From the Statehouse

Hick signs school finance reform bill

Gov. John Hickenlooper this morning signed the proposed overhaul of the state’s school funding system, but it’s still unclear which billion-dollar proposal voters will face to fund the ambitious plan. That may not be decided until the end of May.

Capitol signing ceremony
Gov. John Hickenlooper shakes hands with Sen. Mike Johnston after signing SB 13-213.

Hickenlooper said the bill “really positions Colorado to be the national leader in school reform and school effectiveness.”

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and primary author of the bill, called it “a tremendous step forward” and said the measure shows it’s possible to combine education reform with additional funding.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, reminded the crowd gathered at the Capitol ceremony that “the biggest challenge ahead of us will be convincing all of the people of Colorado to share this vision” and approve the tax increase necessary to pay for it.

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 more details on the bill in this EdNews summary and in this legislative staff analysis.)

The new system won’t go into effect unless voters approve an income-tax increase to pay for its costs, which range from $899 million in the first year for basic school funding to $1.12 billion to pay for all the bill’s elements, according to a legislative staff estimate.

If voters approve a tax increase in November the new funding formula wouldn’t kick in until the 2015-16 school year. If voters say no this year, the bill would remain on the shelf but “alive” for five years, allowing backers to go to the voters later if they choose.

Lots of tax plans to choose from

Backers of a proposed tax increase, led by the civic group Colorado Forum, filed 16 variations of a tax increase on the March 22 deadline. The idea was to keep a number of options alive so that supporters could later choose one to submit to voters, based on the wishes of various interest groups in Colorado Forum’s coalition and on perceptions and polling about voter preferences. (The SB 13-213 price tag was set at about $1 billion because previous public opinion sampling indicated that was the upper limit of what a majority of voters might support.)

Do your homework

“We’re very close” to selecting the ballot measure, Gail Klapper, director of Colorado Forum, told EdNews on Monday. Klapper said she hopes a decision will be made by the end of the month. Once that choice is made, backers will have until Aug. 5 to gather the 86,105 signatures necessary to put the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“A modified flat tax is what we’re most likely to get to,” she said of the likely choice.

What Klapper means by that is a proposal that would include a two-step tax increase, with a .37 percent hike for individual taxpayers who earn $75,000 or less a year and a 1.27 percent increase for those earning more. Currently all taxpayers pay 4.63 percent of their federal taxable income to the state. The additional revenue derived from the .37 and 1.27 percent increases would be earmarked for additional K-12 spending.

The two-step tax hike would raise $950.1 million a year in revenue, according to estimates by legislative staff economists.

Up to now Hickenlooper has kept a fairly low public profile on the ballot measure. “I will certainly campaign for it when we decide what it is,” he said. But he declined to say whether he’s favoring any particular version. “I have several preferences, but I’ll keep those to myself.”

Most people involved in the effort believe a successful campaign will require high-visibility leadership from a figure like Hickenlooper. “The only [successful] path I see right now is the governor supporting and actively campaigning,” said one observer.

Gail Klapper of Colorado Forum stands with sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath during SB 13-213 signing ceremony.
Gail Klapper of Colorado Forum stands with sponsor Sen. Rollie Heath during SB 13-213 signing ceremony.
The Colorado Forum proposals come in four flavors: The two-step increase, a truly flat increase of .72 percent and two sets of five-tier increases.

The two-step tax would raise the least amount of revenue. The across-the-board .72 percent increases would raise an estimated $927.7 million, while the variations of five-step increases would raise $1.07 billion and $1.16 billion.

There’s been a lively debate about the tax structure among segments of the business and education communities. Some business interests have argued for the flat .72 percent increase while other groups wanted to differentiate rates so that lower-income taxpayers wouldn’t see as large an increase.

Choice of the two-step plan is seen as a likely compromise, according to several sources.

In addition to the four different tax increases, the Colorado Forum proposals also include four variations of tax policy changes. Those include:

  • A combination proposal that includes repeal of the current constitutional requirement for automatic increases in base school funding (Amendment 23) and replacing it with a provision earmarking about 43 percent of annual state general fund spending for schools. The combination plan also changes the Gallagher Amendment, which governs local property taxes, to set a floor on the valuation of residential property for the assessment of school taxes.
  • A version that includes just the Amendment 23 changes.
  • A version that includes only the Gallagher changes.
  • No change in either constitutional provision.

Various interest groups have different opinions about the need to change Amendment 23 and Gallagher, so those issues have been part of the behind-the-scenes debates about which ballot measure to go with.

Klapper indicated Monday that the final version might well include the Amendment 23 change but that “we’re really wrestling with the Gallagher piece.”

Her goal, she said, is to choose a version “that every constituency finds something in it to love.”

Campaign could be costly

Once a measure makes the ballot, proponents will have to persuade voters to raise their taxes. Klapper joked that it will take “astronomical amounts” of money to fund a successful campaign.

Another observer, Chris Watney of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, estimated a campaign cost of $7 to $10 million.

Asked if a June start for petition gathering was risky, Klapper said, “The experts tell me that’s enough time.”

Colorado Forum is already getting some expert advice, from Mike Melanson of OnSight Public Affairs. He’s a Democratic strategist who has managed campaigns for Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall.

One potential complication for the campaign is the fact that voters also will face a $70 million proposal to set excise and sales taxes on recreational marijuana. Asked about the possible interplay of the two measures in voters’ minds, Klapper said, “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Signing key step in long journey

The signing of SB 13-213 was the culmination of an effort that started in 2011, when a group called the Colorado School Finance Partnership began studying the state’s funding system. Many of the themes in its final report are echoed in the bill.

SB 13-213 sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston, Rep. Millie Hamner and Sen. Rollie Heath confer before bill signing.
SB 13-213 sponsors Sen. Mike Johnston, Rep. Millie Hamner and Sen. Rollie Heath confer before bill signing.
The partnership is a coalition of civic, business and education groups originally convened by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The west foyer of the Capitol was filled with leaders of education groups, partnership members, some business leaders, lobbyists, a smattering of superintendents and legislators for the signing ceremony.

Both Hickenlooper and Johnston took care to mention lots of people by name and thank them for their work on the issue.

Conspicuously absent were any Republican officials. The bill gained no GOP votes in either the House or Senate, where Republicans hewed to the party’s anti-tax orthodoxy.

On Tuesday, while Democratic legislative staffers were tweeting every nuance of the event, @CoSenGOP tweeted, “SB 213 is a billion dollar tax increase disguised as school reform.”


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

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.

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.