that we as a state have be able to raise more revenue and fund our current and future system better. But I am not happy about it.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.