Who Is In Charge

Key “surprises” in Hick budget

There’s relative good news and three surprises for education in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed 2012-13 state budget.

Colorado CapitolThe good news, relatively speaking, is that cuts to K-12 schools and higher education aren’t as deep as some had feared.

The surprises are:

  • A proposed hold back of $67.5 million intended for schools this year
  • A request for $7.7 million to implement new educator evaluations
  • A decision not to fund development of new state tests to replace CSAPs

Legislative leaders were briefed on the proposal Monday, and the budget was released this afternoon prior to a Hickenlooper news conference. The governor is required to submit a plan to the joint Budget Committee on Nov. 1.

“It’s not a question of choosing to do this,” Hickenlooper told reporters. “There is going to be serious resistance to all the cuts.”

“The two places that we are having significant reductions are K-12 and higher education,” budget director Henry Sobanet told reporters at a briefing earlier.

Key budget numbers

The plan proposes an $89 million reduction in total program funding, the combination of state and local revenue that pays for basic instructional operations. That’s about $160 a student. Current total program funding is about $5.2 billion, down some $228.9 million, about 4.2 percent, from 2010-11. Current average per pupil funding is a little under $6,500. (No district-by-district projections will be available until after the Department of Education receives updated enrollment and property tax revenue figures in December.)

Direct state support of state colleges and universities would drop 9.7 percent, taking it to $563 million from the current $619 million, which includes $519 million for institutions and $100 million from financial aid. Next year institutional support and financial aid each would take $30 million cuts.

“There are a few cuts that are very hard for me personally,” Hickenlooper said, referring to the financial aid cuts.

“It’s unfortunate that part of the reduction here is in financial aid … these reductions unfortunately are unavoidable,” Sobanet also said. Federal funds and money raised by individual institutions already provide the bulk of aid to Colorado college students.

Over the last five years K-12 enrollment has increased 6.8 percent and the higher ed student population has grown 20.5 percent.

Key education initiatives

The $67.5 million question

The 2011 legislature set aside $67.5 million to be allocated to some districts after Jan. 1, 2012, on the basis of enrollment growth and/or declines in local property tax collections. Hickenlooper is proposing that money not be spent in the current year but instead be rolled over for use in 2012-13.

AT A GLANCE

Stats

  • Total spending: $20 billion, +1.7%
  • General fund: $7.4 billion, +3.2%
  • K-12 general fund: $2.8 billion, down slightly
  • Higher ed general fund: $563 million, -9.7%
  • Revenue is 5% below 2007-08 peak

Highlights

  • 92% of increased spending goes to Medicaid and prisons
  • Budget would be lower than 2011-12 without Medicaid increases
  • Suspension of the senior property tax exemption (worth about $100 million) would continue

Total spending includes all state funds, including those the legislature doesn’t control, such as highway money. The general fund is the main account that lawmakers can budget.

Rep. Tom Massey, who engineered the original $67.5 million plan, said, “I’m sure we will get a chance to discuss” moving the money to 2012-13. “We’ll have to argue over that and any education cuts. … I’ve found the governor to be very open minded.” Massey, a Poncha Springs Republican, is chair of the House Education Committee.

Sobanet told Education News Colorado the administration feels delaying use of the money would be fairer to school districts since it would be distributed through the school finance formula. Under Massey’s 2011-12 plan, the money would go only to some districts.

Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said board members around the state have differing opinions on whether the money would be more welcome this budget year or next.

Funding for SB 10-191

The budget includes a $7.7 million request to fund implementation of the principal and teacher evaluation systems required by Senate Bill 10-191. Planning and some implementation already have started, but so far those efforts have been funded by existing budgets and outside grants.

Delaying the CSAP replacement

The governor decided not to grant the Department of Education’s request for $25 million to pay for design of new statewide tests that would launch in the spring of 2014.

“We think we can wait one more year,” said Sobanet, noting, “$25 million to redo CSAP was not something we were willing to make cuts for.” CDE leaders had been pushing for the funds because they believe a 2014 launch of new tests is needed for effective implementation of new state content standards and the educator evaluation systems. New multistate tests, which could be cheaper to acquire, are expected to be available in 2015.

Education Commissioner Robert Hammond issued a carefully worded response to the plan to delay development of new tests. “While we understand the direction and priorities of the Governor, we continue to view a strong assessment system as critical to the state’s reform effort. … We’ll continue to raise this issue in future discussions with our lawmakers so Colorado can make an informed decision about what it wants for its statewide assessments,” he said.

Digging deeper

For those interested in school finance detail, the proposed budget assumes 3.5 percent inflation and 1.5 percent enrollment growth, both key factors in the Amendment 23 school funding formula. Two years ago the legislature introduced a “negative factor” that’s used to reduce the A23 formula to an amount the state can afford. Sobanet estimated the 2012-13 negative factor will cut K-12 spending $350 million from what A23 otherwise would have called for.

Sobanet said anticipated increases in local property tax revenues will mean that the state share of school funding may decline slightly.

One other bit of good news is that Hickenlooper proposes to end the two-year policy of having state employees contribute more of their salaries to pensions so that the state could save money by contributing less. That affected thousands of employees in the higher education system but didn’t apply to school districts and their teachers.

The bad news, Sobanet said, is that proposed higher employee contributions to health insurance costs will largely wipe out the pension contribution savings.

Sobanet, who’s director of the State Office of Planning and Budget, said the budget has five overarching principles:

  • Protection of the vulnerable, such as Medicaid recipients
  • Economic development
  • Continuation of education reforms
  • Modernizing state government
  • Improving long-term budget planning

Henry Sobanet
Henry Sobanet, director Office of State Planning and Budgeting / File photo
In his letter to the JBC, Hickenlooper wrote, “The budget reflects the ongoing work of closing the State’s structural budget gap and funding the demands of numerous federal and State Constitutional requirements. The proposal also contains several proposals to protect the most vulnerable Coloradans, promote economic growth, continue needed reforms in education and modernize State government.”

Sobanet said the possible passage of Proposition 103 wasn’t factored in to budget planning. “If it passed some of these reductions [in education] would not be necessary”

Release of the document is just the start of a long process that won’t end until next April or May, when the legislature finally passes the 2012-13 budget.

Lawmakers have the final say (although a governor can veto parts of a budget), and the legislature made some changes in the budget Hickenlooper proposed for the current, 2011-12 year.

For instance, the governor initially proposed a $332 million cut in K-12 spending, a figure lawmakers managed to whittle down to about $229 million.

There may be legislative fights over the continued suspension of the senior citizen property tax break and over education cuts. Updated state revenue forecasts will be made in late December and late March.

As to those forecasts and future budgets, Sobanet said, “The economy is recovering, but the revenue picture remains unsettled.”

Reaction roundup

Most of the reaction to the budget plan was nuanced, with people avoiding criticism of the governor but making it clear all aspects of the budget will be in play. Here’s a sampling:

“Educators, families and students do appreciate the efforts the Governor’s office made in minimizing the damage, [but] diverting funds from our investment in public education is the wrong strategy to advance prosperity and growth in Colorado.” – Bev Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association

“The governor has provided the Joint Budget Committee with a good starting point, but ultimately this is a legislative responsibility.” – Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont and a leader in efforts to minimize education cuts during the 2011 session


“While we appreciate many of the proposals the governor has made, the governor’s budget does raise some points of concern.” – Republican JBC members Reps. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Jon Becker of Fort Morgan

“We will continue to work with the governor’s office and our colleagues across the aisle to find ways to minimize cuts to our classrooms.” – JBC member Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver

Text of Hickelooper budget to JBC and budget details (PDF)

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.