From the Statehouse

School finance bills cross finish line

The Senate on Wednesday evening accepted House amendments and re-passed two major school finance bills, one to fund K-12 education in 2013-14 and another that proposes to modernize the entire system of paying for education.

Sen. Mike Johnston at podium before final passage of SB 13-213.
Sen. Mike Johnston at podium before final passage of SB 13-213.
Senate Bill 13-260, next year’s $5.5 billion finance bill, passed 23-12. Senate Bill 13-213, dubbed the “future school finance act,” received a 20-15 vote, with all Republicans voting no.

The next and perhaps the crucial test for Senate Bill 13-213 could come in November, when voters may have the chance to decide whether to raise income taxes by about $1 billion to pay for the new system. The bill won’t go into effect if voters don’t approve higher taxes.

There was no discussion on either bill, not even final pitches for SB 13-213 by Democratic sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver and Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder.

In contrast to the budget cuts of the last four years, SB 13-260 provides an increase of 2.7 percent in average per-pupil funding. Total program funding, the combination of state and local revenue that pays for basic school operations, would rise to $5.5 billion, an increase of about $210 million. Average per pupil funding would move up from the current $6,479 to $6,652. The bill also provides additional funding for the Colorado Preschool Program and for special education. (Get more details on the bill in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff note.)

Next year’s school funding is 15.49 percent lower than it would have been without use of what’s called the negative factor, a mechanism that allows lawmakers to set school funding at an amount necessary to balance the overall state budget.

Give the recent healthy increases in state revenues, some education interest groups lobbied for even higher 2013-14 funding in an effort to further reduce the estimated $1 billion shortfall created by use of the negative factor in recent years. There also was some argument about whether the negative factor was being calculated properly. Legislative leaders were resistant to those pleas, arguing that recent revenue increases were largely one-time.

SB 13-213 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. (Get details in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff analysis.)

The details of the ballot measure needed to trigger SB 13-213 remain unclear. A total of 20 different measures have been proposed by two advocacy groups, one from the business community and one that’s education related. Tax-increase advocates are expected to decide later this month on a single proposal to take to the signature-gathering process, although there remains some disagreement about whether to go to the ballot this year.

Little love for energy-efficient schools bill

Sen. Andy Kerr’s energy-efficient schools bill stayed alive Wednesday, but only after a crucial section of Senate Bill 13-279 was amputated by the House Education Committee.

The bill is the latest version of an idea the Lakewood Democrat has been pushing unsuccessfully for years – requiring new school buildings to meet energy efficiency standards.

As it currently stands, the bill would require new schools built after next Jan. 1 and renovations involving more than 50 percent of an existing building meet “the highest energy efficiency standards practicable.”

The bill has been opposed by school district lobbyists because of the potential extra costs and what district’s see as the bill’s infringement on local control. One particularly disliked provision of the original bill required districts to pay outside experts to verify the energy efficiency of new buildings.

The committee Wednesday unanimously adopted an amendment to remove outside verification from the bill. Amendments to exempt charter schools from the requirements and to make the whole measure voluntary were defeated by the committee’s Democratic majority. The measure then passed on a 7-6 party-line vote.

The committee’s action didn’t silence the critics, and there are likely to be House floor fights over amendments on charter schools, making the program voluntary and over the definition of “practicable.” It’s also possible the issue of outside verification will come up again.

With the 2013 session required to adjourn next Wednesday, SB 13-279 also faces the possibility of “dying on the calendar,” meaning the bill dies if the House and Senate don’t agree on amendments before the final gavel falls.

The hearing, probably the committee’s last meeting of the 2013 session, provided a rare example of the “reluctant sponsor.” Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, is carrying the bill in the House and made it pretty clear that she’s doing so out of respect for Kerr rather than because she’s enthusiastic about the idea.

“I believe Sen. Kerr has very good intentions in this,” she said at one point. “I’m conflicted about all his … no bill is perfect. This one has particular challenges, and I’m glad I don’t have to vote on it.” Gerou is an architect and knows a thing or two about building standards.

Incentives for AP tests trimmed

At the same time Wednesday morning the Senate Education Committee had its own go-round with a bill that raised lots of questions but passed anyway.

House Bill 13-1056 is a bipartisan measure that proposes to expand availability of Advanced Placement classes and tests in small rural school districts by offering per-student bonuses to districts that expand AP offerings and to students who take the tests.

The bill has raised questions about its cost and about the fairness of providing bonuses to only some districts.

The committee approved an amendment reducing the bonus amounts but rejected a change that would have paid students for passing the AP tests, not just for taking them. The measure next heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where its cost (now somewhere below $500,000) could make it vulnerable.

Also crossing the finish line

The House Wednesday accepted Senate amendments and re-passed three education bills, including:

House Bill 13-1117 – This bill is a Hickenlooper administration priority and would consolidate various early childhood agencies in the Department of Human Services. Passed 39-25.

House Bill 13-1194 – The measure expands eligibility for resident tuition rates to certain military dependents. Passed 64-0.

House Bill 13-1005 – This proposal allows the community college system to create pilot, relatively short programs that combine adult basic education and vocational training programs. Passed 45-19.

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.