From the Statehouse

Finance bill still a moving target

It looks like Sen. Mike Johnston’s proposed overhaul of Colorado’s school finance system will be formally introduced in the legislature next week, and it’s also likely the bill will be at least a bit different from the draft version that’s been circulating publicly for nearly two weeks.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston explains his school finance plan during a Feb. 28 meeting.

The Denver Democrat talked about the bill and his plans during a two-hour “public forum” Thursday at the History Colorado center, attended by about 150 people. The event was the last of some 150 meetings Johnston has held over the last two years to promote and build support for his plan.

Johnston’s proposal is intended to make the state’s school funding system more equitable by directing money to schools with the greatest needs and more adequate by increasing the amount of funding. Key elements of the plan include more funding for at-risk students, English language learners and special education students; full funding of preschool for at-risk students and full-day kindergarten; a shift in the state and local shares of school funding, and increased overall funding to partially compensate for recent cuts in K-12 support.

The proposal requires two steps – legislature passage of the new formula and voter approval next November of perhaps $1 billion in tax increases to pay for the plan. If voters say no the formula wouldn’t go into effect. (Get more details on the current draft of the proposal in this EdNews story.)

Do your homework

Thursday’s meeting highlighted some of Johnston’s plans for the bill and some of the questions and objections to the plan. The session included breakout groups in which Johnston and aides explained and answered questions about various parts of the proposal.

“That draft is already outdated,” Johnston said referring to this version. But neither he nor his aides gave details on specific changes that will be included in the version to be introduced in the Senate. (Another set of data yet to be released are district-by-district financial estimates of the plan’s impact.)

There were lots of questions about and some criticisms of the plan. The strongest was voiced by Randy DeHoff, a former State Board of Education member who now works for an online school. The plan is “a lot more money going into a 19th century system,” he said, “leaving the districts in charge and leaving out the students.”

Here are some of the concerns that emerged during Thursday’s discussion:

Charter schools: Several speakers complained that the plan does nothing to solve the funding inequities imposed on charter schools by current state law. “There’s nothing in the bill right now, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be,” said Johnston aide Will Gohl.

Participants at Feb. 28 school finance meeting.
Meeting participants listen to Sen. Mike Johnston.

The negative factor: Current state law includes a mathematical formula called the negative factor that allows the legislature to reduce annual school funding to an amount the helps balance the state budget, regardless of what school funding should have been. His bill doesn’t address that issue, and Johnston said it’s “politically impossible” to eliminate the negative factors, which has slashed an estimated $1 billion from school funding in the last four years.

The Lobato decision: One speaker complained that Johnston’s plan doesn’t meet the requirements of a district court decision in Lobato v. State, which found the state’s school finance system unconstitutional. The case is pending before the Colorado Supreme Court. Johnston said, “We don’t believe this [bill] solves the Lobato lawsuit, nor is it meant to. It is one step along the way.”

Nobody at the meeting raised this question, but some conservatives, primarily state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, have complained that the proposed bill doesn’t address the cost of teacher pensions under the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. Johnston basically dismissed that criticism, saying PERA’s future solvency has been handled by legislation passed in 2009. “That’s why we haven’t seen it as part of the school finance plan.”

Responding to concerns, Johnston and his legislative partner, Boulder Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath, had some tough love for critics.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Johnston said. “Insisting on a proposal you know can’t pass is a version of doing nothing.”

Heath was even more plain-spoken.

“This is put-up or shut-up time. … We can’t solve every problem everybody wants to solve. … Please understand you’re not going to get everything you want.”

Incentives

Westminster district will give bonuses if state ratings rise, teachers wonder whether performance pay system is coming

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students work on an English assignment at M. Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster.

Teachers and employees in Westminster Public Schools will be able to earn a bonus if they help the struggling district improve its state ratings next year.

The district’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved the $1.7 million plan for the one-year performance stipends, the district’s latest attempt to lift the quality of its schools.

School employees can earn $1,000 if their school meets a district-set score, or up to $2,000 if they reach a more ambitious goal the school sets. District employees, including the superintendent, can earn $1,000 if the district as a whole jumps up a rating next year.

“We recognize that everyone plays a critical role in increasing student achievement and we decided that if a particular school or the district as a whole can reach that next academic accreditation level, the employees directly responsible should be rewarded,” board president Dino Valente said in a statement.

The district is one of five that was flagged by the state for chronic low performance and was put on a state-ordered improvement plan this spring.

District officials have disputed state ratings, claiming the state’s system is not fairly assessing the performance of Westminster schools. Middle school teacher Melissa Duran, who also used to be president of the teacher’s union, drew a connection between that stance and the new stipends, saying any extra pay she gets would be based on one score.

“The district has gone to the state saying, ‘Why are you rating us on these tests, look at all the other things we’re doing’” Duran said. “Well, it’s the same thing for teachers. They’re still basing our effectiveness on a test score.”

Teachers interviewed Thursday said their first thoughts upon learning of the plan was that it sounded like the beginnings of performance pay.

“I already get the point that we are in need of having our test scores come up,” said math teacher Andy Hartman, who is also head of negotiations for the teacher’s union. “Putting this little carrot out there isn’t going to change anything. I personally do not like performance pay. It’s a very slippery slope.”

District leaders say they talked to all district principals after the announcement Wednesday, and heard positive feedback.

“A lot of the teachers think this is a good thing,” said Steve Saunders, the district’s spokesman.

National studies on the effectiveness of performance pay stipends and merit pay have shown mixed results. One recent study from Vanderbilt University concluded that they can be effective, but that the design of the systems makes a difference.

In Denver Public Schools, the district has a performance-pay system to give raises and bonuses to teachers in various situations. Studies of that model have found that some teachers don’t completely understand the system and that it’s not always tied to better student outcomes.

Westminster officials said they have never formally discussed performance pay, and said that these stipends are being funded for one year with an unanticipated IRS refund.

Westminster teachers said they have ideas for other strategies that could make a quick impact, such as higher pay for substitutes so teachers aren’t losing their planning periods filling in for each other when subs are difficult to find.

Waiting on a bonus that might come next year is not providing any new motivation, teachers said.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Duran said. “It’s not like we are not already working hard enough. Personally, I already give 110 percent. I’ve always given 110 percent.”

Last month, the school board also approved a new contract for teachers and staff. Under the new agreement, teachers and staff got a raise of at least 1 percent. They received a similar raise last year.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.