From the Statehouse

School finance bill goes to House

Updated April 2 – The Senate Tuesday morning gave 20-15 final approval to the bill that would rewrite Colorado’s school finance system, a plan that will go into effect only if voters later approve a tax increase to pay for it.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver
This morning’s final debate distilled Monday’s lengthy discussions, with Republicans attacking the proposed tax increase required by the bill and questioning whether the measure contains any educational reform.

“What is behind Senate Bill 213,” said Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, “is a tax increase.”

“This bill keeps us in the previous century.” Said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs. Instead, he suggested, “Let’s give everyone of a children a backpack full of money” they can use to choose the schools they want.

“This is not reform, this is a billion dollar tax increase,” argued Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, struck back forcefully at the reform criticism, saying, “We have passed the toughest reform package in this country,” citing the standards and testing, district and school accountability, educator evaluation and early literacy laws passed in the last five years. Heath, a prime sponsor of SB 13-213, said they bill and its funding are needed to bring those reforms to life.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, called the bill a “fairy tale” and indicated the best education reform would be private tuition tax credits. (Two Republican bills on that subject were quickly killed earlier in the legislative session.)

All 20 senate Democrats supported Senate Bill 13-213, and all 15 Republicans voted no. The measure now moves to the House for consideration.

Text of Monday story follows.

Sen. Mike Johnston Monday got the amendments he needed on his 174-page bill to modernize Colorado’s school funding system, but he didn’t get any love from Republicans who don’t like the $1 billion price tag.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 13-213 on a 20-15 preliminary vote, which is expected to be the same party-line total when a final vote is taken later.

As the bill headed into the Senate Education Committee last month, Johnston’s problems were with a fellow Democrat and with some large school districts that were unhappy with the amounts of money they’d receive under Johnston’s original formula.

The bill would increase funding for kindergarten and preschool, provide significantly more money for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students and English language learners, devote more money to special education and make extra payments to districts for the cost of implementing reform mandates.

Because the Colorado constitution requires tax increases be approved by voters, the funding piece of the proposal would have to be passed in a statewide election.

Before the Senate Education Committee passed the bill on March 21, Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, added an amendment that set “floor” per-pupil funding of about $7,495 for every district. That was intended to assuage the concerns of several large suburban districts. (See this article about the committee meeting.)

The trouble was that Todd’s amendment ballooned the bill’s estimated cost to about $1.3 billion, something Johnston wasn’t willing to accept.

Negotiations led to a compromise that was presented on the Senate floor Monday. That amendment reduces district floor funding to about $7,022 per pupil but also increases special education funding, a move that would help districts because more state special ed support would reduce the amounts that districts have to backfill from their main budgets. (Current average per-pupil funding is $6,872.)

The amendment also would reduce to $441 the per-student amount that districts would receive from SB 13-213’s Teaching and Leadership Investment fund, which is intended to provide districts with extra funding to implement the costs of state reform requirements passed in recent years. Johnston’s original bill set the figure at $600.

Johnston explained that every district would take a $141 cut, but some districts would receive that money back to fund them at the floor level.

The effect of the amendment is to bring the bill’s cost back to a level that Johnston is comfortable with – and which he and supporters hope voters will support.

Todd told EdNews she thinks most of the concerned districts are “okay” with the bill as amended Monday but said she thinks the issue of floor funding may come up again once the bill moves to the House.

Republicans weren’t happy

Three GOP senators
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Republican Sens. Owen Hill, Scott Renfroe and Mark Scheffel (L-R) led the attack on SB 13-213.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, has successfully allied with Republicans on past school reform measures, most notably Senate Bill 10-191, which created a teacher and principal evaluation system based partly on student academic growth.

But Monday’s debate on SB 13-213 showed a hard partisan split similar to that seen this session on such non-education issues as gun control.

The measure received no Republican votes when it passed Senate Education. GOP senators expanded on their opposition Monday during a debate that stretched from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with Republicans doing most of the talking during the later stages. Sen. Pat Steadman, who chaired the session, noted that it was a “long and languid” debate.

Republicans proposed 21 amendments, and tried six more (including some repeats) at the end of the discussion, as is allowed on preliminary consideration. All were defeated or ruled out of order.

Objections boiled down to three complaints – the bill is too expensive, the school finance system is too complicated and the bill doesn’t really provide education reform.

“This is a bill of special interests who have put together what they want to do to get a billion tax increase,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley. He’s the ranking minority member of the Senate Education Committee and led the GOP floor fight against SB 13-213. “It funds basically the same system with a few tweaks at a much higher amount.”

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said, “You don’t see much in the way of reform in this bill. If this is being labeled as education reform, it’s April Fool’s Day.”

In the end, Republican senators argued for school choice and for replacing the bill with tax credits for private school tuition. (Speakers managed to avoid using the word “vouchers” throughout the debate.)

showdown

McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.